We've heard it many times over, we've probably said it ourselves a few times, I know I've preached it several times myself: Christianity is not a religion it's a relationship.
It's a catchy phrase that ultimately is meant to get the attention of the listener. I even have a similar statement on my facebook under religion: I'm not much for religion but I love Jesus. These kinds of statements are meant to draw the attention of the non-Christian and open conversation in such a way that simply saying I'm a Christian never would. But are these statements actually accurate? Are they Biblical?
According to dictionary.com religion is defined as:
As Christians we have a set of beliefs concerning the "cause, nature, and purpose of the universe", we also believe that there is a superhuman God who created the universe and whether we want to admit it or not we have rituals that we observe. We also believe that Gid has given us a moral code that directs us on how we act. So it seems pretty clear that Christianity is a religion in all aspects of the definition. So why do we so often try to deny that fact?
The term religion has become associated simply with rules and regulations that we need to follow. It has also been associated with rituals and observances that become the forefront of our beliefs. Most of the time when we Christians think of religion we think of the Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus' day, the people who Jesus spent the most time rebuking. So it is clear why many Christians want to disassociate themselves with the word. For me it has become difficult to even say yes when people ask if I am religious because I have been so raised that religious is a bad thing.
This idea is not Biblical however. Jesus did not rebuke the Pharisees because they were religious. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because they had forgotten the purpose of their religion. He never told them that their traditions and rituals were wrong He simply told them that there traditions and rituals were missing the point and that when they undermined the purpose of the ritual in order to stay true to the ritual itself that it was wrong and hypocritical. The rituals in themselves were not bad and they still aren't.
Just like with the Pharisees, the problem today is not when we find ourselves being ritualistic, it's when we sacrifice the purpose of the Gospel for our rituals. It's not when we become religious, we all are already, but it's when we forget the reason for our religion. James tells us what true religion looks likes:
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)
True, pure religion is to separate ourselves from the world and to help orphans and widows. This is the Biblical definition of religion. In the previous verse James mentions that our religion can become useless. That is what happened to the Pharisees; they were very religious but since they used their religion for selfish gain it was a useless religion. When we use our religion selflessly, looking to help those who can't help themselves, our religion becomes useful again, it becomes relevant. This is of course best done by allowing our religion to come out of our relationship with Jesus which brings us back to our original statement.
But relationship and religion aren't mutually exclusive, we just need to remember which one comes first. If we pursue relationship first our religion can actually be used to strengthen that relationship.