[forthright] Religion of Relationship

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From: "Forthright Magazine" <forthrightmag@...>
Date: Mon, 11 Sep 2006 09:54:15 -0300
Forthright Magazine
Straight to the Cross

We remember that shocking day five years ago. But
more than that, we remember the essence of the
faith we hold.

COLUMN: Final Phase

Religion of Relationship
by J. Randal Matheny

"Would it be correct to say that Christianity is a
relationship and not a religion?" So asks a
sincere inquirer.

Since James calls the faith religion, we cannot
dump the word as a description of the Way.

"Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father
is this: to care for orphans and widows in their
misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the
world" (James 1:27, NET).

Christianity is, therefore, religion. But the word
occurs sparsely in the New Testament, in contrast
to its use in Greek literature,/1 which may
indicate a general avoidance when referring to the
true gospel. And James may be using it here in a
good sense only to counter someone who wrongly
styles himself as "religious" (v. 26).

We might be wise, then, to consider how many think
of the word religion, since it carries in some
circles a negative connotation. Just as the New
Testament tends to avoid it, it may not be a
choice word to use today in presenting the gospel
if people react against it, because of the many
"futile" and "self-made" religions./2

But Christianity is a religion of relationship
with God. James himself recognizes this when he
describes God as Father in the same verse.

The cross of Christ places us in the presence of
God, as Peter says. "Because Christ also suffered
once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring
you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but
by being made alive in the spirit" (1 Pet. 3.18).
The whole purpose of Christ's suffering, says
Peter, was to restore us to a relationship with

God has always desired a relationship with his
people. Even in the Old Testament, we are urged to
trust God, so that "[t]hen you will take delight
in the Lord, and he will answer your prayers"
(Psalm 37:4). Instead of resenting or even envying
the wicked's success, we should focus our religion
to take pleasure in our relationship with God.

What is said of Israel's king applies to all: "you
give him great joy by allowing him into your
presence" (Psalm 21:6b).

Jeremiah spoke divine words to the same effect.

   The Lord says, "Wise people should not
   boast that they are wise. Powerful people
   should not boast that they are powerful.
   Rich people should not boast that they are
   rich. If people want to boast, they should
   boast about this: They should boast that
   they understand and know me. They should
   boast that they know and understand that
   I, the Lord, act out of faithfulness,
   fairness, and justice in the earth and
   that I desire people to do these things,”
   says the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

Following the ASV and RSV, the ESV translates
Psalm 25:14 in a delightful way: "The friendship
of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he
makes known to them his covenant." "Friendship" is
literally "confidential speech," describing "a
circle of trusted intimates who give their
advice."/3 Also, the important concept of
"covenant" defines a specific manner in which God
relates to his people. Of course, the New
Testament deepens this intimacy of relationship
even further by describing God as Father and his
people as family./4

We need not react against this because some
religious folk emphasize inner experiences which
contradict plain statements of Scripture. The
Bible is about God in search of lost mankind, in
order that he may love and bless and enjoy those
of his creatures who have chosen to serve him.

What a wonderful truth, and unfathomable! For why
would the Creator of the universe, who needs
nothing we can give him nor stands to gain
anything by what we may do for him, care so much
for our fellowship that he would give his only Son
to take on man's nature and surrender his life
through cruelty, injustice, and profound
suffering? But it is so, and we are the glad
recipients of this truth.

We cannot quite jettison the word "religion," to
describe the Way, but the truth of our
relationship with God makes it a sweet, wonderful,
blessed, and -- yes -- experiential religion
unlike any other.
1/ Theological Dictionary of the NT, vol. III, p.

2/ James 1:26; Colossians 2:18. In the New
Testament, the word usually translated "religion"
(threskeia) is used judiciously, only in Acts
26:5, Colossians 2:18, and twice in James 1:26-27
(three times counting the adjective "religious").
In Colossians 2:23 Paul uses the composite word,
"ethelothreskeia," translated variously as "self-
made religion" (NASB, ESV), "self-imposed worship"
(NIV, NET), or "self-imposed piety" (NRSV). In
Acts 25:19 the term "deisidaimonia" is translated
"religion" in most versions, but "superstition" in
KJV. NET translates "chuqqah" (statute, ordinance)
in Jeremiah 10:3 as "religion:" "For the religion
of these people is worthless."

3/ Theological Wordbook of the OT, #1471. The term
is also translated as "friendship" by NRSV and
NLT. MSG and CEV have similar translations.

4/ See, for example, God as Father: Matthew 5:16;
6:9; John 4:21-23; Acts 1:4, 7; Romans 1:7; 8:15;
his people as family: Matthew 12:49; John 1:12;
Acts 6:3; Galatians 6:10; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter
2:17; 4:17.

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