Near where I lived in New England there was a church that prided itself on being “Short on Rules, Long on Relationship.” The idea, I suppose, is that being a Christian is about having a personal relationship with Jesus and, as a natural extension, with others who also have a relationship with Jesus. Rules, by contrast, imply an impersonal relationship. Presumably, a rule-based (rather than relation-based) Christianity focuses on “thou shalt nots” and establishes clear lines of inclusion and exclusion.

I have to admit that I find this dualism confusing. But it continues to crop up in my current location. Like that trendy New England anti-church church, Protestant pastors here in rural Alabama often like to say that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. A person may be “religious,” but that doesn’t mean that he’s “saved.”

One shouldn’t spend too much time parsing a colleague’s words with the scrutiny of a philologist, but, again, I find the dualism confusing. On one level, I understand it because I grew up hearing it and agreeing with it. “Religion” was the man-made realm of rules and regulations. “Relationship” was the one-on-one encounter with Jesus that made for “saving knowledge.”

On another level, the terms are frustratingly equivocal. Isn’t religion just a particular form of life? And doesn’t a relationship with Jesus entail a particular form of life? The same people who decry the “religious” nature of Christianity have no problem insisting that Christianity demands definite moral commitments. Real relationships need rules. True, they may not always be spoken or written down, but relationships without limits and conventions fall apart.

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In fact, I worry that a relationship with Jesus that purports to be without rules, without “religion,” will turn out to be not a relationship, but a fantasy. Real relationships inevitably make demands on us. They may not codify these demands in the form of canons or creeds, but it is delusional to imagine that we can firmly separate the kinds of personal authority that characterize relationships from the impersonal authority that characterize formal rules and institutional religion. It may be theoretically possible in normal human relationships, but a relationship with Jesus is not a normal human relationship, but a relationship with a two-natured hypostasis of the Godhead who has ascended into heaven and is known to us now only in mental contemplation or in the real yet ineffable substantiality of the Blessed Sacrament. Unless Christianity really is reducible to a kind of one-on-one mystical conversation with Jesus (in which case, there is no “Christianity,” but an endless series of mystical encounters that have no rational basis for commonality), our relationship with Jesus must have rules, must be “religion.” To say otherwise is not to avoid “religion” or “rules” but to propose an alternative religion and an alternative rule, one that may or may not have anything to do with the historical Incarnation of the Son of God.

It is hard not to make the conclusion (pace Alaina Kleinbeck and Don Miller) that avoiding the institutional Church in favor of some more ethereal concept of Christians gathering together is not just following a “different path” (Miller’s phrase), but a different Jesus. Sure, one can meet God outside of Church. God is everywhere. And the Church is, indeed, the people and not the building. But the Church, precisely as a relationship and a set of relationships, has rules, and to go it alone (or, to be fair, with a group of like-minded friends) is, for good reasons, against the rules. Attendance (“assisting” at Mass in the old-fashioned way of putting it) is necessary, not as an arbitrary imposition of institution over individual will, but exactly as a relational habit that guards individual relationships from the harsh oppression of arbitrary personal will. And, to be fair, I would say that this necessity stands or falls on the reality of the Eucharist; if nothing special happens in the eucharistic assembly, there can indeed be no universal reason to “go to Church” (hence, the kind of post-ecclesial evangelicalism represented by Miller makes perfect sense as the denouement of anti-sacramental theology).

It may be that the institutional Church is at times too obsessed with its rules, with its limits and conventions and vocabulary — its religion, in other words. This is natural for something that is two thousand years old. That can and should be a constant source of conversation and reformation. Yet the alternative is not a just free-wheeling “relationship” but ecclesial nihilism.  If there is no institutional Church, there is no “Church” at all, just me and my personal Jesus.

The image above is a cropped version of “Jesus and Friend-07” (2007) by Sasha Nilov. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

Sam Keyes serves Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.

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The hyper anti-religion language seems at some level to be a reaction against: “…the institutional Church…too obsessed with its rules, with its limits and conventions and vocabulary — its religion, in other words.” I think your point of the necessity of Church is a proper corrective. Charles Hummel wrote _Fire in the Fireplace_ to make the point that the “fire” of charismatic revival belongs in the “fireplace” of the Church. Otherwise, the whole building is in danger of burning down. And there is the danger of a Christianity that is so dry, separated from Living Water, that many will continue… Read more »

Perhaps part of the problem is that the larger thought world of early Christianity – the Greco-Roman world – has itself become increasingly marginal in our own society. On the one hand, the Roman emphasis upon duty has simply become foreign to us. And yet, for more than 2,000 years, someone like Cicero was central to Christian moral and theological reflection. In De Officiis, Cicero writes that all of life consists of duty. But who wants to claim thus today? On the other hand, the Greco-Roman emphasis upon politics as the wellbeing of the political community, is wholly removed from… Read more »

Two thoughts. First, I have never met anyone in my life who tried to justify themselves through external rules. I have met lots of evangelicals who spoke against such attempted self-justification, but I am inclined to think that such attempts at self-justification are really just a fantasy and a straw man. Such people rarely exist. Evangelicals are therefore just protesting against the air. Second, the finite cannot relate to the infinite in the same way that the finite can relate to the finite. So too the finite can neither know nor love the infinite in the same way that the… Read more »

Ian Wetmore

My perhaps too simplistic way of explaining the absurdity of the religion-free Jesus notion is to explain that “religion” means to reconnect (Latin, re-ligio, religare, cf St Augustine). Thus Jesus IS the religion God has given us, and reconnecting through him necessarily means being incorporated into his Body the Church.