What is “Relational Holiness”?

The phrase “relational holiness” is intriguing. Wesleyan authors Steve Martyn and Virginia Todd Holeman offer a definition:

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).

They are on to something here.

I have observed something 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 productive Christian activist, but be a demanding and difficult person to get along with (i.e., a jerk). You might be a scholar in Christian spirituality, but socially and emotionally maladapted. You can be a trained Christian counselor, yet be very proud and 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 within evangelical sub-cultures, sin is viewed as externally observable bad behaviors. Scripture does portrays sin as bad behavior. Yet, we are not quick to 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. Self-focus occurs when: we become the heros of our own stories, or clowns who navigate life through humor, or victims who blame everybody else for their problems, or cynics who see through everything, yet believe in nothing. Relational holiness wrestles with the question: How do I come across to others, especially my Christian brothers and sisters in community? Relational holiness is also concerned with: How do I become beautiful? How do I live out the beauty of holiness? How does my Christian community (i.e., small group) “provoke” me to love (Heb. 10:24)? How does my small group help me become less self-focused as a person?

If ever a revival is to occur in American Christianity, my heart’s desire would be to see an lasting overflow of relational holiness in our churches and para-church organizations.

Artwork, “Trinity,”  by Andrei Rublev (c. 1360 – 1430)

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2 thoughts on “What is “Relational Holiness”?

  1. “Loving others poorly” makes me think this happens when ever we do not love as excellently as God empowers and enables us. For me that is more often than I would like.

    • I would agree! Hopefully as the years go by and as we seek to be present and responsive to the Holy Spirit, we will look a little more like Jesus.

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