In the first post in this series I said the religion and the people that resent it are probably not as bad or good as we tend to think they are, and of course, I followed that up by addressing both the extremist nature of fundamentalist religion AND the (ironically) extremist nature of those who despise said religion. My point in that second post was two-fold:
1.) the people who embraced fundamentalism usually started with good perceptions but employed bad prescriptions.
2.) the people who resent the church are often doing the same thing (accurate assessments with lousy responses)!
But I think we need to consider more deeply WHY people resent the “religious” past that so many of us share. The foundation for this discussion must begin with one simple premise – people on both sides of this equation are sinners. The legalist who wrongfully set the bar too high was/is a sinner. The person who person who was wronged by that legalist is also a sinner. And both of these parties bring all kinds of sinfulness to the discussion. The playing field is, in this regard, very much leveled, and it must be if there is going to be biblical restoration. We must refuse to “think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think” (Roman 12.3) if we hope to experience the abundant life Christ offers! The moment that the legalists of the past or the embittered of the present are “beneath us,” is the moment we step into pride and ultimately disqualify ourselves from the grace of God (see James 4). Christ calls us to love our enemies, and I submit that both “abusers of power” and “rebellious critics” can fall into that category.
There are many ways in which religion has gone wrong, specifically in regard to legalism, but there seem to be at least two major issues that I hear being raised. The first issue that has been a major stumbling block for people is the sense that they missed out on life due to the rules and limitations imposed on them by legalism. We must recognize the merit in this. The Creator created pleasure and enjoyment. He intended people to enjoy the life he gave them. And whether it was the joys of going to the movies with family and friends, or the simple pleasure of a glass of wine at a celebration, legalism not only denied this to people – it created a culture of guilt. And let’s not overlook the relational and social implications of living according to the rules: not everyone had the ability to cope with the awkwardness of saying no to so much of life. Some friendships were deeply damaged for seemingly superficial reasons.
The problem has uniquely been compounded when legalists repent. When a legalist is broken because he has been graced to recognize that most of the regulations they imposed were cultural, man-made, and often unbiblical, those who consider themselves victims of his legalism commonly struggle to extend forgiveness. This is because “I’m sorry” doesn’t bring back the years and the relationships that were damaged. Of course, I would suggest that the Gospel calls us to look to the Cross and not to the past, offering the victim not just healing and restoration, but entirely new life! Old things, including hurts and abuses, can pass away and all things can become new (2 Corinthians 5.17)! The legalist’s “I’m sorry” won’t restore the past, but the victim’s “I forgive you” will unlock a brilliant future!
A second and more serious issue that victims of legalism raise is I think best encapsulated in a quote from the Scottish pastor William Still, “Christ is a world of being, not a set of rules.” Legalism presents a distorted view of God that many struggle to recover from. The Christ in whom we were meant to live and move and have our being, the Jesus who sticks closer than a brother is replaced (in the legalist universe) with a drill sergeant Jesus, who’s just waiting for us to screw up so he can bark at us and embarrass us. What we’re left with is fear, plain and simple. Our incentive for holiness has been replaced with the dread of consequences. This obviously creates tremendous obstacles for legitimate growth in biblical holiness and wisdom because as soon as you mention distinctive lifestyles (the reason God left us on the planet) or “the fear of the Lord” (the beginning of true wisdom) walls go up, and Christ-likeness becomes increasingly less likely.
There has been a futile attempt to remedy this misrepresentation of Jesus by circumventing the church altogether. Because the legalists of our local churches removed Christ from the center of our religious universe, we’ve decided that we can worship God on our own, any way we choose. We think we’re taking the high road because it’s now “all about Jesus” and there’s no church system to mess it up. The trouble is, that Jesus without church is a head without a body. It’s just as much a deformation of God as the legalists ever offered us (e.g. “drill sergeant Jesus”). Again, we’re assessing things accurately but our response is ironically, flawed.
Trusting that God can accomplish his purposes for your life in spite of the mean-spirited spiritual family that surrounds you is essential. Joseph (of Genesis) testifies to this. He didn’t just succeed in spite of his brother’s cruelty; he succeeded because of it! God can use anything, including legalism, to bring you into abundant life. This is not a justification of legalism but a declaration of God’s omnipotence – nothing is too hard for him! Trusting the God can restore your view of him is essential. The prophet Samuel was born under the most corrupt priestly leadership Israel had ever seen, yet God raised him up to be her greatest voice. Again, God isn’t limited by humanity. So have hope – as real as the aftermath of legalism may be, God can use it for your good if you’ll let him (Romans 8.28).