religion vs. relationship

It seems that Christians today want to throw out the term “religion” altogether. And for good reason. “Religion” in today’s world seems to imply “church,” “tradition,” or a person’s “faith.” It’s just a claim; an outward appearance, but nothing real. And so genuine believers want to stress that true Christianity involves a relationship with God Himself. “Jesus is a person, and you can know Him, and be redeemed by Him, and live for Him. It’s not just something you do. You can be religious and not have Christ.” It’s a valid concern.

But it’s interesting that the English translation of the Bible uses the term “religion.” The Greek word translated “religion” (threskeia) there in James 1:26-27 is also used in Acts 26:5 (Paul as a Pharisee) and Colossians 2:18 (worship of angels), both in a seemingly negative light. However, in James, we see a definition of worthless religion, as well as a definition of what religion ought to look like. So, using Bible terminology, it would seem that “religion” can be a good thing. And it is interesting to note that the term “relationship” appears nowhere in the English translation of the Bible.

Terminology is crucial. The Bible is basically saying, “Be religious, and make sure it looks like this” (see James 1:27). Nowhere in the Bible will you find the statement, “You need to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Yet, in 21st century America, cultures removed from Bible times, we realize that the idea of “religion” is often downright contrary to the gospel. And the term “relationship” becomes helpful to explain to people that what they need is salvation through the person of Jesus Christ and a new self continually being renewed after the image of its Creator (Col 3:1-10). Not a habit of going to church, saying prayers, and doing good things.

True religion is a matter of the heart. What we need is true religion. For purposes of clarification, perhaps Christians need to set aside the term “religion” and show the world that it’s more like a “relationship.” Or maybe, when the time is right, we can take them to James 1:26-27, define “religion” the way the Bible does, and show them that “true religion” is the kind of religion they need, because all other “religion” is worthless.

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

James 1:26-27


10 thoughts on “religion vs. relationship

  1. You’re so right about showing people what “true religion” is. We really have twisted the true meanings of things. It’s making me want to look deeper into that.

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  2. May I simply say what a relief to uncover somebody that truly knows what
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  3. You are right! Slightly different from my post but I also agree with you wholeheartedly. When it comes right down to it, it’s a heart matter and Jesus desires our hearts. When are hearts are lined up with God I believe that eventually the fruit in our lives will be evident.

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  4. What a great post!
    This is so true!
    We need to find a healthy balance between the terms relationship and religion.
    I know some people hear relationship and think that means no commandments or things of that nature, while others hear religion and things all it is rules that make life boring.
    We have to find the balance so people can know the truth!

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  5. Fascinating post. I have a draft of a piece I’ve been writing about “religion as rules vs relationship” I keep pushing the post off, because something isn’t quite right about it, but perhaps I was meant to read this post first! You’ve given me a few thoughts to chew on. Thanks!

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  6. Yes, I’ve often contemplated this contemporary and cultural disdain for “religion.” When James so clearly separates worthless religion from true religion. I do think our faith in Christ must represent something that we are so religiously devoted to that no one and nothing else will ever compare. Thanks, Lydia, for pointing out an important distinction and call to the highest level of devotion.

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  7. It’s hard to hold onto the real meaning of words when the culture pastes new meanings on them, so I agree that “religion” by definition isn’t wrong, it’s the baggage that’s attached to it today that makes it hard to communicate accurately what we are trying to say. While relationship is more accurate to portray what God desires with us, we have to be careful about letting the culture redefine away very important words like sin, righteousness, holiness and faith. thanks!

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