Subtle Deceptions: Relationship vs. Religion

Christians hate being called hypocrites. Hypocrites are people viewed as outwardly religious yet inwardly sinful; in some cases more ‘sinful’ than many non-believers. Hypocrites, it would seem, must have no valid relationship with God.

In reaction to claims of religious hypocrisy, someone invented the saying, ‘Christianity is a relationship not a religion’. This represents a simple, straight forward, slogan that addresses the perceived hypocrisy of religiosity by distancing religion from a real devotion to God; setting up the ideas of relationship and religion as a dichotomy.

But what is a dichotomy, I hear you say?  Well, a dichotomy is a literary device that enables the logical contrasting of opposing ideas. For example, in the context of Christian ethics/life, the apostle Paul presents Law and Spirit as a dichotomy. Yet, not all dichotomies are legitimate. Just as there are valid dichotomies there are also false dichotomies. A false dichotomy is a logical separation of ideas that should not be separated, or the juxtaposing of concepts that have no valid relationship to each other. Some people advance false dichotomies out of ignorance, others create them to maliciously deceive.

Satan, as a master of deception, loves false dichotomies. He uses them to great effect leading unwitting Christians to embrace half-truths that hinder their obedient walk with Christ. That he should use such a logical device is not news; how he uses it, in this context, is definitely worthy of a fresh look.

Satan employs  false dichotomies in an attempt to provide alleged solutions to perceived errors. In so doing, he cleverly suggests a more benign error as a solution to an obviously malignant error. But in offering the way of escape he secretly offers up an equally malignant error as that just escaped. By using simple forms of logic that ‘appear’ to push the error aside, the enemy drives the unwitting believer toward embracing a more deeply ingrained falsehood. Indeed, no error is more destructive than the one that seems so right. This alleged solution may get the ignorant Christian out of the frying pan, but it unwittingly drops them into the fire!  Given the end result of such undiscovered or unresolved errors, this metaphor is particularly apt.

So let’s look at the nefarious error at hand, the commonly embraced false dichotomy of religion and relationship.  This is how Satan likes to present it: Religion is potentially hypocritical but God loves a relationship. So let’s escape hypocrisy by dropping religion and running to relationship. Focus on the relationship with God and you will never become a religious hypocrite. Simple!

Notwithstanding this error, I want to suggest that a critical assessment of the religion/relationship phenomenon is not without justification. The Bible is replete with examples of God’s people abandoning an intimate heart-felt relationship with their God in favor of following ‘other gods’, even as they continue the outward forms of religious practices that God requires. In the Old Testament, we read of God’s appraisal of this: “ These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Is 29:13 (NIV) and again, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obeying the voice of the Lord?” 1 Sam 15:22 (NIV)

Yes, God hates religion that is devoid of heart-felt devotion. He fervently desires his people to serve him motivated by genuine love. He wants them to want what he wants, expressing this ‘want’ in practical God-pleasing obedience. But does God’s desire for relational obedience imply that he hates religion or religious practices?

Enter Satan. In the work of playing off religion against relationship, Satan does some of his most dastardly work.  Starting from the valid notion that any religious activity that lacks heart devotion is false, but then offers up the separation of relationship and religion as the apparent solution; a way of countering the alleged falsehood of hypocrisy. By doing so, he consequentially implies that ‘all religion’ is counter-productive, or at least practically ineffectual. All religion, in this case, is anything that involves some kind of a repetitive ritual or habit with reference to God.

Consequently, practices such as regular: prayer, fasting, church attendance, reading and memorizing of scripture, are presented as being ‘too’ mechanical and dry to have any real value in creating authentic relational intimacy with God.

Can you hear the tempter speaking? “Do you really want to be a hypocrite? Someone who is always doing religious things and always failing before others? Honestly, you are just setting yourself up for criticism! Come on, just get away from that stuff, and just focus on the relationship and avoid all the hassle.”

But wait, the deception is not over yet.

Having destroyed the credibility of religion and its practices, Satan then goes to work on a clever redefinition of relationship. Predictably he redefines it in a human-oriented ‘feel-good’ way. The meaning of relationship ‘now’ becomes something: inward, emotional, and exclusively private. A relationship with God is all about you and God on your terms—a private friendship that only two can appreciate.  Furthermore, he supports these ideas with more slogans like, ‘You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’, or ‘I don’t need formal religion, I have my own relationship with God’, just to further popularize this lie.

Consequently, weak Christians are deceived into believing that valuable and necessary practices such as: regular fellowship, prayer, fasting, bible reading, charity, and service, are much less important than attending to their own inward thoughts, emotional feelings, and private reflections about God. After all, it’s your personal inner relationship that matters most, right?

Reality check: Have you ever met anyone who has a good relationship with God, that is not regularly involved in Christian fellowship, not reading the Bible regularly, not praying  regularly,  not seeking to live consistently, and not looking for opportunities to serve God? I haven’t, and I don’t think I ever will. In fact, ironically, this relational introspection actually leads to a relationship with God that actually isn’t a relationship at all, or at least, a very unhealthy one. Which, of course, is exactly what Satan wants.

However, when we look more closely at Holy Scripture, we see that no such dichotomy between religion and relationship exists. We do find, however,  a valid critique of religion that has abandoned a heartfelt devotion to God; in essence, we see a valid dichotomy between true religion and false religion.  Yes, we do see God challenging people to stop going through the religious motions and pretending to serve him, whilst all the time they are devoting their hearts to their own interests. Most of all, we find that true religion is absolutely indispensable to a right relationship with God, and vice versa.

This may come as a surprise but Jesus was a very religious person—in the right sense. Apart from attending to all the customs of his Jewish faith, he had a very rigorous prayer life, he regularly read scripture, he spent an inordinate amount of time healing the sick, attending to the needy, and conducting regular teaching sessions on the kind of religious life that pleased God. Moreover, Jesus explicitly taught his disciples the practices of: prayer, fasting, and alms giving. He showed them how to heal the sick, drive out demons, and preach the good news, as well as sending them out on missions to do the same.

Although Jesus fiercely opposed religiosity devoid of heart devotion; by his very actions he showed that religion itself was an inseparable part of a person’s relationship with God. In fact, in challenging the Pharisee’s hypocrisy, he suggested they focus on justice and love, without neglecting their formal religious practices. (Luke 11:42)

Furthermore, when we examine the wider teaching of the New Testament, we do not see the Apostles presenting a form of Christian devotion that focuses on introspective, private, emotional relationship with God, at the expense of outward acts of devotion. On the contrary, we see many examples and exhortations to a disciplined ‘religion’ of obedience to Christ: Animated by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the context of a spiritual community, and focusing on revealing God’s message of salvation to a lost world. Moreover, we see numerous exhortations: to prayer, to scripture reading, to charity toward the poor; we also see exhortations to regular meetings with other Christians, and exhortations to the service of one another as well as our non-Christian associates. Starting to look a bit religious isn’t it?

Of course, we don’t see the legal, ritualistic religion of the Old Testament, for the simple reason it has been superseded by a new Spirit-based regime.  But we do see a new religion of love and devotion to God and neighbor, a practical life empowered by a Holy Spirit, aimed at devotion to Christ exhibited in all kinds of practical and habitual ways.

In this regard, the Apostle James’ reflections are quite instructive: “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27 (NIV) James sees the necessity of a Christian religion that has two dimensions: The first is the practical service of others, where James gives the example of widows and orphans, because they are unable to offer anything in return for service rendered. As such, God values a religious devotion to others that anticipates no reciprocal benefit to the giver.

The second dimension involves the Christian’s personal relationship with God vis-à-vis life in the world. James is implying that devotional practices and actions ensure the Christians holiness is not corrupted by this-worldly agendas. Given the wider New Testament teaching, this would necessarily suggest practices such as: prayer, fasting, scripture reading, fellowship attendance, and so on, are necessary to promote and maintain this desired ‘pure life’.

Not only does James ‘not’ play off religion against relationship, he actually advocates a form of religion that enhances the believer’s personal relationship with God.

As you can see, the testimony of Holy Scripture strongly suggests that heartfelt belief, habitual spiritual disciplines, and practical service are intimately related. Relationship and religion go hand in hand, each enhancing and promoting the other to enable a fruitful life that edifies the self, loves neighbor, and gives glory to God.

Just as a skeleton gives the body’s organs structure, so the living organs nourish the bones—both support and nourish the other to enable a healthy person to function. True religion gives the relationship structure, strength, and form; relationship gives religion a heart and an intimate personal dynamic. Relationship needs religion and religion needs relationship. Embrace both wholeheartedly, and you will never have fear of ‘actually’ being a hypocrite, even though you may be falsely accused as such. Embrace both wholeheartedly, and be surprised at what God can do with such a powerful life of conformity to God’s will. Little wonder Satan expends so much energy seeking to divide them!




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