Should We Approach Our Faith as Religion or Relationship?

Contributing Writer
Should We Approach Our Faith as Religion or Relationship?

Human beings are religious by nature.

I know. That may be hard to believe, given the state of our world and the rapid breakdown of some of our most important institutions, traditions, and cultural norms. However, while many people claim to have no affiliation with or interest in organized religion, a vast majority of the world’s population still identifies with some form of religion or faith.

But why is that?

As human beings made in the image of God, we have been created with a longing to know and connect with our Creator. We seek answers to the mysteries of life, we crave meaning, order, and purpose, and we yearn for an eternity that God has placed in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11; Acts 17:26-28).

Unfortunately, many people look to satisfy these longings and answer these questions apart from the God of the Bible, whether through other religions, human leaders, secular ideologies, or their own works. And there is no shortage of god imitations and false or misleading ideas about God, salvation, and eternity in the world.

Then there are those who say they believe in God but struggle to actually embrace the tenets of the Christian faith or practices for godly living outlined in the Bible. Christian in name only, they are the ones who claim to be people of faith, just not really “religious.”

Of course, there are many who also have walked away from God and religion altogether after being hurt, lied to, or taken advantage of by religious leaders or those claiming to be Christian.

Bad faith, bad theology, and bad religion are everywhere.

Many Have Rejected Religion

Even the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had become so fastidious and legalistic in their religious practices and adherence to the Law of Moses that they neither knew God nor understood the heart behind His commandments. And they certainly had no love for Jesus or the ones He came to save. They had turned what was meant to bless and guide God’s people into a cudgel of works-based religion, not genuine, joy-filled relationship with God the Father.

But while it’s true that many have walked away from Christianity and religion because of fake, insincere, legalistic, or unpleasant Christians, the imperfections and actions of other believers will not justify their rejection of Jesus Christ as lord and savior on the day of judgment.

Make no mistake. Many have rejected God and continue to live in sin, hiding their rebellion behind the behavior of imperfect Christians or lies about God.

Furthermore, just because someone claims to not be religious doesn’t mean they too don’t have a worldview or belief system that guides their actions. If anything, those who have rejected God have merely replaced Him with another form of worship, be it pleasure, money, politics, activism, other leaders and celebrities, or even themselves.

Should We Focus on a Relationship, or Religion?

Fair or not, there are many reasons why religion, like tradition, has fallen out of favor in the world.

For this reason, practicing Christians will often try and distance themselves from the stigma of bad religion or being seen as religious.

One of the ways they do this is by approaching their faith more as a relationship with God than an actual religion.

But is this approach actually necessary or even biblical?

Yes and no.

According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, the word religion defines, “the service and worship of God or the supernatural, a commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance, or a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”

At its core, there is nothing inherently problematic with this definition as it summarizes the theology, faith, practices, and worship of Christians around the world.

When approached biblically, a healthy religious life will involve life-giving traditions, practices, disciplines, habits, and rituals that lead the individual into a deeper and more intimate relationship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. To know and be known by God is at the heart of the Christian life (Galatians 4:9).

Christians are entirely correct, therefore, to cherish and promote the intimate relationship God desires with humans as the cornerstone of their faith and one of the most important distinctions between Christianity and other world religions.

The Christian faith, unlike most religions, is not a works-based faith. It is centered around the goodness and grace of God and His grace alone.

When faith becomes more about things we must do to get to heaven or earn God’s love and favor, Christianity, like any religion, can become lifeless and legalistic.

That every Christian has been given the assurance of their eternal salvation (John 3:16; 1 John 5:11-13; Romans 5:6-11), access to God through the work of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:18; Hebrews 10:19-22; John 14:6), and the ability to walk in freedom and the authority of the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 4:10-11; 2 Corinthians 3:5) is the eternal message of hope that Christians rightly celebrate and proclaim.

However, several issues can arise when Christians remove religion from their faith altogether.

Why Do We Feel the Need to Separate from Religion?

The question we must ask ourselves is: what is it about religion we’re so desperate to break away from?

Is it tradition? Ritual? Discipline? Sanctification? The label of being “all in” or “sold out”? These are not things Christians should be quick to reject.

Religion, in and of itself, also doesn’t have to be legalistic, cold, or disconnected from a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, when Christians fear being labeled as “religious,” “dogmatic,” or “radical,” they may inevitably distance themselves from important biblical traditions, disciplines, and practices encouraged by God to grow their faith and deepen their relationship with Him.

They may neglect worship, liturgy, communion, tithing, giving, prayer, evangelism, fellowship, and other important practices to avoid the appearance of being too spiritual or too religious. 

They may also compromise their values, change their speech or behavior, or abandon biblical truths to fit in or avoid ridicule and criticism.

Unfortunately, the fear of being called religious or even too Christian has led many Christians to abandon any semblance of actually being Christian to the outside world.

Christians Are Called to Be Different

Christians must remember, however, that they are called to be holy and set apart from by nature of their relationship with Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 12:2; John 15:19; 1 Peter 1:13-16).

Like it or not, their life will be different. They will stand out and make waves in the world. They are supposed to.

Jesus reminded His followers that, “you are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Your light must shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Likewise, to the lukewarm, uncommitted believer, the apostle John wrote that, in the last days, Jesus will turn to them and say, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).

Christians must hold, therefore, to the promise that, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This goes in tandem with the command that we are not to, “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

A deeper relationship with Christ is the ultimate goal of the Christian faith. When grounded in biblical truth, a Christian’s faith will incorporate practices, traditions, and disciplines that others may characterize as religious.

Let them.

As the apostle Paul wrote to the church of Galatia, “am I now seeking the favor of people, or of God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

Religion as God Intended

Spiritual disciplines, when biblically based, can help the believer grow in love, faith, strength, and purity. They can also become meaningless, legalistic, or harmful if taken out of context or applied without purpose.

In describing the Christian life, the apostle Paul wrote that, “do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air.  But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

Christians should never be ashamed to pursue the kinds of meaningful, biblical practices that lead them into a deeper, more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. In fact, it is often the consistent habits, traditions, and daily disciplines grounded in God’s Word that produce greater character.

This is religion as God intended.

We must, therefore, ask ourselves: would we rather be rejected by the world for our genuine faith and commitment to Christ, or be separated from God for eternity for refusing to acknowledge Him before men (Matthew 10:32-33)?

Furthermore, when Christians approach their faith as a relationship, they must be clear about what kind of relationship they seek as it aligns with the kind of relationship God desires.

An improper or unbiblical understanding of who God is, as He has revealed Himself in Scripture, will inevitably lead to a misaligned faith or strained relationship.

With a proper foundation and biblical framework, however, Christians can enjoy the benefits of both a vibrant religious life and a genuine, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. They need not choose between one or the other when both approaches help them grow closer to their Heavenly Father, first love, and the God of their salvation. 

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Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.