The Depths of the Personal

I have written on modern distortions of “personal relationship” in which “private” relationship is one of its corrupted meanings. I have also noted that, properly understood, “personal” always carries a meaning of “corporate” as well. To be in personal relationship with Christ necessarily means that I am in relationship with His Body, the Church. There is a mutual sharing of life – my life becomes Christ’s – His life becomes mine – and so forth. All of this means that what happens to one happens to all.

There are yet greater depths to the fullness of what is meant by a personal relationship, far more than I can begin to say here, or to say with much experience. But I will frame this depth by saying that when we speak of person in the language of the Church – then we have begun to speak in language which the Church first used and continues to use with regard to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and the Personhood of Christ (in its teaching on the 2 natures). That is to say that when we speak of personhood, we are not speaking about something that we in fact immediately understand just because we are modern people.

This is one of the great fallacies contained in the popular preaching of “personal relationship with Christ.” There is enough truth in what is said in that preaching that I do not wish to say that it should not be preached. I use such language myself (generally with much explanation). Our modern world believes that it understands a great deal about personhood when, in fact, most of what it knows are only in the distortions of the individual as a private entity and the rights that might be associated with that.

The gift of personhood that we receive from God is intimately involved both with our being able to properly appropriate the fullness of our own human nature, as well as the means by which we are able to appropriate the divine (here it is the energies rather than the nature that we appropriate). This is to say, that personhood is the mode of existence which is given us in our relationship with Christ, through which the whole life of grace, our communion with God and one another, and our likening to God Himself, is made possible.

In this I am abbreviating almost to the point of absurdity – but only to point to the greatness contained in the Church’s teaching on God’s gift of “personal relationship.” This is so much more than modern preaching either says and is certainly something which is utterly unknown to Evangelical thought. However, it is deeply and carefully taught, and lived, in the fullness of Orthodox life (particularly as evidenced in those lives to which we would point as examples of a rightly-lived Christian life).

That people everywhere should learn to call upon the name of Jesus for salvation is a joy to me. That they should come to know more and more what it means to call upon the name of Jesus for salvation is a ministry which God has set before us and with the fullness of Tradition that is given to us we should be utterly derelict in our responsibility should we not teach and preach this fullness.

May God teach us to live by grace through faith.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


21 responses to “The Depths of the Personal”

  1. Roger C Avatar

    Most of the time when I hear people talking about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the antithesis of what they’re talking about is being in relationship only to His Body, but not to Him. While it may be impossible not to see Him in His Body, is it possible to be in a relationship only with His Body, but not with Him?

  2. Jeff Avatar

    I would venture to say that no, you cannot be. That is, you cannot be in an authentic relationship. Sort of akin to the sort of casual physical relationships of a certain TV show/movie. There is a relationship at some level – but it is terribly shallow, and perhaps not even real.

    I think we all risk, and maybe at times are all guilty, of having such a shallow relationship with our local parish, but lack the authenticity of that relationship.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Well said. Authentic relationship involves love, freedom, and it enlarges us (to use a Scriptural term). It is a way to assess the nature of the “relationships” we have. Are they marked by self-sacrifice? Do they enlarge those who are in relation to me and myself in turn?

  4. ttremeth Avatar

    I think we see God’s clear purpose in the history of the Jewish people documented in the Old Testament and specifically when Jesus was amongst us. God desires relationship and it is the central focus and reason for Jesus death. We are lost children, rebellious in nature and need reconciliation. We relate to God in three ways –
    1. Just talking and listening to him.
    2. The local church.
    3. The Bible.
    All three are core ingredients in a balanced Christian life. All of them solidify each other and cannot exist alone as they then become out of balance. However all three are for the purposing of knowing him.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, this is true. But there is much more, much more. 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.

    And the Church could (and is) seen by many as mere fellowship, when it is indeed communion with the Divine Life that is poured out in the Church such that we cannot say we hate our brother and say we love God. You perhaps meant to include under the heading of Church the whole sacramental life in which we are immersed, which is itself, nothing other than the Very Life of God.

    And the Scriptures must be read with true understanding and not in a private manner but as communion with God in the midst of His Church (we are never outside His bride).

    But perhaps you meant all this and I’m just being too talkative. Forgive me. I’ve been reading again. 🙂

  6. NeoChalcedonian Avatar

    You’re not going to believe this, but I came in order to ask you about the exact subject matter of this post!

  7. Margaret Avatar

    This is beautifully stated, thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  8. Brendan Avatar

    I think it’s relevant to point out that Christ Himself emphasized that communal aspect when He said,
    “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.”

  9. Pastor Jeff Tomlinson Avatar
    Pastor Jeff Tomlinson

    I have discovered as a Protestant pastor that having a “personal” relationship with Christ involves more than just “me and Jesus.” It has been my experience to have encouraged people to enjoin this personal relationship with Christ…and they have. The problem that keeps haunting me, however, is that this translates into a private relationship and often no commitment, no involvement, no relationship (personal or private) with the Body of Christ, the Church. Your words here give me much to consider and cause me to re-think my preaching and teaching in these matters.

    Pastor Jeff

  10. Gina Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I hope you’ll post further reflection on the Orthodox understanding of personhood.

  11. Tracy Avatar

    Father, having just observed my first Lent and Holy Week, and celebrated my first Pascha as an Orthodox believer (chrismated last Sept.), I was wondering on your thoughts on why some of us have been drawn to and accepted by the Church.

    The rest of my family has not followed me but remain Anglican. My experience trying to live the liturgical cycle, and drawing near in prayer to Christ (via the Traditional, formal prayers) for over 10 years has brought me such joy and I “feel” (whatever that means) I’ve been called to be, and live, as an Orthodox Christian woman . . .

    Wonderful to finally be Chrismated after so much searching!

    So I guess in reference to personal relationships with Christ, I’m asking if/since this is the right Way, why do people not respond? Why did it take me so many years wandering through Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism to get to my current Greek Orthodox parish? Surely Christ wants us to follow Him and try to serve Him as faithful servants . . .

    Thank you Fr., I value your blog and your thoughts. Christos Anesti!

  12. torn Avatar

    I have been reading your blog for a long time and found it a blessing to my soul. Count me amoung the many protestants that feel very drawn towards Orthodoxy.
    (This likely should not be posted here and feel free to remove it if that would be best but I seek some guidance in an issue that many people like me struggle with and you have experience in)
    I feel as though the Orthodox Church is home for me yet at the same time I have been given the responsibility as a leader within my present evangelical congregation. I know you have obviously wrestled with this issue yourself as you were once a non Orthodox pastor. I am torn between the calling to lead my present “family” towards the truth and yet feel that by remaining where I am at, I limit my own understanding of the very truth I am trying to lead towards. If I leave my present church home and join the Orthodox Church I feel as though I am abandoning those very responsibilities I have been given by the church/God?. Likely it is my own pride that tells me that I am required there to bring about a seeking of the truth and in reality I realize that it is up to God and not me however maybe God placed me here for this very reason. Basically I guess the issue is this. I want to be obedient to God and I don’t know how. I am capable of debating both sides of the argument as being my own delusion and disobedience.

    I am not sure if you have previously described this part of your journey and if so I would love to be given the link to it.

    In Christ,

  13. Dale Avatar

    Father, it was my post just above, labelled as “torn” at the time and while it descibes my present state when I see it on the page it bothers me. I want to be known by name and not some meaningless website moniker. I apologize for this but if it seems unnecessary but I felt I needed to add my real name,

    With as much humility as I can muster,

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    It is finally only in following the Truth that any of us can minister truth to others. I labored for nearly 20 years as an Anglican, drawing as much as I could from Orthodox sources, but I can say I did not accomplish a fraction of what I have as an Orthodox priest. The fullness of the Orthodox faith, and thus of the Christian faith, finally has to be ministered in the fullness of the Orthodox Church.

    It’s a very difficult journey, but worth it. I believe it has been the most eloquent sermon I ever preached to Anglicans (that I became Orthodox) and I have helped make a home where they or any others can come and find rest.

    For a recorded version of my journey this link is useful:

  15. Dale Avatar

    Thank you for that link, Father.

    I enjoyed your talk and think I will listen to the others talks listed there. “It is finally only in following the Truth that any of us can minister truth to others” I know this is true but it is going to be a difficult journey. Although the alternative looks like death in comparison. I am tired of being a salesman for a product I feel as though I am just discovering.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    Life is very short – far too short to do less and be less than we come to know as truth. I learned this in many hard lessons. Though I am only 54, I am glad to have learned it as soon as I did (I became Orthodox at age 43). I will pray for you and be glad to be of any assistance that I can. We have had many readers who have stumbled across the blog on their way to Orthodoxy – and many have left thank you’s on the way. It is perhaps my greatest joy.

  17. Dale Avatar

    I thank you already for the time and love that you put into this blog. It touches many in ways you may never realize and your prayers are appreciated to be sure.

  18. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I appreciate your instruction on the depths of “personal,” but I find that I’m also troubled by the word “relationship”.

    I think I once read David Bentley Hart asserting that there is no such thing as “religion” the way the world commonly uses the word. If I understood his point (which I probably didn’t), he intends something like this: To call Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism “religions” is to say that each is a particular manifestation of a general category of fundamentally similar things, collectively called “religions” (just as Persian and Siamese are particular manifestations of the fundamentally similar things called cats). The trouble is that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are fundamentally dissimilar. Thus defining a category that includes them all is like defining a category that includes salt, red tulips, the ringing of a doorbell, and justice. The category must be so broad as to be meaningless (e.g., they are all “things”).
    In the same way I suspect that there are no relationships. There are friends, acquaintances, fathers, mothers, masters, slaves, employers, employees, sons, daughters, cousins, uncles, enemies, neighbors, strangers, representatives, constituents, husbands, wives…the list is endless. To define a category, “relationship”, that these are all manifestations of is to define a uselessly broad category: “A relationship is the form of intercourse by which any group of two or more people…umm…relate to each other.” To say that I am “in relationship with” someone appears to mean nothing at all. Perhaps he is my nephew. Perhaps he is trying to kill me.

    Similarly I cannot put my finger on what anyone means by saying we are saved by having a “personal relationship” with God. Yes, yes, I know what it is supposed to mean. Primarily it is trying to explain what being a Christian is NOT (“personal” means that I have to make the “decision” to be a Christian for myself. Having Christian parents, going to a Christian church, living in a Christian nation does not make me a Christian any more than living in a garage makes me a car. “God has no grandchildren” the saying goes. There are no Christians by association. “relationship” means that I am saved not by law or works or religion or ceremony or sacrament or church but by the immediate work of Christ applied to my life in response to my having entered into a…umm…relationship with Him through a…umm…decision expressed in something like a “sinner’s prayer.”) It also strikes me that the word “relationship” almost fails to appear in the Scriptures (a quick search with my software in the NIV shows only three appearances, only one of which is in the NT, Rom 2:17, where it is used sarcastically). Scripture does not speak of relationships but of faith and grace and mercy and light and truth and freedom. The language of “relationships” neglects all those rich concepts and discourages me from trying to find out what they mean and how I might partake of them.

    Is the word “communion” closely associated with “person?” I wonder whether one of the peculiar characteristics of “persons’ is the ability to have communion (becoming one with, in some sense) with another person. It seems communion is God’s appointed means by which we are to grow up into His image and thus to live — as Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden and as children grow up into the maturity of their parents by living in communion with them. As you often say, the Church is the Body of Christ to which we must join ourselves (i.e., communion with Christ and with one another) if we are to live.

  19. William Avatar

    In his catechism, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic wrote: “The Christian faith should not be compared with other religions and, strictly speaking, it ought not to be called a ‘religion’ at all, in the pagan meaning of the word. For it is not a religion among religions, but it is the faith in Christ and Christ’s revelation. It is God’s personal, unique and final revelation to men for the sake of men’s enlightenment and salvation. Another revelation of God shall not be given and another Messiah besides Jesus Christ should not be expected to the end of the world.”

    As for the word “relationship,” it seems to be an appropriate word to describe what exists between Christians and God, but in itself it certainly can be too limited to express entirely what communion is.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


    Well made point. Relationship is a rather weak modern word. It would far more accurate and in line with both Scripture and the Fathers to say, “Personal Communion” but of course there is no such thing as “impersonal communion” I would rather think. The word communion itself contains “personal” in its theological meaning.

  21. Atlanta Avatar

    This is an interesting point. It does appear that corporate worship in the Orthodox church forces us to have a public relationship with Jesus Christ and that can be very uncomfortable. The way you framed it, it makes it seem that that is deliberate on the part of the Church. It is almost as if being in Church exposes one, exposes one’s faith. I wonder if we are afraid to worship in Church because of the long lasting effects of communism? No, the original church was in the catacombs. There is something about coming together as the Body of Christ that makes Christians vulnerable to the destructive powers of this world it seems.

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