Look, I get it.
The Christian faith offers friendship,* partnership,* fellowship* and even kinship* with God the
Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. If you grew up in church and heard this all your life it may be difficult to grasp how mind-bending this is. But think about it: the Creator of the universe wants to be friends with you. Let that sink in for a minute.
But if you grew up in a church in the fifties and sixties, you may have been exposed to decades of denominational warfare as one True Church hurled detonated dogma and flaming proof texts at another. I was raised in One True Church and have been on the receiving end of doctrinal darts from another One True Church, so I understand how refreshing is the proposition that Jesus is all about relationship, not religion.
But what’s a religion? If we mean “rules whereby we set ourselves apart and gain God’s favor, unlike the ignorant, oblivious and stubborn crowd who don’t see it the way we do,” then yes. Jesus is not about that kind of religion. He had some hard words to say against what we might call dead orthodoxy.
However, when we don’t lean on our own understanding or experience but turn to an accepted authority (such as the dictionary), religion is “1.a. a belief in and reverence for a supernatural power; b. a system grounded in such belief and worship.” In that light, what strong conviction about life and purpose is not a religion?
The groundwork of relationship, the necessary actions taken to make that relationship possible, the need to take those actions and the form the relationship takes—that’s all religion, in the dictionary sense. Religion defines the relationship, like wedding vows define a marriage. Religion is the house where the relationship flourishes. The first Christ-followers, who should have something to tell us, followed a religion. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42) on which the church of Christ was built (Eph. 2:20).
Relationship without religion has its limits. You would think that the disciples who actually knew Jesus, who walked and talked and ate with him day by day, had a rock-solid relationship with him. Yet when he he expressed some strange and difficult doctrines, a number of them left (John 6:66). The ones who stayed heard him make some terrible predictions but dismissed them (Luke 18:31-34). When those terrible things came to pass they scattered like rats from a burning barn. But they had a relationship, didn’t they? They loved him. And yet it wasn’t until he revealed the scope of his mission through the scriptures (Luke 22:44-49) that love found a home, soon to illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
Why does this matter? Because I hear the relationship-not-religion theme more and more and I think it’s coming to mean I can believe what I want about Jesus as long as I love him and he loves me. What do you think he would say about that? What did he say about that?
If you love me you will keep my commandments.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ [or ‘friend, friend’?] and not do what I say?
In every believer, the relationship is going to look a little different. I’m not saying we all have to march in lock-step or bury love in religious observance. But what I hear out there is an abandonment of the very principle of religion as a body of incontrovertible truth that we live by. “This is my Son,” says the Father, “Listen to him.” If I’m only listening selectively, before long I’m mostly listening to me. That’s not good news (gospel) for anybody, least of all me.
*You are my friends if you do what I command, John 15:14
Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us, II Cor. 5:20
. . . and truly our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, I John 1:3
. . . in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers, Rom. 8:29