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These days the word "religion" often has a bad connotation. Christians (including myself) often emphasize that they have a "relationship" with Jesus, not that they are "religious."

But this doesn't seem to be the case if we look back a little ways in church history. John Calvin wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, in the 16th century. More recently than that, J. Gresham Machen wrote The Origin of Paul's Religion (1921). These positive references to the word seem to be in line with James 1:27, which says:

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. (ESV)

But somewhere along the way, the word "religion" started getting compared negatively to a "relationship." So here's my question: who was the first Christian theologian to place the words "religion" and "relationship" in sharp contrast, with a negative connotation for "religion"?

Note that I'm not interested in those who criticize "false religion" or "impure religion" or "mere religion" or the like – just those who treat "religion," unmodified, as negative and in sharp contrast to "relationship."

I've heard it claimed that it was Billy Graham, which seems plausible, but I'd love to see a published source indicating that he or someone else was the originator of this now-popular dichotomy.

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    Related, focusing on how this dichotomy is understood in evangelicalism: What do Evangelicals who speak negatively of “religion” mean by that? – Nathaniel Mar 23 at 0:43
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    The declining use of the word 'religion' itself is interesting, over the past two hundred and fifty years. Ngram. – Nigel J Mar 23 at 2:20
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    Let's also distinguish relationship between God to the chosen people vs. God to an individual believer. In the OT books that are for sure written during the Persian period or earlier, the relationship is corporate, but starting with the Hellenistic period, it grows more personal, so by New Testament it's a good mix. I would say that nowadays 'religion' has a corporate worship connotation, (with its liturgy and ritual) while 'relationship' is individual. But it's artificial and as Christians we have to have both. – GratefulDisciple Mar 23 at 6:01
  • @NigelJ Your Ngram may reflect the increasing proportion of novels and secular books particularly during the nineteenth century. Religion may appear less frequently simply due to a lower proportion of books being about religion as more and more books not about religion were published. – davidlol Mar 24 at 4:39
  • I think anyone who talks about such a dichotomy is necessarily talking about "false religion", "mere religion" and the like. If not, can you give an example of such a theologian, let alone the first one? Billy Graham was certainly an evangelist; not sure he was a theologian, and I'm pretty sure he'd agree that a relationship with God requires religion (you can't have a relationship with God apart from having at least some right beliefs about God). E.g., Graham wouldn't say of a Muslim, "If he has a relationship with God, that's enough." – Kevin Mar 27 at 13:39
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I think it is due to the rise in Protestant rent-a-building cult following communities (i.e. where people go for the charisma of the preacher and the emotional response from the rock band) and 'megachurches' marketing themselves to be in contrast with 'mainline denominations' (i.e. Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian) from 1980's - 2000's, finally cemented in American imagination and propelled to popularity by this foolish YouTube video (which has been rebutted multiple times).

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • What evidence do you have? – curiousdannii Jun 16 at 23:44
  • Personal experience: Every time, for decades, when someone has said "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion," they are speaking in defense of their lack of sacraments and their opposition to organized religion. Finally I saw Christian apologists of the catholic faith (e.g. Fr Larry Richards) begin co-opting this language to say yes indeed relationships are vitally important, and that these are fed through the Sacraments, etc. – Internet User Jun 16 at 23:50
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    That is no evidence whatsoever for what your answer claims: that it arose due to Protestants renting buildings or independent megachurches. – curiousdannii Jun 16 at 23:53
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    Your partial answer provides nothing but your hostile anecdotal thoughts. You don't provide any logical connection between the churches you disapprove of and the dichotomy the question asks about. I don't see how it could be useful. – curiousdannii Jun 17 at 0:03
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    @Internet User, a partial answer is much less useful than a real answer. One reason is because the person asking it is no slouch when it comes to Christianity. We much prefer long referenced answers (using the formatting features to quote appropriate lengths of text is much appreciated). If you're Catholic, I think reading deus caritas est would be a good start too. I think even Pope Benedict XVI refers to Christianity as an "encounter with a person". The answer to a question "what is the origin" ideally would have a date in it. – Peter Turner Jun 17 at 3:30

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