Not a Religion but a Relationship?
by Kevin James Bywater
It is common commonly said that “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” I see this as a false dichotomy, in essence, though, as an emphasis, it can be quite instructive. Permit me to explain.
The Religion Ditches
A while back I was speaking with a friend. He explained that many of the youth with whom he works fall into one of two ditches along their path of life (my metaphor, not his): some see Christianity as a religion in which one gains favor with God, and a place in heaven, on the basis of good works; others see Christianity as a religion in which, due to the righteousness of Jesus being imputed to us, our actions have no bearing whatsoever on our relationship with God, let alone our eternal destiny.
As we discussed these troubling missteps, it became increasingly apparent how helpful it is to see that our Christian faith indeed is a relationship with Jesus, a friendship, even a marriage.
When we see that our relationship with God is neither a works-based religion where we merit divine love, nor a license to do whatever we please, then we crave some clarity about just what it is. To my mind, it is much like other important relationships. Let us explore these for a couple of minutes.
Think of a friendship.
No, think of a friendship for a few moments.
It is one species of relationship. Indeed, friendships can vary from new and kindly acquaintances to kindred spirits that last through a lifetime.
However, friendships are diminished by disloyalty or disregard, especially if either persists. The relationship, the friendship, simply withers.
We’ve all had friends who were not so very friendly after all. And we’ve all probably had friends who actually became non-friends (even if not quite adversaries) due to various attitudes or actions that came to characterize their lives (or perhaps because of our attitudes or actions).
Friendships require trust and love, they crave to be cultivated, they are built on mutual loyalty.
Now, consider a marriage.
It is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman who have become wife and husband. Each makes a vow that includes promises of faithfulness, protection, provision, aid, affection, and mutual loyalty.
When one or another spouse fails with regard to aid, or affection, or faithfulness, then that failure works its way through the relationship much like yeast leavens dough — it affects the whole batch.
As a covenant, a marriage can be violated, and even broken. Such a relationship requires mutual trust and love and loyalty. Our yes must be yes, always.
God as Our Friend and Our Spouse
If these things are so — and they appear to me to be so — then when we conceive of our faith in God as a relationship we must not overlook what is natural and necessary for that relationship: mutual trust and love and loyalty and devotion.
In short, we mustn’t overlook the important truth that relationships are mutual.
Jesus spoke of loving God and our neighbors. He said that if we do love him, then we would obey his teachings (John 14:15). And that just makes sense.
To disobey would be to be disloyal, to fail to trust, to be unloving, to be unfaithful.
Therefore, our relationship with God must not be reduced to a singular experience, to an altar call or a missions trip or a movement of the Spirit. Just as marriage relationships are not singular events, not one-night stands, so neither is our relationship with God.
A relationship with God is something that properly is mutual, persistent, durable.
Becoming and Being
Consider a marriage again.
When vows are taken, the marriage has not both begun and ended all at once.
While the wedding may be a singular event, the marriage is not a once-off event. Indeed, a marriage, like other relationships, is intended to be lasting, persisting, enduring. At least that is what it properly is supposed to be.
Once one becomes a spouse, this does not mean that one cannot cease to be a spouse. Indeed, one may so violate the marriage vows that it comes to an end. Covenants may be broken.
Merely becoming a spouse is not the purpose of marriage. No, now that you are a wife or a husband you are called to be what you now are, to live according to your vows, to cultivate the well-being of your spouse.
Becoming a husband or wife is not the same as being a husband or wife, as enacting what you are, a person in covenant bond with another.
Yet some spouses fail to live up to their vows as best they should. Others just coast. Still others are unfaithful. These missteps are not equal; they are not all the same.
Our relationship with Jesus should be seen as a marriage. That just makes sense since we are the bride of Christ (see Ephesians 5:25ff.). And we must see our covenant with Jesus as one of mutual love and loyalty, one that calls us toward enduring faith and faithfulness.
Avoiding the Ditches
Let us now return to the ditches we discussed at the beginning. One misstep sees our relationship with God as one of works-based righteousness, of earning God’s grace.
Seeing our faith as a relationship guides us away from the ditch of a works-based righteousness. After all, marriages are not rightly acquired by means of tallying up good deeds. One does not properly work one’s way into a family. One does not properly earn a spouse, either as a salary or as a benefit.
Simply put, marriage isn’t a matter of merit. That isn’t how such relationships work.
And what of the other ditch? What of being able to do whatever we might like simply because “Jesus is my Savior”?
Well, if we have a relationship with Jesus, then we know, as with other relationships, we cannot simply do whatever we might want and also find the relationship being what it is supposed to be.
Friendships wither in such circumstances. And we are called to be friends of God, just as was Abraham (James 2:23). And marriages wither in such circumstances as well. Covenants are bonds of mutual love and loyalty, and they require fidelity in order to endure – fidelity; you know, faith-fulness.
Nor is our Christian faith simply “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Walking with Jesus, truly following him, is a matter of faith and faithfulness, a relationship of mutual love and loyalty and devotion. It isn’t a once-off event. It isn’t simply some experience we had way back then. It is an ongoing relationship.
Only when seen in this light might we avoid either of the two ditches: legalism and license. After all, we must recall, even Judas had a personal relationship with Jesus.
(Earlier versions of this post have previously appeared on this blog.)
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There are a few books that I’d like to suggest for your consideration that have informed, formed, or confirmed thoughts like those above.
Loving God, Charles Colson
The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, N.T. Wright