Thursday, February 21, 2013

About a Relationship, Not a Religion: An Apology for the Christian Tradition

I have heard many Pastors and lay-Christians say this phrase “It’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship.” Boy, doesn’t that feel cozy. See, I used to love this phrase. This morning, however, I couldn’t get this phrase out of my head (which is weird because I don’t think I’ve heard it in a while) and I started to realize how misleading this statement is to a Christian’s spiritual development (that is, discipleship).

So I started thinking and I came up with several reasons why it is more damaging than good for us to keep repeating this. I didn’t, however, feel like anyone would simply take my word for it, so I found some people who agree and I’ll introduce them as I come to them.


First, the phrase in question is very inaccurate. Oddly enough, most of the people I hear say this are, in some way or another, a Christian leader in a formal Christian context. What is odd about that is that this statement throws out the Christian religion in place of a Christian relationship but those repeating this statement would not have a platform or the authority to say this statement had it not been for the Christian religion. I’ll press further: they may have not ever heard about the Christian God if it hadn’t been for the Christian religion. This effectively renders the statement self-contradictory and, thus, self-condemning.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I am well aware of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the Christian church. I would hope that it is obviously not these that I am talking about. What I am talking about is the pliable Christian tradition that tells and re-tells the story of Christ and then offers us ways to be a part of that story.

Against dead church-ism

I think what the proliferators of this statement are trying to say is that going to church and performing the rituals without a heart for God behind it is null and void. I think that this is a noble thing point out (though I don’t necessarily agree with the way that people tend to use this intention to point fingers at liturgical traditions), but I think that as leaders it is our responsibility to be exact with our words. Religion, then, is not the enemy. It is the heart of whoever is practicing said religion that is at fault. Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 29:13 “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” Jesus, actually quotes Isaiah in Mark 7:6 and goes on to put a finer point on it in verse 15: “It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.” Obviously, Jesus and the great prophet Isaiah were against worshiping without having a heart for God behind one’s actions. Jesus makes this clear in John 4:23-24 when he says that true worship must be done in spirit and in truth. This means that our worship must come from our deepest being and be honest. So, when I’m having a cruddy day, I don’t have to slap on a smile to worship God. I simply need to be honest in my heart that I know who he is and I’m having a cruddy day.

The apostle Paul also wrote to the early church of the importance of having a heart for God. We see in his first letter to the Corinthian church:

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”

Paul’s thoughts here coincide well with John’s letter in which he wrote “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

From these passages and good reason, we can assert that if we are to do anything, especially worship, it must be done from the depths of our spirit and in an honest way and, most importantly, from a heart that loves. Again, I don’t think any evangelical Christian would disagree that doing things void of love and with the wrong heart behind it is worthless, but the statement “it’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship” throws the wrong bathwater out. Neither Jesus nor the apostles spoke out against religion and, in fact, both were pious in their practices of Judaism (Mark 7 and other places) and Christianity (see the letters to the early church in the New Testament). We mustn’t lose our religion in the misguided search for a fulfilling life in Christ.

Against over-spiritualization

There is something to be said against churches whose leadership has lost the value of a faith that is motivated from love and true spirituality. I, however, want to give a word of warning in letting the pendulum swing too far to the other side and result in a hyper-individualistic and super-spiritualization of one’s faith. The Christian tradition does not teach a spirituality that is wrapped up in some high-church theology or some guru-level spirituality. While some may cite scriptural passages such as the thief on the cross (Luke 23:40-43) in order to justify the superfluousness of going to a formal worship gathering, this passage cannot be twisted to say that it is right for a Christian to abstain from the formal gathering. The conversation between Jesus and the dying criminal must be read within the context of the fact that they’re dying. For those living, Jesus says “come follow me”. That following, today, is most life-giving when we stay connected to the body of Christ in the formal church which is located, yes, inside the Christian religion.

Western, post-Christian, culture has left Americans (and other country’s citizens) with a do-it-yourself spirituality in which one can have a relationship to God apart from the body of Christ. This notion while in its most basic form is true, is not how Christ left us to live. Instead, he is constantly placing our relationship to him in conjunction with our relationships to each other (Matthew 28:19-20, Luke 24:49-53, Luke 22:25-27, John 13:34-35). This is why Jesus’ greatest commands are to love God and, secondly, to love people (Matthew 22:37-40). For us to let things become overly individual and overly spiritual detracts from how Jesus regarded humanity.

Finding balance

So here’s where we stand: somewhere between dead, rote-repetitious traditions and overly individualistic, overly spiritualization of reality. It is important that we acknowledge the necessity for a vivacious spiritual life as well as the need for a life that is connected with people in a real way. Our balance is important because, while we can come to an understanding of Christ and a relationship with him by ourselves, we are prone to folly. Theologian Ellen T. Charry writes in her book By the Renewing of Your Minds: the Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine:

“We started out by observing that insight and understanding are not the only way we are formed. We also come to understanding by doing: thinking is shaped by experience…It is not only the case that we must know God in order to love him. It is also the case that in loving we learn what loving is…The need to quiet the din of a busy life, however, should not be understood in opposition to Christian service (which can keep one very busy). The criticism that practicing doctrine has been severed from hands and feet is real. One can grasp what our theologians are inviting us to consider through silence. But being in Christ can remain theoretical unless one meets Christ by caring for children, the elderly, the poor, the sick and those in prison.”[1]

For us to actually be Christian, we must do so. By that, I mean, we must “do”. We cannot let our faith remain theoretical and we cannot divorce ourselves from the larger church. To do so is damaging to our spiritual lives and our understanding of who God is. For Christian leaders to guide people towards this folly is scary. “It” is about a relationship, but it is a relationship that is found within the context of a religion that has been abused and misrepresented. This does not mean that we should get rid of it, only that we should practice it more carefully.

There has been no thought more damaging to Christian spiritual formation than the anthropology that man is an eternal soul trapped inside a carnal body. No, the Christian understanding of humanity is that we are both spiritual and carnal; we are one unit. For us to assume otherwise results in all kinds of misconceptions of how we are to conduct ourselves; we see everything from rigid piety that is convinced that the physical world is the problem to a restricting empiricism that sees scientific discovery and physical observations as our only salvation. This is not what God shows us in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection. Man is 100% spiritual and 100% physical. Being a part of the Christian tradition allows us to exercise both in a way that grows us in our relationship with Christ.

Concluding thoughts

I had no intention at the outset of writing this blog to write over people’s heads or get some personal glory. I only long for the Church to in America to value herself again. To say that we don’t need our own religion is like me saying that I don’t need my bones in order to live. The church is our structure, our skeleton. While it can be difficult to describe at times due to its beautiful diversity, the church is the body and bride of Christ. AND the church practices a religion; it is a religion that fosters a relationship through maintaining other relationships.

If you are a Christian – especially a Christian leader – I implore you to abolish this cozy phrase from you library of Christian phrases. It feels good because it doesn’t require much out of us. For us to simply “be” in a relationship doesn’t necessarily require us to do much except “be”. Furthermore, there is no accountability here. If someone thinks I’m acting wrongly, I can simply say “my faith is between me and God” or “only God can judge me”, but this is no way to be a Christian in a community. Religion, on the other hand requires something of us. It demands we give our time and actions to being a Christian in more than theory. If I don’t show up to church for a month, the Christian tradition gives my brother and sister Christians a clear indicator that something may be wrong with me and then, in love, they can reach out to me.

Our religion is valuable. Let’s not get rid of it because some hearts are in the wrong place.


The Dread

[1] Charry, E. T. (1999). Conclusion. By the renewing of your minds the pastoral function of Christian doctrine (pp. 240-241). New York: Oxford University Press.

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