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Religious Legalism: Effects and Cure, Part I

Religious Legalism: Effects and Cure, Part I

By Bruce Atkinson PhD
February 2, 2019

In my last article (https://www.virtueonline.org/man-pleasers-and-mockingbirds), I summarized the problems inherent in doing away with the Old Covenant and its moral laws. Theologically, the cheap grace or hyper-grace perspective is woefully out of balance and can lead to antinomianism and at its extreme, even to libertinism and anarchy.

However, it is just as easy to become out of balance through an over-emphasis on religious legalism-- virtually worshiping the biblical laws and rules rather than our Lord. Too much law yields too little grace... and vice versa. There is a continuum of error with the extremes of legalism on one end and the extremes of antinomian hyper-grace on the other. I have been focusing lately on the psychospiritual effects of these two radical and unhealthy extremes. For almost 40 years of clinicial practice I have treated victims who have been damaged by both legalism and lawlessness.

I have permission to include the following article by Christian psychologist Dr. Donald Sloat (published back in 1982 in The Christian Herald Magazine). Dr. Sloat describes well what can happen to individuals in those church cultures which are abusively legalistic. His own childhood experiences in a rule-oriented and controlling church (and family) should be familiar to many of us.

In my next article in this series (Part II), I will describe my own diagnostic perspective on the damaging effects of religious legalism and also provide the remedy in terms of the proper use of grace as a corrective for the psychospiritual damage incurred.

Reluctant Christians: Why are so few Christians enthused about their faith?

By Dr. Donald Sloat

Jesus told an interesting story in Simon the Pharisee's house. While Jesus was eating, a prostitute came into the house and knelt behind Jesus. As she wept, her tears fell on his feet. Not only did she wipe his feet with her hair, she also kissed his feet and poured expensive perfume on them. The incident upset Simon, who thought that if Jesus really were a prophet he would have resisted the woman's contact and judged her harshly.

In response to Simon, Jesus told a story about a man who loaned $5000 to one person and $500 to another. Neither of the borrowers was able to repay the loan, and the lender forgave both debts. In response to Jesus' question, "Which do you supposed loved him (the forgiving lender) most after that?" Simon correctly answered that the one with the larger debt would love most.

Jesus summed up his response by saying, "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:47) Jesus is indicating that there can be a correlation between the number of sins forgiven and the amount of love and gratitude that follows forgiveness. This fact is also evident in the apostle Paul's life. He demonstrated unfailing fervor and commitment to Christ, but he also described himself as "the chief among sinners." Whether he had actually committed many sins or simply had an intense awareness of his own sinfulness, he certainly felt no equal in the area of sinfulness--and resulting gratitude for God's grace.

In my own experience, most of the deeply changed and "fruitful" Christians that I have known have been people who either did not grow up in the church or grew up living very peripheral Christian lives. Consequently, they grew up experiencing and living out their sinfulness until they became saturated with its emptiness. They were also confronted in their own experiences by the extent and nature of their actual sinful selves. Turning to Christ then was a significant, life-changing event, and they subsequently demonstrated great love because they had experienced a great deal of forgiveness.

Against the background of Jesus' story and my observations, I've developed a name for the unmotivated, unchanged people that seem to fill our church pews. I call them 'reluctant Christians.' Pastors worry about them too. I hear many ministers trying to reach them with the "let's get out there" sales pitch or the weightier, guilt-inducing "you'd better do it or else" approach to Christian exhortation. Both approaches are doomed to failure or short-lived success. Either one can only result in massive efforts on the part of Christians to "bear fruit," which seems contrary to the whole biblical notion of fruit-bearing. Does an apple tree bear fruit by determined self-effort and teeth-gritting?

Is perhaps the mediocrity in the church due to too many forgiven 500 borrowers and not enough 5000 ones? Is it because people have been forgiven little, or is it that they have sinned a lot but have a small sense of sin (due to denial and a permissive culture) and consequently they have little appreciation of God's mercy and their forgiven status.

I can only refer to my own experience in seeking the answer. I grew up in a very conservative holiness church that defined sin in a specific, legalistic manner. The major sins were the use of tobacco in any form, alcohol (especially bars), dancing, bowling alleys, movies, and of course such standard things as not going to church, lying, stealing, etc. Occasionally TV was also mentioned as a 'tool of the devil." [Imagine what they would have thought of today's media?]

My parents exerted their best efforts to put the fear of God into me so I would not participate in these sins. Even as a four-year-old boy, I regularly heard my mother calling shame down upon me by saying, "What would Jesus say if He saw you do that?" In retrospect, what she did was akin to using a cannon to kill a fly, with considerable collateral damage being done to much more than the fly. At the same time, as a youngster I regularly heard hell-fire sermons about God's wrath and condemnation. End of the world stories and examples of young people who spurned the altar call and were later killed in violent car crashes and ushered into hell were imprinted vividly on my mind. Quite clearly the point was that to sin (or even to think about it) was to risk God's terrible wrath, and I certainly did not wish to meet that!

All of this, however, was somewhat puzzling and never made a great deal of sense. Here I was, being carefully monitored by my parents so I did not engage in any of the major sins (they even prohibited me from seeing a puppet show at school when I was in the second grade), and at the same time I was told at church that I should be so very grateful that Jesus died to save me from all my terrible sins. What sins? What sins had I done? My experience was that Jesus took away more than He gave. Because of Him, I was prohibited from doing many things that seemed attractive, including many that are listed above. Jesus seemed more like a prison guard--more a hindrance than a blessing.

Two contradictory streams began to develop inside me. One was a superficial sense of self-righteousness because I was quite successful in avoiding the master list of sins. The other, a more subtle and more subconscious attitude, was resentment toward Christ and God, which developed because I experienced obedience in such a rigid manner of personal deprivation.

Neither attitude, of course, could lead to a strong sense of gratitude to God. Instead of repeating with John, "I love God because He first loved me," I said, "I had better love God because He will get me if I don't." How can threat motivate a person to love? This attitude did not augur well for fruit-bearing out of gratitude and certainly did not make me an enthusiastic Christian. It made me a reluctant Christian, because it was impossible to serve enthusiastically and joyfully out of fear. Fear, not love, had become the foundation of my Christianity, and it still haunts me.

As time went on and I became an adult, I one day realized that I really had a problem. On one hand I was compelled to maintain my sense of self-righteousness (I had to be perfect to keep God off my back and look happy like all the other people at church) while on the other I had growing, irresistible inner feelings of resentment and hostility toward church and God. My inner feelings frightened the daylights out of me because I was already quite afraid of God, and to question or doubt what I had been taught was tantamount to spiritual suicide. I would be sent to the oft-described fires for sure! Besides, I had never heard anyone stand up in Wednesday night prayer meeting and talk about the kinds of feelings I was experiencing.

With considerable trepidation, I carefully shared my feelings with several of my Youth for Christ coworkers, one of whom cried and said my remarks made her love God more. The other person simply replied, "Sloater, I'll pray for you." So I was back on my own, and I was not a very enthusiastic Christian, to say the least.

The net result has been a great deal of personal struggle which I will not detail here. However, I believe my own personal experience has been repeated in many lives, especially the lives of sensitive people, and I also believe the legalistic churches have made it very difficult for these people to have a full, joyful, enthusiastic Christian experience. In the past I thought the problem was limited to the Holiness churches in which I grew up, but through my work and personal acquaintances, I have learned that people with Baptist, Church of Christ, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic backgrounds have experienced similar difficulties. This problem is not unique to one stream of theological thought.

In my opinion, there are several ways in which the church is making the Christian life difficult. First,too often the church is operationally defining sin in terms of specific behaviors to be avoided instead of conveying the broader concept that sin is a state of being and that this state of being manifests itself in certain behaviors. When sin is defined primarily in terms of behaviors, the groundwork is laid for a dangerous self-righteousness. The trouble is that any list, fertilized with some self-deception, can be followed no matter how exhaustive it is. A person who follows the list begins to believe it is possible to reduce the inner sinful state by reducing certain external behaviors. In other words, the focus is on the outer manifestations of sin (the list) and not on the inner state of being--which is the true problem.

This focus was clearly the point of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, who meticulously followed the Law and saw themselves as quite righteous. They regarded the people in the street as sinners, but not themselves. In fact, Jesus' statement that the person who commits adultery in the heart is guilty even as the person who actually commits adultery was designed to strip away the self-righteous facade from the Pharisees who were focusing on outer behavior, not on the inner state of being.

For the person who has tried to master a list of sins, conflict enters when a thought, action, or feeling appears that contradicts the self-righteous image. Such people may be in utter shock when this happens, and the fight is on to push the negative feeling or thought out of their minds because it threatens to tarnish their righteous self-images. Essentially, instead of the New Testament message being the "good news," it seems to be a continuation of the Old Testament rules.

A corollary to the above point is the (controlling, legalistic) church's expectation that not only will people avoid the master list of sins, they will accept it and all of its implications without question. More specifically, people are discouraged from asking questions, from expressing anger toward God, and from admitting their struggle within their own Christian lives. Consequently, sensitive people who struggle are left holding the bag because they have nowhere to go with the resentment they do not understand and the inner conflict that they feel. Usually they try to pray it away, but without long term success. Then they doubt their faith and feel that they must be worse Christians than they originally dared believe because now their faith is not working! They read the Bible for reassurance, but the only verses that stand out are ones about lack of faith, the evil effects of anger, and the bridesmaids who did not make it into the wedding feast.

With no real relief forthcoming, the vicious cycle continues. They either repress and conceal their inner despair in order to appear to be enthused Christians or they live very frustrated, depressed conflict-filled lives. They do not see the church as a source of inner healing because the church has not told them the truth, that it is acceptable and inevitable to struggle. What they feel is terribly painful, and totally unnecessary because it is based on a tragic theological error.

This 'toxic faith' situation is readily evident in my consulting room when burdened Christians come to see me because their hearts are breaking and they no longer can contain the feelings. People tell me they would never tell their ministers what they tell me. Some are angry at God for personal difficulties that they must face. Others are tired of being manipulated and constantly criticized (in the church or home) and wish they could speak up on their own behalf, but they feel that doing so would not be "Christian." Most of them are afraid to deal frankly with the ever-present reality of their negative feelings, and they believe that they must somehow push these feelings aside in order to smile on Sunday and to be the excited Christians the minister exhorts them to be. Pretension and hypocrisy are taught in such churches. But neither the facade nor gritting one's teeth and straining can bear fruit. Neither can denial and repression of one's real feelings. "They are unacceptable!" insists a young man. He is burdened and he will continue to be burdened as long as he tries to live up to the master list rather than deal with the reality of his anger, because his repression prevents him from obtaining the very forgiveness he so desperately needs.

"If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth. But if we [admit and] confess our sins to Him, He can be depended on to forgive us to cleanse us from every wrong." (1 John 1:8,9, Living Bible) Once he faces his true feelings head on and can honestly say, "Yes, I really am angry and the anger is mine!" then he is in a position to take his anger to God and to be forgiven. In other words, trying to be self-righteous and holy (when we are not) leads us away from peace and joy. It prevents us from having an attitude of gratitude and a positive Christian life.

Facing ourselves and our own questions is obviously a struggle, but the person who struggles and questions quite openly becomes more acquainted with his true self. Out of this struggle can come a clearer sense of one's own sinful desires and one's true nature. This is nothing to fear. God says that none of us measures up anyway (Romans3:23). We are all in the same boat, so all we are doing is discovering what God already knows (that it is a sinking boat without Christ).

The key issue is not how much we have sinned, but how much we are aware of our fundamental sin nature; we cannot help but miss the mark in terms of our inner being. We need to see ourselves clearly (the sin nature, not the sin list) so that we know what to submit to God for forgiveness and transformation. And then be immensely grateful!

The church can help in developing mature Christians by diminishing the legalistic sin concept and by showing that sin is a state of being. The church should encourage people to question and to think; we should never check our minds or our feelings at the door of the church.

God knows our failings already, and Christ has already paid for them. As we discover our own failings which God already knows, and confess them, then perhaps we can begin to feel more love out of a genuine response to His forgiveness--and then we will just naturally (supernaturally) bear fruit. This is the effective biblical way, rather than our striving with immeasurable self-effort because we have to measure up. The churches could also help by reducing the use of fear and guilt manipulation to motivate people. Too often evangelists have used fear to scare people into the kingdom, and then they wonder why the converts stand around like scared sheep.

Now obviously God has used fear as a motivator, especially in Old Testament days, because Christ had not yet come and the Jews needed to understand that there would be consequences to evil behavior. And Jesus used severe criticism with the hardened self-righteous chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees (Matthew 23) but not with sensitive, struggling people who knew they were sinners; with these latter people He was gentle--note the woman caught in adultery who He saved from capital punishment: "He who is without sin can cast the first stone."

I return to my original point from Luke 7. Jesus said, "He who is forgiven little, loves little." We all have a self-centered sinful nature that we cannot change by ourselves. The more clearly we see and experience the reality of this sin nature, the more we appreciate the forgiveness we don't deserve. And the more we appreciate this forgiveness, the greater will be our love and commitment. Faith leads to forgiveness which leads to transformation.

Book by Dr. Donald Sloat on these issues: Growing Up Holy and Wholly -- 1st Edition published 1990, 2nd Edition published July 15, 2010.

My follow up article in response to Dr. Sloat is likely to be completed and posted next week (Religious Legalism: Effects and Cure, Part II) is entitled: "The Neurotic Syndrome of Failed Self-Righteousness." - Bruce Atkinson

Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a "cradle Episcopalian" who left TEC in 2004. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia.

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