For some odd reason, I find a propensity for Christians to create false dichotomies. We love to say if something is one thing or one way, it can’t be another. This is especially true with the religion vs. relationship dichotomy. Statements like “Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship” or “Christianity is about relationship over religion” run rampant.
I think it is fallacious to say Christianity is not a religion. A while back, I wrote this piece one Parchment and Pen making that case by looking at the definition of religion. Here’s an excerpt.
There is a body of belief that is specifically meant to promote the attitude we have towards it. It is the revelation of God that ascribed to scripture, i.e. the bible that not only explains who the Christian belief is based on, but also the expectations towards those who claim to hold to the belief. In this way, I think its safe to say that the bible institutionalizes the system of attitudes towards our belief system, both individually and corporately. Moreover, this belief has been preserved and passed down for 2,000 years so that history has also presented an institutionalization of sorts…
The overarching theme of the definition of religion is that it is a system of belief that promotes worship of deity on which the system hinges. If that is not Christianity, I don’t know what is. We worship God for who he is and what he as done. The bible is replete with direct and indirect proclamations of the sovereignty, majesty, righteousness, love and mercy of God and his actions towards man that ought to affect faith and worship with ardor and passion…
And I think the reason we have such a hard time with Christianity as a religion is the connotation of it being man’s attempt to get to God based on a set of rules. But reducing religion to a set of rules really undermines what it is as a belief system. I think a broader way to frame it is in the context of expectation. We would be remiss to read Scripture and not see expectation.
An overriding issue of religion vs. relationship is that it supposes relationship is somehow diminished if it is deemed to be religion. But I think that negates the fact that God framed his relationship with mankind based on covenant.
I’ve been taking an Old Testament elective on the biblical covenants. One of the neat things about God’s revelatory process is that he contextualized himself to the culture of the ancient Near East, adopting the various symbols, structures and norms but doing something unique to show that he is the one true God. This is no different when he established the covenant with Abraham, Moses and David (some would say Noah) to secure relationship with his people. Based on what a covenant was in the ancient Near East, there was both promise and expectation.
NB: Contrary to Moshe Weinfield’s distinction of conditional vs. unconditional, Dr. Gordon Johnston makes a good argument for elimination of those terms and instead opts for revocable vs irrevocable as noted in this ETS paper here GHJ – ETS Royal Throne Grants (2011)
Looking at the breadth of 66 books, the fulfillment of covenant relationship in Christ was of course the whole point. One only need look at the book of Hebrews to understand that the “better way” foreshadowed in the Old Testament was Christ himself, establishing a new covenant (cf Jeremiah 31:31-34), thus fulfilling previous covenants.
For those familiar with the particulars of covenant fulfillment, I know it’s more complicated than that. There’s been a significant amount of ink spilled over dissension about how and when covenants are fulfilled, whether there are promises yet to be fulfilled separately to Israel or whether all promises have been fulfilled in Christ. I myself have been shifting from a dispensational understanding of covenant fulfillment (Israel/church distinction) to a more Reformed understanding in seeing more of a Christocentric fulfillment. But that’s a subject for another post!
The main point here is that this was the means by which God established relationship. It was not just some willy-nilly, feel good, “being in love with Jesus” type of thing that typically gets associated with our Christianity. Relationship with God is governed by promise and expectation specified in Scripture. We can expect for him to be God based on his promises to us ultimately found in Christ. There is expectation for us to love him with our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love neighbor as ourselves. There is expectation for us to walk in his ways. I think that is an accurate depiction of religion based on its own definition.
And that gets to why I think the religion vs. relationship dichotomy is unhelpful. By making this distinction it supposes that there is no governing structure by which we have a relationship. The very fact that we must believe in who God is, what he has done in Christ and who are in Christ, establishes that governing structure based on his covenant with man and ultimate fulfillment in Christ.
Even if you consider how our earthly relationships work, there is some type of governing structure that defines them. Marriage is a prime example. It is more than just two people “being in love” but fulfilling a commitment stipulated by various factors. Our friendships too have some type of mutually obligatory mechanism by which that friendship is defined.
So I wish we can drop the unhelpful dichotomy of religion vs. relationship and recognize Christianity as both/and rather than either/or.