Archive for the ‘Legalism’ Category

We have now reached Bruce Gerencser’s 10th post in his My Journey series, Why Are We Who We Are? A Personal Reflection, which explores fundamentalism in the nature versus nurture context. Basically, he asks whether it is our environment or our biological makeup that makes us who we are. Sociologists have debated this question ever since we conceived of it. The general consensus is that we are a product of both, though some favor one over the other.

My problem with the whole nature versus nurture question is that it precludes the possibility of God’s intervention in a person’s life. It also marginalizes free will, pretending that our decisions regarding religion, politics, ethics, et cetera are largely the product of either genetic predisposition or cultural conditioning.

Folks with this mindset of nurture versus nature often make the argument on the side of nurture that Christians would be Muslims if they had been born in a different country. This ignores the fact that people convert to Christianity in Muslim countries despite the peril to their lives and families this personal decision entails. Likewise, if we were largely a product of either biology or sociology, folks like Bruce should never leave the fold. For that matter neither should’ve I or any of the other churched youth who leave the church each year. Furthermore, the nature versus nurture approach presents a false dilemma that is ultimately self-defeating, for we are then forced to ask the proponent of such an approach whether his decision to accept the nature versus nurture approach is the product of either nature or nurture: if it is the product of nature, how can we be sure he is biologically hard-wired in such a way that he can trust this opinion is true, and, likewise, if his position is the product of nurture, how can he be sure his society has stumbled upon the correct philosophy?

Clearly there is more to our decisions than nature versus nurture. There is an element of free will.

Now Bruce charges fundamentalists with erroneously seeking simple answers to complex questions. This is a misrepresentation. Fundamentalists seek out absolute answers, because we believe the truth can be known and has been revealed in God’s Word. Of course, some fundamentalists [and I do believe this is the stripe Bruce is referring to] want their world ordered down to the last detail. They forget that without faith it is impossible to please God, so that while the truth is absolute and can be known, we are not exactly omniscient.

Our lack of omniscience, especially coupled with the fact that we have free will, leads to a problem: we do not always recognize or accept the truth; furthermore, we often come to the truth by degrees or in stages, so that Paul warned that grace and longsuffering toward our brethren is absolutely necessary.

The stripe of fundamentalism Bruce encountered is one I’m unfortunately well acquainted with. Their rule-mongering reminds us of the Legalists of Ancient China. The Period of Warring States was, as the name suggests, a time of upheaval and civil war. In order to maintain order and control, a philosophy arose called Legalism, which drew up extensive and detailed lists of crimes and assigned exacting punishments for each one. This code was so detailed that a Legalist judge’s job was not to determine the punishment for a crime, but merely to define the crime itself – for the punishment was already prescribed for any crime he eventually decided upon. Like the Legalists of Ancient China, legalist fundamentalists want their world completely ordered in strict categories of black and white. Therefore, they decree [implicitly or expressly] dress codes, speech codes, forbidden places, music codes, entertainment restrictions, and a whole host of similar nitpickery. Some of these legalists were so legalistic that they denied that they were actually legalistic based on an exacting and legalistic definition of legalism!

I have even heard legalists argue over the “correct method” of evangelism. While I attended Appalachian Bible College*, there was a church who regularly handed out soda to folks stuck in gridlocked traffic near the church. These sodas had a little verse affixed to them inviting the thirsty to learn more of Christ and an invitation to their church. They did similar things with handing out gum, snacks and various other things. This church was also big on what they called “friendship evangelism” and what I simply call authentic discipleship. Unfortunately, there were certain professors within the cult of pseudo-spiritual legalism at ABC who objected to these evangelistic methods for various reasons, insisting instead students use tracts, the Romans Road and more traditional evangelistic approaches. They had the perfect right to express a preference or even to point out any weaknesses they saw in novel approaches to evangelism – I would go so far as to say that they had a duty to do so – but they went further by condemning these novel evangelistic methods as incorrect and even unBiblical. Paul, they argued, would never have handed out cans of soda with Bible verses on them. Peter preached; you would never have caught him encouraging “friendship evangelism.” We need to stick with the methods revealed in the Bible! Of course, the counter-argument is that Jesus so utilized friendship evangelism that he was derisively named a friend of sinners. The Bible reports that he regularly ate with sinners, tax collectors, and even self-righteous religious folk. Likewise, in addition to traditional teaching and preaching, Jesus utilized parables [clever teaching stories] and regularly utilized statements we might term thought-provoking hooks. For example, He called Himself the Bread of Life and the Living Water, and called his disciples to be Fishers of Men. In fact, it was one of Jesus’ hooks that He spoke to the Samaritan Woman at the Well that this church was affixing to their soda cans in their allegedly unbiblical and incorrect evangelism methods!

The irony of the legalist fundamentalist’s position is that when Paul addressed their plight, he called them weaker brethren and advised the rest of us to humor them and show them long-suffering. In fact, he recognized that their faith relied upon the crutch of legalism and so Paul advised brethren who’d grown beyond the need for that crutch to voluntarily limit their liberty lest their weaker brethren stumble and transform liberty into license. Of course, they were expected to grow up at some point…

Now let’s compare this Biblical revelation to Bruce Gerencser’s conclusions concerning legalist fundamentalists, especially preachers:

“My upbringing helped to shape me into what I became. From the age of 5 all I ever wanted to be was a preacher. I never had the struggle many men have about what they want to be when they grow up. My heart was set on being a preacher and from the age of 14 to the age of 50 that is exactly what I was.

I looked up to the pastors of our Church. They taught me how a preacher is supposed to live his life. Every pastor I ever had was an ambitious, judgmental, controlling person. The College I went to was populated with teachers that were former and current pastors and they reinforced what the pastors of my youth taught me. The pastor of the Church I attended while in College was a control-freak. He was the boss of all bosses. He was the potentate of the Church. He was a Moses on Mt Sinai. As a 19 yr old boy I revered this man. He was everything I wanted to be.

I pastored my first Church when I was 22 years old. I was arrogant, controlling and full of myself and the Holy Ghost..                         I was taught leaders are meant to lead. A good pastor was an in-charge pastor. A good pastor was a decision-maker. A good pastor would not let anyone deter him from doing whatever God led him to do. (and God talked to me personally through the Holy Spirit and the Bible)

Every pastor I knew was just like me. After all, birds of a feather flock together. Every pastor I knew was controlling and authoritarian. Pastoral authority is a big topic of discussion in fundamentalist Baptist churches.

Time and circumstance tempered me. Towards the end of my years in the ministry I came to realize how wrong I had been about the ministry and how a pastor should conduct himself. I was very sincere and honest as a pastor, but I came to see that I actually hurt people by being a controlling, authoritarian pastor.

I met some evil people during my time as a pastor. I met pastors who preyed on the people they pastored. They manipulated and controlled people in order to gain financial, material, or sexual favor. Lynn is quite right when she said:

I think nasty, authoritarian people are drawn to fundamentalism.

Most fundamentalist churches are pastored by, and controlled by, one man. He is the man of God. He is the one person in the Church that has God’s ear and God,in return, has his.

I would add that fundamentalism also attracts church members who are authoritarian and controlling. Fundamentalist churches are rife with conflict and it is quite common for people to leave the church over conflicts with the pastor or other power brokers in the church. Most fundamentalist Baptist churches have experienced a split at one time or another. It is not uncommon for a group of people to leave the church and go off on their own and start another church. (always led by the Holy Spirit of course)”

How much of what he says here resonates with your journey? In my case, I can honestly say that I empathize with his general impression of the fundamentalist movement as legalistic, grace-less and controlling. I can also tell you with certainty that this generalization is not always fair. Not everyone in the fundamentalist movement is authoritarian and controlling. Many join the fundamentalist movement because they affirm the core doctrines of the church and, despite their warts and dress codes, the fundamentalists generally stand for those doctrines without dissemblance. I know lots of people like me within the fundamentalist movement who aren’t part of the legalist element. In fact, I am ordained through the Association of Fundamental Ministers and Churches, so you could call me a card-carrying fundamentalist; yet I tell you the truth, our local AFMC meetings [which consist largely of ministers and Gospel workers] are some of the best times I’ve ever had. I can’t think of a more graceful, joyful, friendly bunch and I am richer for my fellowship with them. And I will tell you unequivocally that, fundamentalist they may be, but they are not the sort of fundamentalists Bruce describes.

Which brings me to my ultimate point concerning nurture versus nature: I think that the entire reason why ex-Christians like to put their experience in terms of nature versus nurture is to minimize their personal responsibility for being the type of Christians which they now despise. Surely they were just a product of their environment or their biology! Surely they were simply being swept along by the forces of society or genetics until the moment they woke up! You see, being that type of legalistic Christian comes with a fair measure of guilt, which can never be absolved in an atheist paradigm except by denying their own free will and responsibility at that stage of their lives [while arbitrarily suggesting that they are free of such overruling forces now so as to freely exercise their will, right?]. On the other hand, the Christian may admit their accountability, repent of their legalism and seek to make amends, and strive to be more Christ-like instead.

We will discuss legalism a bit more in the next post.

God Bless You,

Tony Breeden

*This post should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of Appalachian Bible College. Nor do I contend that everyone at ABC, then or now, is legalistic. In fact, I support my alma mater’s stance on the authority of the Word of God and its mission to train up servants for Christ, though I caution anyone within fundamentalism that grace AND truth came by Jesus Christ.