Perhaps you have heard this phrase before, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.”

This statement is frequently made by very well-intentioned Christians who wish to emphasize the relational aspect of Christianity. They want to let people know that God is not mean, vindictive and spiteful; the God of Christianity is one of peace, justice and love.

The phrase is undoubtedly true in the fact that God loves all humankind, including every person in an individual and relational way.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 ESV).

But the sentiment goes too far when it asserts that Christianity is not a religion. There are deep problems implied with that idea.

First, it implies that Christianity does not have traditions, beliefs and practices to which orthodox Christians must subscribe. It suggests that Christianity can be subjectivized and privatized at the expense of historic teachings, mores and values.

It implies that since Christianity is only a relationship, faith is just, “Whatever it means to you and Jesus.”

But God’s story of salvation is not relative. While Christianity may be personal, it is not subjective.

God has revealed Himself both in the person of Jesus Christ and in Scripture; both are God’s Word to His people. It is a revealed faith, making it different from other religions. These facts are not true only because of a “personal experience.” Rather, they are true as a matter of history and objectivity.

And because God has revealed Himself to us, we can know Him.

As we might expect, God revealing Himself in history has profound meaning for us.

For starters, it means that human beings are created, and therefore subject to God and all that He commands. He is God, and we are not. It also means that there are certain beliefs and practices – revealed largely in the Ten Commandments –which all of humanity must observe. And it means that there are specific codes of moral and sexual ethics which we must obey.

These ideas and practices, which orthodox Christians hold to, are core elements of religion. And religion is a teacher.

G.K. Chesterton is often paraphrased as writing,

We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.

Second, the statement that Christianity is not a religion separates love from obedience. That is, it implies that an individual can love God (have a relationship with Him) without obeying Him (religion). But these two elements of faith must go together.

Jesus said in John 14:15,

If you love me, you will keep my commandments (ESV).

He taught in Matthew 7:21,

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (ESV).

Love of Christ and obedience to Christ go together. Relationship and religion go together.

Additionally, it’s important to note that we cannot know who Christ is absent religion.

To answer the question of who Christ is, we must look at Scripture, including the Old testament, which pointed to Christ, and at the ancient creeds – created by ecumenical church councils – that all orthodox Christians adhere to. These creeds are fundamentally elements of religion.

The Nicene Creed, which some Christians recite every Sunday, declares,

[We] believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.

Through religion, we know Christ. Religion is the deliberate practice of faith.

Religion is not a bad word, as some moderns have made it out to be. Rather, it is a fundamental element of rational Christian belief.

Here, I’m reminded of the hymn “Old-Time Religion,” a traditional Gospel song dated from 1873, and once sung by Johnny Cash. Here’s the chorus:

Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion
It’s good enough for me

Is the Christian God one of relationship? Absolutely.

But is He also one of religion, i.e., one that makes demands upon our conscience, beliefs, and actions? Absolutely.

So, give me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.

Related articles and resources:

Focus on the Family Faith

Faith at Home