Imagine my shock, horror, and absolute confoundedness (?) when my mother told me that I am not allowed to flirt with or date any woman other than my wife. On my wedding day no less….
As any reasonable person could expect, I rebuked her by pointing out that her demands were nothing but Pharisaical non-sense with her rigid rules and religious spirit were not welcome in my marriage…
After all, I have a personal relationship with my wife…
But I quickly found out that you just can’t outsmart your mother, she said:
“Okay, you have a personal relationship with me, your brother, your dad, your best friend, and your toaster…you need to set the bar higher with your wife, don’t you think?”
Okay, that didn’t happen…. and it’s not true that I just have a personal relationship with my wife….
I have a covenant with my wife and a covenant is more than a personal relationship; it’s an exchange of persons and the creation of a new family. Furthermore, a covenant always places strictures, rituals, and boundaries on those who enter into the covenant.
Whenever I hear someone say, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus”, I’m deeply concerned for their faith because, Biblically speaking, their relationship is hardly more intimate than the one they have with their favorite waffle-maker.
Yes, the Christian does involve a personal relationship. Otherwise, how could St. Paul say that Christ, “loved me and died on the cross for me.”? (Galatians 2:21)
We can all say the same concerning our relationship with God but there is more to it than that. We are bound to God in a way requires something from us that no other kind of relationship can claim.
This is why we have the Christian religion, with “religion” stemming from the Latin “religio” which means “to bind” but to whom and what are we bound? As the bride of Christ, Christians are bound to Christ and just like any marriage— that relationship has rules and rituals that keep the marriage strong.
In Christianity, your religion is your relationship.
Okay, enough with my rant and onto my main point: Here are my top 6 reasons that the phrase, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship” is nothing other than a vacuous and unbiblical slogan:
#1 The Bible Literally says Christianity is a Religion
It doesn’t take too long to do a word search in an online Bible to find out how the New Testament authors use the word “religion” and here’s how they do it:
- James 1:26-27: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” [The Greek words translated as “religious” or “religion” are “θρησκὸς” (thrēskos) and “θρησκεία” (thrēskeia).]
- 1 Timothy 5:4: “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.” (Some translations, like the NIV, render “εὐσεβεῖν” (eusebein) as “piety”, “godliness” or “devoutness”)
Pay attention to what both James and Paul assert here: Not only is “religion” something that can validly be said of the Christian faith, the kind of religion that God desires from us isn’t just a personal confession of belief but rather one which takes action. These actions are also the qualifying condition as to whether God finds one’s religion acceptable and NOT faith alone (another unbiblical idea but more on that in a later post.
#2 Jesus Explicitly Gave us a Religion
Okay, let’s define our term by pulling out the good ol’ dictionary which defines religion as:
noun re·li·gion | \ ri-ˈli-jən \
1a: the state of a religious a nun in her 20th year of religion
(1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural
(2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic: scrupulous conformity
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
Since most of us aren’t nuns, I can assume that 1a does not fit the definition we’re looking for here. Let’s examine b 1&2 as well as 2 & 4 to see if Jesus’ own words and instructions give us a religion:
- Jesus said that we should have commitment and devotion:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” ~ Matt 22:37-40
- Jesus commanded the ritual of baptism:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” ~Matthew 28:19-21
(Note that Jesus prefaces this command by referring to the authority given to Him and how “making disciples” begins with baptism and teaching them to obey His commands)
- Jesus commanded a ritual meal which the Apostles and earliest Christians regularly observed:
“…he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” ~ Luke 22:19-20
#3 The Earliest Christians Followed Rituals
Not only do Jesus’ words indicate to us that He intended to establish a religion, so do the words and actions of the Earliest Apostles. Here are just a few examples:
- “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you…For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” ~ 1st Corinthians 11:2, 23-26
Did you notice that Paul first praises the Corinthians for keeping the traditions he taught them? What were the traditions? In the whole context of the passage it has to do with their behavior during liturgy, culminating in abuses regarding the practice of Communion against which Paul delivers some rather harsh words…
- The Earliest Christians after the First Century Carried on this Same Tradition:
“And on the day called Sunday , all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as timepermits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these goodthings. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen…” ~Justin Martyr, First Apology. Ch. 66
Did you notice how liturgical that sounds? Hm.
#4 Being Religious is Tradition! (Good Tradition)
Invariably, may evangelicals like to point to Mark 7:8 or Matthew 15:6 to condemn Catholic traditions, both of which catch Jesus condemning certain Jewish practices as “the traditions of men” or as “[making] void the commands of God for your tradition.”
It seems that these guys have forgotten all about the very, very Biblical Apostolic tradition:
- “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” ~ 2 Thes. 2:15
Take note that Paul charges the Thessalonians to hold fast to traditions contained both in what Paul wrote to them and to what he orally preached to them. Hence, not only does he exhort them to abide by Sacred Scripture but also an authoritative Oral Tradition. How authoritative? Let’s see what Paul says in his first letter to the Church in Thessaloniki:
- “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. ” ~1st Thess. 2:13
If you pay attention here, you notice something interesting: Paul thanks that they accepted his word as the Word of God rather than as the word of man. But how was that word transmitted? Through letter? Not in this passage. Rather, the Word of God refers to the words spoken by St. Paul and heard by the Thessalonians. Here St. Paul affirms a body of information that he proclaims to be “The Word of God” distinct from what he wrote which is spoken and heard. Hence St. Paul affirms two streams of God’s revelation: Written tradition and Oral Tradition. Written Tradition is, of course, Scripture, and Oral tradition most likely pertains to the Liturgy and other Christian practices given Paul’s use of the term in 1 Cor. 11:2 in reference to Christian behavior and Sunday worship.
#5 The Early Church Had a Clear Hierarchy
No, the Early Church was not a loose-assemblage of believers with their Bibles. A clear and authoritative hierarchy was set in place.
Consider St. Paul’s own story. He has a vision of Jesus, blinded by this vision, commanded to go see Ananias (Acts 9:1-18), where was healed and baptized. I’ll note here that in Acts 9:17-18, Ananias prays that Paul may be healed and filled with the Holy Spirit in 17 and in 18, the scales fall of his eyes and he is baptized. Moving on to Acts 9:19, we see that Paul’s personal revelation of Jesus was not enough to qualify him to preach. Rather, he “spends several days” with the Disciples. Furthermore, in Galatians 1:17 Paul says he spend 3 years at Mount Sinai reflecting on his experience and study, later visiting Jerusalem. He first cites his meeting with Cephas (Peter’s Aramaic name) and then mentions that he met with James. He uses these authoritative meetings with the Apostles as the basis for his sworn statement in Galatians 1:19 that he is not lying.
After spending some time performing small-ministry, he jumps forward 14 years and relates how he sought the approval of the “Pillars of the Church”, James, Peter, and John. Clearly, just knowing your Bible did not qualify someone to have sound doctrine.(Please note that at this time, all I’m showing is that there is a clear authority structure in the Early Church. I don’t intend to demonstrate the validity of the Papacy and it’s subsequent doctrines at this time. No one can say everything at one time all the time.)
This is just one example of countless instances of a clear hierarchical structure within the Early Church but here are just a few more:
- Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem
- Acts 15 and the deacons as helpers of the Apostles
- Acts 11:10 and the elders of Judea (also in 15:30, 16:4, and 21:18)
- 1 Tim. 3:1-13 Moral standards for Bishops and Deacons
That Christianity required a hierarchy and authoritative teaching carried over into the second century with such clarity and intensity that St. Ignatius felt compelled to even say:
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.” ~St. Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrna
This is written within living memory of the Apostles by someone who learned from the Apostles. Let me ask you this question:
What’s more likely:
A. That St. Ignatius faithfully conveys something true about the Christian faith not explicitly contained in Scripture.
B. That Jesus is either incompetent or a liar by allowing hellish “Romeish” error to creep into Church, thus allowing the Gates of Hell to prevail against the Church He established?
I’ll just let you reflect on that question…
#6 The Arguments Used Against “Religion” are Terrible.
People who love to rail against the “religious spirit” of Catholicism or similar Christian groups point to prominence of “tradition” or “vain and repetitious prayers” present in more historic churches as evidence they have strayed from the Biblical faith. Let’s look at the two primary passages they use to support their criticisms:
Scripture has two passages, Mark 7:8 and Matthew 15:6, about traditions of men, are these traditions? Not always. It is only evil when these traditions usurp the position of God’s word in the Christian life. If, say, we mistake our human tradition of a patriotic devotion to the United States for a sign that a person is a member of the family of God then that tradition has supplanted God’s word. Or if we split a church based on how many songs to sing on Sundays then we’ve placed our traditions on an idolatrous pedestal.
On the other hand if we submit our cultural practices and traditions to God in service of the faith then we glorify God and his word rather than render it null. The prime example of this comes by way of the myriad of theologians who have appropriated Greek philosophy or secular means of historical study to clarify and defend Sacred Doctrine or illuminate Sacred Scriptures. Without these “traditions of men”, we would not have the terms used to describe the Trinity, the Incarnation, or a great many other crucial Christian doctrines.
One note on tradition: Catholic teachers often make a distinction between we call “Tradition” and “tradition” or “Big T” and “little t” tradition. Big T tradition includes what Paul intended in places like 2nd Thess. 2:15 but little t traditions are things like the funny hats. Big-T Traditions such as the Bodily Resurrection, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or Mary as Theotokos are from Christ and cannot be annulled, although they can be subject to deeper understanding. Little-t “traditions” include things like miters or Friday fish-fries during Lent. Such things arise from a genuine expression of worship from the faithful in a particular culture and as such have not always been with us since the beginning.
What about “vain and repetitious prayers” mentioned in Matthew 6:7? Isn’t it wrong for Catholics to repeatedly pray the Our Father? Or to use the same prayers during Mass? Isn’t repeating something over and over a sinful and spiritually dead practice?
I hope not, otherwise heaven is filled with never-ending repetitious and spiritually dead prayer: “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” ~ Revelation 4:8
Or when Jesus repeats the exact same prayer in the Garden in Mark 14:32-39.
Or in Psalm 136 where the Psalmist repeats “for his steadfast love endures for ever ” 26 times in just 26 verses.
There are other examples, but you get the point… repetitious prayers ARE NOT sinful, but only if they are done out of empty and heartless rote memory. But at the very most this only calls Catholics to redouble their efforts for earnest and heartfelt prayer in whatever particular form their devotion takes.
The Bible is FULL of “repetitious prayers” but no Christian would dare say that those prayers are “spiritually dead”. Just because Catholics have prayers that are repetitious, such as the Divine Mercy Chaplet, does not mean that their prayers are sinful or dead. That requires a tremendous amount of presumption about the unknowable hearts of faithful Catholics.
I’ll also want to remark that spontaneous prayers can also be mindless and vain. How easy is it to be so concerned with sounding spiritual that your prayers, even if made up on the spot, become more about the impressive verbiage rather than a heart-felt expression of love of and reliance on God?
One final note
I tell my wife that I love her every day, many times a day. Do I ever say that mechanically? Yes. Is my love for my wife dead? Absolutely not. Similarly, if my mind occasionally wanders during a Mass then that does not mean the prayers themselves are sinful in nature, just that my ADHD won at that moment.
When we think about religion, we should try to keep the marriage analogy in mind because the kind of relationship that we have with our spouse, a covenant, is the same kind of relationship we have with Christ. Jesus explicitly says just that, “this is the blood of the New Covenant…” as with every covenant, the New Covenant includes rules, boundaries, and rituals. Practicing these rituals and maintaining these rules are what make for a healthy religion by which we are bound to Christ as the Bridegroom.
I need your help to shatter this vacuous platitude about Christianity being a “relationship” and not a religion. Like and Share this article!
Jonathan L. Stute, M.A.
P.S. Have you ever wondered if Jesus’ actually could ensure what he promised to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19? If you’re like me and take Jesus’ words seriously that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church then you need to check out Scott’s course The One True Church. Like I said, Christ gave us a religion with an authority that guides us in remaining faithful to His teachings and commands. Jesus did not fail to fulfill his promise…
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