I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination. We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song. I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.
One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.” The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.” With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental. In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.
A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were. Today, many of them still are if not more so. I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter. All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism. After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.
Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is. I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic. Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic. It is what makes communities possible. For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community. Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join! Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”
I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic. I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate. I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice. In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation. Many times we are right. But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do. Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.
To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.
The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice. In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children. Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture. Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits. It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.
The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles. I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books. When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice. If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian. This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.
Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct. Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education. I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations. This is badly needed for our day. We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.
The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable. Don’t be alone in the same room as a child. Don’t drive a child home alone. Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex. Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public. When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it. I try to live my life by these rules. It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!
But these are not biblical. Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible. In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!
The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control. And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”
In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.” When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!” We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.
So follow good advice. Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation. Pray for discernment always and often. But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church. Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.