Several years ago a young, good-looking guy set the evangelical internet on fire with his thoughts about how Christianity was about relationship, not religion. I wrote sort of a snarky take on it back then, some of which I’m not even sure I mean any more.
Still, the whole “religion is a bad word” argument has always bothered me at some level, but I couldn’t always understand why. Recently, though, I stumbled across some ideas that made sense.
Words matter. How words are constructed help us understand their meaning. This is certainly true in the case of the word “religion.” Though some dispute the origin of the modern English word “religion,” it is widely believed to be derived from the Latin “religo” and “religare.” You likely hear other modern English words in that Latin, including “relegate,” and even “ligament.” Each of those words, like the Latin “religo” have something to do with binding. To relegate is to bind a person to a group of lesser importance. A ligament connects bones to one another.
“Religion” when it’s doing what the word itself suggests it should, is meant to connect us to God and to one another. In this way, it is quite literally a synonym of relationship, not an antonym, as the video a few years back suggested. Religion and relationship are not opposites, they are the same thing.
“Relationship” traced back to the Latin, believe it or not, comes to the English from “relatio.” Our modern words religion and relationship come to us from “religo” and “relatio.” They’ve been similar words all along, and yet too often we view them in their modern senses as opposites. I’ve never really understood why.
Still, the video lit the internet on fire. It resonated with people. It hit a nerve. He was on to something. Aside from not knowing what the word means, why are so many people feeling negatively about religion?
I believe the answer is that most people do not see “religion” being practiced but far too often fall victim to “de-ligion.” They do not see a faith practice that connects, though they crave that very thing, but one that persistently disconnects. I can attest. I have personally known people who are forcibly disconnected from a faith community because they went through a divorce, spoke out against abuse, didn’t adhere to a certain political viewpoint, or made a person in the church who had money angry. Congregants and staff members alike sometimes get elbowed out. That’s not religion, it’s de-ligion. By being disconnected from community, many also question their connection to God.
It’s a connection we all crave, and if we can’t get it from religion, we’ll get it where we can. It’s why social media has taken off. It surely has something to do with how we’ve sorted ourselves out as a society, finding likeminded people we can really bind ourselves to. It must be a factor in how we behave sexually. It’s why solitude usually drives us bats and is unsustainable for most long term. We need connection.
But so often, the faith we practice accomplishes the opposite.
Throughout the ages, the Church has been famous for disconnecting itself from those it deemed unworthy. I readily admit that there are times when for the safety of the community some people must be expelled, and Scriptures are clear on that. But I don’t think historically we have run the risk of severing ties with too few people. I think we’ve grown pretty comfortable disconnected with just about anyone who doesn’t see things precisely our way (consider the infamous worship wars of the 80s and 90s, or the more recent fissures around Christian nationalism, Trumpism, racism, etc.).
The New Testament is full of language encouraging believers to stay connected despite their differences. The early church continued this struggle for the first few centuries. There was constant tension between Jew and Gentile, East and West, Rich and Poor. Eventually the West and East would divorce (The Great Schism of 1054). Five hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church resisted reforms and the Protestant Reformation splintered the Church again. The New World brought a new frontier for further separation. There are now hundreds of Christian denominations. If that weren’t enough disconnection, within those denominations there are church splits and staff members being fired for not believing exactly the right thing.
This isn’t don’t lightly, of course. It’s actually done in the name of religion. Groups who fuss and fight and fracture are doing so in pursuit of “true religion.” They think they’re right. They don’t understand how anyone could disagree. They draw a line in the sand. They view it as their mission to defend the “true faith.”
In fact, everywhere you look in Christendom today. We aren’t even practicing re-ligion. We’re not being connected together. How grievous it must be to God to see all His kids disconnecting in the name of better religion. The Body is being severed; the product of de-ligion.
One body, many parts, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11. We’re not all the same. We do different stuff. This has made us so suspicious that we do the exact opposite of what Paul says we should do. We aren’t one body, many parts. We’re many bodies — totally de-ligioned.
It’s not about religion, they say — it’s about relationship. I know what they mean. But just like ligaments physically hold a body together, with all it’s complexity and variety and beauty, religion binds us together — and together binds us all to God.
Or it should, at least.