Church Refugees: Conversation, Part 2

Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, addresses the needs of a class of Christians sometimes called the “Dones” — as in “done with church but not Jesus” — or the “dechurched.”

I should add that this problem is often not about centralized control by the leadership. Sometimes, it’s the membership that’s intolerant of disagreement more than the leaders. And it may take the leaders many years to get the members to tolerate disagreement about non-essentials.

And this means that it’s important for churches to routinely have a conversation about what is and isn’t an essential. This is difficult in any denomination, but it’s especially hard in Churches of Christ because we have no doctrine that defines what is and isn’t essential. We just kind of make it up as we go along. It’s about tradition and editors and an unspoken, unwritten, very long set of rules that vary from preacher to preacher.

But it’s not just Churches of Christ. Baptists have a long history of requiring members to sign a pledge to abstain from alcohol as a condition to church membership. John Piper asked his church to remove that requirement from their bylaws, arguing

But the main reason the proposed amendment will help us avoid evil and the chief reason I support the amendment is that it helps guard us from an unbiblical legalism and exclusivism. … I use the word “legalism” in at least two senses, but both have a common root problem. First, legalism means treating biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor. In other words legalism will be present wherever a person is trying to be ethical in his own strength, that is, without relying on the merciful help of God in Christ. Simply put, moral behavior that is not from faith is legalism. The legalist is always a very moral person. In fact the majority of moral people are legalists because their so-called Judeo-Christian morality inherited from their forefathers does not grow out of a humble, contrite reliance on the merciful enabling of God.

On the contrary, for the legalist, morality serves the same function that immorality does for the antinomian, the free-thinker, the progressive, namely, it serves as an expression of self-reliance and self-assertion. The reason some Pharisees tithed and fasted is the same reason some German university students take off their clothes and lie around naked in the park in downtown Munich. The moral legalist is always the elder brother of the immoral prodigal. They are blood brothers in God’s sight because both reject the sovereign mercy of God in Christ as a means to righteousness and use either morality or immorality as a means of expressing their independence and self-sufficiency and self-determination. And it is clear from the NT that both will result in a tragic loss of eternal life. So the first meaning of legalism is the terrible mistake of treating biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor. It is a danger we must guard against in our own hearts every day. And please know that my old self is just as prone to it as anyone.

The second meaning of legalism is this: the erecting of specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for full participation in the local family of God, the church. This is where unbiblical exclusivism arises. There is no getting around the fact that the church does not include everyone. We do exclude people from membership because we believe worship should imply commitment to the lordship of Christ, the head of the church. But exclusion of people from the church should never be taken lightly. It is a very serious matter. Schools and clubs and societies can set up any human regulations they wish in order to keep certain people out and preserve by rule a particular atmosphere. But the church is not man’s institution. It belongs to Christ. He is the head of the body, and he alone should set the entrance requirements. That is very important!

Amen.

In other words, no matter how strongly we feel about the dangers of alcohol, we are not permitted to add commands to God’s word. We are not wiser than God.

We can certainly advise our members of the dangers of alcohol — and point out that the Bible strongly prohibits drunkenness or addiction to it. But we may not command abstention when the Bible does not.

Indeed, the Bible speaks very pointedly against adding commands that God did not
make —

(Matt. 15:8-9 ESV)  8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;  9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” 

If you impose a commandment that God does not impose, then your heart is far from God. It’s not a good place to be.

(Col. 2:20-23 ESV)  20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”  22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings?  23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion [KJV: “will worship”] and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. 

What is “will worship” or “self-made religion”? Adding commands not made by God.

Paul points out that merely imposing strict commands does not make us better people. The solution is not to pile command upon command. Rather, the solution is found earlier in Colossians (although the English is often misunderstood) —

(Col. 1:9-12 ESV)  9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;  11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy;  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

The voice is passive. We are to “be filled” by God “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” “Spiritual” is pneumatikos. As we’ve covered several times (usually in the context of 1 Cor 15), this doesn’t mean “religious” or “Christian.” It means “empowered by the Spirit” or “given by the Spirit” (BDAG).

The understanding and wisdom that allows us to be saved comes from the indwelling Spirit, not from commands imposed by humans in the exercise of their natural wisdom. God’s wisdom is far greater. We cannot be holier than God. When we try to improve upon this teachings, we become less holy.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to Church Refugees: Conversation, Part 2

  1. Price Futrell says:

    Thank you for including Piper’s definition of legalism.. This will be useful in other discussions !

  2. Jim H says:

    In I Cor 8, 10 & Rom 14 Paul addresses whether Christians are permitted to purchase and eat meat that has been offered to pagan idols. This is not a issue today and the great principle of Christian Liberty is lost on today’s moral legalisms. This principle addresses one’s conscience and the maturity of one’s personal faith and one’s love and consideration of fellow brethren whose faith has yet to free them from the fences or boundaries erected by men to keep one from sin. The Jews were famous for this and so are the legalists.

  3. Mark says:

    When rules are heaped onto people they begin to resent them. There are only so many rules that most people can keep until they start asking just what is permissible, if anything. This results in producing moralistic, therapeutic Deists not Christians. An example is Jesus’s teaching that adultery is looking on a woman with lust (I’m guessing looking on a male is included, but I may be adding extra rules too). What is not discussed is where is the line between a “go to hell immediately” card and normal human sexual desire. There were/are too many people who wondered why God gave them sexual desire (via hormones) if it were only going to get them sent to hell. Or is 1 Thessalonians 4:4 more applicable here that says each man should know how to possess his vessel?

  4. Dwight says:

    I think the RP and the CENI have created monsters we do not wish to de-create as it would appear we were wrong in the first place. We can’t put he monster back once we have accepted it into our homes.
    I hear this all of the time in the coC, “we must worship God the way He wants us to” and then we leave it at that. We have no list of to do’s or not to do’s. We cannot articulate exactly how God wants us to worship Him, except it is not like that or them.
    At least in the Temple God gave exacting instructions and was not vague.

    What I find is that we often strongly imply sin as it is not sin-per-say. We build circumstantial evidence to support our distaste for something, without God ever saying that He had a distaste for it. Gambling is a sin due to greed, Well greed is a sin and it has nothing to do with gambling and many gamble without being greedy. When I get on the freeway at rush hour I am gambling I will make it home in one piece. Do we want things disproportionate to what we spend on them? Sure. This is why we use coupons. If we are given free tickets, for which we did not earn, will we give them back? Will we return God’s grace and mercy due to the fact we could not earn and work hard enough for them?
    Dancing used to be sinful, because it was associated with lasciviousness. But if dancing is a sin, then if my little girl twirls around did she sin? Did David when he danced before God?
    We don’t want people to possibly sin, so we place the circumstantial lines we draw further out beyond God’s well defined lines.

  5. “We don’t want people possibly to sin, so we place the circumstantial lines we draw further out beyond God’s well defined lines.”

    Well said. This is exactly what the Pharisees did. They called it ‘a hedge around the law’ to keep folks from breaking the law. Of course, that did not work because it did not lead to changed hearts, even in those who (like Saul of Tarsus) were very serious, very zealous, and very sincere.

  6. Alabama John says:

    These are some of the reasons so many have left the church.
    They are living and worshiping God they way it makes sense to them and know if they bring those ways to the church it will cause problems.
    So, they and many times their close friends and loved ones they have shared their thoughts with just leave and go their own way.
    Positive is so many of these rules have changed or been eliminated in the past 50 years and so many more are changing for the better as time goes on.

  7. Gary says:

    A major problem for Churches of Christ and I’m sure other groups as well is that some of what is a non-essential in terms of fellowship with other congregations and Christians may well be an essential when it comes to what is practiced in one’s own congregation. I spent over a quarter of a century in what was a fairly progressive Church of Christ. Everyone was fine with inter-church cooperation and community worship services with every Christian denomination from one end of the spectrum to the other. But when we introduced women reading Scripture and serving communion (but not leading prayer) we had an exodus of members, all women by the way and the men who followed their lead, as well as a reaction of cynicism from our most progressive members who wanted full gender equality. In short it was a disaster. In metropolitan areas in parts of the country where Churches of Christ have historically been strong it is possible for Church of Christ folk to find the CoC of their choice. But that’s not possible in most of the country. I no longer believe Churches of Christ will continue to be a viable national fellowship or denomination by the middle of this century. Like the Christian Connection of the early 19th century it will fragment and dissipate. The CoC universities will evolve and survive as independent institutions. I spent most of my life trying to maintain and expand the boundaries of Churches of Christ. But now I recognize that God’s Kingdom is not dependent on any historical movement of Christians. I’m especially thankful for the promise of 1 Corinthians that our labor in the Lord is not in vain because of the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  8. “…Churches of Christ because we have no doctrine …very long set of rules that vary from preacher to preacher.”

    This is Church of Christ doctrine: go back to my formative years (varies from person to person). What did I hear the preacher say most of the time? That becomes Church of Christ doctrine for me.

    By the way, what was the preacher saying? Well, the preacher was probably a below-average student (half are) and is probably a below-average preacher (half are). The preacher was awake in class probably two weeks out of the four years of Bible college. He remembers what some professor told him during those two weeks. He preaches what he heard those two weeks over and over and over. That become Church of Christ doctrine for a generation of people who attend where the preacher preaches.

    This is not an attempt at humor. This is not cynicism. This is what I have experienced over some 50+ years.

  9. Mark says:

    Dwayne, there is also the franchise agreement and editors of sound publications who really were the bishops.

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