Sunday, March 18, 2012

Relationships and Doctrine

Today we were told that "relationship trumps doctrine," and that "it [the Gospel] is all about relationships." The problem of course, is that neither of those are correct. More correctly, they are both less than complete. I understand that when giving a class, it is often difficult to tie the topic up in a bow in one session, relying on subsequent sessions to clarify and bound the initial "hook."

Unfortunately, our speaker only had today to launch into this discussion. When you are confronted with that challenge, a speaker should figure out a way to bound his statements or pick a topic that is more restrictive and more easily explained. It isn't as though our speaker was rushed for time, he had plenty of opportunity to clarify his statements so that they would represent the whole of Scripture rather than this tiny bit. He simply didn't.

A moment's reflection will reveal that relationship does not in fact trump doctrine in an absolute sense. If it were true, we wouldn't need Jesus; we could do just fine with Facebook. I'm pretty sure the speaker didn't mean that we could overlook doctrine entirely in deference to relationship, but he never said that. He repeatedly stated his premise that relationship is the end all of the Christian life. Quite simply, it isn't.

The Gospel isn't all about relationship. Relationships play a part in the Gospel sure enough. There is our relationship with God, and then our relationships with each other both of which are informed by the Gospel. Jesus makes no bones about people who will not be with him, some of which are going to end up apparently in a pretty bad fix if they don't shape up. Apparently to Jesus, there is something more to Gospel than "relationship."

That something is our transformation fully into the likeness in which we are made. That likeness is described variously by both Jesus and his disciples as character, as being able to put the interests of others in front of yours - even if you don't know them personally. That's the point of the Samaritan story. The Samaritan didn't know the almost dead man, and yet cared for him. No relationship existed prior to their encounter, and it isn't necessary that one existed when the Samaritan came back to pay the bill.

We read of this character in places like Micah 6 and Galatians 5. The character of God, the image of God into which we are to be transformed is one that objectively loves other people because they are other people regardless of whether we have a relationship with them or not, or whether we will ever have one. This is why Jesus castigates the Jewish leaders - they were more interested in themselves than in the down-trodden. They were more interested in their own privilege than in relieving the oppression that they themselves perpetuated. Jesus does not condemn them because they don't have relationships; they had plenty of them. The problem, as we are told, is that their hearts were not aligned with God's.

One further implication from the idea that "it's all about relationships," arises when we consider the reason God made people. If relationship is what it's all about, then do we mean to imply that God was lonely? That somehow the creation of people is about God satisfying his own need for companionship? Clearly this is not the case. A better understanding of God's having made people is that he wanted them to enjoy life. He put them on a planet, not running around Heaven with him. Our creation itself is a blessing and while living we are called to become that image in which we are made.

Let me visit the idea that relationship trumps doctrine one last time, because it might from time to time if we have confused our doctrine. What actually is at play in times when we think relationship trumps doctrine is the correct discernment of doctrine. Within doctrine there are understandings of just what aspects are more important than others. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Or again, which one of you wouldn't pull your donkey out of a pit on the Sabbath? This does not mean that stuck donkeys trump doctrine but rather that a mature disciple will know how to apply doctrine in the moment.

We are urged to come to understand what the will of God is through practice and experience. When it comes down to it, doctrine shapes relationships as one aspect of its correct application. Those relationships do not trump the very doctrine which shapes them.

Relationships do play a part in the work of God. Yes we are called back to the Father; yes we are placed in a community - a people - of like calling and faith. And yes, we grow and learn in this community. But relationship isn't what it's all about, and relationship doesn't trump doctrine.

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