Monday, March 3, 2008

What to do if you're stuck in a legalistic church

I've spent several years in churches where it was understood that being a good Christian meant staying away from "bad stuff" and making sure you were doing "good stuff." Basically, make sure you go to church every Sunday, don't cuss, don't drink alcohol, don't watch R-rated movies, listen to Christian contemporary music, do your quiet time every day, try to join a committee at church, and maybe give some money to charity. What this produced were people who were trying their darndest to follow these rules, but who were always a little nervous or fearful because they weren't sure if they were following all the rules. They were afraid to talk to people about their secret failings, because it would immediately "out" them as a bad Christian. Inside, they are always unsure if they were really a Christian, because they knew God saw them even when they weren't at church, and He knew all their dirty little secrets.

On the other hand, usually in these churches you have young people who get tired of the "church system." Seeing the hypocrisy in their parents, they rebel. They want to live life not marked by hypocrisy but freedom. They watch all movies and media -- even the most graphic. They go to bars and parties and hang out and maybe get buzzed from time to time. They are passionate about social injustice. Because in the end, being a good person was more than just following rules.

I have been caught in the middle of these worlds, being put in a position of being in a world of legalistic adults and also trying to teach impressionable youth at the same time. I've asked myself, what should I say?

All I've been doing recently is reading Martin Luther, because I have to hand in a paper on him tomorrow. I wonder what he would say if he stepped into a legalistic church like the one I described above. Because in his day, people at church were all about rules too, just different ones: go to church, fast, pray, confess your sins to your priest, take communion, and even pay your priest a few bucks so that your sins would be forgiven. It produced the same kind of nervous, fearful people. Luther's big discovery was that when we try to do good works to try to prove to God that we are righteous people, it always led to fearful, guilt-driven lives. However, if we receive God's freely given grace and righteousness, we become free, we become joyful and we want to love others and do good works simply out of pure joy and gratitude. We don't even have to "try" to do good works, they simply radiate from us. As Jesus said in Matthew 7, a good tree will bear good fruit. If you're a bad tree, you simply won't produce good fruit. And you can't make yourself a good tree. You have to be uprooted and replanted. And then you don't even have to "try" to produce good fruit. It just sprouts out of you. Of course, Luther recognized that even in genuine Christians, there still remains the old you that does not delight in God. But the answer is not to try to do more good works. The answer is to remember your new identity; you already have everything you need through Christ! You don't need praise from people, you don't need success in your work, and you don't need to do more good works to get God to accept you. He accepts you through Christ. This is a life of faith...when you are bombarded by the old you, you continually battle it by remembering your status as child of God, by remembering that God keeps his promises. I've heard this process called "mortification through joy."

I've rambled, and haven't even gotten to my main I'll just sum it up; Luther uses Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 to show that to those who are stubbornly relying on rules, we must confront them blatantly and never conform to their systems. But to those who are caught in between -- those who are not sure what true freedom in Christ really is -- we must not flaunt our freedom, but instead try to show them that it really is about being a good tree not trying to grow good fruit, all the while keeping the rules. Paul circumcised Timothy so as not to offend (Acts 10), but he refused to circumcise Titus because of the people's legalism (Gal. 2). So this means, not letting our young people watch some graphic material and not letting them drink, but at the same time teaching them that it's not their abstention from these things that will free them. And at the same time, confronting the legalism of the older folks (or the younger folks) and not letting their rules oppress us. A fine line to walk, for sure...but one we must walk, out of love for all.

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