Thursday, February 19, 2009

Relational Religion?

Seems that it is popular in evangelical speak these days to frame Christianity in terms of a relationship with Jesus. How many times have you heard someone say, "it's not a religion, it's a relationship"? I'm sure I've said it myself, and I seem to be hearing it more and more recently. Now, I understand the motivation behind this characterization. We contemporary evangelical Christians want to distance ourselves as much as possible from the cold legalism and external piety that the term "religion" often brings to mind. But I have to ask my usual question: is it Biblical?

Of course, it's true that there's a relational component to faith in Jesus Christ. The clearest reference to this is Christ's definition of eternal life in John 17:3, where He says, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." Jesus here defines the state of salvation in terms of relational knowledge of God the Father and God the Son. There's a relational aspect to being in union with Christ, as described in Romans chapter 6 and elsewhere. There's the reality of being adopted into the family of God as children, as described in Galatians 4:6. Paul's letters are also full of references to knowing Christ, like his stated desire in Philippians 3:10 that he "may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death." The term know (Greek γινώσκω, ginosko) is used often in the NT writings in conjunction with Christ. It includes, though, both relational knowledge as well as factual knowledge. And this, I think, is where we go wrong in defining Christianity in terms of relationship as opposed to religion.

Consider Peter's command in 2 Peter 3:18 - "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Here the same root term for know is used to refer to growing not so much in relationship, but in knowledge of the person and work of Christ. We are to grow in knowing more truths about the Lord Jesus Christ, more Biblical understanding of Him, deeper insights into His grace, His nature, His purposes. In other words, theological knowledge. Not divorced from relationship with Him, but rather informing our relationship with Him.

So let's consider the term "religion." Putting aside the evangelical baggage we've attacnehd to the term, what does itreally mean? Webster defines religion as "conformity in faith and life to the precepts inculcated in the Bible, respecting the conduct of life and duty toward God and man; the Christian faith and practice." Did you get that point stated twice here? Faith and practice. Faith, including both the body of propositional truth that forms the basis for Christian belief, as well as the personal trust in that truth. And practice, the outward conduct that is based on the content of that body of truth and personal trust in it. The classical definition of religion refers both to the theological content and teachings of Christianity, and to the practical outworkings of those teachings and beliefs. This fits perfectly with James' statement that "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." So the reality is that we are dealing not with an either/or here, but rather a both/and. Chrtistianity is both a religion - a set of truths and beliefs that are to be understood and practiced - as well as a relationship - a union with the One who established that set of truths, and an identity and conduct that flow out of that union. When we escalate one side of this equation above the other, we become imbalanced in our understanding of the nature of true, Biblical Christianity.

So what are the consequences of focusing exclusively on the relational aspect of Christianity, to the depreciation of the religious content and practice aspect? What's the danger? The danger is that this relational focus feeds our natural tendency to want to bring God down to our level, to humanize Him, to make Him our friend and lover and homeboy. It grows out of and promotes our therapeutic misunderstandings of Christianity. It colors and distorts our understanding of who Christ really is. It feeds our post-modern tendency to privatize our Christian faith, making it all about me and Jesus. It promotes a focus on experiences and emotions, and demotes the need for developing doctrinal and Biblical understanding. It's an exaltation of the immanence of God, at the expense of understanding the transcendence of God.

One of my Facebook friends, a teenage girl, recently posted that she had stated to someone that she didn't really have a religion, but more of a relationship. To which the response was, "holy *#%@#! She's dating Jesus!??" I think this was a rather insightful response. It's time we evanglicals stopped dating Jesus and began worshipping Him in spirit and truth, as He commands and deserves. It's time we began seeking to know Him and know more of Him more deeply, so that we can better practice the religious beliefs that relationship is based on. Relational religion. It's Biblical.

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