It is fashionable nowadays in today’s evangelical world to chant a popular phrase: “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship.” Now we need to understand why some people make such a statement implying that “religion” and “relationship” (the way they define it) are mutually exclusive. In this essay I intend to critique this very statement, starting off by expanding on what these people mean by that statement, why they say it, evaluate this statement from Scripture, and then add a practical note on how such pep statements can distort true spirituality.
As always, we need to understand the context in which any statement is made, since without the context we run the danger of misrepresenting or misinterpreting what is said. To understand the context of the statement, “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship” we need to understand popular evangelical consciousness. I had, earlier, in a previous article written about how mainstream Christianity followed popular culture rather than Scripture and thus was a victim of the world’s constantly fluctuating ideologies. Now we need to know about mainstream evangelicalism in order to analyze this statement.
Modern Evangelical Spirituality
To get the pulse of mainstream Christianity one needs to just listen to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). Walmart might have to ban some of Vineyard’s songs in the future for their explicit lyrics. Some of the “worship” songs had saucy titles like “My Lover, My God,” “Naked Before You,” “Touch Me All Over,” I’ll Do Anything You Want,” and “You Make Me Hot With Desire.” In case you thought that these are not Christian songs and are a bit over the top, it just means that you aren’t exposed to or not listening to much CCM these days. Matt Redman sings “Jesus I am so in love with you, and I am madly in love with you.” Delirious, another popular Christian band sing “I am living just to fall more in love with you.” Some days ago, in my college fellowship, one girl prayed “Lord Jesus, it feels so good to fall in love with you over and over again.”
The reason I mentioned this is to highlight something very peculiar to the brand of Christianity that is widely accepted and practiced today. Today’s evangelical spirituality is heavily influenced by romanticism. And if you notice, this brand of spirituality is popular only among the youth, though some in the middle age group too are victims of it. Now, I am not a grey haired man ranting against youth. I am just in the early third decade of my life and was once upon a time very much into this sort of thing. But when I studied the Scripture I came to see the dangerous implications of this false piety.
The two culprits hiding behind the statement “Christianity is a relationship; not a religion” are romanticism and anti-intellectualism. We will deal with each of these, see the false foundations of these two attitudes and finally mention about what the Scripture has to say about true spirituality.
Romanticism and anti-intellectualism usually go together, since both are the result of abandonment of rational thinking. (Now, when I mean “rational thinking” I do not mean autonomous rationalism which has nothing to do with God or His revelation in Scripture. But, I am referring to logical thinking with all our premises taken from Scripture and the propositions derived from it by necessary inference.) Coming back, Romanticism can have two differing meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. First, in the literal meaning it refers to the sensual experience between a man and a woman. In the other context – the historical one – it refers to the rejection of rationality, and the stress on emotion and experience for happiness in life. We will be dealing with each of these separately.
First, we will briefly survey the present scenario among “Christian youth” and then we will delve into how the present situation came to be.
We are told today that the Christian life is all about a “love relationship” with God. Salvation consists of “falling in love,” and consequently, sanctification consists of “being in love” with God. This “God is my boyfriend/girlfriend” is very attractive to people whose hormones are raging their emotions. Offer spirituality in romantic package and they will swallow it instantaneously. The Bible is not the authoritative Word of God anymore; it is a “love letter” from God. Many seminars and retreats are organized on themes such as “Intimacy with God.” Passion, intimacy, desire, heart throb are the buzz words in the evangelical world today. The question today everywhere is “Have you fallen in love with Jesus?”
Now is that a bad thing? There are millions of people around the world (and I am one of them) who have found the love of Jesus to be the best love of all when compared with love for anything else. You see, the problem is not with Jesus or His love, but with the way many people approach the Christian life. Advocates of spiritual romanticism think that this state of “being in love” is what the Christian life is all about. And that is what they are absolutely and totally mistaken about. This is because this attitude seriously undermines what the Bible teaches about true spirituality and the Christian life.
The Bible and Romanticism
The Bible does have a say, or rather have the say on romanticism. The Scriptures present and explain the basis and reason for romance in a comprehensive manner. We should be careful to not equate or try to mix the Scriptural view of romance with pagan views. In Scripture, romance is always portrayed and glorified within the context of marriage, which itself was God’s plan. Right at the beginning of human history (Genesis 2:20-25) God ordained marriage and blessed it. In God’s sight marriage is a monogamous, heterosexual union for life, unlike the pagan ethic where people change partners (sometimes regardless of gender) the way they change clothes.
In the Old Testament, God frequently compares His relationship with His covenant people to a marriage. In Ezekiel (chapters 18-23) God illustrates His relationship with Israel through the picture of marriage, and Israel’s disobedience and unfaithfulness was considered adultery. The Scripture’s emphasis is always on the covenant love of a husband in choosing and remaining faithful to his wife regardless of her unfaithfulness. In the book of Hosea, God commands the prophet to marry a prostitute and remain faithful to her in spite of her promiscuity. This was intended to convey to the Israelites the faithfulness and love of God for His people despite their idolatry and disobedience.
In the New Testament, this image is magnified all the more since the church is considered to be the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5: 22-33). This is to use the intense marital love as a picture for understanding how Christ relates to us and how we should to Him. This also serves a model for husbands to incorporate in their marriages the need to assist their wives to progress in sanctification. It also means that husbands should be even willing to die in protecting their wives, if such a situation should ever arise. The Scripture’s emphasis on love and marriage is very much focused on the willingness to do and very little does it emphasize feelings and emotions as the main thrust and purpose of marriage. In 1 John 3:18 the love that we are to have has to result in concrete action and not just float about in some vague feeling which does not result in any constructive action.
Now that does not mean that the Scripture is silent regarding the emotional dimension in marriage. There is an entire book devoted to explaining the sensual and physical dimension in marriage. It is, obviously, the Song of Songs. There have been controversial interpretations of that song. It is not my intent to discuss in detail the hermeneutics and exegetical arguments for that book, since that would deviate from the purpose of this article. There are two main approaches to interpretation – allegorical and literal. The allegorical approach interprets the song as the relationship between Christ and his Bride. I guess those commentators who favored this approach were too shy to discuss sexuality within marriage and hence they allegorized almost every verse to have a corresponding “deeper” spiritual meaning. Some of their interpretations are hilarious and outright bizarre! (I will discuss that separately sometime, in another, future article.)
The other approach – the literal one – is exactly what it is: literal – in the fullest sense of the term. This is more faithful to the text and honors it than the previous one. Following the historical-grammatical approach of exegesis one would be forced to land up with this conclusion. This book serves to instruct husbands and wives about God’s approval of sensual pleasure in marriage. Nowhere in this book is there any reference to God and Israel and the covenant love existing between them. Even in the New Testament when there are passages speaking about the relationship between Christ and the church, there is absolutely no reference to this book or any quotation from it. This does not mean that his book does not have any spiritual value. It does. It was placed by God in the canon of Scripture to show husbands and wives how to understand and celebrate their marriages in the way He intended it to be – the way He made it in Eden before the Fall corrupted the human race. This book too is a part of “all Scripture” that God inspired (2 Timothy 3:16) which is profitable for instruction, reproof and training in righteousness.
Thus, this is what the Scripture speaks about romance. However, there is a distinction to be observed here. Whenever the Scripture speaks about the physical delights in marriage (which is also a spiritual thing to experience) as in the Song of Songs and Proverbs chapter 5, it does NOT equate or intermingle that with the divine love which God has for His people. This is very important to understand. The texts in Scripture which portray the relationship between God and His people (or Christ and the church) in marital terms do not contain sensual imagery or subtle innuendoes.
Love for God consists of obedience to his revealed commands (1 John 5:3). We should not spiritualize the sensual love which is to be enjoyed in an earthly marriage and apply it to our relationship with God. When I am using the word “sensual” I am not referring exclusively to the physical aspect, but also to the emotions that go along with it. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to have “warm feelings” for God and since He is incorporeal, neither are we advised to take delight in His physical attributes, since He has none.
Romanticism and the Present Day Christian Experience
Sensual love is exalted and glorified in Scripture, but only within a context between a man and a woman in their marital union and not between God and His people. This is precisely the point where present-day evangelical piety has messed up in a big way. The attempt to relate to God in romantic and sensual terms is the colossal disaster in evangelical Christianity today.
Today’s worship songs wax poetic and sometimes even pornographic, when describing our relationship with God. Instead of meditating and celebrating God’s attributes, worship seems more like describing a high school romantic encounter. “Jesus, I am so in love with you” (Matt Redman). “I am living just to fall more in love with you” (Delirious). The worshipper seems to be “in love” with Jesus. Most of the lyrics focus on the experience the worshipper is having rather than on the characters and attributes of the beloved, who is supposed to be God. The frenzy everywhere is about “falling in love with Jesus.” Jesus is presented as more as a lover from a Shakespearean play than as the, pre-existent, eternal, sovereign Lord of the universe.
Contrast that with how the church in the New Testament time related to God. Read through the book of Acts and the Epistles. In all of them, there is not a single instance where one would find such language being used to relate to God. There is no reference of any apostle saying we ought to “fall in love with God” or enter into a “one-on-one love relationship” with God. The focus was always on God’s attributes and His works. Even in the portions of Scripture which contain doxology, the focus is always on God and not on the feelings (“I feel good/happy/great”) of the worshipper. All doxologies in Scripture are packed with theological concrete, and not some loose statements about experience of the worshipper.
Thus, today worship is not about declaring, celebrating and adoring God’s attributes. Rather, it is about expressing how the worshipper feels about the experience he or she is having. Such worship is man-centered rather than being God-centered. Christianity is about what God has done for His people in Christ by purchasing redemption for them. However, when this focus is removed and Christianity is considered to be an emotional thriller to maintain feelings and intensity, it loses the distinctiveness which characterized the New Testament church. One quote I read somewhere asked “Are we worshipping the Lamb or entertaining the sheep?” That captures the present pitiable situation perfectly.
Romanticism in History
In the history of philosophy, romanticism referred to the time when there was a violent rejection of reason and undue exaltation of emotion. The Industrial Revolution led to the Age of Reason, where religion was critiqued and dismissed off as meaningless. In reaction to this, another school of thought sprang up stressing emotion and experience as foundational to life. This consisted of men like John Keats, Schelly, Alfred Tennyson, Byron and so on. Their writings and poetry strongly betray the irrationalism which was so latent in their “thinking.” John Keats in a letter to his friend said, “O for a life of sensations, rather than a life of thoughts!” Can you see the implicit anti-intellectualism and contradiction in this statement? Of course, Keats had to think that a life of sensations would be better than a life of thoughts! Anyway, romanticism directly infiltrated the then existing evangelical world, and as a result theological studies were devalued and emotions and experience were exalted. The Charismatic movement followed close by and that added more soup to the already existing confusion in Christendom.
This was coupled along with anti-intellectualism and together they dealt a devastating blow to orthodoxy. The masses were brainwashed with such teaching and the preachers who played on emotions became icons in the average evangelical mind. Doctrine was degraded and experience was exalted.
Usually anti-intellectualism and romanticism are two sides of the same coin, since the fundamental attribute of these two movements is the rejection of the centrality of the mind. This finds wide appeal in many Christian churches today.
The Difference it Makes in Christianity Today
This makes a world of difference (if not all the difference!) in Christianity today. We have discussed two things till now: how romanticism and anti-intellectualism have exerted a big, but negative influence on Christianity. People are pre-occupied with their own feelings, emotions and excitement rather than the nature and attributes of God.
In contrast to this and contradicting the romantic nonsense, the Scriptures present the biblical model of spiritual growth and experience to be centered on the mind. The spiritual life consists of understanding God’s verbal revelation and not about kicking up feelings and emotions just for the sake of it.
The following verses deal with the nature of the spiritual life and growth.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. (Ephesians 1:7)
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints (Ephesians 1:17, 18)
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, (Colossians 1:9, 10)
Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:2, 3)
Take the time to read Psalm 119 sometime. Maybe later on, I shall offer a verse by verse exposition on that chapter. There, the worshipper is so much caught up with and obsessed by God’s word, statutes and ordinances. Of course, there is significant mention of the emotions that he undergoes, but that does not occur in mindless vacuum as in a mantra. His joy, delight, and pleasure lie in rejoicing in God’s word and works. He is not delighting in or exalting in his experience, but rather in God. This is the crucial distinction to be observed always in our worship. We must not worship our experience. We must worship God.
In Psalm 1:2 we read that the “blessed man” is the one whose “delight is in the Law of the Lord. And on it he meditates day and night.” Delight in the written Word of God….? Yes. And…”meditate” on it…? Yes. And, that too…”day and night”…..? Yes. Yes. Yes. This is the description of a “Christian mind”, if you so will call it. You see, the spiritual life is rooted in theological contemplation and not chanting “Jesus I love you/feel you/enjoy you” along with powerful musical accompaniment. Therefore, the less theology you know more shallow and hollow will your spiritual life be. I know this is quite a hard statement for many to digest. But this is the truth. If your mind is not filled with and structured systematically with biblical truth then your “spiritual life” is one BIG joke. I do not delight in hurting people, but I need to drive home some comments in a particular tone, so that people will feel the weight of the situation.
This is what A.H. Strong says in his textbook of Systematic Theology, published in 1906.
“Truth thoroughly digested is essential to the growth of Christian character in the individual and in the church. All knowledge of God has its influence upon character, but most of all the knowledge of spiritual facts in their relations. Theology cannot, as has sometimes been objected, deaden the religious affections, since it only draws out from their sources and puts into rational connection with each other the truths which are best adapted to nourish the religious affections. On the other hand, the strongest Christians are those who have the firmest grasp upon the great doctrines of Christianity; the heroic ages of the church are those which have witnessed most consistently to them; the piety that can be injured by the systematic exhibition of them must be weak, or mystical, or mistaken.”
On Loving God
As mentioned earlier, there is so much of hype created today about “falling in love with Jesus,” “being in love with God” and so on. These do not arise from the biblical teaching of what it means to love God, but rather expressions are driven by sensual desires which are masked under the pretense of spirituality.
So what does the Bible say about loving God?
“And this is love for God: to obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)
“If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love; just I have kept my Father’s command and remain in His love.” (John 15:10)
Therefore, our love for God should be characterized by obeying his commands which He has given to us in the Bible. One cannot have a persistent antinomian attitude and claim to love God at the same time. One does not love God by floating in “praise and worship,” but by consciously fighting the sin within and without in order to obey God. We should be in constant vigilance on our souls. Of course, sinless perfection is unattainable in this life (1 John 1:10), but that is not an excuse for habitual lifestyle of sin. A true Christian will never abuse the grace of God and use it as a license to sin.
In order to obey God, we should know what He has commanded us to obey in the first place. We cannot obey God’s commandments, without knowing what these commands are. Therefore, the first step in loving God is to go and study your Bible. Putting it on other words, theology comes before the “practical” aspects of the Christian life. Creed comes before conduct. Theology is the necessary precondition for all Christian activity. Of course, this is an intellectual activity. Just because something is “spiritual,” it does not mean that it is mystical. According to the Bible, the spiritual is the intellectual. One cannot devalue the intellect and yet be spiritually mature at the same time. Abiding in Christ, means having His words to abide in us (John 15:7).
Religion or Relationship?
Now we finally come to address the question: “Is Christianity a religion or a relationship?” As always the terms must be clearly defined before we analyze any statement. Usually, when this statement is uttered it is made in the anti-intellectual spirit implying that religion (dogma and doctrine) is inferior, if not completely useless, when compared with relationship (emotions and experience).
We are told that what matters in our spiritual life is personal commitment and experience of a relationship and not doctrine and truth. Truth is hard to understand and doctrine is boring. So why bother with that? Instead this “relationship” thing sounds more cool and appeals much better to our emotions than doctrine.
Likewise, it is also said that it is not enough to believe the words spoken by Christ, but we must put our trust in Christ himself. Believing the words will not give us the “deeper/fuller” Christian experience. But believing Christ and having a personal relationship with him will only lead us to spiritual satisfaction. “Mere belief,” they say, is of no use; what matters is personal trust and commitment. Here, there is a sharp dichotomy assumed between believing the words spoken by a person and the believing and trusting the person himself. Though it appears to sound “profound” it is an easy way to avoid the intellect, and yet try to appear wise at the same time.
Believing in Christ means believing the words He spoke – that He is the only begotten Son of God, that He is the resurrection and the life, that he is the bread of life, that He is the way, the truth and the life, that He is going to come back in all His Father’s glory to judge the living and the dead and so on. You cannot not believe the words of Christ and say you believe in Christ at the same time. It means that you are a liar. Believing in Christ means believing in the words He spoke. Believing in God means believing in the words He has given to us in the Bible. No one can claim to believe in God and not believe the Bible at the same time, and call himself a Christian.
In any relationship, regardless of how “personal” it is, there has to be an exchange of information and intellectual content. Without this, there is nothing left to the “relationship.” It is impossible for two people to communicate with each other without the mutual transfer of thought between them. Thought is communicated in the form of propositions. It is fashionable nowadays, even in some intellectual circles to say that “truth is not just propositional, it is personal.” But this is just sophistry masquerading as scholarship. The one question to ask these characters who make such statements is, “What do you mean by ‘personal’?” And the next thing you will see in them is that they will be stroking their chin, or giving a “mature” smile while struggling to search for an answer. And they will cover up their ignorance with an air of attempted profundity by saying things like “The more you experience God, the more you will understand” or something to that effect. They will never accept that they don’t know what they are talking about.
Without propositions to go with the person, you have nothing left to know about the person. In getting to know a person, you get to know some propositions about the person. Without that there is nothing left for you to know.
I have in an earlier article critiqued this view about “personal relationship.” John Robbins, in his article “The Biblical View of Truth” says the following:
“The view, that truth is personal, not propositional, has led theologians to substitute the nebulous concepts of ‘commitment,’ ‘personal relationship,’ and ‘union’ for the clear and Biblical concept of belief, thus undermining the Gospel itself. The New Testament uses believe and its cognates hundreds of times, specifically with regard to believing the Gospel, believing Scripture, believing Christ, and believing God. (Incidentally, when Scripture uses the word believe followed by the name of a person or a pronoun, it always means believing the words spoken by or about that person. Using a noun or a pronoun is simply a shorthand way of referencing a proposition or collection of propositions. On the other hand, commit and its cognates are used much less frequently, and almost always with regard to committing sins. Donald MacKinnon commented on this shift from belief to commitment, saying that the analysis of faith ‘in terms of self-commitment to a person leaves unanswered (or even deliberately seeks to evade) the distinction between such commitment and that involved in a Fuehrerprinzip.’ To speak plainly, if commitment to a person is substituted for belief of propositional truth, then there can be no reason not to commit passionately to a demon.”
People who rant about “personal relationship” but avoid theology and doctrinal studies at the same time are hypocrites. Whenever doctrine is avoided or neglected and substituted with something else, the result is not spiritual worship but spiritual whoredom. The Israelites crafted a golden calf with their creativity, but God was not impressed with their sense of aesthetics. Tozer said it well that “an idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.” Today, many in mainstream Christendom are fashioning a god of their own liking and thinking that they are some great “man of God” or “woman of God” because of the Christian activities they are involved in. Their knowledge of God and consequently every spiritual activity is not from Scripture. It is from their vain imagination. They belittle the word of God and call it “merely propositional.” They undermine the biblical teaching of belief and say that it is not enough, but something more – an “experience” – is needed. They don’t revere Scripture (or maybe pay lip service to it), but place their “experience” as a greater authority in spiritual matters. These self-declared, self-approved, and of course self-deceived clowns will be held accountable by God.
Have you been believing that Christianity is all about a romantic experience with God? Were you told that studying the Bible alone is not enough, but you need something more – an “experience” or encounter with God? Did you think that Jesus Christ is your divine boyfriend/girlfriend and that you could think of Him as you please? Have you been designing a custom-made religion to satisfy your sensual appetite, under the garb of “spirituality”? If you have answered at least one of the questions in the affirmative, then, it’s about time you woke up.
Get back to the word of God. This is what Jesus said about the words he spoke: “The words I have spoken to you, they are spirit and life” (John 6:63). You see, the “words” are “spirit and life.” If you ignore the words, that is, the propositional content of God’s revelation but keep playing on emotions, and thinking you are spiritually “mature,” its high time your see your folly and return back to Scripture. After Jesus’ teaching, when most of the disciples left Him saying it is “hard teaching,” Peter and handful of others decided to remain with Him saying “Master to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Therefore, let God’s Word be the only focus and authority in our lives.
“It is written!” (Mathew 4: 4, 7, 10) – let that be the phrase that is constantly on our minds when we think of anything. Let us strive to think God’s thoughts after Him. We should also learn to eradicate statements from our vocabulary like “I think so,” “I feel so,” “In my opinion,” and so on. Well, who cares about what you think? I care about what God thinks about the issue at hand. We should work hard at getting rid of the subjectivity in our thoughts which is most often perverted due to the noetic effects of sin. Thus, the most urgent and important thing to do is to saturate our thoughts with Scripture. And this means exegeting the biblical passages we read and studying doctrine. The best way to study doctrine is to grab a text on systematic theology. This is important because systematic theology shows how various biblical doctrines are related to each other and enables us to fit in the parts within the whole.
If you ignore the words of Scripture, you are NOT a Christian, atleast according to biblical definition. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teachings, you are really my disciples” (John 8:30). A disciple is supposed to hold on to the “teachings.” Thus, if you don’t know the teachings, there is nothing left for you to hold on to, and it follows that you cannot be a disciple, according to Jesus. Of course, you can always call yourself a Christian. Anyone can do that. I can buy a dog from a pet shop and give it a “Christian” name, but that won’t make it a Christian. You can deceive yourself and others by sympathizing with and pampering yourself with all those romantic statements which are popular to say nowadays. But you wont get very far in the Kingdom, that is, if you manage to enter it in the first place. If you are shocked by what you read just now, and realize your folly and irreverence, then I pray that God will lead you back to His Word. It is the word of God which will outlast and outlive everything – not your emotions, not your feelings, not your experience. Only God’s Word is eternal. Let us, therefore strive to bring all our thoughts in confirmity to what God has revealed in His Word.
“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” Psalm 119:103
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Mathew 24:35