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Is Christianity a Religion or a Relationship?

christianity a relationship

Repost from 2015. Edited, updated, and corrected.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before: Man gives us religion, but Jesus gives us life; True Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship; Religion kills, Jesus gives life. According to this line of thinking, religion is bad and Jesus is good. I have often been told that my reactions and objections to Christianity are really about religion, not Christianity. In fact, I’ve been told, more than a few times by Evangelical zealots, that I never had a real relationship with Jesus at all. I had religion, but not Jesus.

There is this assumption that if somehow, some way, we can get back to a pristine version of Christianity; first-century Christianity; a Christianity that is pure and free from the trappings of 2,000 years of history, we will end up with the Christianity of Jesus.  This, of course, is bullshit. Western Christianity is actually the Apostle Paul’s baby, and I doubt most of those trying to find authentic-Jesus-Christianity would really want it if they found it. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus makes it clear what it means to be his follower. Modern-day Christians ought to contemplate these verses a bit before they say, I am a follower of Jesus.

Is there any such thing as pure Christianity? Even if we go back to the first century, we find division and controversy among those who called themselves Christians. They weren’t unified, and shortly after the death of Christ, we find a huge controversy between Peter and Paul over whether a person had to be circumcised to be saved. The early church was made up mostly of Jews, and many of them thought it proper to expect Gentile converts to adhere to the teachings of Judaism. As history shows, the followers of Jesus were considered a subset of Judaism for many years. And then we have James’ and John’s take on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Their gospels bear little resemblance to that of Paul.

From day one, Christianity was a controversy-filled religion. Christianity was not something that was new. It was a culmination, completion, or extension of something that was old. According to theologians, Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament types and shadows. The New Testament church (the elect) became the covenant people of God. Without understanding Judaism it is impossible to understand Christianity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say Judaism was not a religion, it was a relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say religion kills, but Judaism gives life. Yet, one would be right to suggest that without Judaism (or the Bible) there would be no Christianity.

Judaism is a religion and so is Christianity. I realize that some people want to distance themselves from the modern Christian church. The church is a monolithic behemoth full of corruption and perversion, and there is little within the church that is worthy of emulation. But just because you don’t like organized Christianity doesn’t mean it’s not what it says it is.

Who is it that gave us the Bible? Men. Who is it, then, that told us about Jesus? Men. Who is it that tells us everything we know about the teachings of the Bible? Men. It is clear that men gave us Christianity. Using the logic set forth in the first paragraph, Christianity is indeed a religion. How could it be otherwise? If true Christianity is this mystical I-feel-it-and-I-know belief, how could people know for sure that they have the real thing? Well, the Bible says___________. Yes, and that brings us right back to the men at the center of Christianity.

For those who believe in the distinction between religion and Christianity, I would ask them to describe the differences between the two. I would ask them to tell me what this pure Christianity looks like and where I can experience it. I would ask them to explain to me how they can square the teachings of the Bible with their belief that one can have Christianity without the church.

This kind of thinking primarily exists in the United States. We are a nation of individualists, and that’s why we are attracted to individualistic (narcissistic) forms of religion. If the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches that Christianity is a communal religion with every believer being a part of the whole. The Bible speaks of the church as a body, and that every part is vitally important to the rest of the body.

Let me be clear, it is impossible for people to claim Christianity and reject the church. Without the church and the Bible, there is no such thing as Christianity. Since the church wrote the Bible, it is the church that gave us Christianity. To be a Christian requires a communal connection with a visible body of believers. It has always been this way, and it is up to the Christianity-is-not-a-religion crowd to show why it shouldn’t continue to be this way.

Feelings and personal opinions don’t matter here. What does the Bible say? Is the Bible the bedrock of Evangelical Christianity? I maintain that there is no Christianity without the Bible. It is up to those who disagree to prove otherwise. Show me how it is possible to have Christianity without the church or Christianity without the Bible. From my seat in the atheist pew, the church and the Bible are joined at the hip and each needs the other to survive.

I’m sure someone is going to ask why this matters to me. After all, I’m not a Christian, so why do I care? This issue matters to me because I write a good bit about Evangelical Christianity. Whenever my writing gets too uncomfortable for Evangelicals, they like to suggest that I am not writing about their brand or their version of Christianity. They like to suggest that I have confused religion with Christianity. When family members do bad things, they like to divorce themselves from their relatives and pretend there is no familial connection. But, like it or not, every Christian is connected to other Christians, and the crazy uncles and aunts are part of the family.

I will tell my Christian readers this: it is your Church, live with it. When you attempt to have a Christianity without the Church, you are in effect starting your own religion, the Church of the Churchless Christ-Followers. You are simply doing what Christians have been doing for 2,000 years, spawning tens of thousands of sects.  If you don’t like what you see, start something new, right? But no matter how much you try, and no matter how often you reinvent yourself, Christianity will always be a religion.

Wikipedia states it succinctly:

Religion is the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or in general a set of beliefs explaining the existence of and giving meaning to the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Christianity was, is, and always will be a religion.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Scott

    These are also the same people who call Atheism a religion. When you have to keep changing definitions of words or changing which sense of the word you are using, i.e. using “faith” as a form of belief vs “faith” as belief in something, as a way to derail a discussion it drives me crazy.

    A guest on one of the local Christian radio shows was arguing with a caller and said that we Atheist’s need to disprove God rather than the Christian having to provide the evidence. It makes me wonder if it’s worth having the discussion some days. It quite clearly shows that many people consider their Christianity to be “normal” and refusing to accept that it is possible to have any other beliefs.

  2. Avatar
    Drew Costen

    To be fair, there are a few (although very few) antinomian type of people who I would classify as “religionless Christians.” Granted, it depends on the definition of religion you’re going with, but I would say that Martin Zender and Robert Farrar Capon both fall into that category based on the definition I tend to use (which has more to do with believing one must follow certain rules than with simply being a theist).

    That said, aside from those two people, and maybe a half dozen others, I’ve almost never met anybody who says Christianity is a relationship rather than a religion and actually believes that. Drill them a little harder (ask them if premarital sex or homosexuality is okay, for instance) and you almost inevitably find out they do believe there are certain religious rules they just can’t let go of.

  3. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Religion is only a relationship in that it’s a relationship with oneself – as each person’s deity is partly comprised of the way the deity is described by the religion and partly comprised of the way the person wants the deity to be. In the same church you’ll find different iterations of the Christian God, or Jesus, and those deities reflect what the individual wants them to be. If you’re an authoritarian, guess what characteristics your deity possesses? If you value social justice, guess what your deity values first and foremost?

  4. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Interesting point, and I was always told that Christianity is both relationship and religion, instead of one or the other. Why do some say atheism is a religion ?? I know that communism is, because citizens are forced to generate leaders of their respective countries, no denying that. Like over in NK.

    • Avatar
      GeoffT

      Yulya, I’m not sure I’d agree that Communism is a religion per se, but I’d agree that it’s practical expression turns itself into one. This is true of all totalitarian regimes, whereby all the features of religion are adopted, the head of state (dictator) replacing the divine deity. It’s why apologists who want to criticise atheism with reference to those regimes rather shoot themselves in the foot.

  5. Avatar
    apostatedaughter

    Spot on. Nothing bugs me now like those who say some version of, “Oh, we don’t do church. But–we still BELIEVE.”

    My pastor/father on what he thought was his deathbed two years ago managed to get out the words, “My life…has been…a failure….because you are not where you should be with ‘spiritual things’ “*(hands awkwardly lifted in the finger-pointing emphasis he once gave things in the pulpit). My sister–who has not gone to church for several years–leaned in to his face and frantically said, “Dad–I still BELIEVE!! I BELIEVE!!” I, who had been my dad’s right hand in his ministry for nearly thirty years, keeping churches going (indoctrinated from birth), but now atheist, said nothing. In my head, however, I was livid. I thought, “F— you.”

    You are right, Bruce. What a convoluted mess it all is, a man-made mess. That at the end it compels and justifies throwing your child under the bus pretty much says it all.

    *Happy to report that, two years later, my father’s stay in a nursing home seems to have emptied him of all allegiance to his former belief system. Chalk that up to being completely forgotten and ignored by those who once honored him when he was vital and strong. In my last visit before COVID he held my hand (something he had never done while ‘in the ministry’–couldn’t show affection to daughters) and said, “You have done old age far better than I.” I knew what he meant. He never mentions prayer, god, church, anything. Yet he finally seems free of the anxiety that dogged him all his life and at peace.

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