A few years ago I was curious about social networking. How does it work and what does it offer? So I joined Facebook. In the profile page I gave my actual age and social status—I’m an aging single guy.
Oh my, was that an awakening! From the start my FB page featured photos of young “lonely” women from various dating services—unavoidably posted on a sidebar. I’d been profiled and the advertisers, with relationships as bait, were after me.
As an experiment I rewrote my profile and became a college-age man “in a relationship.” The dating services instantly dropped me; and computer games and online college degrees took their place.
Many of my FB friends also sent me notes asking about my social life—was marriage in view? Only then did I realize that my shift to “in a relationship” was sent to every friend in my network!
Now let’s shift gears and talk about relationships in a different context.
Near the end of last week a student at the Bible school where I was teaching asked me about my references to “relationship” in speaking of our Christian bond with Jesus and the Father.
The student said another teacher, earlier in the term, had dismissed the word: “You won’t find it in the Bible!”
That’s true. But I immediately thought about how “JWs” make the same point about the Trinity: “It’s not in the Bible!” Yes, yes, we know. But so what? The real question is whether the meaning—the content of “Trinity”—is found in the Bible.
The answer is, yes! The term itself is just a convenient shortcut for New Testament references to “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”—as in Matthew 28:19. It sets out God’s being as one who exists in eternal communion.
I was thinking of the Trinity because my teaching at the Bible school for the week traced the Trinity in the Old Testament. It’s a rich theme that fills the Scriptures. So I was helped to have the label “Trinity—coined by Tertullian late in the second century—as something more manageable than always saying, “the Father-Son-and-Spirit-God.”
So what about the professor’s complaint about the widespread use of “relationship” to speak of our faith in Jesus? Was this a key insight? Or a competing version of faith?
At one level there’s a point to be made. Some who speak of having a “relationship with Jesus” may not have a very lively faith. Jesus hit this issue with some religious leaders of his day by citing Isaiah 29—“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6).
But the complaint might also reflect a bias worth chasing. If Christians are being warned to avoid language that suggests a theology of participation—of our having a real union with Christ through faith—then we really do have a debate on our hands.
There is, in fact, a broad Christian tradition today that portrays our union with Christ in strictly contractual terms: as a covenant that assigns Christ’s salvation to believers who affirm key truths of the faith. These truths are collectively known as “the Gospel” and the role of the covenant caretakers is to tell people what, exactly, needs to be believed. It’s a cognitive project.
There’s a problem with that. But first let’s agree that faith has substance: it’s not a willy-nilly sentiment. Jesus, again, said so: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7).
The key phrase is “I never knew you.” We see that “the name” of Jesus—a set of beliefs about him these people treated as their entrée to heaven—wasn’t enough. Neither were their works of prophesy, exorcism, and other actions useful. Somehow they still didn’t “know” Jesus.
And it’s this term—to know him—that overlaps with our own use of “relationship.” Today we use relationship language to speak of mutual devotion and commitment. It’s how my FB friends understood the magic phrase “in a relationship.” By now—with marriage out of vogue—it’s a common euphemism for cohabiting couples.
So let’s turn to Jesus again, in his prayer to the Father: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Once again the key word is “know.”
Let’s remember how “to know” was used in Christ’s day: it expressed a mutual devotion between people that even included sexual intimacy. If a man “knew” his wife a child would be on the way. It’s certainly much more than our thin idea of “having met someone.”
The real substance of relationship with Jesus—our “knowing” him—is in our sharing his own relationship with the Father, and spreading it to others: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
So, given the present weakness of the word “know” and the power of “in a relationship” let me suggest that the changeover is just fine. We need to grow in our relationship as “the bride of Christ”—becoming ever more holy and blameless (Ephesians 5).
So, yes, I’m “in a relationship” because I know the Son, and his Father, by the Spirit.