This week the Episcopal Church created yet another stir at its General Conference when the presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori denounced the idea of a personal relationship with God through Christ as heresy (that is, a contradiction with the truth of Scripture and belief of the Church). She explained,
“The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy –- that we can be saved as individuals, that any of use alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.“
She later added,
“I said that this crisis has several elements related to that heretical and individualistic understanding. We’ve touched on one – how we keep the earth, meant to be a gift to all God’s creatures. The financial condition of the nations right now is another element. The sins of a few have wreaked havoc with the lives of many, as greed and dishonesty have destroyed livelihoods, educational possibilities, care for the aged, and multiple forms of creativity – and that’s just the aftermath of Ponzi schemes for which a handful will go to jail. If we want to be faithful, we need to be continually rediscovering that my needs are not the only significant ones.“
The great irony of the Bishop’s statement is that the Episcopal Church has embodied this very individualism against which she rants, by departing from the bulk of Church tradition in their ordination of homosexuals. In doing so, the Episcopal Church has actually isolated itself from the larger community of faith, a move that some might call ecclesiologically individualistic.
But aside from that minor detail, I actually think there is something to her words. Bishop Jefferts Schori is right in critiquing the idea of “my personal Jesus”–an understanding of Jesus that not only enables one to isolate one’s self from other Christians, washing their hands of any responsibility to others, and refusing accountability from the larger Church, but it can also turn Jesus into a kind of custom order Savior who serves your particular needs–namely, not going to Hell.
In the face of such distortions, I can understand why Bishop Jefferts Schori would raise an eyebrow. The language of “personal relationship” has been used in the name of some very unscriptural practices.
However, Bishop Jefferts Schori goes awry in her identification of the problem’s source. The problem is not the language of the personal–the problem is how we’ve used it. A healthy understanding of “personal” is that God knows you intimately as a person. He “knit you together in your mother’s womb” and he knows “when you rise and when you fall.” Just read Psalm 139–it doesn’t get much more “personal” than that.
What’s more, God is not some far off entity who is only accessible through a system. If you need God, you can cry out to Him–yet another practice we see all throughout the Psalms. Yet Bishop Jefferst Schori elevates community to a level of near idolatry given how thoroughly she founds salvation upon it. If salvation is both by faith AND community alone, then we can offer little comfort to missionaries, both abroad and in the American workplace, who find themselves isolated from other Christians with whom they can fellowship.
But most importantly of all, I would like to know how Bishop Jefferts Schori would reconcile her idea of heresy with Paul’s method of conversion in Acts 16. The Philippian jailer, frightened by an earthquake that had freed the Christian prisoners, comes to Paul and asks, “What must I do to be saved.” Paul simply responds, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
When we depart from this said “formula,” we wander dangerously close to the heresy from which Martin Luther fought to free the Church 500 years ago. J.D. Greear once stated, “Salvation is by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” We must let this truth serve as a boundary for our language about “personal relationships,” but the personal aspect must remain. When we reject it, we not only stray from the model of salvation given to us in Scripture, but we lose any hope of reaching a human race that was designed to be inherently relational.