I have heard it, I have said it, and I have believed it: "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship." Thousands of Facebook bio's say "Religion: Relationship." People often say, "Religion is man's attempt to reach God, Christianity is God's attempt to reach man." Pastorally, I have wrestled with the trajectory of this religion vs. Christianity movement. I question if we need to put the two at odds. Even if we realize the stigma that comes with the term "religion" I think it is our duty as Christians to redeem the word, rather than to trash it. We talk about redeeming marriage, culture and relationships, why can't we redeem definitions? Because the fact of the matter is: Christianity is a religion, and that's okay.

Because the fact of the matter is: Christianity is a religion, and that's okay.

Stay With Me

The Google machine defines religion as: "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods." Merriam-Webster says it is the, "service and worship of a God or the supernatural: commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance." Dictionary.com is a little more descriptive providing, "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing conduct of human affairs."

While I do find some rough language when it comes to the gospel in the Dictionary.com definition, I think the other sources offer a fair assessment of Christianity. Christianity is a worship of a "superhuman controlling power," it is "service and worship ...commitment...to religious faith or observance." Christianity also begins with an account of creation "as the creation of [through] a superhuman agency." By this definition Christianity is a religion.

We do have a system of beliefs. In fact we have a whole book which gives propositions and case studies. It tells us about who we are, how we can, and by whom we can be fixed. It teaches us how to interact with other, and how we should interact with God himself. It reveals to us the source of our belief, and then illuminates the text by the power of the Holy Spirit. We should stop making up silly definitions of religion and start seeing the definition of religion rightly so that we can properly engage our culture in a right minded dialogue.

Why Does This Matter

This matters because we shouldn't be scared of the term religion. The apostle James uses the word, and he uses it in a both positive and negative sense (see James 1:26-27). When you read the Bible it sometimes speaks of religion in a negative sense, a sort of human powered effort. But often times it is in a positive light, a system of belief which points to Christ. If the Bible isn't afraid of the word, we shouldn't be either.

Now please, don't hear what I'm not saying. I'm not promoting moralism, or legalism, or any other ism-ism you would like to accuse me of. Let me provide for you a new definition first, and then I will explain the impact after. Christianity is a religion, but it is a religion defined by a relationship.

Christianity is a religion, but it is a religion defined by a relationship.

Unintended Consequences

We, as a culture have reacted against the moralism and legalism of the 20th century, and we have swung the pendulum to the other side. Where at one point Christianity was a bunch of do's and don'ts (which it is not), we have made Christianity into an undefined relationship (which it also is not). In our post-modern context, this trajectory towards relationship is a response against two things: truth statements and the Church.

In today's culture the word religion is a set of rules and beliefs. It is stodgy old men and outdated buildings. It is ridged and narrow, old and decrepit. Religion is the enemy of human progress (see the works of the renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens). To our culture truth statements are arrogant and unneeded, and the church is best known for the crusades, not compassion, and definitely not evangelism. Religion seems cold, hollow and unspiritual.

I fully agree that we as the church need to change this perception of our faith in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But by trying to re-define what Christianity is (is it religion, relationship or rubbish?), we are playing ourselves straight into the hands of a post-modern conundrum. By stressing relationship over religion (organization, systematics, belief, community, buildings...etc) we have stripped away any sort of real identity or context through which to view our faith. By using the term "relationship" we can make Christianity into a whimsical relationship complete with bubble gum and story time. The term "relationship" when placed in contrast to religion, can bring our holy, righteous and consuming God down to the same level as the boy you play ball with at the end of the street. The beauty of a religion defined by a relationship, is that we see this "wholly other" God, and yet he has come down and entered into a relationship with us. We keep the purity of God, yet gain access through the cross.

By emphasizing relationship and relationship alone, we can also make too much of our own ability. We bring to the table our own salvation based on our own ability to come into a relationship. But when a relationship is coupled with belief, it is a relationship which is acknowledging a pre-existing reality over which you had no control. We believe in something altogether outside of ourselves.

By using the term relationship over the term religion, we segregate ourselves from others, as well as making little of God, and much of ourselves. While a system of beliefs are clear, relationships are relative and hard to understand.

I have a relationship with my wife. I can assure it you it is a great, good, and passionate relationship. I love her dearly and would give up my life for her. But the way in which my neighbor loves his wife is noticeably different than how I love my wife. The way other staff pastors manifest their affection is still different than mine. But why does it matter if each husband feels as if he is loving, and each wife feels as if she is loved.

The problem with this little story is that it doesn't transfer into a faith in Christ Jesus. Relationship is a fuzzy term. I know people who claim to have a relationship with Jesus. This relationship exists as they see Jesus as being a great moral model, and a good teacher, and also the son of God. But this relationship is not a saving relationship. But why? What if Joe said that he knew Christ, and he had a relationship with Christ, but he didn't think Christ needed to die for his sins? Why is my relationship good, and his bad? Because, while Joe has a "relationship" with Christ, he lacks the right system of belief in who Christ is.

What Am I Saying?

Christianity is the belief of those who are saved by Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul says, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3). Do you see the distinction of Paul's message? He is telling the church that it's not simply about knowing who Jesus is, it is about believing that Jesus is the one who died for your sins in accordance to the Scriptures. Their relationship with Jesus Christ is made fully valid when they see the reality of who Christ is.

This is what the religious component of Christianity is for. If each person is left to pursue God in a sort of undefined relational way, we will have millions of people worshipping their own perception of God, in their own way. But the Bible tells us that there is a "faith once delivered" (Jude 1:3), and that we will need to confess some dogmatic beliefs (Romans 10:9). But it is neither the faith (1 Peter 1:5-7) nor the dogma that saves us. The personal and work of Christ saves us. He is the object of our faith, and the source of our dogma.

As Christians we are not "religious," we are Christian. But we cannot deny that Christianity is a religion. It is a group of people who gather weekly to express their belief in the savior that they know and love. We guard and protect each other by making sure that our relationship with Christ is a right relationship centered on the right idea of who Christ is and what he has done. And as Sunday goes, and Monday comes, our thoughts actions and priorities ought to be shaped by the object of our affection and belief.

We do have practices and principles. But we observe these because our love for our Savior makes us desire to serve him and follow his commands.

As Christians we should not be afraid of the word religion, we should redeem it.

Take Back the Dictionary

Certainly there are many false and harmful religions. But Christianity is not one of them. Christianity is the only true religion, as we know and believe in the only object worthy of worship. We trust in the only Creator, and we believe that he is the ultimate over all things. As Christians we should not be afraid of the word religion, we should redeem it. We should boldly express both the relational and the practical beliefs of our faith. We should break the stereotypes of religion. We should have Christ so move our hearts that the stodgy old man is made into a loving and caring evangelist. We need to be clear "religious living" isn't tied to morals, but to the saving work of Christ. Our churches should loudly proclaim the truth of Christ while serving and caring for those not yet in his flock.

People should know every bit of what we believe is tied to who we believe in. This is a religion defined by a relationship. This is the result of a gospel transformation. This is the beauty of the church. This is the beauty of a life in Christ.

Tyler Velin

Tyler Velin has been on staff at Sovereign Hope since 2007 and an elder since 2015. He currently oversees student ministries and works directly with Grizzly Christian Fellowship. He is a graduate of the University of Montana and Western Seminary (Portland, OR). Tyler’s passion is the preaching and teaching of the gospel and its significance in today’s culture. Tyler and Sarah were married in 2011 and have three children: Owen (2012), Addley (2015), and Ellie (2017).