Is “Religion vs Relationship” a helpful or harmful distinction?

“Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with Christ”

Is this a helpful or a harmful statement?

I was recently emailed a link to an article which decries this statement as both incorrect and harmful to Christianity. “Religion vs. Relationship” is a false choice, the article states, and it is based on a misunderstanding of the words “religion” and “relationship”. Religion is seen negatively as “legalism” and relationship is seen as an emotional response to God. The author argues that we should understand religion instead as a term indicating covenantal binding (like a covenantal marriage relationship). In religion we are “bound” to God through Christ and it is this that enables our relationship with God which carries with it certain covenantal obligations, like good works. Those good works aren’t what save us, but are the natural result of the fact that we are part of a “covenantal-judicial community of believers.” What we need, the article goes on, is a focus on “a covenant-bond-relationship with Jesus Christ of a judicial nature [i.e., true religion] that addresses all areas of life.” I really recommend reading the whole article here.

First let me say that I thought this was a very good article[1]. In the way that the author was using the terms “religion” and “relationship” I completely agree with him. If we understand relationship primarily in terms of emotional-liturgical response then, yes, we are misunderstanding what our relationship with God entails. If we understand religion as that binding judicial-covenant between God and his people won through Jesus then, yes, we need to embrace “religion” as central to our Christian identity.

My only issue with this article, then, is that words such as religion and relationship have a broad range of meaning. I suspect, given our culture, that a lot of people understand “relationship” in exactly the way the author described. But I also think that relatively few people understand religion as a “covenant-relationship” as he proposes. To be fair, he is probably correct on the technical definition (maybe even “biblical” definition of the word, see James 1:26-27), but the term religion is also used in far broader terms in our present culture. Maybe this is something to bemoan, but it’s the reality of the situation.

What do we mean by “Religion”?

So, is “religion” a bad thing? It all depends on how one uses the word.

Tim Keller is fairly famous for drawing a dichotomy between “religion” and “gospel.” Like the religion/relationship dichotomy this is a bad distinction if “religion” is understood in terms of covenant-relationship. But what Keller makes clear is that he is using the term “religion” to describe an attempt to gain favor with God on our own terms and on our own power instead of through the grace of Jesus, instead of through the gospel. Below is a good chart describing Keller’s distinction.


Keller’s target audience is people who would not understand the more technical term “legalism” so I understand his use of the term religion in his context. I find his distinction helpful, but only because he is very explicit in how he is using the term.

Others use the term to describe all of the outward “marks” of a religious person – participation in certain behaviors (church attendance), abstinence from other behaviors, certain ways of speaking, certain forms of dress, certain identification with other groups like political parties, forms of social advocacy, etc. Sometimes these outward marks replace or become more important than the posture of one’s heart toward God. Some people refer to this as “religion.” Again, when we speak against this sort of religion in favor of a heart reoriented towards God (in relationship) we are making a helpful distinction.

Still others use religion as though it were sort of a genetic code passed from parents or cultures. “I am Christian because my parents are Christian.” Or, perhaps, “I am Christian because I live in a Christian culture.” Such use is far less common these days, especially in America, but again, when religion is understood in this way what those individuals need is to turn away from “religion” and turn toward a “relationship with Jesus Christ.”

It all depends on what we mean by religion. It all depends on what we mean by relationship.

Concluding Thoughts

I would personally avoid using the phrase “Relationship not Religion” because both terms are so ambiguous. I could mean something personally fine, but it could be understood in a very unorthodox and damaging way.

We need to be cautious of attacks on “religion” which denigrate the role of God’s gathered people, the church. When people put down the church (universal) by contrasting it with some personal relationship they are ignoring the way God interacts with his people across time.

We need to be cautious of attacks on “religion” which pit obedience to God against loving God. We love God by keeping his commands.

Finally, we need to be cautious about assuming what other people mean when they speak of religion or relationship. Both terms are ambiguous, as is all language. More important than the particular words is what is meant by those words. Are we pointing people to Jesus? Are we calling for discipleship? That’s what matters.

I’m interested to here your thoughts. What do you mean when you say “religion” or “relationship with Jesus”?

[1] I do feel as though the author’s comment that “the word relationship does not appear in the Bible” is a misleading argument, though in the context of the entire post it is clear that he does understand our “judicial-covenantal” relationship with God as, well, a relationship. My previous post was a response to this argument.

2 thoughts on “Is “Religion vs Relationship” a helpful or harmful distinction?

  1. John and Marie Kopp

    Hi Steve! I thought your article did a great job of what it means to be a Christian.

    Over my lifetime, I think too many people who say, “I’ve received Jesus as my Savior.” Really don’t know what that means. Many of them would say, “I have a relationship with Jesus” but it’s not the relationship the Bible defines. Also, religion has become a “dirty” word among many evangelicals. What a shame! This article points out that TRUE religion is a great gift from God. I’m so thankful to say that my religion is Christianity : )

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