“I’ve heard some say that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. What does that mean?”
According to Webster’s Dictionary, religion is defined as a “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance,” or “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” In one sense, Christianity certainly is a religion. However, it’s better defined as a commitment to and a relationship with the living God through His Son Jesus Christ. Historically, religions have been man’s attempts to be accepted by God. But the Bible makes it clear that no one is good enough (Rom. 3:23). This is why the story of Christmas gives hope. It’s not about man’s attempt to ascend to God; it’s about God’s descent to rescue humanity.
The purpose of salvation is not to produce ritualistic Christians who sit and wait for heaven, but to give eternal life. In John 17:3 Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Eternal life is a relationship with God through Jesus and is a present reality for Christians. Therefore, Christianity is best defined as a relationship.
This is not to say that all Christians understand this. It’s easy to slip into ritual. We are creatures of habit. Some have confused ritual or traditions with a relationship to God. If you don’t think this is true, just see what happens when you begin to change times, formats, styles, or programs in a church. Sunday School is a good example. Sunday School was started by Robert Raikes in England in 1780 to teach poor children how to read and to keep them from a life of crime. Only later did it include adults. Sunday School is a great format to study the Bible, but the Bible does not say a church must meet one hour before a worship service in age graded classes for Bible study. Suppose a church wanted to meet in homes for two hours on Sunday night for Bible study. Scripturally speaking, it really doesn’t matter; the Bible is silent about such things. It only tells us we should assemble together (Hebrews 10:25); it does not give us a lot of details about how, when, or where. Unfortunately, there will always be those who, due to their focus on ritual and tradition, consider a change to a program like Sunday School equal to blasphemy. This mindset brings a person dangerously close to worshiping a religious tradition rather than worshiping God. A Christian who has a vibrant relationship with God should discern the difference between methodology and theology.
Even though there will always be some Christians who focus completely on religious rituals, the fact remains that God is far more interested in our relationships—with Him and each other—than in our rituals. Jesus defined the greatest commandments in terms of relationships: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Dr. Billy Elkins is the pastor of Trinity Church of Chickasha, OK. He is a graduate of Chickasha High School, has a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, FT. Worth, TX, and a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He and his wife Crystal have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and one Granddaughter. Billy enjoys time with his family, gardening, and reading alongside his dog, Luther.