Is religion primarily about rules, traditions and doctrines, or more about relationships?
Do we have to choose? It all depends: whose rules, which traditions, and what sort of doctrines.
At one point, Jesus confronts the religious leaders of his day. “Your teachings are but rules taught by men.” That’s the tendency in all our hearts – to play by our own rules. These rules cater to our pride, our desire to be in control, to be self-righteousness and more. And these rules certainly choke off relationship – with God, with others.
But every good game or sport has rules. Families can have delightful traditions. “Doctrine” – the word means “things that are taught.” We can never learn enough about what God has done in Jesus Christ, in love for the world, and how we are to respond, in love for him.
Jesus also told the religious leaders their focus was wrong: the entire law of God was all about loving God with all our heart, soul and mind, and our neighbour as ourselves. That needs to be religion’s goal. But that love is not just a vague feeling in our hearts. It plays by rules, it develops godly habits, it grows in knowledge and knowing.
On the one hand, Jesus warns us not to fool ourselves into thinking we have a relationship with him, if we do not accept his commands and follow him in trust and obedience. On the other hand, he died on a cross not simply so people would follow the rules, but so that there would be a multitude who glorify God and enjoy him forever!