Religion is not a bad word.
There has been a trend for several years within modern evangelical Christianity to rally around this motto: “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”
The word religion has been relegated to be indicative of a lesser form of connection with God–and evangelical protestant Christianity has tried to set itself apart from other faiths by claiming not to be a religion at all.
But having a religion, practicing a religion, is not some second-rate consolation prize compared to the jackpot of personal intimacy with God.
Is Christianity about relationship with God? Yes it is. But what is the context for that relationship? The Christian religion.
Do we pursue intimacy with people? Sure we do, but within different relational frameworks. Marriage is one context. Parent-child and sibling are other contexts. Friendship is yet another. Dating, courtship, co-worker, employee–these are all various relational contexts.
Simple “pursuit of relationship” is not enough; the proper framework is essential. It would be wrong to pursue relationship with my boss as if she were my spouse–unless, of course, I’ve realized that my spouse is also my boss. 🙂
But there is an appropriate framework to pursue various relationships. Siblings should be treated as siblings. Parents should be treated as parents. Treating my co-worker as though he were my father would lead to confusion and the inappropriate development of that relationship.
The appropriate framework for developing relationship with God is the Christian religion.
What does that mean? The Christian religion is the framework founded on the Bible, with the central truth that salvation is in Jesus Christ alone, where relationship with God is nurtured within the community of other believers, and where one’s pursuit of God is identifiable by pursuit of righteousness and love for others. And it is exclusive of other religious paths–just like my marriage is exclusive of other mates. Ancient Israel often played fast and loose with this last piece, and they were frequently chastised as spiritual harlots (prostitutes) as a result.
And there are other characteristics to the Christian framework as well, but this is all part of religion: defining the context for how we can rightly be connected with God. The word religion itself comes from the Latin for “re-tie” or “reconnect” (think “re-” and “ligament”)–religion is the way to keep us connected to God when we have wondered off on our own way.
Religion isn’t a dirty word, it isn’t an archaic notion to be displaced by the “new discovery” of personal relationship with God. Christianity is the framework for approaching God rightly, pursuing that relationship appropriately. I cannot do whatever I please, deem people however I choose, and truly be pursuing intimacy with them.
The best man at my wedding was a guy from a Jewish family from the Mid-Atlantic states; he was a fraternity brother of mine in university and continues to be a dear friend–he was not a Chinese woman. If I related to him under the framework of him being a Chinese woman, I would be wrong, and the relationship wouldn’t develop properly, based on the reality of who he is, and who he is not. I don’t get credit just for the simple notion of trying to deepen our friendship–I’ve got to do so rightly, acknowledging who he actually is, and pursuing intimacy accordingly.
Christianity–the Christian religion–is the accumulation of millennia of people pursuing the God of the Bible, trying to understand and relate to Him rightly, to approach Him in worship according to the truth of who He is, to respond to Him as He has revealed Himself through the Scriptures and in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. To branch off in independence under a claim that I’m pursuing a personal relationship with God is only misunderstanding the gift that Christian religion is, the framework that God Himself has established that we might come to Him.
If religion is a bad word, then I don’t wanna be right.
See also: Redeeming Ritual