Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

22 May 2023

Christianity: It’s a Religion (Not Just a Relationship)


You’ve heard the mantra a dozen times: “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” This statement is quite wrong. Firstly, because it’s a false dichotomy (can’t it be both?), but secondly because if we have to choose, Christianity is more fundamentally a religion than it is a relationship. 

The trouble here is our definition of a religion. If we reduce the idea of religion to a set of sacred motions/observances, then the relationship-only folks have a point. But this is not the basic meaning of religion, and it’s not in our best interests to so reduce the idea of religion. Rather, a religion is a network of presuppositions upon which I rely (the root word here) to make sense of my world. Every religion ever conceived has as its foundation presuppositions about ontology and epistemology, and a resulting ethic. While some religions begin with personal gods, many begin with impersonal laws, cardinal values, or other abstracts. For instance:

  • Platonism believes that ideas are ultimately real, and that what may be known is ours by intuition. The resulting ethic is the pursuit of virtues that best advance these intuited ideals.
  • Evolutionism believes that matter is ultimately real, and that what may be known is ours by observation. The resulting ethic is effectively one of survival according to natural law alone. 
  • Christian Theism believes that God is ultimately real, and that what may be known is ours by revelation. The resulting ethic is one of divine command: we should fear God (so there is a relationship here, but properly seated) and do his commands.
  • Marxism believes that the community is ultimately real, and that what may be known is ours by consensus. The resulting ethic is the good of the majority (as determined by the majority, ideally, but until they are groomed to do so, by self-appointed socio-political cognoscenti).
  • Wokeism is the latest iteration of a long line of religions in which the individual is ultimately real, and that what may be known is ours by feelings. The resulting ethic is pure egoism: everyone does what is right in his/her/their/its own eyes.

This is just a sampling; we could extend the list almost endlessly. Mankind has exchanged the truth of God for a vast array of lies. But what emerges is the realization that all people everywhere are religious: they presuppose an ultimate reality and an epistemology that supports that reality, with the result that everything that they do is an extension of their religion. Even atheists are not excepted, because while they may not accept a personal god, they always replace him with some network of assumptions that explain their world. They may pretend not to be religious, but they are simply being coy—they’re refusing to divulge the religion they have chosen to replace the Christian God. But rest assured—they have replaced God with something. 

So why is it important to understand Christianity as more than a personal relationship with a personal God? A number of reasons come to mind, but let me reduce it to two for now: 

  • First, it saves Christianity from its existential despisers. When Schleiermacher tried to save Christianity from the punishment that Modernism was inflicting, he did so by reducing Christianity to a personal encounter that transcends material reality and operates according to other rules. He untethered Christianity from its objective epistemological standard (the Bible), and skipped straight to ethics based on everyman’s individual assessment of God. The fact that American society was then operating on something of a consensus Judeo-Christian ethic preserved (for a while) a superficial resemblance of Christian liberalism to Biblical Christianity, but the long-term success of liberal Christianity was never a real possibility. Once the comprehensive worldview of Christianity as contained in the whole Christian Scriptures was abandoned, it was only a matter of time before God was dead, unleashing a host of new religions.  What we need is not to double down on Christianity as a simple relationship with Jesus (that’s what Schleiermacher tried and failed); rather, we need to defend the comprehensive worldview contained in the whole Christian Scriptures. We need to return to the Christian religion.
  • Second, it reorients our apologetic so that we see the world for what it is—a jumble of religions vying to replace God. And the lost world needs desperately to learn this. They imagine that they have the upper hand for having thrown off organized religion as the opium of the people. But what they have done is to replace the Christian God with one of their own making. Their gods are sneaky and sometimes difficult to recognize as gods (evolutionism, egoism, communism, and wokeism seem more like ideas than gods), but that’s exactly what they are. And the first step in the apologetic task is to make people aware that they are in fact acting religiously. They just have the wrong religion.   

So to conclude, Christianity is not (just) a relationship; it’s a rich, good, and beautiful religion, and more to the point, the only religion that boasts of comprehensiveness, coherence, and truth. And it is worthy of both a comprehensive defense and a tenacious propagation.