(For and) Against Relationshipism

Why the Bible Does Not (and Cannot) Teach "Relationships"

For

"Relationships" is the ultimate value of MBTI Feelers. I call the promotion of that value "Relationshipism". Because the American church is run by and for the exclusive benefit of Feelers and Feeler wannabes, it is important for Relationshipists to find "relationships" in their foundational document, the Bible (if they care about it). The more conservative pastors and teachers all claim it is taught there, but they are silent about exactly where it is to be found. I have not found any place in all the Bible where "relationships" is taught as a positive value to be sought. The word does not occur in most translations of the Bible. There's a reason for that.

There are a few places where the idea of "relationship" (in the dictionary sense of connectivity) is clearly expressed, like 1Cor.6:16 -- how can you have a closer connection than "one flesh" with a sexual partner? -- but that is not what Relationshipists mean by the word when they use it, so the translators (Relationshipists all of them) don't use the word "relationship" where its dictionary sense of connectivity would most clearly express what the text means. There are a few (half-dozen or less) places where the Bible encourages some other kind of connectivity (to God), like John 15:4, but that is also not what Relationshipists usually mean by their Relationshipism, so they never mention it.

There are a few other places where the idea of "relationship" (in the dictionary sense of family relations) is clearly expressed, like John 1:12 which is clearly about believers being related to the Father as "children" -- but that is not what Relationshipists mean by the word when they use it, so the translators also don't use the word "relationship" where its dictionary sense of family relations would more or less clearly express what the text means.

The translators understand what the word "relationship" means to the people who use it (in the churches), and that idea is also vaguely there in a few verses, but not unambiguously, and certainly not applicable to all people, so they wisely refrained from using the word in those contexts also. See also my essay "Relationship, Not Religion", which phrase similarly fails to be found in the Bible.

But the Bible is full of "relationships" of various kinds, so therefore the Bible teaches "relationship" as a proper understanding of our Christian faith. There, in that one line you see the complete argument for "relationships" in the Bible.

You can find a much stronger argument for "molecules" in the Bible. Like "relationships", the word "molecules" is not in the Bible, nor any synonym of it. But there is plenty of teaching about physical objects -- all of them made of molecules. God created the molecules, and commanded His people to form some of them into particular objects, and (this is important) God Himself became "flesh" (molecules) and dwellt among us. Of course there are no Moleculists, nobody arguing for Moleculism and claiming it is taught in the Bible. Why? Because Moleculism is not a value important to a large class of people running the churches.
 

Ought

There are relationships described in the Bible. There are relationships everywhere. Everything is in relation to something or another. Draw three "unconnected" dots on a piece of paper and they are still connected to each other by the piece of paper and the hand that drew them and the color of their ink. There are molecules everywhere. Everything is made of molecules. Even those dots on the paper are made from molecules. So also is the paper.

It is a logical fallacy to argue from "is" to "ought", to infer moral imperative from a description of something that exists. The Bible describes relationships. The Bible describes physical material objects (molecules). But that's not the same as teaching them as normative. The Bible describes sin, but it does not teach that everyone must become a sinner. We already are. God teaches rather that we should "stop sinning."
 

1+2C

The foremost moral demand of the Bible, according to Jesus, is the First and Second Great Commandments (1+2C). It might be argued that obedience to 1+2C creates a relationship, and therefore the relationship is also commanded. The premise is actually false; the relationship is created by the command, not by obedience to it. The relationship merely exists; it is the obedience that is commanded. Furthermore, like the molecules we are made of, the relationship is irrelevant to the command. If it were important, God would have said so -- somewhere. God said no such thing.
 

Reciprocity

It is the nature of relationships that two or more parties are involved. One person is not a relationship. Therefore, if God were to make "relationship" a moral imperative, it would necessarily be a command directed at two or more people and successfully obeyed only when both or all of them are in compliance. Thus if God had commanded Adam and Eve to be in relationship (He did not, but let's suppose), then if Adam obeys and Eve refuses, Adam also has failed.

This is a very strange moral situation, where obedience to God's command is contingent on some other person. Nowhere in the Bible are you made morally culpable for another person's moral failure to which you gave no assent. Did Adam sin when Eve ate the fruit? No, Adam sinned when Adam ate the fruit. In fact, Eve was deceived. The blame is entirely on Adam -- because Adam ate the fruit willingly. Relationship as a moral imperative is therefore immoral, because you become a sinner unwillingly.

For God to require of us "relationships" thus makes God unrighteous. But God is Holy and Righteous and Just. Therefore God cannot morally require "relationship". And God does not require it. It is not taught in the Bible. What is taught can be obeyed unconditionally, regardless of what the other party does or does not do. You can "Love your neighbor as yourself" even if he hates you back. Loving your enemies is an explicit virtue, taught by Jesus.
 

Definitions

The word "relationship" has many meanings, some of them in the dictionary, others only implicit in the actual use of the word by Relationshipists. The analysis here mostly does not depend on which definition is chosen, so long as you use it consistently.
 

Tom Pittman
2009 April 25, revised 14 April 22
 

Links

The arguments (For and) Against Relationshipism (you are here)
The Counterfeit Religion of Relationships, comparing Relationshipism to 1+2C
A Case Study in Moral Ambiguity
Why Relationshipism is so popular among conservative Christians
Relationships, concluding that people mean "affirmation" by that word
Finding "Relationship, Not Religion" in the Bible (or rather, not finding it)
Relationshipism, defining the term (2008 October 31 blog post)
God of Truth, a draft of what might eventually become a book
Men Are from Mars, a list of specific Thinker/Feeler differences
The bottom of my home page, a challenge to do something about it
Getting Men into the Church through Apologetics, what one church is doing about it
Thinker/Feeler Distinction (October 27 blog post)
Faith Is Doing (Religion), Not Relationship


Relationshipists Respond

Here are some of the arguments people who have read this essay bring in defense of their religion.
 

Trinity

Several people mentioned the doctrine of the Trinity as an example of something the Bible teaches but the word is nowhere to be found. I agree that the Bible teaches the Trinity among other things, but it is not "everywhere in the Bible." There is in fact no single verse that teaches the whole concept. The Trinity is too hard to understand for that to be true. It took the Christian church a couple hundred years of diligent study to figure out what the doctrine is, before they could even give it a name. The word "Trinity" is a made-up word to describe a very obscure doctrine that few people even understand. The Bible is not about the Trinity.

Relationships are not obscure. Relationships are everywhere. Everybody understands relationships. There are (a few) verses in the Bible that teach particular kinds of relationships, but not relationships in general. There are Greek and Hebrew words that (more or less) mean "relationship", just as there are other English words, like "connected" that more or less mean the same thing. If the connectedness were the point of any particular Biblical teaching, the translators -- honest people, every one of them -- would have used "relationship" to express what is being taught. They did not. There is a reason for that.

There is no Greek or Hebrew word that means "Trinity" (nor anything like it) available to the Bible authors at the time they wrote, because the word was not invented until  the Christian church understood the idea, hundreds of years later. That is why the word "Trinity" is not in the Bible. The same is not true of "relationship". The Trinity is not a good analogy.
 

Trees

"Mike" offered this argument:
Suppose I wrote a book about trees and only mentioned leaves, trunk, limbs, bugs, insecticides, red oak, live oak, silver leaf maple, gum, apple, orange, pear, bradford pear, fertilizer, water, sun, soil, dung and never used the word tree...İis then my book not about trees?
This is a good argument, but fatally flawed. If Mike wrote a book about trees, then it would of course be about trees. But he would have to go to heroic -- perhaps even perverse -- efforts to do so and never once use the word "tree" nor any words that mean something similar, like "tall bush" or "dendritic flora" or "forest". An easy way to know what a book is about is to count the uses of each significant word (not including "the" or "and" or "is") in it. The most frequent word is always what the book is about. Mike could write a book about a particular kind of tree, say silver leaf maple, and he would still have a great deal of difficulty -- well nigh impossible -- to do so without using the word "tree". God is not perverse, and the sacred authors were not intentionally avoiding the one word their writings were all about. They could not avoid it, if that's what they were writing about -- and they did not. The Bible is about God, not relationships.
 

Truthful Relationships

My friend "Dan" likes Hegelian dialectic, the philosophical notion that truth emerges from the merging of polar opposites. His descriptive phrase is "both/and, not either/or." Sometimes I kid him about applying his dialectic to hot and cold, because God explicitly rejects the lukewarm combination in Rev.3:16. In a sinless world, all relationships can be both affirming (the Feeler value) and truthful (the Thinker value). Of course we do not live in a sinless world, nor are any of the relationships we are concerned about between equally sinless persons. When there is pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye, we can work on achieving Dan's dialectic. Between now and that blessed time, we need to deal with the opposition of affirmation to truth.

Dan works in the marketing arm of his employer. He (and others in business) tell me that business is built on relationships. That is true, so long as you recognize that by "relationships" they mean "mutual affirmation" and not merely connections. If either party in a business transaction starts disaffirming the other party, the "relationship" is broken, the transaction aborted. Telling the other party an uncomfortable truth affecting their decision ultimately affirms their intelligence and their right to make their own decisions, so truth is an important component in affirmation, but it is the affirmation that creates the business relationship, not the truth itself. Disaffirming truth -- for example, truthfully telling an incompetent buyer or seller of his folly -- is a sure deal-breaker.
 

Trusting people

One of deacons at the church I attend keeps telling us that "the Bible teaches us to trust each other." I find no such teaching in my Bible, but rather the reverse. "Trust God," it tells me in numerous places, "not people." So what's the big deal with trust? I think it's perceived as a form of affirmation ("Relationshipism") related to "vulnerability" (another pop-moral value everybody seems to think is taught in the Bible, but actually is not). Trusting a person (or making yourself vulnerable to them) affirms their integrity and sinless perfection, which is of course untrue. President Reagan famously said, "Trust, but verify," which is of course not trust at all, but only pure affirmation. The Bible expects us to trust God, and God alone, not other people. We may be put in situations which depend on other people for desirable outcomes, but we are trusting God, not those other people, for those outcomes. God is bigger than those other people, and God is always Good, so our trust is not misplaced when we trust God. If those other people failed to do what we hoped, they are only being human, and our trust (which was in God, not them) has not been violated; God still knows and will do what is best.
 

Comments added 2010 January 11, August 23