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Is Right Relationship with God More Important Than Right Theology?

Believers are fond of saying that “Christianity is  not about ‘religion,’ it’s about ‘relationship.'” Nowadays, however, that adage has been tweaked to read, “Christianity is not about ‘theology,’ it’s about ‘relationship.'”

But is a right relationship with God distinct from right theology? Even more so, can right theology be antithetical to a right relationship with God?

Apparently, some think so. Take for instance the popular author, Donald Miller. Recently, Miller addressed this issue in a post entitled Having Right Theology Does Not Mean You Know God.

Christian conversion is relational. It is not theological or intellectual any more than marriage is theological or intellectual. In other words, a child could become a Christian if they had a mysterious encounter with Jesus, and a simple thinker could become a Christian if they had a mysterious encounter with Christ, and even a person who was a Muslim or a Buddhist could become a Christian if they had a mysterious relational encounter with Christ. This is the only answer at which I could arrive that matched the reality in which we live, the complexity of scripture, and the mysterious invitation offered to us by Jesus.

I hear the masses saying, “But no! A person cannot believe in multiple Gods and be a Christian.” Let me counter with some questions:

Can a person have bad theology and be a Christian?

Has your theology ever been corrected, and were you really a Christian before?

Is your theology all worked out now so you have no more reason to study, and if not, are you a Christian?

If you believe a person’s theology has to be right to be qualified for Christian conversion, then you are saying a person comes to know God, in part, because he has right ideas, and I respectfully disagree. Do I think right theology is important? Absolutely, but I do not believe it has any agency to convert anymore than directions to the doctor’s office has the power to heal.

Miller makes some great points. Right theology doesn’t save people– Jesus does. And as important as having right theology is, none of us ever perfectly has it (at least, not in this life). We are constantly learning, growing, experiencing, and getting to know God better. Furthermore, we are warned in Scripture that having all our doctrinal ducks in a row can become an issue of pride, rather than life (see: Pharisees). So, yes, having right theology does not mean you’re in right relationship with God.

But several false assumptions are made by Miller along the way, assumptions that can be just as deadly as the religious arrogance he warns against. He writes,

You might be getting upset by this. You might think I am saying truth should be thrown out, that theology doesn’t matter. But this is not what I’m saying at all. What I’m intending to illustrate is our drive to define God with a mathematical theology has become a false God rather than an arrow that points to the real God. Theology can become an idol, but it is more useful as guardrails on a road to the true God. Theology is very important, but it is not God, and knowing facts about God is not the same as knowing God.

I find several things potentially problematic with Miller’s approach. One is the (subtle) portrayal of theology as being antithetical to a right relationship with God, as if the two cannot coexist. Yes, “theology can become an idol.” But so can anything God uses! Of course, “knowing facts about God is not the same as knowing God.” However, this does not mean that knowing facts about God cannot assist us in knowing God. The Bible teaches that God’s Word brings light and life, that Truth revives the soul. Sure, some doctrines and traditions have been codified to death. Nevertheless, it is not right theology that hinders a right relationship with God. It is a wrong approach to right theology that hinders a right relationship with God. That distinction is very important.

Secondly, how do we know what a “right relationship with God” is if not by “right theology”? Think of it this way: a right relationship with God looks a certain way. Well, how do we know what it should look like? For one thing, we need to know what kind of God we are having a relationship with. Theology tells us what God is like. Furthermore, people in a right relationship with God should act a certain way. And how do we determine the right conduct of those in relationship with God? Answer: Through specific doctrinal, theological parameters. If God is a bloodthirsty, amoral entity then a “right relationship” with him would probably involve human sacrifice and primitive behavior. But He’s not. How do we know this? Through right theology. My point: A “right relationship with God” is defined — even kindled! — by “right theology.”

Finally, by analogizing theology in terms of “guardrails” on the road to God, Miller potentially minimizes its importance, portraying theology less as Law and more as Guideline. Frankly, this is consistent with many post-evangelicals. By portraying theology as a set of “guidelines” we are free to adjust the parameters to suit our own liking. In fact, many postmoderns completely eliminate the guardrails altogether! Which is why some post-evangelicals and emergents inevitably become Universalists, believing everyone goes to heaven. On the contrary, Scripture draws clear theological lines regarding most issues, calls us to adhere to “sound doctrine,” and warns against those who recalibrate the Truth. Right theology has clear boundaries rather than nebulous or negotiable “guidelines”; it defines the road rather than just serving as existential “bumpers.”

Yes, we should emphasize relationship with God over denominational affiliations and creeds. Donald Miller is correct: head knowledge does not save. But in our attempt to get people into relationship with God, let’s be careful not to minimize “right theology.” In fact, it may not be possible to have a “right relationship with God” without it.

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Nicole July 28, 2010, 8:38 AM

    Near perfect, Mike. Couldn’t agree more.

  • Jay July 28, 2010, 9:56 AM

    Good response, Mike! But I actually think it’s unnecessary. This is because having a loose theology is still a theology, if we are to consider theology a set of propositions about God’s characteristics and the implications of those characteristics. Miller’s unspoken qualifier is a certain kind of theology (one he doesn’t agree with). He’s just replacing the stuffy-Christian-theology with the relationshippy-theology. His criticism is subject to his own criticism, and the world explodes.

  • Eddy July 28, 2010, 9:58 AM

    Great post!

    The problem I had with Miller’s post back when he wrote it sounds similar to yours. He talks as if relationship and theology are mutually exclusive – but I have always felt that right theology includes an understanding of relationship and what it means to love others.

    The other problem I see here, is that he defines the Gospel as having a relationship with Christ (there are many others that do this, as well). The problem is that we are not saved by relationship with Christ, but by faith (Eph 2: 8-9). Faith that trusts in his redemptive work on the cross.

    To have this faith requires us to comprehend on at least some level that Jesus died for my sins. One of my favorite quotes says : “Jesus died” is history… “Jesus died for my sins” is theology.

    I totally agree with him that head knowledge won’t save you. He makes a few points that I am on board with. However, our faith and our doctrine are inseparable, really.

    • Mike Duran July 28, 2010, 11:14 AM

      Eddy I love that quote: “Jesus died” is history… “Jesus died for my sins” is theology. Thanks for that!

    • David September 12, 2014, 3:45 AM

      Faith and Trust are almost interchangeable. Trust is the primary bond of relationship. Therefore faith and relationship with Jesus speak more to the type of relationship. They are still the same thing.

      Faith and Trust are informed by our theology but they are not the same thing. Google the Relationship Attachment Model for a better understanding.

  • Keven Newsome July 28, 2010, 10:39 AM

    Thanks for this! I’ve been really struggling over the Mormon beliefs in this very way. Mormons say they believe in Jesus, that he died and came back to life to pay the penalty for our sins, and through his sacrifice we can have eternal salvation… is this enough to make them Christian? Can theology be so screwed up that even though you get the Jesus part right, it’s not enough? Or is getting the Jesus part right enough to make you a Christian regardless of faulty theology?

    • Mike Duran July 28, 2010, 12:00 PM

      Great questions, Keven. I think this is where Miller has a point. Nobody’s theology is ever exact, and if we think it is, we may be setting ourselves up. Think about it, biblical history is one continuous revelation about the character and nature of God. The early Jews (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, etc.) had far less clear theology than did the New Testament Christians. Still, a way of salvation was provided for all of them. Even today, we continue to struggle with Scriptural concepts and interpretations. This isn’t to say that there isn’t clarity as to what is “sound doctrine,” but that ultimately God is the judge of who’s saved and who’s not. Thanks for your comments!

    • xdpaul July 28, 2010, 12:13 PM

      Specifically to the Mormon approach, one also must be aware of the use of substitutionary definitions.

      If one is allowed a complete picture of both Mormon theology and Christian theology, two very different pictures will, eventually, emerge. However, it is important to Mormon theology that, at an initial level, Mormonism is perceived as similar to, if not identical to, Christianity. As basic terms like sin, spirit, Father, resurrection, and the cross are later revealed to have _completely different_ meanings within both churches, one must then begin to ask questions about why those differences exists, and who is perpetrating them.

      Mormon theology presents a very intriguing path to its followers and seekers, one that at first presents itself as merely Christian, then a superior brand of Christianity and ultimately as the only true faith. The best way to compare the two faiths is to examine their origins side-by-side and then their historical development before taking on the confusingly “vaguely similar but opposite” theologies.

  • xdpaul July 28, 2010, 12:02 PM

    There was a man who loved his wife very much and thought he knew her very well. He was convinced she’d be delighted if he brought his girlfriend home to stay for the weekend, and found out he was wrong.

    Could his relationship with his wife have been as good as he thought it was if his thinking about her was so far off the mark?

    You need both. Splitting relationship from thought is like splitting hydrogen from oxygen – you get two elements, but there’s no water anymore.

  • Jeff Pauls July 28, 2010, 1:17 PM

    Shouldn’t we also remember that theology is systematic thinking (any ordered thought) about God and that it does not begin to exist in a person only after they have placed their faith in Christ?

    As you said, xdpaul, relationship and thought cannot be separated. The thoughts we had about Christ, prior to trusting Christ, were the beginnings of a the seeds broadcast on the soil of our souls. When we said yes to Jesus we did not stopped pondering him and his ways. In fact, our journey of thoughts about him had only begun.

    We must bring every thought captive to Christ and ask him, “Do these thoughts fit your ways, who you are, and your calling on my life?” This is our relationship, this is our journey with him.

    As you said Mike, theology “defines the road rather than just serving as existential “bumpers.” It’s always happening. It’s the path we travel with Jesus, defining the very choices we make to please him and the specific ministry he calls each of us to. Isn’t called discipleship?

    Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

    Jeff

  • Nikole Hahn July 28, 2010, 4:23 PM

    “Secondly, how do we know what a “right relationship with God” is if not by “right theology”?”

    I love this quote. This is a great article. I’m going to post this link on my facebook. It feels sometimes like Christians nowadays are giving themselves permission to live anyway they wish adopting whatever theology that fits their lifestyle making the Bible almost obsolete in thier lives or even fitting scripture to their life to justify sin. It’s frustrating that people diminish God by making Him so small. The way some people describe Jesus you’d think He was merely a hippie flower child or something instead of a great and Holy God who is the same in the Old Testament as in the New Testament and who gets angry sometimes, too, like any earthly father would to his child. They seem to think discipline is the same as anger instead of hand in hand with love and forgiveness.

    Thanks for this blog. :o)

  • Lyn July 29, 2010, 6:51 PM

    Solid thoughts. Thanks for sharing, especially: “It is a *wrong approach* to right theology that hinders a right relationship with God.”

  • David September 12, 2014, 3:38 AM

    Actually I don’t believe you addressed the topic at all. In the texts that you quoted he already addresses right theology and it importance.

    He makes no mention of getting rid of guard rails in the texts quoted. You do.

    If your going to have a stawman debate the strawman should at least be from his quotes not you or post-evangelicals unless you have made the connection.

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