There is a continuing rumbling discussion in the Church Times about the phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ since Angela Tilby’s diatribe against ‘evo-speak’ in February, to which I responded with a letter the following week, and to which there have been further responses. Before exploring the issues, it is worth reflecting on the different reasons for reaction to this phrase—and on reflection I am aware that it is not a phrase that I use myself, and I confess to feeling uncomfortable with some ways in which this language of ‘relationship’ is deployed.
One possible objection is that ‘relationship with Jesus’ focuses on the second person of the Trinity rather than being fully Trinitarian, though in recent discussion that theological concern doesn’t appear to be evident. Another objection might simply be what we might call ‘ecclesiology-cultural’: it doesn’t fit very comfortably with a certain church ethos. After all, there isn’t anything very ‘chummy’ about the language of the Book of Common Prayer, with its ‘manifold sins and wickedness’ which do ‘most justly provoke thy wrath and indignation against us’. Related to that, and connecting theology with the culture of our language, I remember having a debate with a friend at a summer New Wine conference a few years ago, where my friend argued that God is something akin to a celestial chum, and that if we found God mysterious or difficult to understand then we were missing out on God’s friendship. I think this approach is in serious danger of reducing the analogy of human friendship in our understanding of relationship with God, can trivialise our worship, and doesn’t attend to our confident but still partial understanding expressed in 1 Cor 13.12 as ‘seeing through a glass darkly’ or, in contemporary English, ‘dim reflections in a mirror’. This is reflected in many of our contemporary praise songs, where (in one charismatic tradition) as we ‘come closer’ in some sense to the presence of God, we move into celebrating intimacy, rather than being overwhelmed with the holiness and ‘otherness’ of God or being challenged (as were many who came close to Jesus in the gospel accounts) about the demands of discipleship. So there are clearly some important issues to explore here.
But one of the objections in this week’s Church Times letters is worth engaging with in its own right:
If I remember rightly, the only people about whom it can be reliably said that they had “a personal relationship with Jesus” are his mother and father, Mary and Joseph, his brothers (and sisters?), his cousins, the disciples, and a few other people. And I can’t recall Jesus exhorting people to be his close confidantes: quite the opposite, as in “Do not cling to me” (John 20.17).
The notion of having “a personal relationship with Jesus” has very little, if anything, to do with Christianity.
One immediate observation to make here is that the writer does not have a very good memory. In an episode specifically mentioning Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters, Matthew records his reinterpretation of kinship relationships around the kingdom of God and discipleship follow Jesus:
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12.46–50)
This is no mere rhetorical flourish, since this redefinition of kinship relationships sows the seed of the new understanding of the people of God away from ethnic identity and around response to the good news of Jesus, which eventually leads to the mixed Jewish-gentile communities of Jesus-followers we find in Acts and beyond. And this kinship language is found both in Revelation (‘the rest of her offspring’ referring to those like Jesus who spring from the expectant Old Testament people of God in Rev 12.17) and in Paul’s writing. His reference to fellow believers as ‘brothers and sisters’ springs from their shared sibling relationship with Jesus in which we all address God as our Father.
This might lead us to reflect further on the language of discipleship in the gospels. In Mark’s account of the appointment of the Twelve, he describes them as those who will ‘be with him’ (Mark 3.14, a phrase missing from the parallels in Matt 10.1 and Luke 6.13), which is unmistakeable as language of relationship derived from a rabbinical understanding of teaching and learning. The disciple spends time in the presence of the master, in relationship with him, observing and learning from both his actions and his teaching, that he in turn might grow to become like the master. It also seems clear that the gospel writers intend this not merely as a record of what has happened, but as a paradigm for the life of faith for all. We see this in Luke’s pattern of cascading this experience outwards, as first the Twelve and then Seventy (Two) are commissioned to declare the good news in word and deed in Luke 9 and Luke 10 respectively. By the time of Pentecost, these disciples number 120, and very quickly they grow to more than 3,000. Luke never suggests that the pattern of Jesus’ relationship with the Twelve is anything other than extended to all those who later respond, and so he uses the word ‘disciple’ quite flexibly, just as Paul uses the word ‘apostle’ to refer to many others beyond the Twelve, for example in Romans 16.
It could be argued that all this remains in the arena of theological definition, rather than describing anything that we might call, in affective terms, a ‘personal relationship’. But there are at least four objections to that.
The first arises, again, from the gospel narratives. The language of ‘believing’ (pisteuo) clearly involves some kind of assent to claims about reality, as expressed in Jesus’ opening proclamation in Mark 1.15: ‘repent and believe the good news’ (μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ). But this is never separated from a sense of personal encounter and trust in Jesus himself; we frequently meet individuals in the narrative who are confident, unsure, or searching for ‘faith’, and Jesus’ response is almost universally in terms of appeal to personal trust. This sense of personal encounter is (mostly implicitly) presented as a model for subsequent readers, but occasionally this dynamic is made quite explicit, most notably in the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas at the end of John’s gospel:
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20.26–29)
The second is the frequent occurrence of what can only be understood as affective language in Paul’s own description of the life of faith. In Romans 5.5, he talks of ‘the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit’, and it is quite difficult to understand this in anything other than affective and relational terms. He expands on this work of the Spirit in the life of the believer three chapters on:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co–heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Rom 8.14–17)
Once again, this is highly affective as well as theological language about relationships. Note that Paul is also using kinship language as a theological description, both explicitly (‘children of God…sonship’) and implicitly—we call God ‘Abba’ just as Jesus, our elder brother in spiritual terms, did.
Thirdly, the table fellowship of Jesus, which brought people into personal relationship with him in the gospels (though this needed to be completed by a response of repentance to his message) becomes the paradigm for the central Christian act of worship in the celebration of Communion. In most liturgical contexts, this has become rather rarified and abstracted in its presentation, and we could do with recovering the personal dimension of the family meal—which actually isn’t that difficult to do. I think it is hard to miss the relational as well as theological connections with Communion in the risen Jesus’ words to the Christians in Laodicea:
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me. (Rev 3.19–20)
Fourthly, it can be argued that reconciliation should be considered the theological centre of Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Although the term does not occur as frequently as others in Paul’s theological vocabulary, it combines all the elements of what Paul believes God has done for us in Jesus, which is mediated to us by the Spirit. Ralph Martin argues:
It is the overall theme of reconciliation … that meets most – if not all – these tests. This is not to say that the word-group katallass- is prominent in Paul’s writings; manifestly it is not … But the contention stands, namely, that reconciliation provides a suitable umbrella under which the main features of Paul’s kerygma and its practical outworking may be set.
And Tom Wright comments:
The heart of it all…is koinonia, a ‘partnership’ or ‘fellowship’ which is not static but which enables the community of those who believe to grow together into a unity across the traditional divisions of the human race. This is a unity which is nothing other than the unity of Jesus Christ and his people, – the unity, indeed, which Jesus Christ has won for his people precisely by his identifying with them and so, through his death and resurrection, effecting reconciliation between them and God.
There is little doubt that ‘reconciliation’ is a term of personal relationship, and some English versions translate terms related to ‘reconciliation’ with the phrase ‘changing us from God’s enemies to his friends’, perhaps echoing Jesus’ language in John 15.15: ‘I no longer call you servants but friends’.
Alongside this, it is worth noting Paul’s consistent description of himself as the slave (doulos) of Christ, so Paul clearly does not allow the language of friendship and relationship to lapse into the idea of God (or Jesus) as ‘celestial chum’. But one of the paradigmatic images of the gospel is offered to us in Jesus’ teaching in Luke 15 of the ‘prodigal’ son and the patient father; the climax of the story is the father’s emotional embrace of the son as they are restored and reconciled once more. The personal emotion of this moment is captured so eloquently in Rembrandt’s portrait at the top of this piece.
As I reflect on the sense of God’s reconciling presence in my life, I realise it is often expressed and experienced in the most tangible relational terms. I regularly have a sense of God’s personal presence; I experience God speaking to me in a range of different ways; I am aware from time to time of his direction, of healing and of answered prayer. In the light of this, it is very hard to see how we can avoid using the language of ‘personal relationship’ in some form or other to describe the Christian life—if lived fully.
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