I sincerely believe that the rhetoric which pits a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ against ‘religion’ fails to solve the problems it purports to solve. The claim often made is that people trying to be saved through systemic or organized approaches to faith radically miss the point of Christianity. Such problems can be solved by instead seeking a personal encounter with Christ. Implicitly the claim being made is that Christian religion is disconnected with Christ’s original intentions.
So what we have is a critique of traditions – for traditions get in the way of this thing Christ wanted to offer throughout time to you – to you without mediation! But what problem is solved by this language? There are personal demands clearly found in Scripture – the disciples were told to come and follow him (and this then is lived out in particular ways of living [WWJD anyone?]) and it is tempting to run away from organized approaches because it doesn’t seem Christ intended a system. We have systems…so the fault of their failure must be with people!
Are traditions problematic? Yes (so are relationships) but that should not be surprising for Christians who affirm the realities of finitude in creation (we are creatures not Creator and there is a fundamental difference between them) and of sin. Even well-intended human actions are problematic. But are ‘relational’ actions less problematic than ‘religious’ ones? I fail to see how, particularly because no one seems capable of really defining what they mean by relationship. The danger of thinking that we are directly in contact with Christ regardless of whether we identify with Christian religious tradition is that we are still finite and still sinful…and now we might claim that Christ is on our side (and therefore not on theirs). There is no neutral point from which one can critique tradition (for one is always in traditions). I.e. one never escapes tradition, even if one is critical of it, as one never escapes culture….but one might fool oneself into thinking such (and worse claim Christ’s authority in doing so). In lieu of this, it is best to be critical within tradition than to try to escape from it.
But does it reflect Christ’s intentions? I don’t believe it comes near enough to a comprehensive description of the task of following Christ. (The truth is that those who use such language mean something very specific – it is a particular type of relationship with a particular way of reflecting or not reflecting that relationship…but there are other problems therewith). Two passages come to mind: In John 17 Christ prayed that we (his followers) may be ‘one as he and the Father are one’ and the Lord’s prayer (our Father…give us…forgive us). What I get from these is that we find salvation through Christ but not without one another. I.e. my relationship with Christ is expressed in my relationship with you. I think this also follows from the Matthew 25 ‘Sheep and Goats’ parable in that how we treat others is how we treat Christ.
To correct my stance slightly, Christianity is a personal religion, but it is not intended for individuals (off note – the thief on the cross next to Jesus was invited into his kingdom but had nothing we might demonstrate as a relationship with him) at least not apart from embodiment in community (yes, that is still a little too vague – James 1:27 does better). I cannot affirm ‘relationship’ rhetoric as helpful in understanding our faith, but deconstruction is always easier than construction. We should here invoke discipleship – for what Jesus preached was the Kingdom of God. Our role therein may be more relational than our status deserves, but Christian religion should be the expression of those who seek to live life in the reality of Christ’s Lordship on earth. Or, we never move beyond discipleship. Relational rhetoric fails to express this message well and should therefore only be used after it has been expressed in relation to the Kingdom (and traditions can help us see how this has been expressed in the past excellently or poorly).