The pink heart stared at me across my greasy potatoes and hard scrambled eggs. I had just said the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a specific thanks hastily murmured for the food in front of me. After the “amen,” my eyes opened, looked for my fork, picked it up, and then drifted up to meet the bold pink heart glaring back at me.
This ferocious organ was clinging to the back of a sweater of a young woman seating facing away from me, engrossed in a novel at the table ahead of me. Her breakfast lay finished and pushed away. Across her hoodie, emblazoned in vibrant, billboard letters, read: JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, NOT MY RELIGION—the pink heart made up the “U” in “Jesus.”
I sat staring at this message, so boldly proclaimed and confident. It unsettled me, although it may have been mere intimidation in the presence of the confidence and assertion of the sweater—or it may have merely been the food I was eating. Either way, I pondered on the bold theology of this cafeteria prophet’s clothing, and was uncomfortable with the statement.
“Jesus is my savior, not my religion” is a fairly common, fairly abstract statement, offered mainly by young-ish Protestants in reaction to the ills perpetrated on the church and individuals by excessively strict religious institutions. The message itself manifests in other forms, such as “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” and “I don’t like the word ‘Christian,’ I’m a follower of Christ.” It’s a decent message, keeping in line with an American distrust of authority and establishment, as well as a desire for individuality in the midst of imposed leadership and values.
Despite the validity of such a statement, it truly neglects a necessary aspect of the Christian faith—the very faith that Jesus Christ established—and turns it into a loosely defined relationship with a person that most Christians (or “followers of Christ”) don’t have a normal, face-to-face relationship with. Jesus is risen, but, he doesn’t personally interact with most of us—at least not in the way that we interact with our neighbors, roommates, pastors and priests. Yes, we are given Scripture and the Holy Spirit, but if there is anything that can be known about Scripture, it’s that people can interpret it differently; just ask a room full of Christians if they’re Calvinist or Arminiast—be sure to specify you want verses to back up their claim. As for the Holy Spirit, it is by definition the Person of the Trinity that “blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8)
There is a danger here in denouncing religion for the sake of Jesus; he never made this distinction, nor has Church history. Christ came as the fulfillment of thousands of years of tradition and religion; right before the Ascension, he affirmed Peter as the “rock on which I will build My Church.” Even Christ saw the need for a Church—and Church leadership—in order to shepherd his flock. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ our Savior, but that is facilitated, strengthened, and protected through the Christian faith—through healthy religion.
Jesus is my savior; Christianity is my religion. My relationship with Jesus is built on the faith of the Jews; my walk with him is aided by 2,000 years of Church tradition—2,000 years of religion. I was uncomfortable with the cafeteria prophet’s message, not because Jesus isn’t my Savior, but because he is also the cornerstone of my religion. The statement “Jesus is my Savior, not my religion” seems to neglect that for every individual for whom Jesus Christ is their Savior, he is also their pastor. This neglect is troubling in that it acknowledges Christ, the Head of the church, while marginalizing the Body—leaving one alone with a disembodied head.
Jesus is my friend, Jesus is my Savior; Jesus is also my high priest. You don’t need a high priest if you don’t have a religion—nor do you need church authority, theologians, Christian education, or most of Holy Scripture. The desire to emphasize the fact that Christians have a personal relationship with Christ is admirable; to do so at the expense of the Church is fatal.