I enjoyed this post by Jud Wilhite over at Catalyst on the difference between Jesus and religion.
Way back in college I first heard someone say “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship with God,” and I loved it. I’m not interested in getting people involved in ritual and ceremony, and frankly, I stink at those things. Some of the best Christians I know are the most “non-religious” people in the world. They are authentic and care about living life with God and for God, but know almost nothing about ceremony and ritual. They would be classified as utterly incompetent in those things. But they know God well.
It’s not that ritual and ceremony are bad in themselves. If you like those things, it’s fine. The issue with religion is that it sees ritual, ceremony, and performance as the means of appeasing God and entering into good standing with him. Whereas Christianity teaches that Jesus accomplished everything on the cross, and we enter a relationship with God by faith alone. There can be a place for some ritual, but it’s not about that first.
Jud’s article does a great job of exploring that difference, and in doing so he also shows that saying “I hate religion but love Jesus” is not equal to rejecting the organizational church, either. It’s first about our approach and attitude.
The main difference between “religion” and “relationship” is our approach or attitude. It has less to do with whether or not Christianity is organized or structured, and more to do with what we expect to get out of it. James writes, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27). So there is such a thing as good religion that cultivates and restores both our association with God and the people who need help in our culture. When I use the term religion, however, I’m talking about the not-so-good religion that reduces faith to ritual acts of devotion done for the wrong reason.
Religion in this sense approaches God as one might approach a car salesman for a transaction. The salesman wants to get as much out of you for as little as possible, and you want to get as much out of him for as little as possible. You both negotiate and compromise, passing notes with final amounts, until you reach an agreement that satisfies you both. Once you have completed the negotiations, you are both under certain obligations to each other—usually you are obligated to pay the salesman money, and he is obligated to give you keys and a vehicle to drive off the lot.
It’s worth reading the whole article.
Related to this, I’m looking forward to checking out Jefferson Bethke’s new book Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough. Bethke is most well known for his Youtube video that went viral, “Why I Love Jesus But Hate Religion,” and his book is all about the difference between Jesus and “religion.” I thought Russ Moore’s endorsement was especially good:
I’m the sort of person who ought to hate this book. I think ‘religion’ is a good biblical word (Jas. 1:27). And I think the eclipse of the church, and distrust of institutions, is the primal sin of evangelicalism. But I love this book, and its author, and here’s why. Jefferson Bethke turns our attention to Jesus, not as a system or a mascot but as a Person. And he does so with the kind of fresh exuberance that leads us to, not away from, the church. If you’re tired of bleached grave religiosity, this effervescent book will give you living Christ renewal.
I suppose, to round this out, I might as well close with Bethke’s original video. Even if you’ve already seen it, it’s always worth another view.