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Jared Wilson has a very helpful post here responding to pastors who justify unwise methodology in worship service by wanting to tick off the “religious people.”

There are people in every church, no matter what kind of church it is, who struggle with the distinction between law and gospel, who struggle with the driving place of grace in their pursuit of holiness, so it won’t do to deny that legalism looms in our churches. Legalism lurks in every heart, actually, mine and yours.

But this constant invoking of the judgmental “religious people” is very often a boogeyman. It’s an imagined threat, a scare tactic employed to both justify dumb exercises in license and arouse the self-satisfied mockery of self-identified “grace people.”

Since “the religious people” don’t tend to go to churches like this in the first place, Jared sees only two options for those who employ this defense:

  • Pastors who invoke the “religious people” boogeyman are really just trying to offend people outside their church. This might be good for laughs and applause, good red meat for the congregation, good for camaraderie, but it is also profoundly stupid. If you make decisions at your church out of a desire to thumb your nose at people at other churches, you need to get a life.
  • Pastors who invoke the “religious people” boogeyman are really just bullying and dismissing sincere people in their churches who have concerns or questions about the goings-on. It’s a fantastic way to deflect all criticism, whether it’s legitimate or not. It’s a great way to insulate oneself from reflection and accountability by drowning it out with the fan club’s laughter and chest-thumping.

“Pharisee,” “legalist,” “religious person” is the church version of racist or Nazi. It is the rhetorical nuclear option specifically designed to shut up anyone with questions and paint them among their brothers and sisters as graceless jerks. But I think it actually works the other way around:

Employing the “religious people” boogeyman ironically indulges in what it professes to decry. It is a great way to pray along with the self-justified pharisee, “I thank you God that I’m not like those religious people.”

If you’ve got real legalists in your church—and you do—the only way to intentionally offend them is by preaching the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. Everything else is just vain posturing and prideful provocation.

The entire post is worth reading.

HT: Matt Chandler


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23 thoughts on “Doing Things to Tick Off “The Religious People””

  1. That was good. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Andrew Wencl says:

    So true. Our small group was studying about the passages in the Bible about meat sacrificed to idols and the difference between people just trying to follow their convictions and legalists.

    I think we finally came to the conclusion that many of the people we view as legalists are merely staying true to their convictions, not wanting to cause problems. They need grace too!

  3. Eric Davis says:

    Good stuff, thank you. It’s always easier and more hip to be a Pharisee Pharisee or a legalist legalist.

  4. J. Srnec says:

    This response seems over the top. It accomplished the opposite of what it intended to with me. I had little sympathy for its target (can’t remember his name) until I read it. Now it seems he hit a nerve.

    “Profoundly stupid”? That bad? Not just silly, dumb or childish? “Pharisee” et al. are now the “nuculear option”? Seems over the top.

  5. donsands says:

    I went to a holiness church in my early Chritian years. Ny Lord helped me to be free from this law/works+grace=God likes you gospel. We would sing Amazing Grace quite a bit, but the pastor had grace+works as his salvation. The works were also not drinking wine and beer, not wearing shorts, not going to movies, and a lot of other nots, as well as a lot of things you must do.

    I was comparing this atmosphere with that of a church as discribed in this post, and they are very similair in that they make you look down on people. The “religious people are boogeymen” pastors look down on the Fundamental pastors, and vice versa.

    I thank the Lord that we have all this discussion in the blogisphere. It is very helpful. Thanks for posting this.

    Christ wants us to grow in His grace and understanding of His truth. The truth of His Word is what changes our hearts, and helps us to speak the truth of the Gospel of grace in the religious world, and the secular world; and in the Church.

  6. Bob says:

    Jared has some good points. But if we’re going to agree on terminology, let’s give the word “pastor” some respect, and not use it where “apostate” or “unbeliever” is appropriate.

  7. SLIMJIM says:

    This is very good. I think it is rather immature to go out of the way to unnecessarily construct boogey man.

  8. jake says:

    What if the religious people in your context really are religious, judgmental, unloving, & pharisees? Failing to deconstruct legalism in the end harms the gospel advancing, personal sanctification, and brotherly love.

    This critique could be applied to the apostle Paul in Galatians and Philippians, “dogs… emasculate themselves…”

    When Jesus went off on the pharisees in Luke I don’t think he was using the “nuclear option” either.

    I agree that some consider it sport in their mockery of “religious people” and a lot of “religious” are simply a product of their environment, teaching, and human sinfulness. It seems that loving them is the only true way to help them out of legalism, not mockery.

    However, I would hate for some to be afraid to call a spade a spade when the gospel is at stake.

    1. Matti says:

      I agree, jake. I still think legalism is greater threat to the true Gospel than antinominalism. It’s so easy to pretend to be spiritual while actually being self-righteouss and bitter. Been there, done that.

      1. Jared Wilson says:

        Jake and Matti, good thoughts. If you read the first paragraph of the excerpt Justin posted — or the full piece at my blog — you will see that I agree with you. Legalism is real, legalists exist. They are in every church. We all struggle with legalism because our hearts are bent self-righteously.

        I am also in favor of calling a spade a spade when it comes to pharisaical judgmentalism. I recently finished preaching through Galatians and spent quite a bit of time explaining to my church that Paul’s love for the gospel justifies a hatred for damnable falsehoods and the aggressive calling out of those who peddle them.

        But there is the distinction to be made between false gospelists and sincere people with concerns about the wisdom of playing AC/DC on Easter Sunday, and there is the distinction to be made between confronting a person’s legalism with the gospel and offending a person’s legalism with AC/DC.

        Thanks for the opportunity to agree and clarify.

        1. J. Srnec says:

          While the wisdom of playing AC/DC as part of a church worship service is definitely questionable, it is worth mentioning that Easter Sunday is not an especially holy day. It’s just a traditional Christian observance. (I would say the same about Sunday-as-Sabbath, but I know I would be in a minority here.)

          1. Jared Wilson says:

            J. Smec, I agree with you basically and in the larger post I include an parenthetical remark to that effect.

      2. Gary says:

        I totally disagree Matti. For every legalist in my church, I’ve got 10 antinomians.

        It’s also just as easy to pretend to love a God who demands nothing of you. I would argue that’s actually easier.

    2. Gary says:

      The issue Jake is that there are people today in churches who are still striving after holiness (as the Bible calls us to do) and (I know this is going to sound crazy) sometimes they are aided on that path by not doing certain things. Things like watching raunchy movies and tv shows, not dressing for church like they are going out clubbing, etc. It’s very discouraging to be striving for holiness and have your “pastor” simply dismiss you as a legalist.

  9. donsands says:

    “legalism is greater threat to the true Gospel than antinominalism.”-Matt

    I see Satan using both in a great way. Neither being greater a threat. The devils in this dark age use which ever way they can lead a culture. ungodly-living/grace/grace/grace/salvation, or law/works/grace/look-at-me/salvation: And any similarity thereof.

    1. Jay says:

      I agree with you, Donsands. There seems to be a pretty balanced weight counteracting both “legalism” and “antinomianism” in the Scriptures. The person who expects God’s forgiveness without giving a rip that they offended Him is just as deceived as a person who thinks he can earn his or her way into heaven. They are both demonic.

      1. Jay says:

        And by “THEY are both demonic,” I mean the false gospel. I messed up my antecedents!

      2. Matti says:

        I think legalism is ultimately carnal, only that it is very subtle kind of carnality. A legalistic person is more interested in the outward signs of “holiness” in himself or others than the source of holiness, namely Christ Himself.

        By being thing- and action-oriented he falls into the same trap of idolatry as the rest of mandkind. I’ve discovered the hardest thing in the life of faith is to concentrate on your own relationship God.

  10. david carlson says:

    “Pharisee,” “legalist,” “religious person” is the church version of racist or Nazi. It is the rhetorical nuclear option specifically designed to shut up anyone with questions and paint them among their brothers and sisters as graceless jerks.

    That is what your going to go with? Two observations

    1. Jesus sure had a lot to say about people like that. Oh wait, Pharisees are graceless (kind of the definition). I think it is a little odd to label a word Jesus used a lot as out of bounds for Christians today
    2. In the Pot-Kettle-Black column, feel free to chime in with the same post about the use of the word “emergent” used to label their brothers or sisters

    1. Jared Wilson says:

      a little odd to label a word Jesus used a lot as out of bounds for Christians today

      David, if you read the entire post you will I don’t do this at all.

      I am only referring to the use of these labels as epithets in the context of situations like the one discussed. I agree that legalists, Pharisees (in the legalistic sense, not the historical sense), and “religious people” exist in the church still.

  11. Oh hooray! FINALLY someone has addressed this. Thank you SO much!!! I often find myself wishing someone would just look up the word “religion” in the dictionary. I would consider myself a religious person, but I never really see that in the negative light. It’s bothered me for sometime.
    And the pharisee = Christian nazi link, so very true. I mean, the minute someone drops the pharisee bomb the conversation is basically over.

  12. Mike says:

    A pastor of one of the largest churches in the U.S. frequently says something along the lines of, “The only ones concerned with guilt by association in the Bible were the Pharisees.”

    Is there not a healthy, non-Pharisaical, non-graceless jerk way of evaluating who people associate with?

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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