How often have you heard the phrase “it’s a relationship, not a religion”? How about “I’m spiritual but not religious”? Maybe some of you have said it or posted it on your Facebook. I have heard those phrases a lot, and I’ve used those phrases a lot.
Confession time: I’ve come to the conclusion that that phrase is lame and not helpful.
Yet, even now when I hear that phrase it is tough for me to respond in the moment. Like a classic introvert, I cannot gather the right words in the moment to rebut this phrase. I get what the individual wants to say, but it’s dangerous to their faith. It’s dangerous because Christianity is a religion in addition to a relationship. Let me explain.
Peter declared in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus replied, affirming what he said. Jesus then went on saying, “Upon this rock I will build individualistic relationships.”
Oh wait, that’s not how it goes? Hmm, let me get my New Testament out. Oh, it says “upon this rock I will build my church.” Well this is an interesting moment. Jesus is saying here upon this rock (the rock is the affirmation of Peter for Protestant readers of Scripture, or Peter himself for my Roman Catholic friends) the church will be built.
(*Puts on nerd glasses*) Church in this sentence is the Greek word ekklesia. Ekklesia is a gathering or assembly. So what Jesus is communicating is that upon this bedrock foundation a gathering of saints and a group of redeemed would be formed (*takes off nerd glasses*). In other words, Jesus wanted a community not just a relationship.
Jesus instituted a religion, an assembly of believers. The Book of Acts follows this pattern as well. Take a look at the imperfect early church, they were a group of Christ followers in community. A new religion was formed in spite of mistakes and infighting.
Christianity is both spiritual and religious. It is both deeply personal and dynamically communal. The church is a work in progress, it was so from the beginning. Imperfections are bound to arise wherever humans congregate, including followers of Jesus. But the glorious truth is that God works in his church, daily molding them into the image of Christ. We connect to God and others in the institution of religion and relationship. It is foolish to separate the one from the other, because it will take the Church (the community of saints) to help form a Christian.
You see, my dear friend, God redeems not just individuals who say the sinner’s prayer. No, he is redeeming a “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [they] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once [they] were not a people, but now [they] are God’s people; once [they] had not received mercy, but now [they] have received mercy” (I Peter 2:9-10). The Lord is looking to redeem a people, not just a person. As Michael Horton would put it, “he does not simply want a few outstanding trumpet players who ‘wow’ their adoring fans, but an orchestra where the attraction lies in the harmony.”
A robust relationship must take place within the context of a community. So my encouragement is join a community of faithful followers of Jesus, and be part of the community of the redeemed. We need you.