Christianity — Religion or Relationship?

G.S. Muse
7 min readJan 30, 2024

I’ve often heard the phrase “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” And this has become a common saying within Christian circles, especially among Evangelicals. Others argue that Christianity is indeed a religion. After all, we have rituals, gatherings, and spiritual beliefs that define much of what it means to be a Christian. If a man does not believe in God, then he is not a Christian, however nice he may be as a person.

Clearly, there are unique doctrines that separate Christianity from non-Christianity. I once heard a story of a talk show where a guest claimed to be a Christian but also claimed that she did not believe in the Virgin Birth and Substitutionary Atonement like “those Fundamentalist Christians.” A man who was on the show with her, who was an ardent critic of Christianity, turned to her and said, “Ma’am, if you do not believe in the Virgin Birth and Substitutionary Atonement, then you are, in no meaningful sense of the word, a Christian.” [If anyone knows what show this was from, I would love to see the original for myself!]

While there are those who claim that you can be a Christian and believe whatever you want, this critic clearly shows otherwise. If one claims to be a Christian, then this should say something about what they believe, how they live, and how they act, or the word itself is totally meaningless.

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But as Scripture itself points out, if you believe in God, then good for you: even the demons know that God exists and shudder (James 2:19).

This would seem to come down to the definition of “religion” and the definition of a “relationship.”

Webster’s Dictionary defines “religion” in several ways:

1: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

2a: the service and worship of God or the supernatural

2b: commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

Let’s break down these definitions.

As mentioned, to be considered a Christian, one must hold to a certain set of beliefs. Yet even the Devil knows about the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. He was there when many events, such as those in the Book of Job, and the temptation of Christ in the Wilderness, took place. Merely knowing and believing the truth about reality does not make one a Christian.

What about service and devotion to God? Genuine service and devotion to God are wonderful things. But let’s probe this idea in the given context.

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Christians have created incredible church buildings over the millennia. Many of the most breathtaking pieces of architecture in the world are Christian places of worship. We fill these with candlelight, sing hymns, read, and teach the word of the LORD, and we also perform baptisms and practice communion.

But these religious teachings and rituals alone do not make one a Christian. Nor does baptism itself save one’s soul. These rituals, as beautiful and important as they are, are merely outward symbols of something greater in the spiritual, like shadows of an ideal (See Hebrews 8:5)

Then we have the definition of “religion” given by the Bible itself:

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 1:27).

Christmas Eve Candlelight Service (Image credit here)

The New Testament talks about how the priestly temples of the Old Testament were mere shadows of Heavenly things. In a similar way, Communion and Baptism are representations of the finished work of Christ, not the thing itself.

Christ warned that, on the Day of Judgement, there will be those who say that they even cast out demons in His name, and He will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (See Matthew 7:21–23) This is a dire warning; even a great religious man, with sound Biblical doctrine, who is putatively capable of great spiritual feats, might not be a genuine Christian.

What then makes one a Christian?

Interior of the Protestant Cathedral in Berlin (Image credit here)

Notice that the criterion that Jesus gives to enter into eternal life is that He knows you.

What is the subject of our faith? Our faith is not in mere rituals or even in great knowledge; our faith is in a person, in Jesus Christ, and in His finished work on the Cross. It is Christ who redeems us and saves us for His glory. This is the fulcrum of what makes one a Christian. It is what He has done for us, and His relationship to us, not our good works or our great knowledge, though these things should flow from a genuine saving relationship with Him.

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One who does not care about Truth, who wants a “big tent” rather than the straight and narrow path, should check to see whether he is truly in the Faith. While Christians don’t always know everything and can make mistakes, a genuine Christian will be a man who seeks that which is True and that which is Good, in knowledge and in action.

Even if all of the great buildings constructed in devotion and worship to the Lord were to burn, and even with no access to communion or hymnals, and even if we were hiding in caves while the world around us ended, Christians would still be Christians on account of each individual’s relationship to his Savior.

Verdict

My take on this topic is that Christianity is ultimately a relationship, not a religion. Christ choosing to save me is what saves me, not my performance of rituals or my knowledge of proper doctrine. It is His relationship to me as my Savior, not the bread and wine that I take to remember Him with fellow believers. At the end of all things, there will be those who will have proclaimed themselves to be Christians here on Earth, who will have been celebrated by multitudes as great men of God, who will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. This will undoubtedly include pastors, deacons, elders, “popes,” and even seminary professors.

The Need for A Savior

While writing this article, it was pointed out to me that every individual in this world has a relationship to God, and many religions offer what they claim to be a means of coming into a right relationship with Him. Typically this involves some path of good works designed to outweigh one’s sin. But there is an obvious error to this way of thinking.

When a man commits a serious crime here on Earth, he is tried for that crime. A good judge may forgive a minor parking ticket, and he may even give a lighter sentence for a first-time offender. But something of serious weight will not be overlooked by a good judge. If it were, then that judge would not be good. A doctor who commits murder, fraud, or theft will not be let go on the basis that he was previously an upstanding member of the community. If anything, a good judge may reprimand such a criminal even more for failing to uphold the values he is supposed to represent and swore to protect.

In the same way, every human being reading this article has committed crimes against God Himself. As Paul Washer points out, if our thoughts were ever put on DVD (not our deeds, just our thoughts) and played for an audience, we would never show our face in that room again. Pop culture teaches people to follow their hearts, but the Bible says that the heart is deceptively wicked.

Our sinful, fallen state was inherited from Adam. The first man was created in a perfect paradise, but he chose to rebel against God. Ever since then, human beings have been fallen creatures. But God promised Adam and Eve that He would provide a Savior to redeem fallen humans.

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Conclusion

Beautiful Cathedrals, good works, evangelism, and even casting out demons do not make one a Christian. Even if all of our buildings were to burn away, and we were exiled to the caves, the Christian is still a Christian because, and only because, Jesus Christ knows him and has redeemed him. Even if all of my religious means were to pass away, I am saved and redeemed because of the relationship that Christ has with me.

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G.S. Muse

G.S. Muse, also known as GreenSlugg on YouTube or simply as “Greg” is a lab technician, youtuber, author, and blogger. His work can be found at GreenSlugg.com