Things Christians should stop saying Part 2
Personal Relationship with Christ
This is the second post in this series. If you haven’t yet, you can find the first one here.
This is another phrase I’ve heard way too often. And , in the spirit of full disclosure, I have said it myself more than once. But, for many Christians, this is the bedrock principle of their faith.
Unlike the first phrase I talked about, on the surface, there is nothing wrong with this concept. God is a personal God. He wants to have a personal relationship with us. And, there is much about our Christian walk we must complete on our own. So, what’s the problem, you may be asking.
Like I said, on the surface there is nothing wrong with it. But, dig a little bit deeper and you start finding a lot of problems. The big one being that it infers that Christianity is only about the personal relationship. And even a cursory study of the bible shows that this is definitely not the case.
We are not meant to be alone.
In Genesis 2:18, God says, “it is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him,” (NIV). If you read the whole creation account, you’ll find this is the first thing God said was not good. We were not made to be alone. We need others around us. In fact, it’s bad for our mental health to be alone for too long. This is one of the reasons solitary confinement is such an effective punishment.
God created us for community. It is baked into the fiber of our being. We crave a connection with our fellow human. This drive is so strong that we will sometimes subject ourselves to horrible situations just to find that connection.
If we were made for community in a general sense, then the same goes for our spiritual lives. As Christians, we need to be part of a community. This is where we will find growth and a point where we can begin our lives of service. We need other people. Christianity is all about community.
We need each other to grow
Solomon says in Proverbs: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” (27:17 NIV). When we are in community, we can grow and learn. We can be kept in check and find accountability. It’s an environment where growth is possible. We need others to help us become a better version of ourselves.
In the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in the scene when Freddy Mercury is trying to reconcile with the rest of Queen, he says his solo album was garbage. He attributes this to the fact that he needed the rest of the band to refine his ideas. He needed the push back and input that they provided. He was better with them than he was without. This is a great picture of how it is for us as well.
We are stronger in a group
In his musings on life, Ecclesiastes, Solomon reflects on the idea of being stronger in a group. He says it this way:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecc. 4:9–12 NIV)
These are all well know points. While Solomon only gives a few examples, we don’t have to think too hard to come up with our own.
Through out the different careers I have had, many of them have involved some form of physical labor. One thing I learned very quickly was the fact that having someone to help you with the task makes it so much easier. In fact, there were something that I couldn’t have done myself no matter how hard I tried.
Being a Christian works the same way. One reason for this is that the work of the church takes a wide variety of skills. It is impossible for one person to do it all. Paul references this in First Corinthians when he says:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Cor. 12:21–26 NIV)
We all have our part to play in the work of the church. The only way that the church can accomplish its task is if we all work together.
So, Christianity is about community. And, even though there is a personal aspect to our relationship with Christ, focusing on that personal aspect too much can dramatically twist our view on what it means to be a Christian.
It redirects the focus from God to ourselves.
Years ago, I was at a student life conference with my youth group. David Platte was one of the speakers that week end. During his message he said something that made a profound impact on me. He said God didn’t send His son to save. He sent His son for His own glory. Our salvation was just the way He choose to do it.
Yes, there are many benefits we gain from our salvation, but ultimately, the goal was not our benefit, but God’s glory. Because of what He did for us to make salvation possible, it shows just how great He really is.
When we focus only on our personal relationship, we make salvation all about us. Really, the relationship becomes one-sided. It is all about what we get, and we no longer feel any need to give anything back. In many ways, God becomes more like Santa Claus than our true Lord and Creator. What’s worse, we view the Church as an extension of this. We see it as existing as a way God is supposed to provide for us. And just as we don’t see a need to give back to God, we also don’t see a need to give back to the church.
It is rooted in selfishness
The reason this view leads us to the point I descried above is because this idea of a personal relationship is rooted in selfishness.
In America, it seems we worship the idea of liberty. We are obsessed with our personal freedoms. And, we think it is all about us. There is this myth that we don’t need anyone else. I mean, the whole American Dream is the idea that if you work hard and pull yourself up by the “bootstraps,” then you can archive anything you want.
While debunking the myth of the American Dream is not the point of this post, I will say that no one, and I mean no one, has ever archived any kind of success all on their own. No mater what the situation, there are always people behind you, helping you to rise higher and higher. It is impossible to do it on our own.
But, even though the American Dream is just a myth, it’s still part of the bedrock of our American culture. And as happens all too often, much of American culture has bled in to the church. We like the idea of a personal relationship theology because it echoes the American Dream myth, which feeds our own selfish natures. (Besides, if we did it all ourselves, then we don’t have to share the credit or glory with anyone else.)
It is all about our experience
We have looked at the roots of this phrase, now we need to look at what grows from those roots. The first thing to consider is that it makes our salvation all about experiences.
Starting back in the period of the Great Awakenings here in the States, there was a shift in what it took to be saved. (And by this, I mean what was taught about what it took to be saved. What was required of us for salvation did not change.) Previously, there was a strong emphasis on an intellectual understanding of God’s gift of salvation. In fact, the Greek, word for faith really means a shift in your understanding of the world and an agreement with God’s view of reality. This is the reason why some denominations have confirmation. They want to confirm that you really understand what salvation is all about.
On the other hand, many of the more fundamentalist Christian denominations rely only on the invitation, which almost always is driven by an emotional reaction. (I am not saying that a person can’t be saved through an invitations, only that we shouldn’t really solely on an emotional reaction as the basis of genuine salvation.)
Salvation is not only about emotions. I believe they are a part of it, if for no other reason than they are a part of who we are and salvation is about totality of who we are. But they are not the only part. There is also an intellectual aspect. Paul says that we are transformed through the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). We don’t just feel saved, we have to know and understand as well. It works in our hearts and our minds, emotion and intellect.
It leads us to feel-good theology
A major problem with making salvation all about emotions and experiences is that we will then naturally gravitate to teachings that make us feel good about ourselves. After all, one of the emotions that lead us to salvation is guilt, so we want a teaching that will eliminate that feeling.
Now, when you talk about feel-good theology, the first thing people will probably consider is the kind of teaching that says everyone is okay and everybody gets to go to heaven when they die. And yes, this is a problem and constitutes false teaching. But it’s not the only form that feel-good teaching takes.
The other kind, and one that is far more prevalent and devious is sin-obsessed teaching, often it’s referred to as “Hell, Fire and Brimstone,” preaching. (There is a more extreme form of this teaching know as, “Tough Love Theology,” but that is a whole topic for another day.) So how is a teaching that focus on eternal damnation feel-good teaching? Simple, the people that this teaching says are going to hell are always other, not you.
The people who feel affirmed by this kind of teaching are those who feel it isn’t directed at them. When they hear a message about some specific sin and why it is evil, their first thought is some other person who should have heard the message. It isn’t about them, it’s about other people. (Usually some group of people they don’t like in the first place and this just reinforces in their mind how much worse they are. Also, specific sins are usually mentioned, not sin in general. As long as my personal habitual sins don’t make the list I’m fine. And if they do, then the pastor is “stepping on toes,” here and needs to watch out.)
I would say that this second kind of feel-good teaching is worse than the first because it’s wrapped up in a false piety. Not only does it make you feel good about yourself, but it also makes you feel superior because you’re not like those heathens damned to hell.
And, when you feel good about yourself, then you don’t feel any reason to change, which brings me to my last point.
It removes the need for accountability.
As I pointed out above, we need community so that we can be shaped into a better version of ourselves. While it is okay to come to God seeking salvation in as a broken person, it is not okay to stay that way. God loves us as we are, but also loves us too much to want us to stay that way. We are saved so that God can transform us into who He wanted us to be in the first play.
One of the tools that God uses to work this transformation is the community of the church. In biblical terms, this is discipleship. We grow when we share life with other Christians. And one way this works is discipline and accountability.
We have a huge blind spot when it comes to our own actions. Often we need someone else to point out when we’re doing something wrong. In the movie “Emma” with Gwyneth Paltrow, there is a scene where the titular character makes a very cruel remark about one of her friends. She meant it to be a joke, but didn’t realize just how hurtful the words really were. While most of the group just gapes at her, George Knightly looks at her with disapproval and says, “bad form Emma, bad form.”
Now, this scene is a pivotal part of Emma’s growth as a character because she is brought face to face with just how cruel she can be. From that point on she works to become a better person. The chastisement is the impetus for her ultimate growth.
We all need this. There are times when we need someone who can tell us, “bad form,” so that we realize our mistake. If your relationship with Christ is only personal, then you don’t let anyone make these kinds of comments on your behavior. It is none of their business. Your life is between you and Jesus, and as I said above, you will seek out teaching that insures you feel everything is just peachy. After all, I felt guilty and sad about my sin, I asked God to forgive me and He did, so I am good to go. There’s no need to continue feeling bad about myself, right?
Yes, there is a personal aspect to our walk as Christians. And God does want to have a personal relationship with us. But that is only part of what it means to be a Christian. And I would say that it’s a rather small part meant to help us in the much larger part of being members of the body of Christ.
We are to be active Christians. We are to live in community with other Christians. And, through the sharing of lives, we are to help each other grow and become the people that God wants us to be. And through all of this, we are to bring glory to God so that the world can see just how great He is. We are also to be the conduit through which God interacts with the world around us.
So let’s stop talking all about the, “personal relationship with Christ,” and start talking about being part of the family.