I’ve been seeing several comments lately that pit “relationship” against “religion”, as though there’s a new trend with Christians trying to distance themselves from “rules” that they might be expected to follow. “Having a religion is against my relationship”, or “God gave me a relationship, not a religion to follow”, or “I have a personal relationship with Christ, I don’t need a religion’s rules to tell me what to do”. There are various ways of saying it, but the main message is that “Christ gave us a relationship with Him, not a religion to follow”.
I’d like to offer a few questions for you to consider about that, and I pray that anyone reading this will honestly answer them to themselves.
Where in Scripture does it say that religion is a bad thing? Did Christ ever give us any rules? Did Christ abolish the commandments? Where does it say that we are no longer bound to Christ’s words in Lk 22:19 (“do this in remembrance of Me”) or 1Cor 11:23-25? Where did Scripture nullify our obligation to obey James 5:16? Since James 1:26-27 defines good works and freedom from sin as “religion”, does that mean that caring for orphans and avoiding stains of the world are “against our relationship” with God?
Consider also the example that Christ gives us. Christ has a true relationship with God, and He was very religious…attending the Jewish festivals, admonishing His followers to obey the authorities who “sit on the Chair of Moses” (Mt 23:2-3), etc… Are we not to follow Christ’s example and obey Him?
The reality, however, is that He gave us BOTH. In fact, our relationship with Christ is an aspect of our religious adherence to Him and His commands. You could also say that our religion [Christianity] involves having a relationship with Him. Not just that, but I will go so far as to say that the degree to which we practice our religion is directly related to the depth of our relationship with Him. We cannot have a deep, personal relationship with Christ while ignoring or renouncing the religion that He gives to us. They are hand-in-hand.
I like an example given by a fellow Christian who compared it to Marriage: “It’s against my relationship with the person I love to get married.” It makes about as much sense. Isn’t the depth of your relationship with that person indicated by how united you are to that person? If you refuse to bind yourself to that person, do you really have a full and deep relationship with them? You are literally saying, “I love you, but not enough to fully unite myself to you.”
"Religion", from the Latin "religio" means to bind oneself [to something]. In this case, our Christian religion is the binding of ourselves to Christ.
Absolutely, we are called to have a personal relationship with Christ! Part of that relationship involves giving ourselves to Him and subjecting ourselves to Him and His Holy Will. Part of His Holy Will is for us to be in communion with His Body, the Church (Col 1:8; 1Cor 6:15, 12:20-27; Eph 5:30; Rom 12:4-5; cff. Jn 10:16, 17:17-23; Eph 4:3-6; etc…).
God gave us a religion in the Old Testament, no one argues against that, as Paul states it very clearly in Acts 25:29 and 26:5.
Scripture tells us that the old is but a shadow of the good things to come (Hebrews 10:1). Christ tells us that He came “not to abolish the law” but "to fulfill” the old law (Mt 5:17). So, what does that fulfillment of the old look like? Scripture gives us several clues, such as in in James 1:26-27, Mt 26:27, Mk 14:22, Lk 22:19, Jn 14:21, and 1Cor 11:23-29. It is up to us to participate in the fulfillment of that...to bind ourselves to God and the religion Christ has given us [Christianity] as a fulfillment of the Old Law.
Christ did tell us to follow a religion, via the establishment of His Church and the command for us to go forth. He first established a Church (Mt 16:18). Then He said that His Church (His Flock) would be ONE and that its members would listen to His Voice (Jn 10:16, 17:17-23).
He said that the leaders in His Church would speak with His Voice, saying whoever listens to His Church listens to Him, and who does NOT listen does NOT listen to Him (Lk 10:16).
Then He gave the leaders of His Church the authority to bind and loose "whatever", including our sins (Mt 16:19, 18:18; Jn 20:21-23).
He also told us to go to His Church during matters of unsettled dispute (Mt 18:15-17).
He gave His Church the great commission to spread the Gospel, baptize us, and teach us to obey all He commanded (Mt 28:19-20).
So, yes, He expects us to follow His religion [Christianity] through His Church whom He gave the authority and duty to convert us to Him. And part of the beauty of His Church is that it’s “the pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and it speaks with the very voice of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28) who leads the Church into all truth, for all time (Jn 14:26, 16:13; 1Jn 2:27; Mt 28:20).
With all that from Christ through His Church, why would anyone NOT want to be part of His Church, practicing the religion that He gave us? What is a relationship with Christ if it doesn’t involve accepting what He gave us? How deep is our relationship with Him when we renounce some of the things that He established and commanded?
Just for fun I did a word search on "church" in the Bible. The link opens to the King James Version, but you can select whichever translation you like. For KJV, there are 111 references to "church". Check it out.
Here’s the one on “religion” which was linked above:
I think a better statement would be, “It’s against my relationship with Christ to reject the religion and Church Christ gave me”.
Father Vincent Serpa, O.P. of Catholic Answers sums it up nicely in answer to a similar question:
“The Catholic Church has no founder other than Jesus Himself and it alone has the authority to interpret Scripture. It was the Catholic Church that compiled the New Testament and determined which books it would contain---all by the authority that Jesus gave it.
It is only though the Church that He founded that we can know Him personally, have faith in Him and rest assured that what it teaches is true. It matters immensely that one belong to it and not any number of others that He did not found.”
(Link to the Q&A with Fr. Serpa, O.P.)