Over the centuries, theologians have labeled many human traits as evidence of “the image of God.” The image has been seen in humanity’s upright stature, use of language, creativity, and rationality. While these may well be aspects of the image, the most central aspect is relationality. Humanity was designed to live in relationship, giving the self for the sake of the other, and we are most human when we live out that design.
Like God, humans are necessarily relational (Gen 1:26-27). Father, Son, and Spirit exist in an eternal love relationship, and humanity was created as the bearer of that relational image. He created us male and female and together we bear his image; we are incomplete without the other. He gave us dominion, and we exercise that dominion only in relationship.
God declares that it is not good for the human to be alone (Gen 2:18-25). God then impresses this point upon the man by bringing all the animals to him for naming. None of the animals provides sufficient companionship. God then takes the man's rib and makes a woman. After seeing the woman, the man declares that he has found one like him. At the end of the pericope, the writer of Genesis says, "And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed" (Gen. 2:25). God designed humanity for unashamed, authentic relationship. Without relationship, we are less than human.
Love, the giving of the self for the sake of the other, is essential to human nature because love is essential to God's nature (1 John 4:7-21). The God who is love commands his sin-corrupted image bearers to live out their essential nature by loving one another. We are able to love one another because we are loved by God. In fact, if we claim to love God, yet do not love each other, God declares us liars. The language here is very strong: if we love God, we will love each other.
Our essential relational nature is made perfect in the consummation of God's kingdom (Rev 7:9-12). In Revelation 7, John describes a vision of humans from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people gathered around God's throne in worship. A numberless multitude from every culture gathers in community around the throne of God. Humanity, righteous and perfect, is humanity in relationship.
The implications for ministry are profound and systemic. Rather than having fellowship as an add-on involving red punch and donuts, should not relationship be central to everything we do? Rather than having every week of the church calendar filled with programmed activities, should we not make a way for people to spend relaxed times with friends and family? Rather than relying on lecture-style teaching and preaching and supplementing that with small groups, should we not supplement our small groups with teaching and preaching? Rather than forming only programmed, short-term small groups, should we not foster indigenous, long-term friendships?
This is not to say that potlucks, programs, preaching, and small groups are passé—by no means. Rather let us work toward the type of faith community that provides space and real encouragement for people to live out their essential relational nature. Let us create a place where we can practice giving the self for the sake of the other. This is the life for which we are designed, but in our faith communities it is often not the life we have. Creating a faith community that takes relationship seriously might require a difficult paradigm shift, but being a place where humans can be truly human is well worth the struggle.