Security in Relational Theology

The following essay is based on readings from "Relational Holiness", by Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl:

Part of the challenge of being a minister or teacher within the church is to bring Biblical truths and insights from theology to a level that can understood by all. Ministers and teachers also have the challenge of inspiring people to want more, to dig deeper, while at the same time present the message in new and creative ways in order to draw people to Christ. Seeing the Bible from a relational viewpoint can help in this process as it gives us a new love and compassion for people because of the new security Christians will feel in their relationship with God. That security is paramount to spiritual formation as God seeks to stretch his people in new and different ways. Christian leaders must strive to instill this relational worldview within their people by understanding the culture and by also presenting the relational view of God that is evident in the Scriptures.

“A relational worldview considers things and persons as deeply interconnected…An individual’s relations with others largely decide what that individual is” (32). This is true in our relationship with God as well. If Christian leaders consistently paint a picture of a God who is responsible for the world’s evils, is all knowing, and who uses those attributes to micromanage his creation, and who is selective about those he chooses to take to heaven (without letting them know ahead of time), our people will react in an excluding and condemning way toward others. They will become legalistic as they strive to appear “good enough” in God’s eyes and will become paranoid about the Holy Spirit trying to change negative points in their lives. As the paranoia grows, the Holy Spirit will cease “bothering” them. God will leave them in the place they want to remain and others around them will suffer because of their immaturity.

For the Christian who views God as a loving Father, a friend, a comforter, a guide, a Creator, and healer, his or her relationship with God is non-threatening to others (unless they choose to feel threatened) and also benefits the individual. Reading the Scripture on its own merit and studying to get beyond denominationally colored theological glasses, shows that the God of Scripture has a desire to relate to his children. If the church can present God in this manner, the postmodern generation should be able to relate to God as he is shown in Scripture.

“Because societies around the world change, the core Christian message—holiness—must be presented in new ways and with new language so as to seize our hearts and imaginations. The Christian gospel must be contextualized for the present age without compromising its core” (30). One of the issues that open theology brings out is that while God’s character does not change, his methodologies do. If this is so, why does it appear that many churches are at least a decade behind in their methodologies? As a minister friend put it, “We move according to geologic time.” We see in the gospels that Jesus was constantly identifying with the culture by producing wine from water and feeding a crowd with typical food for that time period. He ate with “tax collectors and sinners.” We can learn from his example. Jesus, while meeting the needs of those around him, did not compromise his mission or God’s character.

According to the authors of “Relational Holiness,” our descriptions of God’s character “will not and cannot be exhaustive. While Christians believe that some important things can be said about their Maker and Savior, they typically don’t claim to have a full explanation about what divinity entails” (35). If we are to form spiritually in a proper way, Christians must come to this realization. The minute we think that we have God figured out, we put him in a box. God can neither grow nor shrink in our understanding. This leads to pride and manipulative actions toward God and others.

On the other hand, if Christians recognize that God cannot be completely figured out and are at peace with that, then that humble attitude will help us share the truth of Scripture more compassionately. To tell someone “I don’t know, but let’s pray and search the Scriptures about that,” shows a quiet confidence in the One on whom we claim to depend. Our faith despite doubt or lack of knowledge will encourage others to keep going in their faith. Receiving an answer will then build faith and lead to greater discoveries. As our faith builds, and we realize how much God loves us, we will develop the confidence and security needed to win the lost. No longer will we vie for position and acknowledgement. Our only aim will be to please the One who loves us so much.

The authors write about the Lord’s Supper as a church practice that benefits spiritual formation. This was something I had not considered. Certainly, as we wait for the ushers to deliver the elements to everyone in attendance, we develop through patience and through that quiet time in which we wait. Both of the authors and M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. in his book “Invitation to a Journey,” concur that “the local congregation is our testing ground for love” (118). We also find out the nature of our characters when something in the church does not happen as we wish and in our planning sessions together. Some might say that the true test of character is in crisis, but I say that the true test comes in our everyday dealings with each other. Unfortunately, however, it often takes a crisis to bring the church together, but once the crisis has passed will the church return to the way they formerly treated each other or will they have a new love and appreciation for one another?

This is not to assume that every congregation in the United States has problems in coming together. I can only speak from my own experience. There are many instances in which I have heard church people saying, “We’re only human,” and that is true. But where is God’s empowering spirit? We must become conscious and make up our minds to make what the authors call “moment by moment decisions to love.” Part of holiness is based on our commitment, which God honors. Oord and Lodahl state: “We are perfect if we respond appropriately to God’s call to love in that particular moment.” This is that for which we must strive.


The Problem of Evil

Process theologians deal with the on-going state of being and the relationship between God and man. Theodicists attempt to explain the simultaneous existence of evil and a loving, all-powerful God. If God exists as an all-powerful and loving Deity, how can there be genuine evil in the world? Does genuine evil exist? Is God the author of evil? If so, why does God hold humans responsible for their actions? In this essay, I will attempt to explain how an understanding of Scripture can bring light to a coexistence of evil and a loving God.

The problem of how evil and a loving God can co-exist can be understood, as long as we bring free will into the frame of reference. Is God all powerful? If so, and he does nothing about Satan, then how can God be merciful? He allows all the suffering to continue by his inaction. Is it possible that God is not all powerful, and Satan exists because God can’t do anything about him? That doesn’t sit well. Let’s stipulate that God could smite Satan at will. If God did that, however, then there would be no choices, no temptations, with which human kind would wrestle. There would be no need for free will, at least in the sense of choice between good and bad.

The Christian understanding of Satan goes back to the Garden, where Satan, who was represented by a snake, deceived humanity and as a result changed the course of history. Since that time, Satan has been attempting to thwart the purposes of God by deceiving humanity and leading them away from a relationship with a loving Creator. Satan has also been blamed for the earth’s disasters. We see this exemplified in the book of Job, where Satan challenges God about Job’s piety. God accepts the cosmic challenge and Job subsequently becomes the victim of a relentless attack.

Of course, Biblical scholars do not take the accounts of Job and creation literally, but the concept of evil personified is evident. We repeatedly see evidence of this truth in the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons. In college, a psychology professor told my class that demons were only a representation of mental illness or epilepsy—two conditions for which the biblical writers had no frame of reference. But how does this explain Paul’s statement in Ephesians that our “struggles are not against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”? An example of this struggle is found in Daniel chapter 10 where Daniel’s answer to a prayer is delayed by demonic activity that hinders the messenger angel.

An evil entity capable of influencing the hearts and minds of people, and incorporating the concept of a curse set in motion when humanity first disobeyed God gives an adequate Scriptural explanation of why people sin. It also explains why a loving God holds people responsible for their choices. Humans have the power to resist temptation. They also have the power to stop others influenced by evil from carrying out evil deeds. However, this does not explain why an all-powerful and loving God does not stop evil from happening. The experience of Job causes us to ask why a loving God would agree to a cosmic challenge in which Job would lose his family, his wealth and his health.

Cobb said that a “proper conception of divine power holds the key to the Christian solution of the problem of evil” (Evil and the Power of God, 1). This is certainly true. As imperfect people we have imperfect expectations of God. Those imperfect expectations can cause us to misunderstand a loving God. However, there is another element that will help us in our journey as we experience the results of evil. That element is absolute trust.

Part of my own experience is so mysterious that all I can do is entrust myself to a God who has proven his goodness and love. In 2004, my husband, who was a pastor in the Nazarene church and loved God, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is almost always fatal. It is usually found too late because pancreatic tumors begin in the back of the pancreas many times. In Gordon’s case, the tumor blocked the bile duct and started causing symptoms immediately. Because of this, Gordon had 18 months left rather than the usual 4 to 6 month death sentence that most pancreatic cancer patients receive. This 18 month period was full of trials because of his health. It was also full of happiness as we experienced God’s love and care in many ways. During this time of uncertainty, the only real assurance I had was that God had a purpose and that he was taking care of our family. The peace that I had was evident to everyone around me.

To share all of the miracles our family experienced is beyond the scope of this paper, but the questions about why Gordon died, why I was a 37 year old widow, and why my three boys were left without a father could possibly remain with me until I reach heaven. Through this experience, though, I share the awe that Job felt in realizing that God’s purposes far exceed my understanding.

Like everyone else, I do not understand the problem of evil. I understand that because of the curse we do not live in a perfect world and bad things happen. Though my experience with the evil of cancer pales in comparison with other tragedies, it is because of my experience that I understand that evil does not change the loving nature of God’s character. Scripture says that the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous, so no one is exempt from suffering the effects of evil events. As Christians attempting to explain a loving God to non-believers and to each other, we must take Cobb’s suggestion and bring to process theology and theodicy a view immersed in Scripture. It is through an understanding of the process of events in Scripture that the problem of evil can be satisfactorily explained.


Embracing the Third Way

In the church today there are two ways of thinking—either one is conservative or one is liberal. As a result, there are two ways of living out one’s faith—either conservatively or liberally. With the present condition of the church in America, neither way is acceptable. These inflexible ways of thinking are causing the church to become ineffective because it is pushing people away. We must embrace a different way. We must follow postliberalism’s attempt to “revive the neo-orthodox ideal of a ‘third way’ in theology” (Dorrien, p. 1).

Reinhold Niebuhr argued that “fundamentalism was hopelessly wrong because it took Christian myths literally, while liberal Christianity was hopelessly wrong because it failed to take Christian myths seriously” (1). As one who has grown up in the church and has questioned most ideals passed down in Sunday school, neither side of Niebuhr’s argument is appealing. The fundamentalist, who often leans toward rigidity or legalism, seems unrelenting about Scripture. This leaning pushes people away because there is no room for error. If one sins, then one must not be a Christian. If one does not accept Scripture literally, then one must be an apostate. The liberal side, on the other hand, pushes people away because there is no standard of behavior. If the Bible is not to be taken seriously, then why read it? Why go to church?

There must be a happy medium, a medium that upholds the authority of Scripture, while at the same time examines it for what it is—a book of God-inspired doctrines written by men who wanted to describe God within the context of Judaism and later Christianity. Though limited to a small geographical area—compared to today’s standards—and only written by forty different writers over a span of thousands of years, the Bible is remarkably consistent in its presentation of God. By appreciating the culture of those authors and gleaning timeless truths from Scripture rather than adopting specific behaviors unrelated to our culture, Christians have a moral compass by which to live.

If this moral compass and our interpretation of Scripture are to be taken seriously in our postmodern age, then Christians must be flexible and loving. Christians, whether liberal or conservative, have the reputation of not countering what they are taught. Theologian Hans Frei said that once the ‘real’ meaning of a biblical text is determined “no one who pretended to any sort of theology or religious reflection at all wanted to go counter to the ‘real’ applicative meaning of biblical texts…even if one did not believe them on their own authority. The ‘real’ meaning became all-determinative.” (3).

When Stanley Hauerwas criticizes the theme of the movie The Dead Poet’s Society, which is about young people learning to think for themselves, I heartily disagree in this light. Christians who take everything that the church says as gospel, without studying Scripture themselves are merely learning how to parrot what is taught. How can the message of Scripture appeal to our thinking postmodern age when Christians refuse to think for themselves or are unwilling to apply Scripture in an intelligent manner?

Giving up the ability to think creatively, while using Scripture as a guide, leads to the dogmatism that is so repulsive to the postmodern age. This rigidity lacks the compassion that Christ extends to those whose actions are sinful. On the other hand, a liberal doctrine that accepts all behavior because “everyone is God’s child,” is not helpful because there is no requirement of holiness for those who are crying out for help. The “third way,” or the mid point between conservatism and liberalism, extends Christ’s love to everyone without judging and helps people understand the truth of Scripture at their level.

An example of this occurred in an online group at our local church. Several people were involved. One person was not a Christian and had not grown up in the church. In one discussion a Christian in the group refused to explain the meaning of certain Scriptures to the non-Christian, stating that the person was deceived. Other members of the group, who knew that the non-Christian simply did not understand, were trying to explain to that person what the Scripture meant. Their efforts, however, were thwarted by the dogmatic member’s complaining. The non-Christian left the group and the group disbanded within a week.

If the church is serious about reaching the lost, we must learn to explain the gospel in ways that the lost will understand. Jesus did this by telling parables, or stories, to which people could relate. He did this by meeting needs and touching the untouchables. He did this by telling people to “go and sin no more,” while at the same time saving those people from religious zealots. Jesus did this by spending time with the lost and also by pointing out the hypocrisy of the established religious order. Jesus also showed us how to accept those in the “established order” who are searching through his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Through Christ’s example, we are shown never to exclude those who recognize their need for him.

George Lindbeck said, “When or if dechristianization reduces Christians to a small minority, they will need for the sake of survival to form communities that strive without traditionalist rigidity to cultivate their native tongue and learn to act accordingly” (4). To keep that reduction at bay, Christians should take Lindbeck’s advice now. We need to follow Christ’s example to reach those who are lost rather than clinging to “what we’ve always done,” or “the way it has always been taught,” and think about the people outside. We must follow more advice from Lindbeck: “…if the world is to be saved from …demonic corruptions …it will need a revival of biblical religion to accomplish this saving work. Christianity is most redemptive as a force in the world when Christian churches focus their energies on building formative Christian communities that are rooted in the idioms and practices of biblical faith” (4).


Getting Along with the Boss: Knowing a Relational God

The first time I was confronted by determinism, when I realized that something was amiss, was during my senior year of college in a Christian education class. One student made several comments about not knowing if he was going to heaven or if he was saved. “Then why follow Christ?” I asked. “How can you have such uncertainty when the Bible says that we can know?” It was during that time that I was discovering a relational God, even though I didn’t understand this at the time. As the Spirit began to unravel the subtleties of reformed thought that had been intertwined into my Christian education, he was also teaching me to know, appreciate and love the God of the Bible. Accepting God on this basis has revolutionized my spiritual formation and helps me share God with others. Therefore, by helping the church to accept this view, the body of Christ will become a more effective force in today’s world for the sake of others.

I knew that God was a relational person before I knew that this theology had name. Clark Pinnock and other theologians have termed the relational view of God as “open theology,” meaning that God is “portrayed as a triune communion who seeks relationships of love with human beings, having bestowed upon them genuine freedom for this purpose” (3). We see this fact portrayed most intensely in the Garden of Eden when God placed the tree with the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil right in the center of the garden and told his creation not to eat from it lest they die. Some view this move on God’s part as a scheme to “get” humanity, or to set them up. They believe that God blames humanity for committing evil acts even though he was the one who authored evil. This is simply not true. As we look further into the account after Adam and Eve had sinned, we find God walking in the Garden calling out for his creation. We sense God’s anguish when he asks, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you to not eat from?” (Genesis 3: 11, NIV). At this point God brings judgment because his goal was to “bring humankind back to himself” (42). The ultimate proof is when God himself died on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ. A relational God will sacrifice to great extremes for his beloved creation.

By placing the tree in the garden, God was telling humanity that the choice to have a relationship with him was theirs. God took a risk by bestowing freedom on humanity thereby limiting “the degree of his control over the world in granting the creature genuine freedom, and this is not without pain to himself” (39). While God transcends the world, he is heavily involved in the world and is affected by people’s choices and by what happens to them. Our choices affect the future and reality, because the entire future is not determined in advance. While God can know the future based upon his in depth knowledge of our character and personalities, he can still be surprised, angered, or delighted by our choices. Our choices can shape the future, but God is in ultimate control of the overall plan. In other words, from reading Pinnock, I surmise that our choices can delay judgment or can encourage it to happen more quickly. There is evidence for this in the prophetical literature. God delayed judgment when the people turned to him. He brought it about swiftly when wrong choices forced God to act.

This knowledge should revolutionize one’s prayer life. If God is affected by my choices and wants to use me to implement his plans on earth, then my prayer life can take on a new flavor. To illustrate, prayer can be thought of as a managerial meeting with a head supervisor, or boss, or owner of a company. I can tell my superior my idea, ask for guidance or receive guidance, or God can veto those plans because they are not in the company’s or my best interest. If I do not understand a company policy (or a Scripture in this case) I can ask for clarification or wisdom. If I am having a problem with a fellow employee, I can express those concerns without fear, knowing that my concerns will not leave the room. My responsibility as a Christian—or Christ follower—is to receive his guidance and implement what is best based on his desires, which should also be my desires as I grow. A good employee will reflect the desires of his or her employer. With God it is the same.

Knowing God in a relational manner should also affect our relationships with believers and non-believers. By knowing God and because we have experienced his love, we can extend that same love to others because we are secure within ourselves. This is certainly God’s will for our relationships with others, but as Pinnock states, “The will of God is not something that is always done but something that can be followed or resisted” (40). By resisting the will of God in our relations with others, we create problems inside and outside of the church, our families and in our lives. If these problems are not confronted, then each entity begins to suffer and will eventually become ineffective as it caters to human desires rather than God’s.

By having a relationship with God and understanding that our purpose is to love him back, we begin to read the Scriptures in a relational way and through them the Spirit begins to free us. We are no longer tethered by deterministic views of God; we see him as someone who wants us to work alongside him rather than “use” us. We then become confident in God’s ability to equip us for the task at hand and we become enthusiastic about accomplishing his will. If we understand that our actions can affect the future, rather than just working within a predetermined framework or a maze like laboratory rats, we will become effective in our ministries and in the lives of others. We will also change the world.

I wish my classmate had known God in this manner. If he had, he would have a quiet assurance of God’s approval and would know that he was saved. Our knowledge of God’s salvation is brought by the Spirit telling our spirits that we are God’s children (Romans 8:16, paraphrase mine).