I used to be a legalist (and probably still am…)

As someone who grew up in a very legalistic environment, I am always interested when I reconnect with someone from my past who has their faith in tact. Sadly, too many of my friends have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Yet, it is encouraging when I come across someone who not only has their faith intact, but is now experiencing the Christian life as it was intended. This happened to me recently–read my previous post and read the comments by Pam.

Today, I came across a post on Twitter from author Frank Viola. He has written a new book called “Revive Us Again.” You can view a trailer for his new book here.” (By the way, when did they start producing trailers for books and not just movies?). Anyway, he shares an excerpt from his book on his blog that is a must read. In it, he describes three gospels that Christians adhere to:

The Gospel of Legalism
The Gospel of License
The Gospel of Lordship & Liberty

The interesting thing is I believe we often bounce around between these three “gospels.” I know I have. I can’t simply copy and paste the text here in my blog, but I do have permission to link to it. It is a short read that I promise will be well worth your time. Click here to be redirected to Frank Viola’s blog. Then, please come back to my blog and share your thoughts.

First, when reading the Old Testament, it is very clear that the reason God chose a people (Israel) for Himself was to make Himself known to all nations (2 Samuel 22:50; 1 Chronicles 16:8, 24, 31; Psalm 9:11; Psalm 46:10; Psalm 67:1-2; Psalm 96:3; Psalm 105:1 and many others!). And, the reason the church exists today is to make God known to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). So, it is striking to read the Old Testament while observing the many parallels to the Church.

Back to Micah and 2 Chronicles… Micah prophesied during the reigns of 3 of Judah’s kings–Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Jotham “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as His father Uzziah had done, but unlike him he did not enter the temple of the Lord. The people, however continued their corrupt practices.” (2 Chronicles 27:2). King Ahaz “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. He followed in the ways of the kings of Israel and also made idols for worshiping the Baals… and sacrificed his children in the fire…” (2 Chronicles 28:1-3).

Then comes King Hezekiah. “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done” (2 Chronicles 29:2). In fact, “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him” (2 Kings 18:5).

When Israel fell into idolatry, they were no longer fulfilling their purpose–making God known among the nations. Similarly, when the church falls into idolatry, we no longer fulfill our purpose of making God known among the nations. If Baal and other false gods were the idols of Israel, what are the idols of the church? They are numerous. Here are a few I see:

Consumerism – We have adopted the American idol of consumerism by peddling church services, events, ministries, worship styles and programs to attract crowds and put up bigger numbers–by the way, this is true of both “contemporary” or “traditional” worshiping churches. We also fail to recognize that coming to church, giving some money and avoiding big sins does not equal Biblical discipleship. Consequently, our churches are full of “Christians” who have had about the same impact for the Kingdom of God as they had before their “conversion.”

Numbers – whether attendance, conversions or baptisms, we have idolized numbers over discipleship, and we have peddled an incomplete Gospel of “easy believism” in order to inflate our conversion and baptism numbers. We’ve also clung to methods of “evangelism” that give us conversions but seldom disciples leaving countless people innoculated to the Gospel and likely headed to a Christless eternity. Tradition – in the absence of true discipleship, we have idolized pet programs and traditions and used attendance to church services and programs as benchmarks of spirituality. When faced with new (actually, very old) ways of evangelism and discipleship–like the early church used– we are very reluctant to let go of these traditions to get back on track with God’s mission, likely because we’re afraid of losing some consumers.

Knowledge – we have done exactly what James warned us not to do–we have idolized Bible knowledge over practice. While some would mourn the level of Biblical illiteracy in the Church today, I believe it is more of a lack of practice. Like my statistics class in college that I don’t remember because I haven’t used it since the final exam, Biblical knowledge that hasn’t been practiced is as if it was never learned in the first place. It’s gone–Poof!

So how does this relate to Hezekiah? Well, I believe it’s time to cleanse the temple. Hezekiah’s grandfather had good intentions, but he left the high places intact and when his son Ahaz became king, he went right back to idolatry. Hezekiah purged the temple, removed the high places and consecrated the priests. It’s time to rid the Church of idols like Hezekiah did. Some will say, “but that is just the culture we live in today and we need to be contextual.” I believe the only culture that we should be contextual with is the culture outside the church. If the culture inside the church is broken, it needs to be replaced. How do we know if the church culture is broken? Go back to the original purpose of the church. Are we making God known among the nations? No? Then we need to cleanse the church like Hezekiah cleansed the temple.

We need to return to the Great Commission of discipling people instead of merely “converting” them. Making disciples is the way we were instructed to make God known among the nations. Simply put, if we fail to make disciples, we fail to make God known. Yet, in most of our churches, we are content to wear ourselves out keeping consumers happy, trying to increase our numbers, fighting to maintain our precious (non-Biblical) traditions, and increase people’s Biblical knowledge (without putting it into practice)–all of this happens without making true disciples!

It’s time to cleanse the church–it’s schedule and calendar, too–to prioritize discipleship. It happens best through small groups of people who band together and die. They die to themselves and give their life away to reach people with the good news of the Gospel. What I’m describing is known as a “missional community” where life in the Kingdom of God becomes very tangible to those who come in contact with it. Yes, they study the Bible together, but more importantly, they put it into practice by living as missionaries to the culture they live in. If a local church was a network of missional communities, it would be a transformational force in any culture, any context and any community.

In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the main character Tevye, the father of five daughters, attempts to maintain his family and Jewish religious traditions while outside influences encroach upon their lives. At the beginning of the movie even before the opening credits, he introduces a song aptly called “Tradition” (watch the song from the movie on YouTube here). The song recounts some of the things that define their roles within the family and society. Tevye humorously admits that he doesn’t have a clue how some of these traditions got started, but they are so important to their way of life!

This morning, I was reading Matthew 15, and this song came to mind. The Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus and asked him, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” His disciples were not performing a special ceremonial washing of their hands before they ate. In their culture, it was believed that if you didn’t perform this ceremonial washing, you would defile yourself. Jesus turned the question back to the Pharisees, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” The Pharisees were advocating a practice that what might have been used to help their father or mother is “devoted to God” and that they were not to “honor their father or mother” with it.

We do the same thing in the church today. Instead of following Jesus’ command to go into the world and make disciples, instead, we live a safe, middle-class life and attend church every time the doors are open–and they are open a lot especially where I live! And the church has essentially communicated that faithfulness to God equals church attendance. I really don’t know who started Sunday School, Sunday evening worship services or midweek prayer meetings. But I do know that for way too many Christians, it is TRADITION. And you don’t mess with tradition!

People here in southeast Kentucky are shocked when I tell that this is the first church I’ve served in over 12 years that still has Sunday night and Wednesday night programming. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that having Sunday night and Wednesday night programming is unspiritual or that those churches without Sunday night and Wednesday night programming are more spiritual. What I am saying is that gauging our spirituality by church attendance is WRONG!

My personal bias is that every Christian should have 1 corporate worship experience and 1 small group experience each week. This is not in any way to lower our commitment to God. Instead, it is to raise it! When we’re not in a corporate worship experience or in a small group Bible study, we are missionaries seeking to carry the Gospel with us into every nook and cranny of the surrounding culture.

But that is not what we have in the church today. We have people who consume religious goods and services like Doritos at a Superbowl party and then live like God doesn’t exist the rest of the time. It’s not necessarily that Christians live like the devil the rest of the time (although there are some who do). They simply don’t give God or His mission a thought throughout the week. Consequently, our churches are full of people who are having no greater impact for the Kingdom of God than before their “conversion.”

When this type of consumerism is allowed to continue unconfronted in the church, you get disunity because people are coming for what they can get from the church. This seems to work great as long as you are providing a “product or service” that people want or enjoy, but if you make a consumer mad–watch out! Paul warns Timothy that this would happen in 2 Timothy 4:3 “…the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions…”

I have a few questions for the church (my church) : “Why do we break the command of God–the Great Commission–for the sake of our tradition (programming)? Why must we run ourselves ragged filling all these man-made, traditional time slots with programs for every age group while we fail to live our lives as missionaries where God has planted us? Why do we continue to lift up as “faithful” those who attend church every time the doors are open but have little to no impact for the Kingdom of God? When will we understand that there is no such thing as a missional church and that only people can be missional? When will we spend more of our time, energy and resources equipping our people to live as missionaries and less trying to attract people to our building for programs, events or services?