The Problem with “It’s Not a Religion, It’s a Relationship”

January 22, 2014 § 6 Comments

When I was in middle/high school, it became really popular among youth groupy people to define their choice to follow Jesus as “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”. I think this always rubbed me the wrong way and I was never sure why. I see it posted as people’s religious views on Facebook and for some reason the phrase never appealed to me. A couple years back, Jefferson Bethke made a video about Jesus being a relationship and not a religion. It blew up social media with many people reposting it in agreement. Now, it’s not that I don’t agree per se, I just think it is not the best way that I would want define what happens in my spiritual journey and what happens in the church. I do believe relationship is an important part of it, but I want to argue for a better balance.

So probably three years too late, here is my take on Jefferson Bethke’s video and the idea of relationship against religion.

My first aversion to this phrase defining Christianity is that it is a little too personal.

1. Too individualized, too based off of one person’s experience

I get that when people say this phrase, it is supposed to be more of a blast on legalistic, ritualistic religion. But what I like about “religion” is the common bond, the community. We are bonded together with other people because of a commonality, whether it’s beliefs or in the case of Christianity, Jesus Christ. My problem with a “personal relationship” is that many people can make it too exclusive, too secluded. This is MY relationship with Jesus. I am going about this the way that I want to or what works for me. This phrase also usually comes across to me with an attitude of superiority (and I’m sure to people of other religions it can as well). Behind it I can hear, “I’m not like all you people who are taking things too legalistically, I have a real relationship with Jesus”.

Yes, everyone’s journey and process of faith is different. But my relationship with Jesus is not exclusive. It is not exclusive to me in that I am not the only person “doing it right”, I am not the only person who is seeking Jesus and I am not the only person who has a say on what that means. And my relationship is not exclusive to just Jesus. Sounds weird, I know. The problem with just keeping things between me and Jesus is that it leaves very little room for growth or challenge. I can make God in my own image and I can cater my walk to my wants and my needs more easily when I am not sharing my struggles and my thoughts with the people whom God has placed in my life. He’s not just there to make me feel warm and fuzzy feelings. Which leads me to my next point.

2. Our idea of relationship is flawed

Can I confess that whenever I hear people saying they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” it kinda weirds me out a little bit? I get what they mean, but I just always think of them holding hands with Jesus and flirtatiously texting him during class.

Humans have proven over and over again that we do not really understand what it means to be in a relationship. The divorce rate is more than half, broken engagements, dating relationships and friendships happen all the time. Wars, prejudice, abuse, infidelity, racism, sexism, the list could go on and on, happen on a regular basis.

We don’t know how to get along with each other or stick out hard times if our life depended on it. Surely the kind of broken relationships we encounter on an everyday basis is not the best thing we can offer to the man who gave his everything on a cross.

We like the idea of a relationship because it brings warm, fuzzy feelings of love and companionship to mind. But that’s not necessarily what Jesus offers. As we know, relationships are hard and can rip out any sense of self pride you may otherwise have had. So if I’m going in expecting some love dovey affair, I may be sorely disappointed. But if this is really what it is about, being in a relationship with a selfless, sacrificial, loving, compassionate person who would do anything for you, and you just get to benefit from that, well then who in their right mind would reject that? But people do all the time. Why? Because Jesus is hard.

Which leads me to my next point.

3. It’s not just a relationship

It’s not just about a friendship, or knowing him personally. It’s about conforming to Christ. And he is challenging. It’s not just the nice idea of “if you spend enough time around someone you pick up some of their idioms.” But conforming to someone who is the standard, someone who is hard to be like. It’s not just going to happen. In some situations, maybe. But most of the time, Jesus calls us to do tough things that take conscious effort and a LOT of humility.

My encounters with Jesus are not just for me. They are not just to make me feel good about myself or to fill me up. They happen so that I ultimately may be strengthened to be Jesus to others.

We are told in James 1:27 that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Hmm, to me that doesn’t sound so bad. Doesn’t sound like religion that takes things out of context, or too literally, or to rigidly.

Christian, embrace your religion. A religion that operates (or should operate) out of love, compassion and justice. If we were religious about serving the poor, taking care of those in our community, seeking justice for the oppressed and compassion for the oppressor, extending grace and mercy at any chance we get, well then our idea of religion may not be so bad. And our relationship would be acting itself out. There is no need to pin them against each other, but rather to see how they can work together.

I don’t know about you but I know I could afford to be more religious about James 1:27.



§ 6 Responses to The Problem with “It’s Not a Religion, It’s a Relationship”

  • Daniel says:

    The appeal to James 1:27, as is always apt in this discussion, shows that, as often with misunderstandings, it is the failure to understand a term apart from the baggage the reader brings to the text. I would doubt that many people today would oppose religion in the sense of James 1:27. (For example take the reaction of other religions and even atheists to the actions of Pope Francis.) However, as we know that is not often the context of religion used today. I find that one of the other reasons for this shift to a relationship is, (as Shane Wood explains), the obsession over the idol of salvation. Since it has been made clear that we are evangelized to come to “a saving relationship with Jesus Christ,” that is the result. (In other words, what you win them with is what you when them to.) If the goal is salvation and a relationship is all that is needed for salvation, then that will be the result, simply a relationship. However, if the goal is transformation. Then it becomes more likely that a Christian will engage in a community that is helping supply and undergo that transformation. (The Church, or in the 1st Cen. language, The Way.) This community is defined under the category of religion because that is the only category it can fit under. It is a redefinition of the term “religion” that is needed, or more accurately a return to a proper understanding of the term. For how else within the parameters of common language would on describe a community of people who hold to similar beliefs, while containing people of different people groups, nationalities, and languages? Would it not be “religion”? And if this community is a group of diverse people all dedicated in faith to Jesus, but also to transformation into his likeness this would result in James 1:27. Therefore, (as I wordily agree with your conclusions), when comparing simply a relationship for the purpose of salvation and an entrance into a community of believers who are undergoing transformation together and who are living out the result of this transformation, it seems, to me, that it should be a relationship we should be discarding to run to religion (which ironically is based upon relationships within the community of believers and with the community and their Lord).

    • melissatanis says:

      Well said, Daniel. I was thinking the same thing, that our natural reaction is always to discard a term because it has come to mean something different than what it was supposed to. In some cases, I think this may be a wise thing to do. However, enabling ourselves and others to demean or disregard a person’s thoughts or views because we do not like their terminology only lends to dismissive attitudes instead of engagement in conversation and thought. And plus, the ultimate goal is, like you said, a redefinition, or as I like to look at it, a redemption of the term. Religion will not mean what it is supposed to mean if we continue to allow it to be defined wrongly. I like your statement about discarding a personal relationship and running to a religion, a religion in the true sense of the word, a religion that is about relationship. Thanks for the comment!

  • Anthony says:

    I would add a fourth point that Jesus is not only our savior, but also our Lord and our King. We often tend to emphasize the savior part while giving less attention to the Lordship part. Jesus’ disciples thought that he would be an earthly king and restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory. However, Jesus told them that his kingdom was not one of this world (John 18:36). What is a kingdom without a king? Jesus is that king. John MacArthur sums it up well in his book “Slave” (Which I highly recommend): “The overwhelming testimony of scripture is that Jesus Christ is ‘Lord of all’ (Rom. 10:12) and the ‘head over all things’ (Eph. 1:22), including His body, the church. Accordingly, the true church is made up of those ‘who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:2). Whereas false teachers reject His lordship, at least in practice, faithful ministers gladly submit themselves to the authority of Christ and His Word – seeing themselves as slaves in the work of the Chief Shepherd.” (MacArthur 73). Revelation 19:11-16 describes Jesus in his glory and verse sixteen says that written on his robe and thigh is the phrase: “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” Our relationship with Jesus should also be characterized by service to our king.

    MacArthur, John. Slave. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. Print

    • melissatanis says:

      Good point Anthony. I think that much of Christ’s lordship can be lost when we view our relationship with him as the same as our earthly relationships. He deserves more than that. And many times our service to our king is religiously obeying his command to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. And to think that a king with so much greatness, cares about and loves me, just blows my mind.

  • cinemom says:

    This was a great piece, Melissa. As someone raised Catholic, and definitely not in a heavy-duty way, my new found “relationship” with Jesus, which came only a few years ago, brought me closer to God than I thought possible. Mass on Sundays was a repetitive, dry, if not lovely, set of rituals that was comforting at best – tediously boring at worst. I was surrounded by evangelical religions and Native American ritual in my very small town in Northern Arizona. My church sort of gave the impression that we were the “mature” worshipers. We kind of acted like we were all that. We were Catholics before we were Christians. Ironically, I felt closer to the Creator when I attended Navajo and Hopi religious events – something which nurtured me and for that I’ll be forever grateful. But through it all, Jesus and I pursued one another. The church emphasized Mother Mary and the Pope, but instinct told me there was only Christ. I remember a couple of young guys from the Baptist church preaching to me and my sister individually about repentance and sin. We both scoffed: Are you kidding me? That religious rhetoric was stigmatized, in my mind anyway, as something (and forgive me when I say this because I don’t see it this way now) as some kind of Hillbilly fanaticism. No thanks! BUT. I never forgot about it. A seed was planted for sure. I will say this though: Thank God there were a couple of Catholics, especial Sister Bernadette Bezner, my 5th grade teacher, who walked the walk and modeled the Christian life for me. She was never ashamed to talk about God. She loved and loved.

    Suffice to say that my church rarely talked about a personal relationship – it was mostly religious ritual. It held me at arms length. I craved a warm mushy love with God. When I finally got it, when I understood what the crucifixion and resurrection meant I wept with understanding, telling my husband through my tears that “I always believed in God, but now I KNOW him” – this was a profound awareness. It gives me strength to be the Christian I always wanted to be. Progress is slow but steady.
    But I understand what you mean. Us “sinners” (I always hated that term but I embrace it now as an honest assessment of myself) find ways to wiggle out of our TRUE religion: loving one another. REALLY loving one another.

    • melissatanis says:

      Kim, it’s so interesting how everyone’s stories and experiences can help shape how we all understand Jesus. We need each other to balance each other out. I did not grow up with the religious dryness that you describe (in some ways, but it expressed itself differently, more through superficiality or legalism). However, I saw the extreme of how making it only a personal relationship can make Jesus all about me. There was beauty in realizing that Jesus cares more about how I treat others than what kind of car I get for my birthday. I saw many people use Jesus to their advantage because they thought that was how the relationship was suppose to work. But how beautiful for you to come to the realization that an awe-inspiring, powerful God loves and cares about you deeply. The humility you had in the moment I think is the key. Understanding that Jesus wants a relationship with us, but on his terms not ours. And his terms mean to take care of widows and orphans, to do really hard things and to seek daily how to be like him. Relationship and religion don’t contradict each other, they can go hand in hand. I think both concepts of relationship and religion have been skewed but I think a better balance between the two and hearing each other’s experiences with each can help us redeem the terms to hopefully mean what they’re suppose to mean. Thank you for sharing your story, we should have coffee and chat!:)

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