Is Christianity a Relationship and Not a Religion?

The word “religion” gets a pretty bad rap these days. For some, it conjures up a set of one-size-fits-none boxes on a form; for others, it represents merely the traditions and trappings of faith rather than faith itself, perhaps even to the exclusion of God. It’s becoming more and more common to hear Christians describe their faith as a relationship rather than a religion. And yet, most translations of the Bible state that “religion” does have something to do with Christians: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27 NKJV; cf. KJV, ASV, ESV, NASB, NIV, CSB, etc.). What is religion? Is it the antithesis of a relationship with God, or, as James seems to be saying, does it have something to do with that relationship?

Let’s start with the Greek word in James 1:27 that nearly every major English translation renders, “religion.” It’s not a very common word in the Bible; in fact, of the four times it’s used, two are here in James (see also James 1:26). It’s also found in Acts 26:5 where it’s again translated “religion” in most versions; it seems there to be a reference to the Jewish faith. However, in Colossians 2:18, most versions including the NKJV translate it as “worship.” One lexicon defines this Greek word as follows: “expression of devotion to transcendent beings, especially as it expresses itself in cultic rites.”[1] Don’t let the “cultic rites” part of that definition scare you by the way; it’s a fancy (i.e., scholarly) way of saying, “worship rituals” or “repeated behavior done in worship.” From the vantage point of this Greek word, religion encompasses both our devotion to a Divine being and the reverential way we approach Him. To put it another way, in order to have a relationship with God, there must be a religion, and, as James says, a “pure and undefiled” one at that. As Acts 26:5 and Colossians 2:18 demonstrate, there are approaches to God that are incapable of connecting us with Him and, as the latter passage says, can even cause Christians to lose their reward if they pursue them.

So, if religion is found in most English Bible translations and presented as something that matters, why do more and more people want to disconnect it from Christianity? I can’t speak for everyone, but, casting my eyes over a few definitions of the modern word “religion,” I think I can see the problem. Merriam-Webster defines “religion” first as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” This definition is given before a second one, “the service and worship of God or the supernatural,” and followed by a third, “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”[2] Modern dictionaries tend to demonstrate how a word is being used more so than how it ought to be used. It seems to me that the word “religion” for many people is more wrapped up in what is believed, done, and taught than it is in the One for whom all these things are supposed to be. This is a very real problem that is even addressed in the Bible; for example, the Pharisees clung to their religion or “tradition” to the point that they rejected God and made His word “of no effect” (Mark 7:1-13).  

I’m not prepared to abandon the word religion just yet though. For starters, as I’ve already said, it’s found in most Bibles. Further, I’ve also seen the fruit of leaving the concept of religion behind. Saying that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion sounds a lot like, “Preach Christ, not the church,” or, “Give me the Man, not the plan.” These pithy sayings always pack a punch until you pause for long enough to consider them. If you preach Jesus, you DO preach His kingdom and His body, which are the church (Matthew 16:18; Acts 8:5, 12; Ephesians 1:22-23). You can’t preach the Man and deny that He had a plan (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16). And, as we’ve already seen, you can’t form a relationship with God without a “pure and undefiled” response to Him on His terms (James 1:26-27).

It’s worth noting that the word “religion” is found one additional time in many English translations of the Bible in Acts 25:19. The NKJV joins most modern translations in reading there, “their own religion,” but the KJV that came before it reads, “their own superstition.” The Greek word found here is different than the one we discussed above and is only found twice in the Bible: here and in an adjectival form in Acts 17:22, where the same difference in translation can be found between newer versions and the KJV. So is it “religion/religious” as most versions read or “superstition/superstitious” as in the KJV? It’s not simply a case of newer learning shedding light on the Greek language. While most translators have chosen the former renderings because the context demands at worst a neutral statement (in the case Acts 17:22, probably a commendation), the term whether noun or adjective was frequently used derogatorily in ancient literature.

Maybe there’s a lesson there. The problem is not religion; the problem is how it is perceived. We can’t change everyone’s perceptions. There will always be some people who will echo the attitudes and sentiments of those who heard Paul in Athens and said, “What does this babbler want to say?” (Acts 17:18). However, there will also always be some genuinely neutral observers who say, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak?” (Acts 17:19). While we can tell them about a relationship, we can’t teach them one; we’ll have to teach them religion. What will this religion be, and how will it be perceived?

Let’s walk back through those modern definitions of religion we gave above that we might first have balked at. While “institutionalized system” sounds formal and authoritarian, it’s actually far better than the alternative of “personal set.” If Jesus refused to teach His own doctrine, but deferred to God and His authority saying, “My doctrine is not mine, but His who sent Me,” shouldn’t we (John 7:16-18)? It’s also not a pope, bishop, or group of theologians somewhere that have formed genuine Christian “religious attitudes, beliefs and practices.” It’s God Himself. And if God gave them, shouldn’t I hold them “with ardor and faith”? Shouldn’t that religion – God’s prescribed religion – be what I both live and teach?

So, to close: While Luke and Paul’s uses of the Greek word often translated “religion” remind us that what we believe and what we do (or don’t) on Sunday matter, James’ use of the word reminds us that it’s not all that matters. What we believe, how we worship, how we love and care for those in need, and how we react to a world full of sin all say something about whether or not we have a relationship with our God. What’s more, all that we “do and teach” (Acts 1:1) speak to whether people will see in our practice of Christianity a religion to be investigated or a superstition to be mocked.
-Patrick Swayne   
patrick@tftw.org
[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 459.
[2] Definitions obtained September 20, 2023, at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion

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