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