In recent times, the construct of “religion vs relationship” has been widely and commonly accepted among evangelical Christians. A good example of this is the YouTube video by Jefferson Bethke that went completely viral about a year ago, called “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus” (this post isn’t about him, as he’s made clear of his intentions after much controversy surrounding his video; the point of referencing him is simply to illustrate that this line of thinking is common today). The big idea is this: Jesus didn’t come to convert us to a religion but to create a relationship with us. This idea is not new, however. The whole “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” slogan was popularized in the Jesus Movement of the 80s, I believe, as evangelicals focused on a more personal dimension of their faith in God over an external appearance of piety. One of the strengths of this movement was indeed calling attention to the more personal aspects of faith, like individual prayer and private Bible reading. One of the weaknesses of this movement was a lack of attention to the corporate aspects of faith and the importance of doctrine. Thus, we have today those who would call themselves Christians and followers of Jesus but lack a commitment to a local church body. They aren’t religious; but they have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Is this bifurcation between religion and relationship accurate? The most obvious observation that relates to this is that there is a type of religion that we are to follow. James 1:27 says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Religion is a neutral word; it simply refers to a set of beliefs and practices of a particular group of people in relation to a deity and worship. There’s good religion and bad religion. Bad religion, as an example, exploits the poor and the oppressed through works-based salvation, and is generally characterized by hypocrisy. Good religion, on the other hand, shows the way we can be saved by the grace of God through faith in his Son, and advocates good works that is produced by that changing grace.
I hate dead orthodoxy, but I am religious. I am committed to my local church, but I also have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. I call myself religious because I have a set of beliefs and practices that I follow, but I hate religion that is man-made. And I have a relationship with God because I spend my private time reading his Word and praying to him.