You may have seen the slogan, “It’s Not A Religion, It’s A Relationship.” It’s another one of those quips that make you say, “Yeah!” But then, if you think about it long enough, “Hey, wait a minute….” Another one says, “Jesus Is My Savior, Not My Religion.” What are these folks getting at? One thing for sure is that we live in a culture that distrusts religion – especially organized religion. While there can be good reason for this distrust, the motives behind these bumper-sticker sentiments are far more selfish.
Slogans like the above are in a Christian context. It is indeed a personal relationship with the Creator. And there is some truth behind the distaste for formal religion. The Christian Church has faltered. “Religion” stumbles along and says and does stupid things (always has, always will – at least until the end of the ages). The infighting, it’s loss of influence in the culture, the fact that people are leaving in droves all speak to some of the toxicity present in the Church.
The only excuse for this is that the Church (the body of Christ – the ligaments – the “religion”) is full of people. Just like our government (local, state, or federal), or like any large body (tribe, group, or organization), it’s full of people that don’t always make the best decisions or behave in ways worthy of their calling.
While we don’t want to minimize the negative aspects of religion, we also can’t wallow in the muck. One could easily list some amazing things the Church has done. For example, it was followers of Jesus, joined together, who created the educational system, hospitals, orphanages, the empirical method…to name a few. The list goes on and on. So it’s worth balancing the good with the bad to get a better idea of “religion” before we toss it out.
The Christian Religion, the Church, the Ecclesia, the “Called Out Ones” belongs to Jesus. No one, not me, not you, not Satan himself, and not even someone’s really snappy bumper sticker or t-shirt is going to stop it. So while there are some reasons to be alarmed and concerned with “Religion,” redefining what Jesus meant by it (by stripping it down to personal salvation) is never good advice.
Jesus, God’s right-hand man, God in the flesh, came to fulfill God’s covenant promise to redeem a “people” (a group, an assembly, a congregation, a religion) to himself – not just you. I get that the term “Religion” turns some off, but it’s people (joined together as a family) – the Called Out Ones, that make up Jesus’ Religion. You may not like them. That’s okay. But Jesus’ commands (e.g., Love one another. As I have loved you … By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…), as well as the Apostle Paul’s exhortations, are very clear on how we are to join together in love and fellowship.
A better term for Religion, regarding Jesus’ mission, is Kingdom. The Kingdom of God has broken into our world. Jesus ushered it in. We now live in the time of God’s reign. The big battle (death) has been fought and won. Jesus paid the cost to redeem his people. The Church (religion) is now on a reconnaissance mission (or harvest, if you prefer farming metaphors) to gather the remaining troops.
The trouble with all this though – even if we look at this from a “Kingdom” perspective – is that we’re still so self-absorbed. We live in one of the most self-focused, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, and self-saving cultures of all time. We’ll go to significant lengths, including twisting the biblical witness and Jesus’ teachings, to make this about us and what we want. Our agenda takes priority over God’s – (the Bible talks a lot about this – none of it good). By personalizing Christianity, we’ve missed the Gospel message, and the larger Kingdom at hand.
These slogans have the relationship part right. It is indeed a personal relationship with the Creator. It’s a personal, intimate relationship that fills us with purpose, meaning, Life. It’s a relationship like no other. However, out of the context of the Church (the body, the ligaments – the religion), we miss the Kingdom (and our part in it) and God’s redemptive plans for His people.
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson
Exodus 6:7 (NIV)
I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.