by Shea Oakley
There is a tendency in the church today to put a great premium on the concept of "having a relationship with God."
In fact the phrase is so overused that it has become a cliché. It is true that Christianity is all about relationship, but a less popular word needs to be placed before that one before we can assume that the phrase is describing something real. That less popular word is "obedient."
What does it mean to really be in communion with Christ? Christ Himself indicated that the proof of our love for Him was that we would obey His teachings in very practical and obvious ways in our lives. He did not say that we would do so perfectly, but He made it very clear that following Him would result in altered behavior. When we look at the way professed believers act in comparison with non-believers today it is clear that we are not so different from the world in our actions. We expose ourselves to entertainment that fifty years ago would have been anathema to people who called themselves Christian, we commit sexual sin with our "serious" dating partners as if the Bible sanctions it, we bow before the god of materialism in our consumer choices and, in our hyper-individualism, we steadfastly refuse to submit to even legitimate spiritual authority. All the while we talk about having a "relationship with God" as if just saying the words and singing in church make it true.
Much is said about legalism these days, but far less is said about license, and the result is an American church that is spiritually anemic at best and slowly dying at worst. It is no doubt true that rule-based Christianity leads to pharasaism. Exterior adherence to rules that may not reflect truly biblical morality is a dead-end. Arrogant and narrow interpretations of God's loving guidelines for ethical living certainly are not a fruit of the Spirit. But we have too often used repressive religious systems as an excuse to act in ways that do not honor Christ. Holiness is a word that many contemporary Christians do not understand and do not wish to understand because it implies that we might actually have to give something up to be in right relationship with God.
Strictly speaking, even the demons "have a relationship with God". In the Gospels they know who Jesus is and they speak to Him (and he speaks back, though not in words that any of us would want to hear directed at us). It is not enough to claim to know God. Our lives have to back up our words. No doubt we will sin. While perfect behavior is not a possibility this side of the Resurrection we had better stop kidding ourselves that we can operate like the average twenty-first century man or woman on the street and then justify it on the basis of being "free from legalism".
Both the legalist and the libertine will have to give an account of their lives before God one day. It is imperative that we realize the pendulum too often swings towards the latter error in the twenty-first century American church and then both corporately and individually seek the Lord's face on how best to reverse the trend. The alternative is judgment and, whether it ends up being temporal or eternal, such judgment is something to very seriously avoid.