“He’s a good head elder, but he has a vile temper.” I was the incoming teacher to a church school, and a member of the school board was acquainting me with the people I would be working with. It turned out my confidant was right. The head elder did indeed have a vile temper, in fact, he was curt, withdrawn, and narrow-minded. But he was well-to-do, supported the church financially, and looked dignified, if dour, in a suit and tie.

That got me to thinking. This was not my first church school. I had been teacher and principal at several others previous to this. What struck me was how often I had heard this sort of thing. Not necessarily about a head elder, and not always a vile temper, but always about a prominent/influential church member who was widely admired but who had few friends. In fact, it had been a constant. Every church, so it seemed, had at least one member who exercised great influence and was considered a spiritual leader, but was easily upset and quick to retaliate when offended.

Nearly forty years have passed since I received the warning about the head elder, and I have seen this situation repeated over and over. Once you become aware of it, you see it everywhere. It’s like when you buy a car of a different make than you are used to, and suddenly you see them every day. I was a guest speaker at a church hundreds of miles from my home, and I witnessed a head elder verbally abusing a young pastor. In a foreign country, consulting with a church on young adult outreach, I ran into a sharp-tongued “pillar” of the church. I call her a pillar, because it became clear that she’d been holding things up for years.

What surprises me is not that such people come to church–after all, they can be found everywhere–it’s that so often they are considered good Christians, spiritual leaders. I bring this up now because we’ve been talking about salvation as a saving relationship, and examining what that means. We’ve seen that a saving relationship means being vulnerable with God–confessing our sins–and even more, being intimate with God, humbling ourselves to the point where we allow him to point out sins of which we are not aware. If that’s what a deep, saving relationship looks like, then how does that square with these abrasive individuals so often considered to be spiritual?

John, in his first epistle, warns us:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister.is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

It seems to me, then, that it would also be valid to say:

Whoever claims to have a vulnerable, intimate (saving) relationship with God, but is not vulnerable to any of his brothers and sisters.is (I’ll be gentler than John) kidding himself. For whoever is not vulnerable to his brothers and sisters, whom he has seen,.cannot be vulnerable to God, whom he has not seen.

Looked at this way, it seems obvious, does it not? The common notion of spirituality or righteousness doesn’t appear to be based on relationship, but something else entirely. Usually its based on level 3: Opinions and Judgments. The “spiritual” person holds all the correct beliefs, knows all the right verses and quotations.

Once we begin to look at salvation as a relationship, it literally changes everything else. Ministry, evangelism, spiritual disciplines, church discipline–all of these become questions not of policy and procedure, of legal correctness, but of relationship. And that means trust.

We have seen that saving faith is trust; we now see that a saving relationship is one of building trust in God. But as John paradoxically shows us, building a relationship with God also means building relationships with our fellow man. Indeed, given how messed up relationships among people are these days, most people will not have a clue how to build a trusting relationship–with anyone, let alone God. As one devout Christian (not an Adventist) said, who attended a series of meetings where I presented this model, “I have problems with trust.”

“We all do,” I replied. That’s what makes this relationship model more challenging than any legal understanding of salvation. The Jews may have 613 laws, but it’s a finite number. Eventually one might learn them all, and find ways to consider them satisfied. But a God who wants us to trust Him, and who wants us to become trustworthy to one another–that’s something else altogether. But once we have come to understand this is what salvation means, the other models crumble of their own weight.

As we’ll begin to see next time.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.