“It’s a Relationship, Not a Religion”: The Scientific Truth behind This Common Christian Phrase

Church Matters, Personal Development

Listen to iTunes  Listen to Stitcher

Jesus told his followers to “Go . . . make disciples.” (Matthew 28:19). We generally read the passage to say, “Go make believers.” The difference might seem subtle, but the implications are enormous. When Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples,” He initiated a chain of attachments. Disciples make disciples who make disciples and on and on to the end of the earth.

“I don’t know any soteriology of attachment,” the late Dr. Dallas Willard said to me as we sat in his living room. He encouraged me to explore how attachment love in the brain connected to the ways we are “being saved” through the process of discipleship. For Dallas, salvation was never a simple ticket out of hell with no effect during our lives.

At a brain level, we become who we are through attachment to those we love. Attachment love connects mothers to babies, unites good marriages, preserves lasting friendships, and powers the brain systems that develop our character. Attachment love sends people running into burning buildings to save family or even pets.

Attachment love is quite different (and a great deal stronger) than sexual, social, and inanimate loves like our love for chocolate. When our relational love is failing, we often try to substitute lesser loves for it. When attachment love is taken over by chemicals, we become attached in ways we call addictions.

What if Jesus really meant it when He said that He would reveal Himself only to those who love Him? That only those who love can keep His words? Judas (not Iscariot) was amazed when Jesus said exactly that (John 14:21-23). If we want to have Jesus and the Father live with us, then we must love Him.

Was Jesus speaking of attachment love or some kind of idea-based love? Attachment love is the strongest force in the human brain, stronger than our desire for life itself. Does it seem likely that Jesus was speaking of a lesser love? When we examine Jesus’ teaching (that so surprised Judas) in the upper room, we notice that Jesus was preparing to love God more than His own life that very night. The attachment love system in His brain helped give Him the strength to obey the Father all the way to death, even death on a cross.

The church at Ephesus heard from Jesus Himself that their beliefs were right but that they had lost their first love (Revelation 2:1-5). Ever since the Enlightenment what we believe has tended to replace who we love as the deciding factor in Christian life. Some people then reduce obeying Jesus to keeping rules. Others seem to have all the right beliefs but their love for Jesus and people seems a bit cold and frayed. That is because a chain of beliefs builds upon one of the weakest links to character in the brain.

The relational Christian life that the brain demands feels out of reach for many pastors. Management tasks (the measures of pastoral success) take much of the joy out of the pastoral calling. Relational pastors were often replaced by professional pastors following the Vietnam War. Enrolling in seminary was one way stay out of the war. Those who entered pastorates to avoid the war often wanted professional recognition. A sense of calling to see people transformed into the character of Jesus took a back seat to running a well-managed and growing church. Even the many pastors who began with a vision to see lives transformed were drained by the crippling professional performance pressure. Church became work and not a place for attachment love to form and grow disciples.

The way the brain learns the character of Christ requires attachment relationships with more mature disciples. Disciples must have their own disciples who follow in the way their role models follow Christ. Without the Holy Spirit this would be nonsense, but Jesus started the chain of love by showing us how to live in a human body. He taught His human brain to follow God. Now some might doubt that Jesus’ brain had anything to do with His life of obedience. They assume that Jesus must have overpowered His brain and body by divinity or some spiritual method! But, did Jesus drag His soma around as a useless appendage that could not serve God and only got in the way?

If Jesus trained His mind, we must ask the question, what part of the brain developed His character? It was the relational social engagement system that operated from attachment love. Attachment is not learned through ideas in the way we usually interpret the word believe. Attachment grows from the kind of intimacy (yada) that produces an unfailing trust (belief or faith) in the goodness of the other. Relational neuroscience shows us that our faith is a relationship, not a religion.

Dr. Jim Wilder is a neurotheologian who has trained leaders and counselors for nearly 30 years on five continents. The founder of Life Model Works, he is an expert on the intersection of theology and brain science. He is the author of Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms and coauthor of Rare Leadership and Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You.

Join Our Newsletter