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Lord and friend

A relationship with Jesus doesn’t mean throwing out religion

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The 1950s was a religious decade, especially if you grew up in the South, as I did. In many ways that was a blessing: low crime, friendly neighborhoods, stable homes. In other ways, not so much—at least in certain denominations where the Word was weaponized and flaming darts of doctrine hurled from one True Church at another. Religion, among the faithful, seemed to be a matter of following the rules—after getting the rules right, of course. Imagine, after a childhood of dueling dogma, how refreshing it was to discover Jesus Himself under all the strictures. And what was He holding out? Nothing less than an offer of friendship, partnership, fellowship, and even kinship. Think about that: The Creator of the universe wanted to be friends with me. It was almost too much to fathom. It still is.

A decade or so later, I began hearing that Jesus is not about religion. He’s about relationship: a theme that took American Christianity by storm. We’re not so uptight about the rules today. Relationship-not-religion has made us kinder and gentler. And perhaps it’s time to re-think it.

What is a religion? If we mean “rules whereby we set ourselves apart and gain God’s favor (unlike the ignorant, oblivious, and stubborn crowd who don’t),” then yes. Jesus is not about religion and had some hard words to say against that kind of “dead orthodoxy.” However, when we lean not on our own understanding, but turn to an accepted authority like a dictionary, religion is 1.a. a belief in and reverence for a supernatural power, b. a system grounded in such belief and worship. In that light, what strong conviction about life and purpose is not a religion?

Religion defines the relationship, as wedding vows define a marriage. Religion is the house where the relationship flourishes.

The groundwork of a relationship with Christ, the necessary actions that make the relationship possible, the form the relationship takes—that’s all religion, in the dictionary sense. Religion defines the relationship, as wedding vows define a marriage. Religion is the house where the relationship flourishes. The early church followed a religion: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42) on which the church of Christ was built (Ephesians 2:20).

Relationship without religion has its limits. Recall the earliest disciples who actually knew Jesus, who walked and talked and ate with Him day by day. Their relationship seemed rock-solid. Yet when the teaching became too difficult, a number of them left (John 6:66). When He started predicting impossible events to come, the remainder ignored Him. And when those impossible things came to pass, His dear friends scattered like rats from a burning barn. But they had a relationship! They loved Him. Yet it wasn’t until He revealed the scope of His mission through the Scriptures (Luke 24:44-49) that love found a home. Within weeks the Holy Spirit moved into that home and turned on the lights.

Why does this matter? Because the relationship-not-religion theme is beginning to sound like “I can believe what I want about Jesus as long as I have a relationship with Him.” What do you think He would say about that? What did He say about that?

If you love me you will keep my commandments.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” [or “friend, friend”?] and not do what I say?

In every believer, the relationship will look a little different. Among believers there will be disagreements about secondary matters. That’s no excuse for weaponizing the Word of God, but neither is it reason to look down on “religion”—the body of first principles and incontrovertible truth that we live by. “This is my Son,” says the Father; “listen to Him.” If each of us is listening selectively and individually, before long we’re mostly hearing ourselves. That’s not good news for anybody, least of all us. Rather than pursue relationship outside the religion, seek it within, among the community of believers, and pray for the Holy Spirit to turn on the lights.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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