The more I listen to evangelical preachers the more I realize they are hammering home a false dichotomy between religion on the one side and relationship on the other. The thing that is so annoying about this is they are setting themselves and Jesus Christ as being anti-religion, which is just stupid and historically inaccurate. Oh yeah, and grossly unbiblical.
This rests in their desire to connect with post-moderns who would say, "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual." They think that by ditching religion and championing relationship that they are now saying the same thing as those wayward post-moderns. "We agree with you! Christianity isn't about religion. Yuck! It's about a relationship. A spiritual relationship between you and Jesus." It also lets them off the hook for the historical crappiness that the Church has done.
But this is just one of the many ridiculous divorces that are happening right now in Christianity. And as God said in Malachi 2:16, "I hate divorce."
Let's look at it biblically first. Religion is understood in the New Testament not as a system of beliefs, hierarchy, and ritual behaviors, such as prayer rites, temples and animal sacrifice, but as first and foremost worship and reverence to God. θρῆσκος (threskos) is the Greek word that means at its root, "fear, trembling, especially before God; reverence." This is probably best translated as "fear of God" or "fear of the Lord," which is found throughout the Old Testament. Here is a common bridge between the Old Testament and New Testament on the concept of the creature and his/her relation to the Creator.
Thus, from a biblical perspective, the Greek word for religion means worshipping God, or even more, to fear and tremble in His presence. Along these exact lines Saint Paul would exclaim to the Philippians, "work out your own salvation in fear and trembling" (Ph 2:12). This wasn't a foreign concept to St Paul as a Jew, nor to his audience of Gentile Christians. What else would a creature do in the presence of God except but tremble? But, let us be honest, this fear and trembling language is absolutely foreign to we fancy post-moderns, so we must discard it if we are to win over this generation, or so the logic goes.
Now we look at it (all too briefly) from a historical perspective. From the Roman Catholic tradition that cautiously incorporated philosophical thought into her theological science, the word religio in Latin signifies first a virtue, not an institution. For centuries the word religio or religion meant to everyone the sub-virtue of justice whereby we render unto God homage and worship, which is His due. That is why when the priest says during Mass, "Lift up your hearts to the Lord," we respond, "It is right and just." Religion is an act of justice.
Thus, from this perspective on religio we can join with Saint James who says:
If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:26-27)
For an evangelical preacher to stand up Sunday after Sunday and say, "Jesus didn't come to start a religion, but to give us a relationship" opens up this false dichotomy. In fashioning a Religion Vs. Relationship juxtaposition, they are able to present whenever they want as real Christianity and distance themselves from whatever/whoever they want in Christian history.
Obviously we can see the appeal in doing this. Who doesn't want to separate themselves from the messes of a collective past? What white person in America doesn't want to separate himself from African chattel slavery? And so by lumping anything post-moderns would consider distasteful or immoral into the Religion category, the evangelical preacher presents Relationship as the only thing real Christians care about.
Biblically, religion means the reverence and worship due to God, especially the fear and trembling that comes from those in His presence. Historically, religion is a virtue, a way of acting in the world that transforms our very personality. Joined together, as the Catholic Church does, religion is foremost the way of living in God's presence, a virtue or habitual power to constantly and humbly be in the presence of Almighty God and worship Him alone.
Only in recent centuries and in the English language did the word religion devolve entirely to mean the hierarchy, beliefs, and rituals of a certain type of organization. The word and concept now focuses its whole meaning on the externals, whereas in the past it was focused on the internal disposition of the believer. Driving this internal disposition perspective home a bit further, the word godliness and religion are often interchangeable in the English language. The RSV uses the word "religion" in 1 Timothy 3:16:
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
The Authorized Version of the King James Bible uses the English word "godliness" instead:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
The Greek words are not the exact same, but the original meaning of the Greek words are very similar to one another, thus allowing for translators to interchange the English words. But we can see how godliness is about a way of being or acting and is much more of an internal, and personal word, whereas our modern understanding of religion is nothing like that, speaking only to the external, man-made, and institutional side.
By creating this false dichotomy, the evangelical preacher is ignoring the biblical and historical understanding of the word religion and is relying only on a recent, linguistic alteration of the word's meaning.