Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Misappropriation of Legalism

I get into some pretty lively arguments with my pastor friends and colleagues at times.

Which should not be surprising.  After all, I'm a stubborn, sarcastic whippersnapper, and pastors as an occupation tend to be inflicted with terrifically disproportionate amounts of self-righteousness and arrogance.  I mean, have you ever noticed that the version of God we preach always tends to be some idealized, perfected version of our own belief system and worldview?

After Annie Lamott wrote, if we thought our opinions were wrong, we'd get different opinions.

But I'll be honest--I have been struggling with this one lately--the nature of God's grace.

Now, I'm what I consider to be pretty orthodox for Protestant pastors--I do believe in the sola gratia ("by grace alone") concept, which is to say that our salvation is made possible only because God is grace-filled and merciful: there is nothing we can do to merit that sort of grace and mercy.

But I also think that God does take account of our deeds--our "works" to use the theological term--when weighing our souls at whatever wacky-ass End Times brouhaha that He has got in store for us.

In other words--I don't think we are saved by faith alone (sola fide).  Faith in God isn't enough.  If anything, I think if God could only wrench one or the other from our selfish little hearts, I truly wonder if He would rather us do good things because faith by itself doesn't do a whole lot of good for your neighbor...after all, as James writes, "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?" (2:16, NRSV)

Put differently--I'm honestly convinced that God is not so self-absorbed that He would want our praise of Him to come at the expense of our doing ill to one another.

Yet that is exactly what I often see happening in ministry, all in the name of some mystical magical, fantastical, fictional deity of infinite grace.

If God's grace and your faith are enough to save you, then why do so many of my colleagues care if you are in a gay or lesbian relationship?

If God's grace and your faith are enough to save you, then why do we care about what music you listen to, or what movies you watch?

If God's grace and your faith are enough to save you, then why should we care if you are a Republican, a Democrat, or neither of the above?  Yet still we do.

If God's grace and your faith are enough to save you, then why do we condemn fundamentalist Islamic communities for their suppression of women and children, yet many of our churches refuse to ordain or give a vote to women?  More to the point, we condemn legalism when it isn't OUR version of legalism.  Because our legalism is somehow justified.

If God's grace and your faith are enough to save you...well, you get the idea by now.

I'm baffled by how we can say that no amount of deeds or works can help you in the eyes of God, and then turn around and demand that you, our congregants, live a certain way in accordance with certain rules.

We can have one or the other.  I'm honestly not sure how we can have both.  And to pre-empt the response of "if you aren't doing works, it wasn't really faith to begin with:" that's basically conceding my point.  After all, as James writes, faith without works is dead (2:17, 26).

If we demand works, deeds, or adherence to certain rules from our followers, then I think we have abandoned the precept that we are saved by faith alone.

And I'm not saying that's a bad thing at all--just that we should call a spade a spade and label it for what it is: a community holding one another in accountability before God.

Yours in Christ,

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