Even as a Christian growing up in the Church, I was always confused when I would hear believers say that Christianity was “a relationship, not a religion.” This phrase is so common today that many non-believers are likely familiar with it. When I first heard it, it seemed like a catchy phrase that did not have much substance. I simply thought it was a way for Christians to distance themselves from the ugliness associated with the word “religion.” I just assumed Christians didn’t want to say they were religious but didn’t know how else to put it, so simply adopted the term “relationship” instead. Leaving aside the question of whether Christianity should be called a religion (I am not sure in what way Christianity could be said to not be a religion, but that is probably best kept for a topic another day), my main trouble with the phrase “a relationship, not a religion” was the “relationship part.” Sure, it sounds nice, but what does it really mean that Christianity is a relationship?
When I approached Christianity, I typically thought about the teachings and beliefs of the faith. I had heard the phrase “saving knowledge,” and knew that it was important to have a good understanding about who God was and what the Bible taught. To me, being a Christian was all about having correct religious beliefs. However, I ran into a problem; more specifically, I ran into a Bible verse: James 2:19, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” In this verse James first commends his audience in their correct religious belief (that God is one), but then says that having the correct belief only puts people on equal footing with demons. If Christianity was all about having the right beliefs, what was James talking about? Correct theology, it seemed, was alone insufficient to really call oneself a Christian. But if that was the case, what was it that made someone truly Christian? Certainly we ought to do our best to learn about God and to have correct beliefs, but by focusing on only knowledge I was missing another key component: relationship.
It was another Bible passage that helped me square this issue in my mind. After Jesus was crucified on a cross (but before he actually died), Jesus had an encounter with two other men who were crucified alongside Him. Luke 23:33-43 tells the tale:
“And when they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left… One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other responded, and rebuking him, said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our crimes; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!’ And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’”
Here Jesus tells one of the criminals that they will be saved, apparently as the result of the criminal’s identification of Jesus’ divinity and the man’s faith in Jesus. Scripture does not tell us much about this man or how he came to learn about Jesus. However, I imagine that if we were to take this man down from the cross moments before his death and quizzed him on all manner of theological topics, we would eventually find some point on which he would be incorrect. I say this not because of something we specifically know about him from scripture, but on the basis of the fact I have never met another Christian with whom I agreed fully on every theological point (or any two other Christians who agreed with one another) .
This created something of a problem in my mind. What was it that saved a person? It could not be that correct knowledge alone was enough. Demons had correct knowledge of God and remained His enemy; Jesus’ disciples frequently displayed a lack of understanding of God but were said to be saved. What was going on here?
In order to answer this question, it has been helpful to me to reflect on the nature of relationships. When I think of my closest relationships with my wife, or with my family, I would rarely describe them in terms of knowledge. My relationship with my wife is not based on how much I know about her. Certainly I must know some things about her to be in a relationship (such as the fact that my wife exists), but the relationship is also based on the way we interact, the way we care for one another, the things we do for one another as a display of that love. It might be possible (especially in the age of the internet) for me to know a lot about my wife without ever having met her or being in a relationship of any kind. But knowing facts about her and having a relationship are two very different things. Although we are close, I continue to learn new things about my wife. Not only do I learn completely new things, but I frequently find that I was wrong about her in certain respects. Our relationship is not static; because of my love for her, I continue to want to be closer and to get to know her better at a personal level. God is not a set of facts to learn, but a personal being with a relational nature. I want to know more about God because I love Him and I want to be closer to Him. Click To Tweet
How does this translate into faith? Well, with God it can be easy for me to turn towards study of scripture and theology. I spend a lot of time learning about God and I enjoy it as an intellectual pursuit. But if I described my marriage as a solely intellectual pursuit I imagine my wife would be pretty upset; I have to wonder if God would not feel the same. God is not a set of facts to learn, but a personal being with a relational nature. I want to know more about God because I love Him and I want to be closer to Him. But I do not want to be so distracted by intellectual issues that I fail to be in a relationship with God. This means I need to have a more active prayer life, and be more willing to submit myself to God’s will, in addition to studying His Word. Christianity is very much a relationship.