Want to know why my generation and younger are leaving the church in droves? Because legalism is like bullshit and we can smell it a mile away.
“You are being divisive, not loving.”
“What will the world think?”
“You are maligning the Word of God.”
“We must present a unified front to a skeptical world.”
These are all things you will hear from Fundamentalist Evangelicals if you dare turn over the rock of their ideology and expose the legalistic rot underneath. They will tell you the problem lies in the hand that turned over the rock for the whole world to see, and not the ugliness it revealed.
Yet they cry, Love does not mean accepting sin, if you love God you obey his law, if anybody dares call them judgmental or unloving in their attacks against what they see as liberalism creeping into the church and culture.
For them, attacks on legalism are attacks on Christianity itself.
Sound familiar? It should. Jesus and Paul spent most of their time battling the same religious identity politics in their day, but Fundamentalists don’t see the analogies between hand washing, circumcision and food rituals and their own codes and rules of behavior. They are so ingrained into their identity as a Christian, they can’t separate them from their faith. They are one and the same. If you aren’t familiar with these codes, here is a brief overview.
Fundamentalist Evangelical rules
1. Go to church–ones in big buildings with more than 10 people and a male pastor that preaches biblical expository preaching. Traditional worship preferred but not a salvation issue…
2. Interact with God in a certain way. Through a physical book of devotions and a prayer list that are to be done daily. Close your eyes when you pray, especially in public and around other church people. Open eyes are disrespectful to God. Closed eyes are respectful. The only exception is when you’re driving or it is an emergency situation or very brief commentary on the state of mankind. Then they should be short and to the point. Lord, help me on this test! Lord, help her turn from her evil ways! Lord, help us get out of this traffic!
3. Dress a certain way This is usually applied only to women and focuses on covering bare skin, because bare female skin is inherently inappropriate. But it can also be applied to males when it comes time to go to church. Certain outfits are more respectful to God than others. Clean, neat clothes are respectful to God. Sloppy, dirty clothes are disrespectful. You can wear sloppy, dirty clothes at home when you pray, but church is where God lives and he likes a clean house. Plus others see you in church and it’s important what other people think. Therefore you should be not sloppy nor dirty clothed.
4. Talk a certain way No swearing. No talking about sex. No talking bad about other Christians unless they are liberal, then it isn’t talking bad but loving rebuke. Do not question the church, your husband, or pastors and elders. No saying ‘mean’ or ‘divisive’ things about other Christians unless they are liberal Christians, wolves in sheep’s clothing, or plain old sinners. Then it is okay because it is loving them via truthful reproach.
5. Entertain yourselves and engage in culture in a certain way. Sanitized art only, preferably with a Christian message. Violence, language, sex, the naked female body (which is inherently inappropriate), gore, and/or the depiction of people in art that don’t follow our rules are not allowed, unless it is in a biblical setting…and even then should be PG-13 at the very most so it won’t rub off on us.
6. Eat and drink a certain way. No alcohol, or very little. Eat healthy so you can stay thin, especially if you are a woman because that is godlier than being fat. If you are a fat male, that’s ok because most of our male leaders are fat anyway. See rule 5 and rule 3 about how the female body is depicted is much more important than how the male body is depicted.
7. Vote a certain way. Republican. Duh! Democrats are definitely not saved and independents are lukewarm Christians.
8. Think a certain way.
– No doubting of the Church.
-Doubting yourself is okay, especially if you are doubting Fundamentalism.
-Doubting God is okay but only for a ‘season’ and the road must lead you back around to Fundamentalism. Not doubting God EVER is much godlier.
-Embrace all the rules of Fundamentalism, protect Fundamentalism at all costs because this is what God was talking about when he said you would be persecuted for his sake: He was talking about being persecuted for telling the world they have to uphold our rules of behavior in order to show they really love God.
9.Use a certain tone of voice: Rebuke and reproach are Godly, but only when rebuking liberalism or wolves in sheep’s clothing. Some rules are more important than other rules. Christians that don’t follow our most important rules are automatically wolves in sheep’s clothing or false teachers. It is okay to rebuke them loudly in a mean tone. You can also call them names, like ‘Libtard,’ ‘snowflake’ and other creative names that reveal how stupid they are. Because they do that to us. That makes it ok. However, if you absolutely MUST rebuke a fellow Christian, first consider how they follow the rules. If they follow most of the rules, and our most important rules, it is not ok to rebuke them out loud in a mean tone. Non Christians could see this and not want to be a Christian and follow the rules. You must in person, confront them in a whispered hush while simultaneously affirming they are a cherished child of the King, made in his image. Then walk away and forget about it. Never publicly say anything negative about other Christians, because then people won’t want to become Christians and follow the rules.
10. The Golden Rule An attack on one rule follower is an attack on all rule followers. Your tone, speech, and lifestyle must all support the rules or you are not a true rule follower and will be kicked out of our rule following club altogether.
There are different rules and different hierarchies of rules depending on what denomination you go to. Feel free to remind me of those in the comments.
Here’s the problem with all the rules. Jesus didn’t die for rules, for standards of behavior. He died for our sin so that we don’t have to match up to a standard of behavior in order to be considered ‘saved.’ Because we can’t. Ever. If we could then He didn’t need to die in the first place.
All our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. Isaiah 64:6
Stop measuring yourselves and others by the rules listed above. Examine your own heart. Examine it for false piety, for pride in your own ability to keep the rules, for judging others by how they keep the rules. The desire to control our sinful state–to claim a tiny part in our salvation other than simple faith in God and His work on the cross is as old as the Garden of Eden and it resides in all of us.
Jesus said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.
Did you catch that? Upholding your ability to follow a set of rules or code of behavior as evidence of your salvation is DETESTABLE in the sight of God. The church will applaud you for it, but God knows your heart. If you are more concerned about what your neighbor thinks about you and “the Church” than you are about your neighbor, God knows it. He knows the soundtrack in our heads that goes something like this:
“Look at me I don’t watch R rated movies. I don’t drink. I don’t say swear words. I don’t wear or approve of immodest clothing. I do my devotions and pray everyday and make sure I post it on social media. How can people call themselves a Christian and vote Democrat? I go to Church every week and check in on Facebook. I tell everybody else they should do these things too through social media–by sharing articles that say that. All this is evidence that I’m saved because the Bible says, ‘By their fruits you shall know.’ If people really love God they ought to do all these things I do too, because that is evidence they are saved. If you love God then you keep his commandments.”
That is what maligns the name of Christ—legalism— where rule following takes center stage, reducing the crucifixion and resurrection to nothing but background music highlighting the moral fortitude of the super-spiritual in their hero’s journey towards salvation.
We must stop circling the wagons. We must stop treating legalism as anything but a cancer that needs to be cut out of the Church if we want it to survive.
People are drawn to truth, despite themselves. Legalism distorts the truth, disguises it as something that seems noble and pure on the outside—something at face value that will give us life and purpose—but inside it is “full of dead men’s bones.”
Legalism, no matter how safe and righteous it feels when you follow it, always ends in spiritual death. It is the true evil that divides the church. It is a true stumbling block to those who believe and a detractor to those who don’t.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.“