The phrase “relational holiness” is intriguing. The idea is often drawn from the idea of the Trinity as the perfect community of love. This perfect model of trinitarian relating serves as the model for Christian relationships. Relational holiness is an expression that gets used more frequently in Wesleyan circles. In 2005 two authors in the Wesleyan holiness tradition penned a book with the title Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love.
More recently Wesleyan authors Steve Martyn and Virginia Todd Holeman have attempted to define “relational holiness”:
We believe that relational holiness is revealed in how one relates to God, in how one manages one’s emotional reactions, and in how one relates to others, especially during difficult interpersonal exchanges. The hallmarks of relational holiness include a vibrant and deepening relationship with God, a greater ability to identify and manage intense negative emotions, and an expanded capacity to respect thoughtfully, rather than react automatically, to others in the midst of intense emotional exchanges. . . . work in these three areas deepens one’s capacity for relational holiness and that interpersonal problems may arise when one of these components is out of whack (Theology for Better Counseling, 84).
Martyn and Holeman are on to something here.
There is something I have observed in my years of living. You can be diligent in the exercise of the spiritual disciplines, but neglect the pressing needs of friends and family. You may be a master in contemplative prayer, but be a demanding and difficult person to get along with. You might be a scholar in Christian spirituality, but lacking in your ability to sustain any lasting relationships. You can be a trained Christian counselor or spiritual director, yet very prickly as a person. You might be a preacher who delivers stirring messages, but are deeply afraid of relational intimacy with others. The list goes on.
Too often sin is viewed as externally observable bad behaviors. Scripture does portrays sin as bad behavior. Yet, we don’t often describe sin as “loving others poorly.” A failure in relational holiness might be described as a failure to put the “greatest and foremost commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40) into practice. Perhaps at the center of relational holiness is the ability to love others well–especially when life is not going so well. Maybe too, relational holiness means, “don’t be self-focused, but be others’-focused” (Phil. 2:4 PAR). What does it mean to be “self-focused”? In short, it is a subtle, sophisticated, and often rationalized selfishness. We’ll explore this idea a bit more in future posts.