“Christianity is a relationship, not a religion,” or so the popular sentiment goes. Rob Bell, for example, thinks that Jesus would be mortified that people started a religion in his name.* In contrast, Scott Swain states, “The Bible is a book about ‘religion’ not about ‘personal relationship.'”
So who is right?
What Is Religion?
When people speak of religion today, they probably mean definition 2 of Mirriam-Webster’s entry on “religion.” It defines religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” In other words, a religion institutionally worships God through its practices.
I suspect most people also associate religion with an impersonal attachment to religious practice and devotion. So, religion is mechanical. And I think this why the religion vs. relationship paradigm arose.
If religion is mechanical and lacks a vibrant relationship with God, then (at least in the case of Christianity) it is a false religious conviction. True religion requires a vibrant relationship with God that results in benevolence.
James says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:26–27).
True religion—and let’s be clear, Christianity is a religion—means that you show love to others and remain unstained from the world (i.e., bridle your tongue, etc.).
So Who Is Right?
Bell certainly overstates the case because Jesus did intend to build a religion, or at least his church which is defined by an orderly worship of God. And yet: Bell likely speaks of a useless religion that lies and does not love the poor.
Still, Swain makes the better argument. Here are his full words, which I will conclude with here:
The Bible is a book about "religion" not about "personal relationship." Or better: The Bible is a book about religion because religion is the divinely appointed means whereby we engage in covenant relation with the triune God, our maker, redeemer, and reward.
— Scott R. Swain (@scottrswain) March 2, 2018
*It seems clear that Rob Bell specifically means religion as its practiced today. At the same time, he argues that Jesus would not want people to start a religion in his name, and this presumably means any religious practice.