Why the Relationship v. Religion Debate Matters

Religion RelationshipIt wasn’t until the last few years that I even knew that this was actually a thing. I’ve spent most of my Christian life naively assuming that as long as I was a Christian, I was good for heaven. I figured that if I did my religious duty of going to church and participating in our community service projects then I could claim to know Jesus. Relationship wasn’t something that was talked about outside of the invitation “to know Jesus” at the end of every sermon. Even then, “if you want a personal relationship with Jesus” was just part of the invitation “script.” There was never really anything beyond that which defined what relationship would or should look like. Knowing why they’re different is important and it may just be the difference between hearing Jesus say, “I never knew you; depart from me” or “Well done, good and faithful servant.

On the surface, the recipe for a relationship with God hinges on the same foundation that our other relationships are built on; communication. There are a bunch of other things that build healthy relationships, but in the last few years I’ve learned that communication helps build and solidify those other things necessary for a solid relationship. Trust, passion, dedication, loyalty, commitment, service and even love, are all impacted and built with good communication. If you’re married or dating, you could never justify having a good relationship with your other if you never talked with them. If the last words you said to your spouse was “I do” chances are they aren’t your spouse any more or they won’t be soon. That’s a whole other blog, but if that’s you, start talking with them. Yet, we do that with God. And then we pretend that to “know” Him and worse, that we are actually “following” Him. But if we’re honest, we don’t and we’re not.

The original intent of the Apostles teaching was not to turn following Jesus it into a set of rules. Following rules requires little in the area of commitment to a person and absolute dedication to a system. The very reason that Jesus chastised the religious leaders, during His ministry, was because they had turned relationship with God the Father, into a system of over 600 rules that you had to follow to be “right” with God. That’s a near, if not completely, impossible task for anyone. What God intended for us was a religion that was built purely on relationship. That’s why throughout the Old Testament He said things like, “You will be My people, and I shall be your God.” It was about being connected to each other, not a system of rules.

Traditionally Church has pushed religion as a means of building relationship. On the surface that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Early in your relationship with Jesus, systems are important. We set disciplined times to read and pray, attend church and fellowship with other Christians. Where we go wrong is when we accept that as Christianity. All of the sudden we’re in a system of rules that alleviate the need to build relationship. It becomes, do this and you’ll be a follower of Jesus. Say this and you’re forgiven. Don’t do this, because you’re Christian now and Christians don’t do that. Go to church. Wish that you prayed and read the bible more. The list of rules goes on and on.

Religion is about you and it coerces you into trying harder so that you can be a better person. The problem with that is you can become so tied up in doing the hard work of being better that you forget why you’re trying to be better. And because there’s always a version of you that can be better, you get caught in a cycle of never being good enough. Eventually you become worn out and quit, or worse, you become disconnected from the original reason that you started, all the while believing that you’re “doing it.”

But relationship is different. If we would view our early systems similar to what we do when we’re beginning a new relationship, then we cultivate authenticity. As we spend time with another person we learn, and even take on, their mannerisms and sayings. We allow our beliefs to be influenced because we want to be inline with that person. The same happens with Jesus. As we spend time in prayer, reading the bible, spending time with other Christians, the Holy Spirit begins to cultivate authentic change in us. It become about character transformation, rather than behavior modification. Relationship says, I won’t do that because it offends or hurts you. I’ll give that up, because you’re more important. I’ll do that because it pleases you and shows that I value you. Then, out of no where, you’re relationship is your religion.

Relationship, on the other hand, is about others and it compels you to cultivate interactions that display love better. As you do the work of building relationships you begin to look for cultivation opportunities. And because there’s always the ability to love better, you become engaged in a cycle that puts you in the position to love more people better.

I don’t want to sound like there isn’t work required in both; there is. But isn’t the work that makes them different, it’s the result of the work that does; one points to you and the one points to others. The nuance here is that one doesn’t need Jesus to do the work and the other starts with Him and can only be achieved through Him.

So, how do you build a relationship with Jesus. Simple, but not easy:

1. Spend time with God. Pray and read the bible, get a devotional, memorize verses, just spend time with Him

2. Spend time with other believers. Eat, celebrate, grieve, worship, pray, sing and be with each other. Iron sharpens iron and that sharpening happens in community with other believers.

3. Spend time with unbelievers. Once you start following Jesus, you’ll start to see things different. The people you saw before, become completely different. You can learn a ton from unbelievers. We get to hear people’s needs, their hopes, and disappointments. I’ve found that people who aren’t followers of Jesus, don’t feel like they have to make it look like everything in life is great; it makes them a little more honest and raw about what their needs are.

Relationship should build your religion until your religion is relationship.

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Jesus said, “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.” That happens in relationship. Relationship should build your religion until your religion is relationship.


  1. Great article. When you said, ” Then, out of no where, you’re relationship is your religion.” It confused me bit, but after reading on I see what you are saying. It’s so much easier to “do what’s expected” as opposed to developing an unique relationship with our Lord (or others, for that matter). Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Thanks, Cindra. I wanted to get across the point that if we seek religion in the way that Jesus taught then it has to be relational in nature. You’re so right that meeting expectations is easier than developing relationships. Any thoughts as to why we’d rather put work into meeting expectations, rather than putting work into relationships? Both require work, right?

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