Sometimes Christians say that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. It’s easy to see why non-Christians would find this very confusing. There might be some disagreement among academics over exactly what constitutes a religion, but any definition that excluded Christianity would certainly not be taken seriously! Belief in a God who not only created the universe, but sustains it and has revealed truth to us as found in the Bible and revealed himself through his Son certainly sounds like a religion. And when we add in various religious practices like prayer, communion and baptism, the idea that Christianity is not a religion sounds ridiculous.
So, contrary to what some Christians say, Christianity is a religion. In fact, the New Testament doesn’t deny this, but distinguishes between pure and worthless religion (James 1:26-27). So what do Christians mean? I think there are several components to this. For one thing, they wish to deny that religion, or religious belief and practice, in general is a good thing. Is religion a force for good in the world? Many Christians would say it isn’t, but they might be quick to point out that being irreligious is no better and might even be worse (although it’s difficult to see how it could be worse than some expressions of religion).
So is their idea that religion is a force for good as long as it is the right religion (i.e. Christianity)? Well, no, that’s not quite right either. Christians are keen to emphasize that merely holding certain beliefs and engaging in certain religious practices misses the point. Sometimes the impression is given that that’s what the Old Testament was about and that everything changed in the New Testament, but that’s inaccurate. Consider the Old Testament prophet Amos who tells the Israelites that God despises their religious feasts (Amos 5:21) because of the widespread corruption and the poor being deprived of justice (5:12). Similarly, Micah’s message is that rather than sacrifices God wants the people ‘to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [their] God’ (Micah 6:8) and the same emphasis can be found in other prophets. Once we reach the Gospels, Jesus too castigates the Pharisees not for incorrect doctrine, but because they ‘neglect justice and the love of God’ (Luke 11:42).
What Christians are really getting is that Christianity is more than a set of beliefs and practices and this is where the idea of it being a relationship comes into the picture. Or to put it another way, it’s about knowing God; not merely knowing about God, but knowing God personally. But what does that mean? It is certainly difficult for someone who is not a Christian to grasp what it could mean. Here’s a way to think about it. There are many things that we all (whether Christian, agnostic, atheist or whatever) value. This includes goodness, love, justice, peace and truth. For Christians, the purpose of our lives is to know, or be in relationship with God, who is the source of all these values. The idea is that by knowing God we can be transformed, that in some sense we can share in his life where all these values have priority.
The problem is that things are not as they should be. We look at the world around us and see that all too often these values of love, justice, etc. are lacking in human society. According to Christianity, this is because we are not in relationship with God; we have gone our own way and cut ourselves off from the source of goodness, from God himself. But God has made it possible for things to be put right. Jesus shows us that religious belief and practice can’t put things right because the problem runs much deeper, right to the core of who we are and the fact that we don’t know God. By his death, he makes it possible for that relationship to be restored. By turning to him and giving God his rightful place in our lives a new kind of life can begin. That’s only the start of the process. In this new relationship, we often fail to follow God as we should so we need to seek his forgiveness and help. This is where prayer comes in. We also need God’s guidance on how to live our lives and this includes not just our own spirituality but how our Christian faith might benefit others in society. On this front, God can ‘speak’ to us as we read and reflect on what the Bible teaches or as we listen to teachers and discuss with others within a church context. We also want to express our love to God and be reminded of God’s love for us, which is what worship and communion are about.
Those are some of the things Christians mean when they talk about a ‘relationship’ with God. Clearly, there are obvious differences with human relationships but there are similarities too and like human relationships, it is an ongoing and developing process. Sceptics will of course question all of this. Christians, they will say, are mistaken in thinking that there really is a relationship of any kind here. It’s important to emphasize that I don’t intend the above explanation as an argument of any kind for the existence of God. However real all of this seems to Christians, it would carry little weight in terms of trying to persuade a sceptic of its reality. And since it’s not intended as an argument, attempts to refute it are misguided. As we have argued elsewhere on this site, there are plenty of reasons to believe in God and the central claims of Christianity. It is in this context, that a relationship with God not only makes sense, but enables us to see the purpose for which we were created.