Light for our path: Religion vs. Relationship?

“I don’t want a religion; I want a relationship.” I have seen this quote quite a bit lately. Is there any risk in me using it?

James F. Pope

There is always some risk in being misunderstood when we use language and phrases that might be used in ways different from our intention.



From the sound of it, the quote seems to say that religion is bad. Is it? offers several definitions of religion including “something one believes in and follows devotedly,” “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects,” and “the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.” There is nothing bad about religion from those definitions unless a person does not want to be locked into a “set of beliefs and practices” or has an objection to certain worship practices.

And that is precisely what can lead some people to say, “I don’t want a religion.” They may want to believe only what they think is best. Or they may want freedom from organized religion and its forms of worship. “I can worship God in nature” replaces “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD’ ” (Psalm 122:1).


“I don’t want a religion; I want a relationship.” From the sound of it, that quote seems to say that religion and relationships are worlds apart. That is not at all the case. True religion is all about relationships. True religion, that is, Christianity, means enjoying a relationship with God and having the privilege of calling him our Father. The opening words of the Lord’s Prayer illustrate that truth. True religion means enjoying a relationship with Jesus and having the privilege of calling him our Brother. “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11).

True religion, Christianity, means enjoying additional relationships. God’s design is not that his people become hermits and live far removed from society. No, God’s intention is that his followers interact with fellow human beings, encouraging fellow Christians and serving as light and salt to the unbelieving world. Interestingly enough, the Bible even pairs the word religion with human relationships. “If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1 Timothy 5:4).

True religion, then, is all about relationships, isn’t it? The relationships people enjoy with God their Father and Jesus Christ their Brother as well as the relationships people experience with others. Without question, true religion, Christianity, is all about relationships—the vertical and horizontal kind.

So is there any risk in your use of the quote “I don’t want a religion; I want a relationship”? Sure, there is always a risk in being misunderstood if you use an expression that others use for their own purposes. There will be no mistaking what you mean if you say, “If you want a religion and a relationship, you will find both in Christianity.”

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to [email protected].






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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016

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