The following is an excerpt from a letter I received the other day:
"Some in the church have expressed concern about the dumbing down of doctrine, while others have touted the need for having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Likewise . . . I've heard some stress quality or quantity, while others say that we can have both (because they're not mutually exclusive). I personally have seen very few Christians who were weak on relationship, but I've seen several who dropped out of church because their faith was too shallow when troubles came. They were strong on relationship, but it wasn't well grounded in theology. Their lessons were short on stressing first what the Bible says and then what it means, but long on implication and application." [Italics mine.]
I have difficulty with this kind of analysis. I do not wish to gainsay the brother's experience, but I will say that I have rarely made the acquaintance of the alleged creature he describes---the Christian who is "strong on relationship but [not] well grounded in theology."
Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by "relationship" with Christ. I mean a joyful intimacy that proceeds from a grasp of his love, and a full assurance of being covered with his blood. My goodness, that's the doctrine of justification! That's the queen of the doctrines. If there is doctrine (since my correspondent is eager to preserve doctrine) that is higher than that, I would like to know what it is.
Everyone is weak in one doctrine or another. But if we are weak on the love of God and faith in his work as applied to us personally, we are weak on the fundamentals, on the thing that counts most. Better to be weak on the question of the role of women, or the frequency of the Eucharist, or the method of baptism, than on this. In fact, far from the experience of the brother quoted above, I have more often encountered people who were strong on the official roster of doctrines but had little evident joy (joy being the telltale manifestation of the grasp of God's love through faith).
Perhaps all confusion could be eliminated if I used the biblical term "abiding" (John 15) rather than "relationship." Does that help? Abiding is that condition of being in Christ that is not only formal and "positional" but is experienced on the hot pavement of life, as we talk to God all day long, drinking great draughts of his Word, and pressing into obedience to his Spirit.
The persons I have the pleasure of knowing who have the best "relationship" with Christ are also those who have the best "doctrine"---if what we think of as important doctrine is what Paul and Jesus also think of as important doctrine (Galatians 5:6). If a person is sleeved up in doctrine but has no evident love, nor joy, nor gentleness, nor humility, I do not think he has good doctrine. Not really.
Nor do I mean to suggest that love and faith are all that the "relationship" people know. I have received my best doctrinal edification for thinking and living from those who are of the "relationship" variety of Christian. Know why? Because it turns out that there is a depth of understanding of Scripture that is fathomed only by those who have the greatest faith. This is by God's design, and it is marvelous.
So let us no longer perpetuate a false dichotomy between "relationship" and "doctrine." Let us retire that old canard that does nothing but divide and alienate the church. "Relationship" and "doctrine" are handmaidens. And as Scripture says, faith, hope, and love abide---but the greatest of these is love.
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