Lesson I: Avoid Legalism Like the Plague

Published by Michael Camp on February 8, 2010 at 8:49pm UTC

OK, I confess. There are only nine lessons, but ten sounds better.

A quest for a reasoned faith based on honest questioning. That was largely what my 25-year sojourn in evangelicalism was about. Although evangelicals are not a monolithic block comprised only of conservatives (progressive evangelicals are becoming more influential), I found the movement and my experience saturated with the mindset of the Christian Right.

This mindset often calls things “truth” when they are only half-truth, thus making falsehood hard to detect. I didn’t find my whole experience bogus—I was and still am enthralled with Jesus’ teaching, signs of God working in my life, and supportive of things evangelicals do right, like fighting poverty through organizations like World Vision. But what I increasingly found was a lack of authenticity and reasoned perspectives on faith.

I weathered the theological storm and made it home to a progressive Christianity, taking with me valuable insights derived from ten eye-opening discoveries. There I go again. I mean nine. The following are lessons readers open to new paradigms can learn. I touch on the evidence behind these lessons by citing sources the reader can follow and provide a fuller explanation of them in a forthcoming book.

LESSON 1: AVOID LEGALISM LIKE THE PLAGUE

One day I was enjoying a beer with a friend in a popular pub near my home when I noticed someone who went to my former evangelical church. After I picked myself off the floor due to shock from seeing him in a bar, we greeted each other and I asked if he still attended.

“I finally left last year,” the man said.

“Do you mind me asking why you left?” I asked.

“I got tired of jumping through hoops.”

What an apt way of describing what I also experienced in the majority of the six or seven evangelical churches I attended over the years. Why do some churches make our faith journey into an obstacle course on a field of required religious practices and doctrines? Could legalistic control have something to do with it? Again, there are some admirable exceptions, but as Brennan Manning once said, “the American church accepts grace in theory, but denies it in practice.”1

Evangelical Christians largely conform to a performance-oriented approach to God: Regularly attend church to worship God our way, pray and read the Bible daily, go to a home group, adhere to a particular statement of faith, believe the right dogma and the future return of Christ, be pro-life, dress modestly, don’t drink (or if you do, please don’t do it in front of us), avoid risqué movies, don’t put swear words, sex scenes, or questionable doctrines in your books,2 refrain from producing music on a secular recording label, and whatever you do, don’t vote for a Democrat. And those are the more moderate rules! In summary, avoid contamination by the world, heretics, and liberals and insulate yourself in the squeaky-clean alternate evangelical world we created.

I saw many evangelicals forget that “we are no longer under the supervision of the law,”3 and “whoever loves his fellow human being has fulfilled the law.”4 The lesson? Evangelicalism is inundated with religious baggage and a host of man-made written and unwritten regulations that have nothing to do with authentic spirituality. Since “Christ is the end of the law”5 or a law-based approach to God, we are free to govern ourselves under Christ’s one overriding law of love.

Find ways to love God and love your neighbor and don’t worry about fitting into some legalistic evangelical mold. Or any kind of Christian mold, for that matter.

Manning, Brennan, The Ragamuffin Gospel, page 14

For instance, several Christian publishers rejected the book, The Shack. Subsequent editors eliminated blatant references to universalism before publishing it according to James B. De Young in an article entitled, Revisiting The Shack and Universal Reconciliation.

Galatians 3:25

Romans 13:8

Romans 10:4

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