Have you ever heard anybody say that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion? Or that all you need to worry about is your personal relationship with Jesus? If you have, then you’ve encountered the particular strand of Protestant theology I want to talk about in this article. While we Catholics put a heavy emphasis on the Church (as do the Eastern Orthodox and many other Protestants), there are some Christians who focus so much on “me and Jesus” that they treat the Church, the communal element of our faith, as little more than an optional add-on.
But is that really what Christianity is supposed to be? Is our faith really just about our personal relationship with God? Or is there more to it than just that? To answer that question, let’s turn to the teaching of Scripture and see what light it can shed on this vital topic.
St. Paul’s Relationship with Jesus
If we read the New Testament carefully, there’s no doubt that the first Christians had intensely personal relationships with Jesus. For instance, take a look at these quotes from St. Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:8)
Our Relationship with God
Paul had a very strong sense of Jesus’ love for him, not just for the Church as a whole, and he considered his former life as a strict Pharisee to be “loss” compared to the great gain of knowing Jesus as “my Lord,” just not “our Lord.” So a personal relationship with Jesus is very important, and Catholic teaching recognizes this:
“Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three). This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer. (Catechism 2558)
Every legitimate form of Christianity teaches the importance of having a personal relationship with God, but is that all there is to it? That’s the real question, and if we look to the New Testament, we’ll find that the answer is a clear and resounding NO.
One Body, Many Members
Let’s start with another quote from one of St. Paul’s letters:
For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5)
Even though Paul had an intensely personal relationship with Jesus, he knew that his faith wasn’t just personal. It was also communal. In fact, it was so communal that he told the Roman Christians that their union with Jesus also made them “members one of another.” And why is that? Why are Christians so closely united to one another in the Church?
“Partakers of the Divine Nature”
Elsewhere, the New Testament tells us that our ultimate goal is to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). At first, that teaching may seem strange and opaque, but it’s actually pretty simple. God is love (1 John 4:8), and that doesn’t just mean that loving is something he always does. Rather, since he is a Trinity of persons, it means that his very nature is to be a communion of perfect love.
Consequently, when Scripture tells us that we’re supposed to partake of God’s nature, it means that we’re supposed to enter into that communion. We’re supposed to perfectly love the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just as they perfectly love us back, so it’s only natural that we would be called to perfectly love and be loved by one another as well.
Baptism and the One Body
That’s why St. Paul tells us in another letter that “we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). When we’re baptized, we begin the process of becoming partakers of the divine nature. We’re inserted into the loving communion that the three persons of the Trinity share, but we’re not only united to God. We’re baptized into the “one body,” which is the Church, so we’re inserted into the loving communion that the divine persons share with one another and with the rest of the Church.
And at the end of the day, that’s why Christianity isn’t just about “me and Jesus.” It’s about “me, Jesus (along with the other divine persons too, of course), and the rest of the Church.” Yes, a personal relationship with God is important. It’s at the heart of our faith. But our membership in the Church is also important. God doesn’t want us to be “lone ranger” Christians. Rather, he wants us to be a community of love, so a “lone ranger Christian” is actually an oxymoron. We need to practice our faith in the context of the Church in order to truly live it out as Scripture tells us to, and anything less is a grave distortion of the Gospel.