Religion or relationship?

Those two things are so often placed as opposites in our conversations about gospel culture. I’m sure you’ve heard the preacher say following Jesus is about relationship not about religion. And in some ways I want to say yes, but in lots of others I want to say no. I think its lazy to characterise it in this way, it’s far too simplistic.

Religion has a number of meanings: Firstly it is belief in, worship of and obedience to a divine power(s). Secondly it is the formal expression of such beliefs in actions. So far I’m not sure what the problem is. When we turn to the bible we see that the word religion is used positively by James in 1v27 “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” And when James and Paul put religion in the crosshairs, it is not religion itself that they have a problem with but hypocritical or inactive religion. Jesus when he clashes with the Pharisees attacks their hypocrisy not their habits of prayer, giving, teaching and evangelism.

Here’s the problem with the phrase relationship not religion, it is individualistic. It’s about me and it seems somewhat anti-biblical. Religion must have something to it because we see God institute a religious system for Israel so they they are careful to remember all he has done for them, so that they have a means of redemption via the sacrifices and the law is a gift for them so they can enjoy relationship with God as his people in the land he has blessed them with. The prophets so often rebuke Israel, holding them to account for their failure to live out their religion, the habits and actions God called them to as part of the covenant he made with them; worship of him alone, love for neighbours, care for the poor, orphaned and widowed. Yes the prophets rebuke them for wrong religion, yes they call them to turn their hearts back to God, but they express that not in terms of relationship instead of religion, but they call them to love God with all their heart and from that will flow right religious expression of devotion to God. As an aside, I can’t help wondering if this is why we have such a struggle with reading the Old Testament, we see it as antithetical to relationship with God. Thinking it’s about religion and we’re done with that, but it is about worship of God by his redeemed people together in all of life – and we desperately need more of that!

As we turn to the gospels we see Jesus inculcating in his disciples patterns of discipleship – listening to his words, thinking about scripture, prayer, care for the oppressed and poor, proclaiming the kingdom come and so on. And he does that over and over and over again, in a (dare I say it) religious way. And Jesus institutes the church, and the disciples follow through on Jesus instructions in the early chapters of Acts and we quickly see patterns and habits emerging – preaching, praying, sacrificial giving, serving, singing, and so on. And they gather regularly on the first day of the week. Sounds a bit religious to me.

And yet that isn’t religion as opposed to relationship. But it is those very habits that form and shape and facilitate the joyous relationship with God – Father, Son and Spirit – that the vibrant early church enjoy. It isn’t privatised and individual as our concept of relationship with God so often is (it’s just me and God that’s all I need) it’s corporate and communal and all the more joy filled for that. It’s not cerebral, it’s not weak, it constantly challenges legalism or sacramentalism or hypocrisy. Because that’s the problem, not religion. Religion – actions as an expression of devotion to God and faith in the gospel is good, in fact without it James would say religion is worthless.

We need a gospel culture in our churches and by its very nature that will be religious in that it will involve patterns and habits and creeds and beliefs whether formalised or not. It mustn’t be cold and formal, it mustn’t be rigid and one size fits all, it must be Christ centred. What does that mean? Our churches must be places where the weak and stuttering and failing and flailing Christian can come, not in fear and trepidation that they can’t live up to the ideal or that they will be rejected. But that the gospel we believe and put into action religiously will mean welcome. Where we can come and confess failures and struggles and hear the promise of Jesus to the weary and burdened that in him they find rest. We need that culture because that is what our world, our communities, our neighbours are so desperately searching for, even if they don’t realise it. Real rest, real welcome, real joy in God. That isn’t phariseeical in pointing out failure, or inflicting burdens but openly confesses struggle, failure, and need, and points us to Jesus as the one who meets a standard that what we cannot and who promises forgiveness and calls us to a new way a life. A pattern of lovingly, devotedly, following him, sometimes failing getting muddied and sullied with sin, sometimes feeling beaten and bereft of hope, but always know that we can and will run back to him for cleansing, power to stand and fight sin in the spirit, and hope in his plans and purposes and then following him again, listening to his word and fighting with his strength to live out of the love we know he has lavished on us and for eternity will have for us.

This false contrast between religion and relationship is dangerous. Yes we must call out false religion, word only religion, hypocritical religion, legalistic religion, burdensome religion, but the gospel saves us for a life of being more and more formed to be like Jesus together, it calls us to living out his habits and patterns in love out of an overwhelming awareness of his love.