Twenty-four years ago, I gave my life to Christ in my freshman dorm room at Furman University. Ever since then, I have heard many times that Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is a relationship. I do not know who first said this, but I am quite sure the statement is misleading for a number of reasons.
First, the assertion that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship suffers from ambiguity. What exactly is it that the statement as a whole asserts? What is meant by “Christianity”? How is “religion” to be defined? And what kind of relationship is being specified when the assertion is made? Of course, none of these questions are asked, to say nothing of being answered. The answers are simply assumed. When I ask these sorts of questions, I usually receive rolled eyes in response with an exasperated “You know what I mean!” Still, it is important that these terms are defined. Usually when the statement is made, it is made with conviction. The level of conviction ought to be commensurate with the level of care in defining the terms.
Second, the assertion is suffering from the Either/Or fallacy. Is it necessary that Christianity either be a religion or a relationship? Is there any scenario where Christianity might be defined loosely as a religion and as a relationship at the same time? Depending on how one defines the terms “Christianity,” “religion,” and “relationship,” it seems possible that certainly Christianity can be a religion and a relationship simultaneously. Similarly, depending on how one defines these terms, Christianity as a religion and a relationship might very well be mutually exclusive. Again–precision in terms is required before one can make the assertion.
So let’s try and define these terms. Let us say that Christianity is broadly defined as belief in Jesus Christ that results in the forgiveness of sins, yielding eternal life. This belief in Jesus is an all-encompassing trust, a reliance upon Who He claimed to be and the atonement He won at the cross and in His resurrection three days later. It is not merely mental assent. Furthermore, this trust in Christ results in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who regenerates the believer, making her a new creation, justifying her before the Father, sanctifying her and preparing her for eternity in the presence of God in heaven. She is raised to new life and united to Christ forever.
Let us define religion in this way: a religion is a set of theological, moral, philosophical, and social commitments that define every aspect of a person’s life. These commitments are not optional for the religious person. They are duties. The religious person does not have the luxury of claiming to form her life according to the pattern of the religion, and subsequently live her life according to the dictates of her own desires. That would be hypocrisy. So broadly speaking, a religion is a coherent system of commitments that the adherent of the religion follows in mind, body, and spirit.
Now, let’s define a relationship: a relationship is a dynamic that exists between at least two persons, based upon trust, love, and commitment. A relationship is not broken by time, distance, or feelings but transcends space and time. A relationship grows and is strengthened through shared experiences, kept promises, and the passage of time. Trust and love are affirmed in the act of forgiveness, for a relationship based on unconditional love cannot be broken by unfaithfulness.
Based on these imperfect and incomplete definitions, it seems that Christianity can both be a religion and a relationship. Faith in Christ requires the believer to do just that: believe. Belief is placed upon a set of propositional truth statements. For example, one either believes or does not believe the following proposition: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, yet he shall live” (John 11.25). A person who rejects the above statement cannot be a Christian. But a person who accepts the above statement, and patterns her life after it, is a Christian.
Another statement that determines whether one is a Christian or not is this one: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14.15). A person who loves Christ will keep His commandments. She will do so dutifully. She will also do so because she loves Christ. There can be an element of duty and love in the following of commands. Sometimes there is more of one than the other, but both can be present for the obedience to be sincere.
Obedience is necessary to be a Christian. God’s commands are not optional. They are real, and the breaking of the commands carries with it real consequences. “Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1.15). And yet, Christianity is a relationship. The Christian is united with the living Christ. The Holy Spirit dwells in the believer for the purpose of bringing God’s presence into her to guide, convict, encourage, and seal her. “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever” (John 14.16). Also, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; . . . that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height–to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3.14, 17-19).
To be sure, if we define religion as a set of irrelevant, oppressive, arbitrary rules that are given to us by a tyrant, then we can safely say, no, Christianity is not a religion. If we define religion as nothing more than an individual’s personal convictions based on subjective experience, again, we can say that Christianity is certainly not that. But this definition for religion is too simplistic and subjective to be a sufficient, normative, working definition.
Similarly, if we define a relationship with the self as the frame of reference–Christianity would not be a relationship at that point. If one’s relationship with Christ is to be understood in terms of experiences with every other relationship, then Christianity could not be that, either. This definition suffers from the same flaws that the above one for religion does.
The relationship that Christ offers is not common, cannot be adequately compared with any purely human construct: a boyfriend/girlfriend, a father/son, a husband/wife, even a best friend/best friend. The relationship between a Christian and her Creator, Lord, and Savior is not common, but holy. It is unique. It is distinct from every other relationship she has. No other Person demands perfect obedience from her. And no other Person imputes His perfect righteousness on her after having atoned for her sin and raised her to new life in Himself.
Christianity is a system of theological, moral, philosophical, and social propositions. One either believes them and lives consistent with them, or she does not. The Christian has not the luxury of picking and choosing what propositions in Christianity she wants to follow and those she does not. I do not mean to say here that every truth affirmed in Scripture must be affirmed by a person in order to be saved. I do believe there is room for disagreement on certain things among true Christians. But how about the Resurrection? Certainly, one must accept the Resurrection of Christ in order to be saved. “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1.8). Christianity is also a relationship. One either exists united to Christ or she does not. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matt 7.21).
Christianity is both a religion and a relationship.