Tag Archives: legalism

Pathetic Legalism or Authentic Love? (part three)

The previous two articles focused on the negative side of  the attitudes and behaviors of a segment of American Evangelicalism. Certainly not all believers in Jesus Christ are gripped with legalism and live accordingly. One of my main points is that to think and behave in the manner many Evangelicals do is contrary even to the rudimentary tenets of Christ’s teachings.

The irony for these legalists (of which I’ve labeled myself a recovering one), is that to live contrary to Christ’s teachings, indeed to live contrary to the empowered life of God’s Spirit, is to violate God’s Law in the third commandment:  “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” How is that?  Briefly, to take God’s name in vain is not merely to misuse the name in crude speech.  The Scripture teaches that the application of that commandment is broader than that (see the explanation given in the Westminster Larger Catechism). To wear Christ’s name, yet to deny him by living legalistically, hypocritically or by rejecting his clear teachings, is to take his name in vain.  For fuller discussion on this important issue, I commend the Westminster Confessional Standards, and the writings by John Frame and Jochem Douma on the Ten Commandments. So legalism at its core violates God’s basic legal code!

Legalism is pathetic, and it has done terrible harm to the reputation of Christ. Counter to legalism is the positive side of the life of Christ and the life in Christ.  As I stated before  the early Christians had the reputation for their love of Christ, for one another and for their neighbors.  Theirs was an authentic, proactive concern and care for others. They were living the Christ life.  This is how it should be with Christians today.

Their love was not motivated by sentiment, nor even merely because they were trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Their affirmative, dynamic love flowed from the plain teaching of Scripture, the infusion of Christ’s spiritual life, the supernatural empowerment and fruit of God’s Spirit, as well as the model of Jesus.

The love of Jesus is demonstrated in the four Gospel accounts.  It is also clearly taught throughout the rest of the New Testament. However, the most succinct and straightforward teachings on Christ’s love is found in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians (New Testament).  The context of this chapter is in a section where St. Paul is explaining how Christians ought to conduct themselves and to live with one another and with the world.  The core of their living is in Christ, and the expression of that Christ-life core is love.  This love is genuine affection, and for those who are in Christ by faith, Paul says this love is necessary, expressed, permanent and superior to everything else.

1

Paul begins each of the first three verses by stating an existing condition.  Then he shows the results of that condition when there is an absence of love. In the first verse, he says you can speak any language, earthly, or heavenly for that matter, but without true affection, you are no better off, as the ancient church Father Chyrsotom said, than a “positive nuisance.”  By speaking many languages, Paul implies the one has knowledge, so-called wisdom and eloquence.  But words of a brilliant master linguist without love are irritating, senseless clangs.

To have, according to verse two, the best of all spiritual gifts as Christians but without love, we are nothing.  And we might give to others or offer up our lives sacrificially as Christians our offering might have some benefit for others, but it is of no profit to ourselves if there is no love.  His point is that love is an absolute necessity for the Christian life.  Remove it and all else is ultimately empty.

2

The second thing he points out is that true affection is expressed (chapter 13, verses 4-7).  He paints for us a picture, as one person put it, “of putting on love’s matchless beauty.”   True affection is expressed unselfishly (13:4). For one, authentic love is patient. Patience is restraint when you have the right to act.  Jesus give a parable of this in Matthew 18:21-35, of a king whose servant owed him an insurmountable debt that he could not possibly owe.  Yet the king was very patient with him.  The debtor, in contrast, was very impatient with his own servant who owed him a small amount of money.  This kind of loving patience is also the ability to delay a response, especially when wronged.  Jesus did this for our sake (1 Peter 3:20).  He was patient with the soldiers who apprehended him, patient with the religious and political powers that tried him,  knowing his restraint from acting with supernatural power would lead him to the cross.  It was his destiny to pay for our sins (in fact, for our lack of love and impatience) on the cross.

This authentic love is also kind (to illustrate just read Luke 6 and Ephesians 4).  In a sense, patience is a passive quality – a restraint.  Kindness is an active quality – a bestowal or giving.   Kindness is not to be confused with niceness.  Nice connotes a passive pleasantness or sweetness.  Kindness is assertive and proactive.  It may not be masculine to be sweet, but it is manly to be kind; for the God-Man Jesus is kind.   Kindness proceeds from a tender heart.  It contributes to the peace and happiness of others.  It is the opposite of one’s disposal to do harm to others.

3

The third quality of this genuine affection is that it is not jealous.  This kind of jealousy is a selfishness that boils with intense desire. In the bad sense, it is like envy, that feeling of “uneasiness at the sight of superior excellence, reputation or happiness enjoyed by someone else, accompanied by some degree of hatred…often with a desire to depreciate the person or to have pleasure in seeing him depressed”  (Barclay).  This is what we see going on in Acts 5:17, 7:9, and 13:45.  This envy-filled jealousy springs from pride and ambition. It is shocked that another has obtained what one has a strong desire to possess.  True affection has a desire that others would find success and happiness in their lives.

4

Still another characteristic of true love is that it does not brag.  It is not anxious to display itself like the little banny rooster who struts around because he thinks his early morning crowing caused the sun to come up.  Love is not ostentatious, putting on a display to build up oneself at the expense of others, parading oneself and campaigning to be at the center of attention.  In contrast, true love is humble (2 Corinthians 10:13).

It is also not proud, or more literally, it does not “swell up like the bellows of a sail boat.” This Christ-love is not puffed up.  Paul made it clear that a central problem the Christians were having in the city of Corinth was that they were indeed proud.  And their pride manifested itself:  they were contentious (4:6), had a bad attitude toward Paul (4:18), were arrogant in their speech (4:19), were apathetic toward sin and evil (5:2), and displayed an intellectual arrogance that repulsed even non-Christians (8:1).  Reverse those things and you have a view of Christ’s love.

5

The next major thing Paul points out about this authentic Christ-love is how it is expressed behaviorally (13:5-6).  He has five ways of how love acts, though he puts them in negative terms.  First, it does not act unbecomingly.  That is, true love is not rude or deliberately does something to hurt or embarrass another. Next, love does not seek its own selfish ways and benefits as explained above.  Not that love is totally devoid of self, but rather self in an arrogant, self-absorbed way that becomes the source of impatience, unkindness, bragging, and unseemliness.

Thirdly, love is not provoked by wrongs or evil.  Love desires justice and what is righteous;  it even seeks those things.  Love’s response toward sin and evil is not a desire for personal revenge, but rather earnestly desires good consequences would come about so that the sinner or evil doer would change, or repent, or pay so that those who suffered at his or her expense would be properly, fairly served.  Love is not triggered to seek revenge nor allows unjust wrongs to provoke and embitter.

Along with this is the fact that true love does not take into account a wrong suffered.  There is not doubt you will be wronged.  Love for another does not put the wrong they did to you into a mental registry for which there is a plan to retaliate.  Instead, love desires grace and mercy to come upon the offender so that there would be restitution, reconciliation or repentance.

Note, the thrust of the good news about Christ’s life and work is that he took the registry of our sins, even the sins against him as our God, and paid for them through his sacrificial, loving death upon the cross.

The fifth point Paul makes is that love does not rejoice in or over unrighteousness.  It takes no delight in sin or evil. Love is grieved by wickedness, evil, and injustice.

6

The apostle goes on to present us with a positive way how love behaves:  genuine love rejoices in the truth.  Since love does not rejoice over unrighteousness, but does rejoice over truth, then love is never apathetic or neutral.  This is not merely truth as facts, but moral truth that has its connection to God and his good character.  Love and truth are intimate companions, one person said.  Another wrote, “Love does not avoid truth, and love does not compromise truth.”

The positive side of love is that is it expressed optimistically (13:7).  True love covers over all things. It keeps things in confidence in order to protect another’s reputation.  That doesn’t mean love keeps quiet about another’s sin or crime.  Love in this instance is such that it does not wish to broadcast to everyone something bad, even if it is true (1 Peter 4:8; 1 Corinthians 9:12).

It also believes all things; meaning that even when love has no forensic evidence, it believes the best.  Not that a loving Christian is to be gullible, easily fooled or conned, but rather s/he puts the best construction on things, unless of course there is sufficient warrant to believe otherwise.  For example, when a child tells his parent something, even if the parent is in doubt, out of love the parent will take the child at his word until such time as there is proof otherwise.

Love also hopes all things.  True love is biblically optimistic.  We often think of hope as the wish for a possible, positive future.  But this loving hope is not a hope found in situations, history, the environment, or in people. It is an assurance of a certain future that is rooted in a sovereign God who has all things under control and works all things together for our best (Romans 8:28ff).

The other positive aspect of this love is that it endures all things.  For the sake of Christ and the sake of others, love perseveres and endures whatever comes to it, positive or negative.
Another perspective on this is Paul means to say:

Love deals well with all things.
When love has no evidence, it believes all things;
When the evidence is adverse, love hopes all things;
When hope is disappointed, love endures all things.

(I believer Barclay said this)

We have seen that in contrast to pathetic legalism, the authentic love in Christ, that flows from Christ is necessary and expressed through certain behaviors.  Now we conclude by looking at the last two qualities about this love: it is permanent and it is superior.   Authentic love has a permanency about it (13:8-12).  True love is enduring. Its affects endure.  Other things, even the supernatural gifts that the Christians in Corinth so highly prized, are transient. Not so with love.  Furthermore, love is mature.

7

Finally, true affection is indeed superior (13:13).  Of the greatest virtues in the Christian life: faith, hope and love, it is love that is of the highest significance and importance.  And it is the fundamental quality of the character of a true Christian – not the law and not legalism.  Faith and hope are far greater and better than any law-produced virtue. In fact, love is far superior to even those virtues! As Paul points out in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, love fulfills the law!  Authentic love will love and worship God and him alone. Love will rest in God, and seek him always, but especially on God’s special day.  Love would never dishonor parents or authorities, or betray a marriage bond, or murder, or steal from others, or injure their reputation or falsely accuse another, and love would not be enviously greedy.

Conclusion

For the genuine Christian who has placed saving faith in Jesus Christ, authentic love is a necessity in life. Authentic love which comes from Jesus Christ and by faith, is at the core of the true Christian’s renewed soul.  It is expressed in a certain way, which by the way does mimic Jesus. It is also permanent, and is it superior to all other virtues.

This authentic Christ-love is what ought to motivate us as Christians today. This love is not motivated by sentiment, nor even merely because we are trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This affirmative, dynamic love flows from the plain teaching of Scripture, the infusion of Christ’s spiritual life, the supernatural empowerment and fruit of God’s Spirit, as well as the model of Jesus. And it flows from us in a positive , godly, good way to one another and then to all people.

© D. Thomas Owsley

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Character, Healthy church, Legalism, Love in the church

Pathetic Legalists or Authentic Lovers (part two)

In the last article (part one) I proposed that many of today’s contemporary American Evangelical Christians  have lost their Christian way.  I also proposed that a significant reason for this is due to legalism; and that our society is right to complain about us, at least on that basis.  I also contrasted our brand of Christianity with that of the early church in that  one of the biggest complaints Roman society had against them was their “irrational”, non-utilitarian care and concern they had for one another and for their neighbors. 

It seems that many in the early church, though far from ideal or perfect, was gripped by the good news of Jesus, such that they lived out the love of Christ. For the most part, theirs was an active affection and an authentic love. Their love, as St. Paul wrote in Romans chapter twelve, was indeed sincere or more literally, unhypocritical.

Romans 12:9 admonishes Christians to let love be sincere, or as it is woodenly stated in the original language:  the love unhypocritical!  The Greek word for hypocrite (the New Testament was written in the common language of trade, which at the time was Greek), was the term used for the masks that actors wore.  So, the Bible is insisting that Christians are to have an authentic, open, genuine love. 

However, if we Christians are gripped by legalism then we will not be loving, and certainly not authentically loving.  Merrill Unger writes that “the hypocrite is a double person, natural and artificial; the first he keeps to himself, the other he puts on as he does his clothes, to make an appearance before men.”  What Paul and other new Testament writers urge is that believers in Christ would not feign love or live insincerely.  When we do so the charge that we talk a big talk but don’t walk the walk is all too true. 

Legalists are hypocritical.  Hypocrisy is a contemptible characteristic that all people share and nearly all people hate. It is also a horrible characteristic that God abhors.  Before moving on to the proactive, positive side of the Christ life (authentically loving), allow me to make some points about Christian hypocrisy (inauthentic living and loving):

First, we hypocrites worship, but we do not do so from the heart.   Jesus, quoting God’s statement from Isaiah 29, rebuked the highly religious crowd, “These people draw near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”  You ever like that?   I am.  More times than I care to admit.  But true love for God worships sincerely from the heart. True worship is an authentic connection in a loving relationship.

Second, we hypocrites parade ourselves as holy, righteous and pious people.  We play the part of righteous people, when true humility would reveal what we are truly like at heart:  unrighteous. Now, that does not mean we don’t have some semblance of a righteous character in Christ; for we have received his righteousness as believers.  Neither does that mean that no one does some sort of good.  What it does mean is that we are tainted with moral impurities, so that even the best we do is tainted with sin.  Much like someone who has a contagious disease, a virus or bacteria.  The disease or infection might not become a full-blown manifestation; nevertheless, it is still there.

Jesus was disgusted with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were radical zealots when it came to being right and doing the right thing.  He said that they let everyone know how much they give to help the poor (Matthew 6:2); they pray on street corners to show how wonderfully religious they are (Matthew 6:5); and they behave with a religious pouting when they fast (Matthew 6:16).

They prided themselves at how much they studied and knew their Bible.  They bragged about how pure they were and how immoral everyone else was. In fact, unlike Jesus, whom they considered among the dregs of society, they were so righteous that they would not have anything to do with the “untouchables” (people with leprosy or any other obvious disease), the unclean (those who were not religiously and ceremonially pure like they were, or those who were not of the same religioethnicity as they), or the sinners (homeless, drunks, druggies, prostitutes, homosexuals).  They could own that pride because they had worked hard, like good legalists, to arrive at their level of holiness or perfection, while others clearly had not. 

In contrast, true Christ-like love is humble.  Someone gripped by the love and grace of Jesus practices amazing grace.  S/he believes the simple, yet profound fact of who they really are when stripped away bare before the presence of a holy God.  They truly admit,  “Where would I be if God had not been gracious to me?  I am really no better than those who are labeled untouchable, unclean or sinner.  The only credit I have in my account is not mine, but Christ’s.  Therefore, with authentic humility I can have sincere love for those who are in every way on my same level.

Third, we hypocrites are judgmental.  Now, the Bible teaches the difference between a discerning kind of judgment, which we are called to have, and a condemning kind of judgment, which we have no right to have.

In Matthew 7, Jesus says that the hypocritical judge looks for the tiniest little fleck of dirt in someone else’s eyes and condemns him or her for having dirty eyes, while all the while walking around with an obvious dirty log protruding from his eye.  He uses such hyperbole to underscore how absurdly stupid such an arrogant judge is!  Every legalist and legalistic group does this. They size others up according to their own measure and then berate others for not making the grade.  At the core of a legalist is a fearful and insecure person who needs to condemn others in order to gain a measure of self-worth.

Writing in Romans, chapter two, Paul says that when we Christians criticize and judge others, we criticize and judge others for the very same things for which we are guilty.  We often see and hate in others what we refuse to admit guilt in ourselves. We act appalled when another believer sins or is discovered to have some indiscretion, fault or sin, while secretly sinning in a similar manner.  This is highlighted when, every so often (more than it should), some famous preacher who rants and rails against a particular sin is discovered to have the same fault, flaw or sin.  It ought to put us on notice lest we be like that.

Judging flows from pride, while grace, mercy and love flow from humility. The downside about emphasizing law and purity is our propensity to de-emphasize mercy and grace.  Judgmentalism is a nasty, vicious, hideous, moral cancer.  As I implied earlier, it falsely elevates us at the expense of others.  It is a masked narcissism. It broadcasts the stench of arrogance.  It manipulates and keeps others in their “place.” It is abusive, and restrictive (restricting true freedom).  The bottom line is that hypocritical, judgmental Christianity is an evil.

By contrast, genuine Christ-like love is not judgmental.  Instead, it deals graciously and mercifully with others’ deficits, faults and sins. This does not imply that “deficits,” faults and sins are to be ignored or not addressed.  They are indeed addressed by loving Christians; but not in order to point the giant forefinger and pronounce a guilty verdict with attendant sentences.  By all means Christians are to recognize genuine sin as sin and condemn those sins.  But no Christian individual has the right to pronounce any condemnatory sentence.  Only proper biblical authorities have the rightful duty to pronounce a sentence upon wayward rebels who call themselves Christians (Matthew 16, 18).  That sentence is to declare that they are not of the true faith. 

Sinners are to be addressed gently (Galatians 6:1) because they are addressed from a place of humility, with a concern for restoration.  The sins of a believer is to be addressed gently in order to help the person quit his error or sin and to make a positive, transformative change.  The sin is labeled (based upon Scripture’s clear definition and description, not on our personal standards) and a rebuke, reproof or correction is issued.  Again, the purpose is to call the person to turn around.  For example, Paul tells those who are in Christ to stop stealing, and instead go to work so as to provide for himself and others, and in order to have extra to help out others in need (Ephesians 4:29).

The fourth thing about Christian hypocrites is that we are double-tongued.  We say one thing but do another.  Double-tongued also means we do not keep our word (James 3:10).  Authentic love is loyally committed to and relatively consistent with what one says. 

Fifth, Christian hypocrites are generally unwilling to help fellow believers in need (James 2:15-16).  Those possessed with authentic love helps fellow believers and others who are in need.

Obviously there are many other characteristics we could list about Christian hypocrisy.  These are merely five, but they are the common ones that the Bible lists.   A perfect Jesus condemned false humility, arrogant legalism, and hypocritical love.  One time he rebuked his disciples for their failure to follow his teachings, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but you do not do the things I tell you to do?” (Luke 6:46).  At another time he said that religious legalists observe the law but ignore and reject true justice, mercy and faith.  The rest of the Bible teaches us that genuine love is just, merciful and comes from a life of true faith.

Saint John, the “apostle of love,” wrote in his first letter to the Church,  “He who says ‘I know him (Jesus)’ and does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth (of Jesus) is not in him.”  Put bluntly, for those who believe in and own the name of Jesus, inauthentic and hypocritical love is intolerable.  Christians are called upon to listen intently to Jesus with a willingness and a passion to follow through. The overflow of that willingness and passion, which comes from a spiritual empowerment God gives, is clearly manifested in authentic love and with an active compassion.

So what are we to think and do?  If you are a Christian hypocrite like me, the first thing to do is come to grips with God’s law and his love.  Forget measuring yourself against your own or others’ standards as a way to identify the ideal perfection.  Measure yourself against God’s Law and know that he not only requires perfection in what you do, but also perfection of your attitude, thinking and heart.  Then humbly recognize that it is impossible for you or anyone else to measure up to such pure, holy, and perfect standards.  That failure to measure up is called sin and the act of stepping over the line, breaking his Law, is called transgression. 

Secondly, give up pride and humbly confess to God your inability and failure(s).

Next, trust in Jesus who perfectly fulfilled God’s Law in heart, word and action.  Trust in Jesus who paid for your guilt and shame when he died upon the cross. By his love he took upon himself your deficits, flaws and sins.  By his mercy he assumed your indebtedness and stepped into your failures. Through this simple but saving trust in Christ he graciously transfers and credits his righteousness to you.  You have all that is needed to be acceptable to God as one who can rightly stand before God no longer condemned with a sentence.

Hypocrisy is among the worst of sins (Matthew 24:51). It is a sin to be avoided as much as any other sin we consider heinous (1 Peter 2:1).  Let us not forget that. One of the remarkable characteristics about almost all the saints in the Old and New Testaments, those heroes of  the Faith, was that they were incredible sinners!  Yet it was by faith in God’s forgiving mercy, trusting his pardoning grace that they were forgiven, and through faith declared righteous (Genesis 15; 17; Habakkuk 2:2; Galatians 3:10-11).  

God calls us to live by faith at Jesus’ Cross, so to speak (Galatians 2:20).  By faith we receive Christ’s righteousness and by faith we live righteously. From the vantage point of the Cross we have the remedy for legalism, arrogance and hypocrisy.  From that position we have hope; a hope and life that comes from trusting in Jesus Christ. From that hope flows the righteousness of Christ to others; a righteousness that is identified and expressed through authentic love (Romans 13:10).

This authentic love is merciful because we have been shown mercy. It is forgiving because we have been forgiven by God. It is giving because Christ first gave himself for us and to us.  This authentic love comes through a vital faith in Jesus; a faith that is honest, transparent, humble, truthful, caring and free.

Christian, let your love be sincere, authentic and without hypocrisy.

© D. Thomas Owsley

Leave a comment

Filed under Abuse in the Church, Abusing Pastors, Character, Legalism, Love in the church

Pathetic legalists or Authentic lovers? (part one)

If you have any interest in history or sociology you might enjoy reading John Barber’s book, The Road from Eden (studies in Christianity and Culture).  There are more than a few interesting things the author points out in the early chapters. One point that struck me was how the main charge the political power of Rome leveled against the early Church was that they were atheists; essentially charging them with sedition and treason.  It was not that the Christians did not believe in a god, but rather they did not believe in their gods, especially in the emperor who was the man-god of the day.  As Barber brings out, Christianity was declared by the Roman Senate in A.D. 35 to be “strana et illicita (strange and unlawful)” (Barber, p. 17).

 

The second charge by the Romans, well, more of a complaint, was “one that would be noted over and over again, even by cynics, was its love for people.  Despite the fact that the early Christian period was distinguished by the Church’s uneasy relationship with a truculent state, it is beyond question that the conventional stronghold o believers maintained a high degree of sensitivity for the daily needs of Greco-Roman society.  Justin’s quote is worth repeating, ‘Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of the dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?  Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us.’” (Barber, p.22).

 

While Christ’s demonstration of care, concern and love, which the early Church had, appears often in “foreign” places, it is does not seem to appear enough on the home front.  As a consequence the American Evangelical Church (used in the broad sense) has, over the past eighty or so years, gained the reputation for being self-righteous, arrogant, mean-spirited and obnoxious.  Anything but loving.  In my opinion, it is a charge often well deserved.  I can certainly empathize with some who have an attitude of disgust toward the Christians.  However, I most certainly sympathize with those who were once of the Church but who are now disenfranchised.  Some of my former friends no longer participate in “church” at any level.  Others have declared themselves atheists.  Still others have been so battered and bruised by fellow Christians that they too are ready to bolt.

 

If this grieves me, it certainly grieves Christ. I can make such a bold assertion based upon what we know from the Gospels and from many New Testament verses. Christians, who represent Christ, ought to be accused of being caring and loving and doing good (as James, Paul and Peter write about in the New Testament). However, what is it, I’ve asked, that has pulled segments (large?)  of the Church in the self-righteous, arrogant and obnoxious direction it has gone?  Well, I leave the historical, sociological, and deeper evaluations to wonderful authors like Alister McGrath, David Hall, Mark Noll, George Marsden, and others.  In my limited intelligence I believe the simple answer is legalism.  For clarification, legalism is making rules and regulations the heart of religion or the central thing to life.John Frame says that Christian legalism is putting law in the role reserved for God’s grace. Dominic Aquila says that legalism is putting people into a mold and then saying that mold is the only template for life with which to work.  Saint Paul of the New Testament says that legalism kills.

 

All people have the propensity to define what they believe is right, good and acceptable.  All people have the propensity to judge others who don’t measure up or who aren’t like them.  So, in a general sense, the problem is a people thing.  However, in the more narrow sense, the problem is more pronounced with Christians.  Why?  Because it is love that is the intrinsic characteristic of those who believe and follow Jesus Christ, not legalism and its offspring of self-righteousness, arrogance, meanness and obnoxiousness.

 

Now, I am not talking about love as sentimentality, nor merely about the attendant emotion that flows from authentic, Christ-like love.  Neither am I saying that I personally have arrived at the pinnacle of lovingness. Can’t because I’m a legalist at heart. What I am saying is that if we Bible-toting, Evangelical Christians are going to be accused of anything, it should be like those brothers and sisters in the early Church who were accused of being genuinely caring, merciful, gracious and loving! And that’s what this commentary is about (for I’ll have much to write about legalism at some later time).

 

I came out of a nominal Christian home where we attended worship services probably a dozen times until I turned sixteen.  My siblings and I grew up in home where there was great tension between the legalism of a perfectionist father (who grew up as a “pentecostal” Methodist and kept the legalistic trappings but not the religious forms), and the grace of a loving mother (who grew up Roman Catholic).   The legalism was overbearing. So by the age of twelve I declared myself an atheist, by fifteen was desperate to run away from home.

 

When Christ introduced himself to me through providential circumstances, he came to a battered and bruised mind and soul; one that was also depressed and bitter.  His entrance into my life was very much light to darkness, mercy to injury, and grace to needy.  For the first few years, though profoundly ignorant in the teachings of the Bible, I was possessed by a foreign compassion for others.

 

Then, after receiving teaching by well-meaning people of the Christian fundamentalist stripe, I became a legalist.  Also, consequently became more pronounced in my arrogance, fearful of the world out there, and insecure in so many ways. While allowing myself to become a polished, self-righteous Christian, I became a card-carrying, thorough-going, genuine hypocrite.  What did that do? As legalism often does, I was pious on the outside, but angrier on the inside.  Instead of living freely before the face of God, I was living fearfully before the expectations of people. Instead of becoming fearless I became more fearful.  And instead of being more honest and truthful I was closed up.  I became the Christian who was belligerent toward those who were not as good as me, Christian or otherwise.  The big pretender who was more concerned with being right than being humble, with following the rules rather than following Christ, with pressing others into my mold than presenting love with mercy and grace.

 

The fascinating thing about legalists is that while they flock together, they are really a cannibalistic society.  I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. What I mean is that they eat each other alive, and especially eat the less perfect, the weak, and the infirm.  I was a diner, until I became the feast.  It nearly killed me; for some of those cannibals nearly killed me.

 

Christian legalists are essentially Christian  atheists:  they live and act as if there is no God.  More specifically, they live and act as if there is no Jesus Christ. They live and act as if Jesus did not come; that he did not live flawlessly, fulfilling the true moral and legal requirements issued by a perfectly righteous, just and holy God.  They live and act as if God was and is not merciful. As if God did not shield those who trust in him from his anger, judgment and condemnation. As if Jesus did not take that judgment upon himself, when in fact he did.  They live and act as if God was and is not gracious, giving to us far more than what we deserve.  They live and act as if God is not loving and caring, as expressed in his benevolence through the life, acts and work of Jesus.

 

Yet the problem really is worse than this.  Like all legalists, they set themselves above God and set their rules higher than God’s.  With such people no one is able to measure up. In fact, under them all die a slow, painful, gruesome and bitter death.

 

Christian legalists, of which I am a recovering member, are miserable, and miserable for the Church as well as for society.  For a long time, the American Evangelical Church has needed to turn itself around (in Christianeze, “repent!”).  It needs to stop pointing those crooked, ugly fingers at the world and demanding that our society straighten up, become holy, righteous and flawless.  It needs, instead, to become humble and welcome God’s judgment upon itself (as Saint Peter says, judgment starts within the household of God).  As professing followers of Jesus, we need to be living followers of Jesus.  We need to recognize that no one measures up perfectly, but that Christ died in our place because we have failed the standard of perfection.  As living followers of Jesus we need to accept Jesus’ payment of the brutal beatings, the crucifixion and the temporary abandonment of God as our payment – in full.  And quit demanding payment from others.  As living followers of Christ we have no business being proud, mean or obnoxious. We must stop being hypocrites and instead be authentic loving souls.  It is our business to live out of hearts filled with gratitude that we are accepted in Christ, the God who is merciful, gracious and loving.  It is our business to be merciful, gracious and loving; especially so toward those outside the Church.  Perhaps then, the only complaint the world will truly have is that “these Christians have an authentic love for people!”

© D. Thomas Owsley

Leave a comment

Filed under Abuse in the Church, Abusing Pastors, Legalism, Love in the church