Nothing is truly ordinary

The New Legalism

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I grew up in a great church.  It was one of the most caring, accepting, and nurturing communities I have ever been a part of.  But I had the misconception that such an environment was normal.  I did not appreciate how loving the church was until I grew up and moved away from the area and searched for a new church.  I was stunned at how judgmental people bearing the name “Christian” could be.  These people argued over everything from whether it’s okay to consume alcohol to whether two-piece swimsuits should be allowed at student ministry events.  I’ve heard pastors preach entire sermons against churches that did “life groups” instead of Sunday School.  I’ve seen people treat people with tattoos, piercings, pasts, doubts, fears, and questionable relationships with extreme prejudice.  Sadly, I was no longer naive to the nature of legalism, judgmental attitudes, and the religiosity of “churched” people.

Fortunately, I was not alone in my frustration, and some churches were already hard at work undoing the image created by legalistic churches.  I found one such church in Birmingham, Alabama that did church very differently from anything I was used to.  Though they remained true to the Gospel, they did not argue over the finer points of Scriptural interpretation.  Instead of traditional worship style and dress (hymns, choirs, pipe organs, etc.), they created a casual, come-as-you-are environment and a rock band led the worship experience.  But what I saw wasn’t merely a different “style”.  What I saw was its willingness to tear down sacred cows of “religion” to make people feel comfortable so that they could hear the message of the Gospel.  They didn’t “judge” people because of their appearance and/or history of bad decisions.  After a long season of searching for a church, I found myself connecting with a congregation where the majority of the adults were NEW Christians – people who had been alienated from church at a young age, yet had found Christ because a church had been willing to do something new and different to reach them.

Being so impressed by the vision and mission of this church, I began a 15-year career in ministry that plugged me into not one, but two GREAT churches that believe in doing whatever it takes (short of sin) in reaching people for Jesus Christ.  In that time, I’ve seen many people saved.  I’ve seen people find themselves engaging in ministry at a level they themselves would have never imagined.  I’ve seen people literally have their hatred of anything “church” transformed into a love for God, His people, and how He moves in and through the local church.  I can honestly say I’ve seen a movement of God – a revival, if you will, where new life has been breathed into the word “church.”

But like any movement in the church, I think something insidious is happening to our church culture all over again.  Before I continue, I must be clear that I’m not picking on any one church, because the problem is not owned by any one church alone.  In fact, it’s something that I’ve seen emerge in my own heart and attitude when I wasn’t looking.  It is a problem that is sneaking up on the best people in the best communities/churches.  Churches are slowly becoming something they may – in their inception – had set out specifically NOT to become.  This hidden disease reveals itself in some of the things speakers say at church planting conferences.  It pokes its head out in blog, Twitter, or Facebook posts.  It may whisper in someone’s ear at staff meetings as staff and volunteers are discussed.  It is an old problem wearing a new face, hiding in plain sight.

What I’m talking about is a new face of legalism – a new way of judging and condemning people.  This legalism sneaked in the back door when we weren’t looking, and we missed it because we don’t get hung up on people with tattoos or sordid pasts.  We didn’t see it because people praised us all the time how we were “not like the churches down the road.”  This legalism is not about who’s accepted, a style of worship, or morality.  So we didn’t see it creep in.

But I believe a new legalism is here, trying to gain a foothold all over again.  And it has three faces:

  1. The Legalism of Vision – Our churches started because of a great vision – to reach the lost, to love people, or (insert your church’s vision statement here).  But somewhere along the way, we’ve met people that just don’t “get it.”  Maybe they’re not willing to sacrifice as much as we have.  Maybe they ask questions about why we don’t have certain types of ministries.  Maybe they have their own “vision” or callings.  But since it’s not ours – and since they don’t live and breathe the vision the way that we in leadership do – we “judge” them.  We secretly (or not so secretly) want them to leave our churches because we don’t know what to do with them.  They don’t measure up to our established standards of what it takes to be a member and serve in our church.  Vision becomes a new “law.”  And while there is some practical need to assess how people “fit” into a specific body of Christ, too often this legalism is guided by what serves our best interests as leaders, and not interest in what’s best for them – and that’s what makes it legalistic.
  2. The Legalism of Personality – In the current church-planting movement, we like “go-getters.”  Type A’s.  Alpha males (and females).  That’s not a bad thing.  They get things done that are measurable.  We NEED them – even desperately!  But the problem is, we don’t always know what to do with everyone else.  So we don’t hire them.  Or we fire them.  Or we surround ourselves only with like-minded personalities lest we have to think outside of what makes us comfortable.  I recently heard a very-respected leader in church planting circles say that “relational” people (those that stop and take the time to listen and converse with others even at the expense of a task at hand) had no place on church staffs.  He holds this view because such personalities do not mesh with his personality-based definition of a “leader” in the current business-minded church culture (see the next point), and that they’re too busy relating to people to get things done.  Say what??  What is church if NOT relational?  Like #1, there is a practical need to assess people’s strengths and weaknesses according to their personalities, but legalism demands going ONLY after those with specific strengths that serve US best, at the expense of what others might bring to the table.
  3. The Legalism of Entrepreneur-ism – This one is the most seductive.  It’s what happened when the practical need to organize and look to the business world for inspiration transformed from inspiration to idolatry.  Slowly, the work of the Holy Spirit and the calling of people to ministry has been replaced with processes, business models, and policies.  Armed with seminary degrees and/or Macbooks full of notes from church planting conferences, entrepreneurs storm the church planting/leadership field armed with heads full of knowledge and strategies for church growth.  Almost unconsciously, faith in God to grow HIS church mutates into faith in systems to grow MY church.  When this happens, we transform the body of Christ into an institution, not a dynamic community of people.  Success is measured by numbers and giving statements.   A well-marketed “image” becomes almost as important (if not more so) as the Gospel itself.  The church becomes less than something it’s supposed to be, and, ironically, loses the very nature and power that sets it apart from man-made institutions.  Like #1 and #2, this view has its merits.  There’s a very practical need to be organized and structured – business models can help and Scripture supports this.  But it becomes legalism when the body of Christ exists to support the policies, instead of the policies existing to support the body of Christ.

Identifying a new type of legalism is not meant to suggest that God is not still active and alive in churches, nor that legalism is inevitable in churches that weigh things like vision, personality, and business-sense in a healthy way.  I only share this as a caution to the insidious nature of legalism and that we remain aware of how sneaky our Enemy is – how he can take the best tools at our disposal and twist them to his own ends.  As Christ-followers – and leaders and ministers and pastors and planters – it is our duty to remain vigilant against becoming anything less than a community of love and Christ-incarnate.  And that begins with one simple question:

Am legalistic?

How do you answer this question?  It’s simple.  One of the things that fueled the current church planting movement was sorrow over the trail of wounded we saw left behind other legalistic churches.  So, turn around and look – what do you see behind you?

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