What is a personal relationship with God?

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The widespread assertion of a ‘personal relationship with God’ seems to stem back to the arguments of the 95 Thesis of Martin Luther in the 15th Century. Whilst many passages in the New Testament have always pointed to God’s desire to relate to his people, is the true Biblical form of that relationship how many evangelical Christians view it nowadays? Today in most evangelical and charismatic churches it has come to mean a close, intimate and emotional relationship with one or more members of the Trinity. But was this really Luther’s point? What was it that he saw in the culture of the Catholic church of the time which he viewed as wrong and what was he seeking to propose as a more accurate Biblical view?

Today the UK church is dominated by women. A recent Tearfund survey showed the ratio to be 65:35 women to men. Further they predicted that at the current rate of decline that there would be no men in the UK church by 2028. The latter point should be taken with a pinch of salt, but the overall issue and trend is clear. The church in the UK is appealing far more strongly to women than men. I think this may have been disguised by the fact that the clergy are dominated by men. So why is the 21st century UK church so much more appealing to women than men?

People with Asperger’s, such as myself, are said to demonstrate a number of ‘extreme male’ characteristics. A pertinent example would be our greater connection to facts and philosophy than emotion and sentiment. Now that the church promotes us to have an ‘intimate relationship with God’ you can see why people such as myself feel increasingly uncomfortable. I can only imagine men nearer to the centre of the neuro-typical spectrum feel the same way, albeit to a lesser extent. But am I supposed to treat Christ as my sweetheart or my spouse? Is that the relationship that the Bible is pointing to, was it the view of Luther when he espoused the virtue of a personal relationship with God?

My experience is that there is a sizeable segment of doctrine within charismatic / evangelical church from which it has reverse engineered Biblical precedent (which is surely back to front?) The Charismatic movement started in California. I think it is clear to see that whilst financially successful, that the core culture of the USA is still one marked by immaturity. (That is not to say that there are not a good number of exceptions, but this view appears to be in the majority.) It is common for those still immature to follow their emotions and their feelings to a greater extent than knowledge and proven fact. In creative arts this is very positive. In matters of faith, I would suggest, rather less so. So we find a church culture driven by feelings rather than facts taking root in a culture which itself valued this approach. Perhaps because of the financial success of the USA or the global reach of their film industry, the culture of the USA has spread out to be admired by many other nations including the UK. It is said, and seems true in my experience that “When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold.” So we see the emotive interpretation of a ‘personal relationship with God’ spread to the UK in the 60’s and 70’s and become part of the mainstream by the 90’s and 00’s.

So this is where we find ourselves, and in this environment many men, including myself, find ourselves uncomfortable in the Evangelical / Charismatic church. Were it just me that were uncomfortable then I should look inside myself for the issue; However the statistics show the issue is much more widespread and thus we should look more closely at the ethos of the church rather than the quirks of this individual.

That’s a whole lot of preamble for me to get to my point. If you look at the writings of Luther his concerns were focussed with the indulgences of the Catholic church and that the church taught that salvation was via the church to God and not with God directly. The Catholic church of the time had taken advantage of their position of power to seek money (indulgences) as the price for them dispensing the forgiveness of God. To me it seems very clear that when Luther talks of a personal relationship he is not talking primarily about intimacy and emotion but talking about a relationship directly with God rather than via the mediation of the church. Thus I would suggest that today’s emotion driven movement has come primarily from the culture of early 20th century California. Of course emotion has its place, something that speaks to the core of our being should be expected to stir our emotions. I would suggest that outwardly expressed emotion was never supposed to be the endpoint.

So whilst the Bible teaches that salvation comes from personal faith, neither via works nor dispensed by the church, Jesus was never supposed to be my brother or my boyfriend. Read of love in 1 Corinthians and the word used is agape, not philia or eros. It is self sacrificing love, not the love directed to a brother or a spouse. It was good that Luther spoke out;  The pendulum of relationship was being restrained at one end of it’s swing for the benefit of the organisation that was the Catholic church of the time (not that of today). But as with many issues, we see that the pendulum has been now been encouraged to swing to the other extreme. The Bible is full of examples of the great value of balanced juxtapositions: Faith and works work together, as do love and reproach, confidence in God and planning, rights and responsibilities, dependence and hard work.

Correct this cultural bias, bring the pendulum back nearer its centre and hopefully we can again have a representative number of men of vision and motivation in the church to help build the kingdom of God.