I have lived and affirmed both sides of the “relationship or religion” controversy in my relatively short twenty-two years of life. Growing up in the South amidst fundamentalist communities (as well as the weird amalgamation of Eastern spirituality which characterizes Asheville, my hometown) has enabled me to find a comfortable seat on the pendulum ride from one extreme to the other.
God has been faithful to bring me to seasons, especially over the past three to four years, where I can enjoy some balance in both areas. These points in my life are characterized by a beautiful sense of clarity, conviction, and peace, all stemming from an assurance of the great magnitude of God and my relative insignificance. In contrast, the more spiritually tumultuous periods in my life can be traced back to hyper-intellectualism and legalism or to hyper-emotionalism and self direction regarding the things of God. You might say that these were the seasons marked by an obsession with either “religion” or “relationship.”
However, I don’t particularly like pairing these labels with these pitfalls. And I don’t think the Church at large has been edified by our many attempts to draw hard lines between the religious and relational aspects of the Christian faith. Where Christianity is concerned, relationship and religion function properly only when they are joined together, because the God whom we worship in the orthodox Christian faith – that is, the one true God – is both transcendent and immanent.
God’s “transcendence” means that He is other from us. He doesn’t depend on us in any sense and there are a vast multitude of ways in which He is not like us. At the same time, His “immanence” means that He is present with us and is active within the reality we operate under as finite beings. He has made Himself knowable to us.
This intermingling of God’s transcendence and immanence is what makes Christianity different from any other theistic (or even atheistic) belief system. So when we seek to approach the things of God through exclusively a relational lens or exclusively a religious lens, we ignore one of these aspects which make God unique, reliable, and glorious. He is both with us and separate from us. He is knowable, yet we cannot fully comprehend Him. He condescends to us, yet we cannot hope to reach up and pull Him any lower than where He has already come.
Scripture affirms this over and over. Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV) describes the transcendence of God:
“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.
‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.'”
Psalm 139:7-10 proclaims God’s immanence, or closeness, with His children:
“Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.”
Modern theologian R.C. Sproul described these paradoxical aspects of God’s nature in a Ligonier article entitled God Is Incomprehensible:
“God is both hidden and revealed. There is a mysterious dimension of God that we do not know. However, we aren’t left in darkness, groping around for a hidden God. God has also revealed Himself, and that is basic to the Christian faith. Christianity is a revealed religion. God the Creator has revealed Himself manifestly in the glorious theater of nature. This is what we call ‘natural revelation.’ God has also revealed Himself verbally. He has spoken, and we have His Word inscripturated in the Bible. Here we’re talking about special revelation—information God gives us that we could never figure out on our own.”
When we try to determine whether Christianity is more about relationship or religion, we cannot help but diminish one of these aspects of God’s character.
If we assert that Christianity is “not about religion, but about relationship,” then we ignore the fact that the God who is close to us is also a God who is not like us – who is other from us. He has the full right to determine on what grounds and through what mechanisms we are to properly relate to Him. This is precisely what religion is: it describes the boundaries that govern the relationship between that which is higher and that which is lower. We need these boundaries and we celebrate that God is gracious and kind to reveal them in the Scriptures. He dictates what kind of worship and relationship He accepts.
However, when we say that Christianity is a religion, we are not placing it alongside other religions as though they are equal. What makes the God of orthodox Christianity – the one true God – unique amongst false gods and idols is that He is deeply relational. He calls believers “children” and redeems them on an intimate level, unlike other gods who rarely (if ever) condescend to meet with their desperate followers. The faith in Christ that we profess is not something cold, impersonal, or detached from everyday reality. It is indeed a relationship with God Himself.
So what’s the problem?
The false dichotomy created by this controversy is the problem. Many Christians have fought to portray their faith as a “lifestyle” that is purely relational and individualistic, thereby falling into the error of subjectivism and promoting the false mentality that as long as you feel close to Jesus, the way you worship or the theology you profess doesn’t matter. Many other Christians have clung to a different error, believing that “following Christ” is something that happens twice per week within the walls of the local church building, but not within the deepest confines of the heart.
Neither of these extremes honor the transcendent and immanent God of Scripture. Instead, we need to start thinking and living in the glorious intersection of religion and relationship that the Christian gospel provides.