Is a Relationship with God What We Want?

An excellent question was raised in the comments of my previous post – the question being about the nature of relationship. It is commonplace in our modern parlance to speak of a “personal relationship” which is either redundant, or a way of weakening the true meaning of “personal.” I suspect that the modern meaning of “relationship” is in fact not capable of bearing the true weight of theological meaning and is simply a shallow way of speaking about the Christian faith. What Scripture invites us into is communion with God. I have written on this topic previously, addressing the substitution of the word “fellowship” for communion. I have reprinted here two articles on the topic from my previous writings. They seem quite on topic. One could substitute “relationship” for “fellowship” and the articles would work in that way as well. God has offered so much to us – it is a pity if we allow language to lessen the magnificence of that gift.

Is “Fellowship” with God Possible?

Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek – the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.

What Does It Mean to have Communion with God?

I am sure that the title of this section seems obvious and as though I had pulled a question out of a catechism. And yet, my experience tells me that things that seem as though they ought to be obvious often are not, particularly the more basic and fundamental they are in our life as Orthodox believers. I noted in the section above that the world fellowship is often found in English Bibles as a mistranslation of the Greek word koinonia, the result being that frequently when Scripture is giving us information about communion with God, our translations are giving us something completely different.

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What’s wrong with the human race anyway?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christians doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – Orthodoxy, it can be said, does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church, is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, these vitally important parts of the Christian life usually become reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put in the sort of terms used above, then you have missed out on hearing most of the New Testament. You have missed the story as told by the Fathers of the Eastern Church (which means, most of the Church Fathers). It is possible that you have heard such a distortion of the Christian faith that you have wanted nothing to do with it.

But if what I have described above sounds like good news – then the news is very good – because this is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church founded by Jesus Christ and which continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church.

25 Responses to “Is a Relationship with God What We Want?”

  1. Margaret Says:

    Thank you for taking time to post these comments examining “relationship.” This is so important! The modern view of “relationship” is to define it down and after examination of all the parts, put it back together in a way that works for us individually. When we need help with this “working out” we seek counseling from psychology or medicine. How strangely different than the “communion” that is set forth in the Gospel.

    That communion with God is difficult is a complete understatement, but it must be said and said again. It is encouragement to recognize our weakness, because Jesus said in this world we will have trouble, but to cheer up because he has overcome the world. Therefore, we must come together and encourage one another as Christians and to take part in the sacraments.

    As you say, “Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.”
    Thank you!

  2. KM Says:

    That’s strong. With your permission, will link to this post.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Please feel free to link.

    Communion, of course, is difficult, because it is the work of God not our own work. It is the gift of grace. The Scriptures promise us something with God that we not only could not do for ourselves, but wouldn’t quite know how to go about it with a human being. Relationship, on the other hand, is something people seem to think they have all the time. Thus to preach “relationship” is in fact to have watered the gospel down to something people can do of themselves. Thus the gospel of grace, unintentionally becomes a gospel of works – even if it is “relational” works.

    I will likely leave this as the main post through Monday to give sufficient emphasis to this as a post.

  4. Nate Says:

    To Fr. Stephen:

    Hello, Fr. Stephen. This is my second time to your blog, and I must say that I find your topics to be quite interesting. I was wondering if you had read Pope Benedict XVI’s last encyclical, Saved In Hope, or if you had, what you thought of it? I know that you are NOT a Roman Catholic, but I was curious none the less.

    I myself am an athiest convert to the Roman Catholic faith, but I have always held the Eastern Orthodox in the highest regard. The writings of St. Theophane the Recluse are very close and dear to my heart.

    Strangely enough, I am also reminded of the impression that the book, Spiritual Combat, made on St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (even though it was written by a Roman Catholic Venetian priest!). This is not to underscore the differences between the Catholics and the Orthodox (and there are major differences), but there is a great deal that we share in common. I look forward to reading your blog. Pax et bonum,

    – Nate

  5. Epiphanist Says:

    I am finding this series of posts supportive and encouraging. Thank You.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Nate,

    I hve not read the encyclical. There are many points we share in common. The almost “ontological” differences, to quote Patriarch Bartholomew, is a gulf reflected in culture and many other things. As Orthodox live in the West and parts of the West become Orthodox, I think that greater possibilities for fruitful conversation will occur.

    May God keep you.

    Christos Voskrese!

  7. jen o Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I really love and appreciate your blog, thoughts,and podcasts on ancient faith. My question is I guess when does it all start to sound like a conspiracy theory? It seems that we Orthodox always have an explanation as to why our view of history, etc or whatever is “right” but it always seems to have a conspiracy theory behind it. I just wonder if that is really case?? Just throwing the thought out there!

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Jen,

    No conspiracy theory – but when Orthodoxy exists, as we do in America, in a dominantly Protestant culture and language, the culture (as would be true of any culture) works in ways that are almost always not obvious. For a fish, water is the culture it lives in, and would be less aware of water than the rest of us. Orthodoxy, coming from a culture that did not have Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Enlightenment, etc., uses its words differently, and finds certain concepts from mainstream culture to be in need of correction.

    If we all lived in Utah, I’d be writing about Mormon culture and its difference from Orthodoxy (or pick a place and culture).

    The culture does not conspire against us – but it is the nature of culture to want all to conform and for all to conform whether they meant to or not. To serve as a missionary in American culture, you have to speak “to” the culture. Thus, to critique the weakness of the concept of “relationship” or “fellowship” in Christian language (rather than the much stronger words of “communion” or “union” “participation”, etc.) is simply preaching to the culture, and hopefully helping Orthodox who live here as well.

    Some things, such as the Protestant translations of Scripture and the changes in language, etc., are indeed somewhat “conspiratorial” in nature. The translations are not accidental. There is a long history even within Protestantism of making subtle changes in translation to support certain doctrinal theories. Hence, Reformed translators, would not translate “episcopos” as “bishop” but always as “overseer,” in order to weaken the claims of Rome, or the Anglicans.

    Has the almost complete absence of Byzantine history (and Eastern Europe) from American text books seemed conspiratorial. If you live in Serbia and have the American Secretary of State telling you to “get over” the Battle of Kosovo because it happened in the 14th century, even though it was one of the great defining moments in Serbian history – at least equal to 1776, etc., you might feel there was a conspiracy. I don’t think the conspiracy operates on a conscious level (at least for most) but is simply written into the culture.

    England never wanted a strong reading of Byzantium because it wanted to weaken the claims of Russia (that’s historical fact). America has inherited much of its historical world-view from England, with a distinct American twist, but “how” we tell our American story forms and shapes our world-view, which acts “conspiratorially” in us all, changing how we see ourselves and everyone around us.

    No conspiracy – it’s far more effective than a conspiracy.

  9. Visibilium Says:

    The offensively intrusive question about whether I have a personal relationship with God or Jesus is similar to the question about whether I’m saved. I’m always at a loss to answer either question. I simply have no idea.

    You know, the modern view of relationships encompasses a range of interactions, such as intimacy, friendship, diplomacy, employment, transactional, and marketing. Whew! I wonder where God fits himself.

  10. Sibyl Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Is there an English translation of the Bible you would recommend?
    Also, do you feel your Anglican education and experience have brought anything of value to Orthodoxy?
    Do Orthodox believe all other Christian groups, including Roman Catholicism are outside the Bride/Body of Christ and/or the true teaching and practice of the Faith of the Apostles?

    The paragraphs below and phrases marked with asterisks resonated quite powerfully with me.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and His truth with us.
    Sibyl

    From the article above:
    Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, *we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.*

    Seeing all of this as true of humanity – Orthodoxy, it can be said, does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is *we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new.* Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

    And from your comment on the prior article:
    That we should talk with Him and listen could be interpreted or meant as something far less than the fullness of communion we are called to in prayer *as we empty ourselves into Him and He empties Himself into us.*

  11. Sibyl Says:

    Please forgive another question, do Orthodox believe other Christians, ie, Roman Catholics and Protestants are recipients of regeneration and salvation or just mis-informed and improperly taught?

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Sybil,

    Orthodox do not have a defined position on the precise work of Grace in the non-Orthodox. When they become Orthodox, it is a bit of a moot point. As to their situation at present, God alone need judge.

    The present Orthodox study Bible is probably worth using (NKJV with some corrections). The RSV is not bad but still has weaknesses. I would not use any translation that is trying to make Scripture gender neutral.

    What I brought to Orthodoxy from Anglicanism was some pastoral experience, a lot of insight into things we shouldn’t do, some good memories of friends, a clear sense of my need for repentance, and a good knowledge of a lot of Orthodox writings, because I had spent 20 years reading them and not Anglican works.

    But the most valuable thing, I suppose, is life experience. There are some similarities in Anglicanism and Orthodoxy (at least in certain times and places) and those things were helpful. I had a strong sacramental world view, though that had to become much deeper within Orthodoxy.

    I generally do not think of myself as bringing anything to Orthodoxy. I came as a penitent. On the other hand, God does not waste our lives, and has frequently been kind enough to show me good things in my past that are of use now. But I cannot say that I brought something to Orthodoxy that it “needed.”

  13. NeoChalcedonian Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Your post strikes at the heart of assumptions about apostolic teaching that radically effect the exegesis of texts. I am sure you’re aware of the use of John 3:16 & the “Romans Road” to propagate this theory of individual spiritual self-sufficiency, because ‘just believing’ or making a one-time mouth confession is allegedly all you need to do to acquire irrevocable death insurance. The problem, though I have learned more about this line of reasoning, is that I am still somewhat ignorant of all the relevant theological and exegetical moves involved.

    What are the ultimate starting assumptions of the folks who bump into you on the street and begin with questions like “Are you a good person?” or “If God asked you why he should let you into his kingdom, what would you say?” I engage in somewhat rational discussion with these persons, but I feel like I’m swatting flies and that there is some more basic issue that I have failed to bring to the forefront.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    There are all kind of approaches to be taken. We could take that of utter humility and agree that we are wretches and deserve only condemnation, and continue in the vein of pre-communion prayers…

    Or confess a version of the pre-communion, “I believe, O Lord and I confess…”

    Or fall at their feet and beg for their prayers…

    Or say that you were united with Christ in Baptism to a death like His, so that you will be raised in a resurrection like His and that trust only in His mercy and His promise of salvation and the work of grace to bring forth salvation in your body and soul. That one might be better.

    Archbishop DMITRI, my Archbishop, always advises that we spend time talking about Christ, fully God and fully man, and the teachings of the faith, i.e. the good news. I’ve watched him do this without any particular mention of Orthodoxy. Sometimes we can sound too much like we’re preaching ourselves instead of Christ and Him crucified. I really admire his ability to share the faith. By the way his new commentary on Romans is out by St. Vlad’s Press and it’s outstanding.

  15. Theodora Elizabeth Says:

    Fr. Stephen, I just received Archbishop DMITRI’s commentary on Romans from SVS Press on Thursday and finding it very edifying. I found his commentary on Hebrews helpful, as well. I’ve ordered the rest of his books. I’m also working on his book on the Sermon on the Mount (“The Kingdom of God”) and have suggested my parish’s adult study group read it in the fall.

  16. Reid Says:

    It strikes me in the parable of the Prodigal Son that the prodigal had received all the riches the father could give him and yet remained dead so long as he was absent from the father. Indeed the very riches of his inheritance were the means by which he aggravated his wretchedness and destruction. Having lost everything, he returned to live in his father’s household, daily living in his father’s presence and example and provision and authority — that is, in communion with him — and thereby he became alive again. I take it that this is a picture of salvation: life is not something that God gives us apart from Himself. That is not the nature of life. Rather, life is in God, and we live by participating in that life by communion with Him.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Well said – well exegeted.

  18. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    The 7 steps to salvation approach (personal relationship) is a cheap imitation of putting on Christ. It puts the emphasis on something that the individual must do – pray this prayer, follow these steps, join this church, take on this cultural form of religion, etc. Putting on Christ is what Christ does in us and our response to His Life.

  19. D S Says:

    Communion defined as sharing in the Divine Life, in particular the Love of God, would also seem to consist of love, not only for enemies, but for the whole world (the “Creation”), seeing how “God so loved the world…“.

    Such encompassing depth of koinonia described in “Communion and Otherness”, by Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, Greece, can be found at:
    http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jim_forest/Met-john.htm

    He writes:
    “The essence of Christian existence in the Church is metanoia — repentance. By being rejected, or simply feared by us, the other challenges or provokes us to repent. Even the existence of pain and death in the natural world, not caused by anyone of us individually, should lead us to metanoia, for we all share in the fall of Adam, and we all must feel the sorrow of failing to bring Creation to communion with God and overcoming death. Holiness in the Church passes through sincere and deep metanoia.”
    [and especially:]
    “All the saints weep because they feel somehow personally responsible for Adam’s fall and its consequences for innocent Creation.”

    In that sense it seems to me the awesomeness of Creation defines the extent of koinonia and points to Christian salvation, since the non-human Creation itself suffers innocently as Christ himself does.

    Met. John also puts forth an encompassing depth of description of asceticism, a tool of the Church for realizing Her goal, the creation of saints through which all Creation is re-Created (“saved”), at:
    http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/misc/john_zizoulias_ecological_asceticism.htm

    From his thoughts, it also seems to me that to share in the Divine life is to be called to such depth of a spirit of ascetism that manifests in a new way of life (being), from what is worn to what is “consumed”, to any and all “living” arrangements.

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    The articles by Zizioulas are certainly worth the read. There’s also much to be discussed about asceticism within our present culture – which is geared towards a level of consumerism that is doubtless harmful.

  21. ‘Fellowship’ or ‘relationship’ with God « On Living Says:

    […] Stephen has just posted an excellent article on the subject. He focusses on the words fellowship and communion, rather than relationship, as these are two ways […]

  22. Fr. James Early Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I greatly enjoyed this post and the podcast based on it.

    While you were talking about Bible translations, it occurred to me to ask you a favor: would you consider doing a blog article on the subject of which modern English translations(s) you think are best (not counting the new Orthodox Study Bible OT translation)?

    Since I am from an evangelical Protestant background, I have always tended to favor the NKJV and the NASB, which are by far the most literal modern translations. But I have also noticed that at least some older Orthodox priests (I mean “older than me”–I just turned 40–not OLD!), who did their studies before the NASB or NKJV came out, as well as some Orthodox priests who converted to Orthodoxy from the Episcopal Church or another mainline denomination, favor the RSV. So perhaps you could comment on the merits of the RSV vs the NJKV vs the NASB. I am convinced that all your readers would profit from a blog post (or series of posts) on this.

    I am often asked by parishioners which translation is the best, and I always encourage them to use the NKJV and the NASB (but not if they have study notes written by Protestants; I strongly encourage the OSB as the only really good “Study Bible”). I hope that I am not leading them astray!

  23. Mission Shaped Questions (vi) « On Living Says:

    […] Picking out some basics from the early church, and from how Jesus dealt with his disciples, Croft brings out some (fairly obvious) points: Church is a community centred around Jesus. The disciples, like the church are called to Jesus to be sent out. At the heart of the early church activities are prayer, teaching, breaking bread together and fellowship. (Incidentally, the greek work for fellowship is koinonia which is often translated ‘communion’. There’s a great article about that by Father Stephen) […]

  24. David Feliciano Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your wonderful blog (and podcast). Would you be willing to elaborate on why you recommend the NKJV and RSV? Do you have an opinion on the Jerusalem and the revised New Jerusalem translation (Roman Catholic)?

  25. fatherstephen Says:

    The Jerusalem is, too my taste, too much a paraphrase rather than translation, using the “dynamic” theory of translation. It also makes use of the Divine Name in the Old Testament YHVH, which I find sort of offensive. A Jew would never use that, and there is no history of Christian use of the name in that form.

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