This is not the first time I have written on the false choice Christians in my circles are told to make, again and again, between ‘religion’ and ‘relationship.’ In 2016 I wrote a similar post in which I argued that this false dichotomy has caused charismatics/evangelical Christians to push away traditional rituals and practices that millions of other Christians use to worship God.
In this post, I want to argue that recognising that Christianity is a religion as well as a relationship is an essential part of rejecting the individualism that has seeped into charismatic Christianity under everyone’s noses.
In case you haven’t read the 2016 post on this topic, let me clarify now that I am criticising this phrase:
“Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.”
To the best of my knowledge, this phrase arose in charismatic/evangelical circles in the 90s as a well-intentioned means of encouraging church-goers into an active experience of their faith, rather than just going through the motions on a Sunday.
It encouraged Christians to dispense with a ‘colour by numbers’ Christianity, to recognise that God is a living Person and to take ownership of their day-to-day faith practices.
All of this is good.
However, my concern is that the pendulum has now swung too far in the other direction. In an increasingly divided cultural climate (visible in both the UK and US), emphasising the personal relationship side of Christianity makes it very easy to lose sight of the communal, unifying side of Christianity – the common principles that make our faith a religion in the common usage of the term.
How has this happened? Well, if every Christian who hears this phrase is encouraged to focus only on their relationship with God, there’s no reason to take an active interest in the community, beyond, perhaps, a small circle of close friends who keep you accountable.
This is not the full picture of Biblical faith in God, either in the Old or New Testaments. In fact, it leads to an attitude that is reminiscent of the haunting refrain of Judges:
“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.”
This refrain looks forward to a time in Israel’s history where a king would unite the twelve tribes of Israel as a nation, giving them a common identity and focal point (the worship of God at the temple in Jerusalem).
For me, it’s easy to see how individualistic Christianity that is only concerned with personal salvation reflects the stories of Israel under the Judges, where each person and tribe pursued their own goals and religious practices. In this time, each person struggled with different idols and conflicts frequently arose between different groups.
If that doesn’t make you think soberly of 21st century charismatic Christianity, I think it should.
Recognising that Christianity is a religion – i.e. a recognisable set of common beliefs and practices – is the modern Christian equivalent of gathering at the temple in Jerusalem. It reminds us of a communal identity and goal. It reminds us of our similarities and minimises, for a brief time, our differences. There is something powerful about recognising that your salvation is part of a much larger scheme that you alone.
Christianity’s fractured denominational existence means that it’s unlikely we’ll find such common ground as the Israelites did in the first temple, but there are practices we can look to to remember what we share with our sisters and brothers.
Communion is one of the most powerful symbols of unity we have.
In taking communion, you are doing something that Christians around the world and throughout history have also done. It is a sacrament, a religious practice that, though manifested differently in different denominations, nonetheless unites all Christians in a simple, profound action.
By taking communion, we remember that we are all a part of the body of Christ and that we have come to be so through God’s grace. Christ’s body transcends the artificial boundaries of nations and political parties. It transcends our personal actions and stories. It reminds us that we have one focal point, one common goal: the worship of Jesus.
This Jesus is experienced by Christians both individually and communally. His desire for us was a Church united not by space or time but through participation in his life and death.
Religion reminds us of this. Relationship reminds us of this. Don’t choose one or the other. Choose both.