The Bible Makes It Clear: Religion Means Relationship With God

If we really want to understand the definition of “religion,” why not go to the Bible?

The Last Supper depicted in a stained-glass window.
The Last Supper depicted in a stained-glass window. (photo: falco / Pixabay/CC0)

Evangelical Protestantism (which I was an enthusiastic part of from 1977-1990, and retain many fond memories of and gratefulness for) is known for having lots of slogans and catch-phrases and mantras that are repeated over and over as if they are Gospel truth. One of these is: “Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a relationship.”

I used to agree with this sentiment quite a bit myself, but I never took it as far as many people do. (I hardly could have, having obtained a college degree in sociology.) I would have still said, if asked: “Christianity is one of the world’s religions, and the one that is the most true.”

I’d like to unpack this famous saying a bit.

I found a great article on this topic by a United Methodist minister named Jimmy Mallory, entitled, “It’s Not a Religion, It’s a Relationship, Right?” He observed:

“By definition, a relationship requires a mutual connectedness. ... by God’s grace at work in our lives, we can respond. And the practices by which we respond are collectively called ‘religion.’ It makes our mutual connectedness complete. ... God comes to us in grace. We go to God in religion. Together, we form a relationship that puts all other relationships into right-relatedness.”

This is dead-on, and I especially like it because it shows that this understanding is not simply a Catholic one. Nor does the Bible pit these two valuable and altogether necessary things (relationship with God and religion) against each other.

All “religion” means is to “observe” or “bind.” All Christians certainly “observe” many things. Almost all of us believe in baptism and receiving Holy Communion. That’s ritual and it’s religion. Jesus even said that receiving the Holy Eucharist is directly tied to salvation, and the Bible teaches that baptism is, too. We sing hymns in Church. That’s a ritual of worship. We bow our heads together to pray. Sometimes we kneel. All of this is “religion.” 

No Christian of any sort who knows anything about his or her faith would deny the importance of a deep relationship with Jesus. One can, of course, always find hypocrites, bad examples  and “religious nominalists” in any religious group — half-hearted, ignorant followers who don’t even know the teachings of the group they are affiliated with.

Jesus died not only to save any who call upon him, but also to transform people like that — like most of us Christians at least used to be before God transformed our lives. This is why God sent the Holy Spirit to be our helper and to guide and empower us as we walk with Jesus in discipleship.

But if we really want to understand the definition of “religion,” why not go to the Bible, which all Christians agree (or should agree) is the inspired and infallible revelation from God? Here’s what we find:

“… But by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion” (1 Timothy 2:10).

Note the “religion” is a positive thing, characterized by good deeds.

“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).

Here “religion” has to do more with the doctrinal creed or confession that we accept; it’s also used by Paul to describe his own former Jewish religious belief in Acts 26:5. That’s part of it, too. We observe and do certain things because of what we believe in faith.

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

Religion, like tradition, is a good thing, not a bad thing. But like everything else it can be corrupted and descend to an empty form (“denying the power of it”). Proper marital sexuality can be perverted to lust. Enjoyment of food can degenerate into gluttony. Rest can turn into slothfulness. And so on.

So Paul is saying those who are lousy at religion should be avoided, not those who are religious, period.

“If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:26-27).

The same thing is expressed again — religion is good, but a religious hypocrite is bad. Exactly what Jesus scolded the Pharisees about.

“So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-op’agus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22).

This was not a rebuke at all. Paul was complimenting them. They worshiped an “unknown god” (17:23), so Paul took the opportunity to proclaim the one true God to them — to preach the gospel (17:23-31). He built upon what they knew, citing their own pagan philosophers and poets (17:28). He used his own evangelistic “methodological principle,” later expressed as “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). People often believe in partial truths. We build upon what they know and introduce then to even greater, deeper spirituality and theology.

If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4).

Again, nothing negative about “religion” ... it’s a “duty.” With that, I rest my case.