Religion (n) – a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
I’ve heard the popular poem “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” (Jefferson Bethke), the poet’s defence, and one or two of the numerous spin-offs that came about because of it. I’ve seen it on clothing and stickers – “It’ not a religion, it’s a relationship.” And it makes me wonder what separates Christianity from the other religions (pardon my language) of the world? For a whole summer I thought about this and after asking a few pastors and doing personal study I came with an answer.
One of Bethke’s lines in his poem says that religion is man trying to reach God whereas in Christianity God reaches out to man. This sounds very poetic (and true). In every religion man tries to reach God. When I asked one of my pastors what separates Christianity from other religions he said “Real time relationship with God.” As the angels told Mary, “Immanuel – God with us.” Since we have a real, and real time, relationship with God does it mean that we have stopped trying to reach him? I don’t think so.
If we examine the components that make Christianity we should conclude that it is both a religion and a relationship. Christianity, like other religions, has a system of beliefs. We believe in one triune God (1 John 5:7). We believe that Jesus was fully human and fully God. We believe that man sinned and the punishment for sin is death. We believe in grace and justification and sanctification and other big words that theologians throw around to explain stuff that we believe God has done. We also believe in the authority of Scripture, and that it is God’s word – living and active. We believe other things. And if we don’t hold to that system of beliefs we are not Christians.
Jesus didn’t say, “all you need to do is love me and you will be mine” he said “Remain in me…you are my friends if you do what I command you”. You are my friends (relationship) if you do what I command (religion). We can’t escape the religious aspect of our faith. And even the words used to describe Christianity – faith, belief – speak of both a religion and a relationship.
It’s Easter now – a time where we reflect on what God has done for us. A few months ago we reflected on Jesus’ first coming to earth. I’ve heard many friends say that they don’t celebrate one or both of these; it’s too religious. There was a time when I didn’t want to celebrate Christmas either but just wanted to reflect and remember (that didn’t last very long tbh). The problem was that I quickly forgot what I had remembered and I didn’t really spend time reflecting. I said a quick thank you and went on my day (and the thank yous got quicker and quicker). It became a really dead relationship because we remembered a lot but celebrated little. Hence why it didn’t last long.
Celebration breathes life. People celebrate religious festivals – Ramadan, Diwali, Kwanza, The Passover. And sometimes I think in our attempt to separate ourselves from the world we ignorantly decide not to celebrate but to take on a contemplative spirituality. The relevance is lost in not celebrating. We only celebrate things that have significance to us – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and those ridiculous things we do with our partners that make us o so cute (like Wednesdays)! And even if others have misunderstood and used our celebrations for personal gain that doesn’t mean we can’t use it anymore.
There isn’t anything wrong with playing the game. You can play the right way or you can play the wrong way. Jesus played it. He played it the way it was supposed to be played. His objection to the religious leaders of his day was not that they were religious but that their religion was self-praising and hindering people from reaching God (Matthew 6:1-2, 5, 16; Luke 11:46, 52 (see Luke 11: 37-53)). He didn’t hate the Pharisees he hated what they were doing. He hated piety, injustice, abuse; using the name of God to rob your brothers; bending the commandments to break the backs of the poor; using a belief system to enforce a class system.
Religion has been corrupted, but if we run away from it then it will remain so and others looking on will be confused. Vehemently objecting to describe Christianity as a religion does us no good. We often claim that our faith is about God reaching us but we often live as though it’s us reaching the top. Anything that divides and elevates us or ignores obedience to God, whether religion or relationship, is sin. I like religion, the system of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe. And I love Jesus, the Creator of the universe, the Saviour of the world.