Tag Archives: Order

Legalism’s Tragic Imitation of Faith

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:3 (NIV)

Legalism /ˈlēɡəˌlizəm/ noun  1. Excessive adherence to law or formula. 2. Dependence on moral law rather than personal faith.

I was a young man when I had the opportunity to pastor a relatively small, rural congregation. Taylor was just a newborn. I’ll never forget meeting informally with one of the church elders to get acquainted over a cup of coffee.

Where are you going to send your children?” he asked me early in the conversation. “Public school or Christian school?

What I didn’t know in that moment was that the question was a litmus test. The elder was raised in a denomination that practiced a form of legalism, and the education of children was part of the “moral law” for this particular denomination. You sent your children to Christian school, and there was no other acceptable option. If parents couldn’t afford it, then grandparents and other family members were expected to pitch in and foot the bill. If you failed this test then there would definitely be social repercussions.

By the way, I failed the test, but that is a different post for another day.

Along my faith journey I have encountered legalism in a number of different populations. I think it important to note that every brand of  denomination I’ve encountered, from Roman Catholic to Lutheran to Baptist to Reformed to Quaker has its own legalistic groups within. Both of the definitions pasted above fit hand-in-glove to what I’ve observed and experienced. What’s been fascinating to observe is how religious legalism seeps into every system with which it comes in contact. While living a among a group of legalistic Christians I found that the legalism was not confined to how the church operated, but it became how the connected family systems, social systems, educational systems, and business systems functioned. I certainly found individuals within these legalistic systems to be sincere and motivated by what they truly believed was “right.” So were many of the Pharisees for whom Jesus had such harsh words of rebuke.

In a legalistic group, observable public and social behavior becomes the standard by which a person’s spiritual standing is judged. Pressure is applied by the group as a whole to conform. Social acceptance or rejection is often the passive-aggressive form of reward or punishment. I’ve personally heard many tragic stories from individuals raised in these legalistic social groups. They’ve shared with me stories of being forced to stand publicly before the congregation in order to be shamed, and stories of church elders making weekly home visits to keep families toeing the line and under the church’s brand of social control.

Within the group I encountered as a young pastor the critical legalistic criteria of the denomination’s moral law not only included sending your kids to Christian school (controlled by the denomination, no doubt), but also strictly observing the sabbath (no work on Sunday), and attendance at two-a-day church services each Sunday (the “no work” law helped with this). Then there were all sorts of other unwritten, behavioral rules about the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the businesses you supported, the people you dated and married, the acceptable colleges you sent your children to, and on and on and on.

It is written that the “fruit” of God’s Spirit in one’s life includes:

  • love
  • joy
  • peace
  • patience
  • kindness
  • gentleness
  • self-control

I’ve observed that the “fruit” of legalism in groups like the one I’ve described are:

  • obedience
  • guilt
  • fear
  • judgement
  • threats
  • shaming punishment
  • authoritative control

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul is addressing a different form of legalism. In his case, it was the Jewish believers who’d been raised under the legalistic moral Law of Moses. Their adherence to these laws, along with others that had been made up, and the physical sign of being circumcised were the critical criteria. These followers of Jesus who came out of this form of legalism now wanted to apply their legalistic code to all followers of Jesus.

In today’s chapter, Paul tackles the issue head on by asking these legalistic Jewish believers two questions from their own scriptural tradition. Abraham was the spiritual “father” of Judaism (btw, Abraham was the “father” of Islam as well), and their scriptures said “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Not only this, but this simple “believe and you’ll be credited with righteousness” paradigm came before circumcision was a thing and before the Law of Moses existed. So, Paul argues, when Jesus says “Whoever believes in me will not perish but have eternal life, ”  he is simply going back to the original paradigm given to “Father Abraham” at the very beginning.

In the quiet this morning I’m seeing the faces of those who’ve shared with me their stories about being raised in legalism. Some are absurd to the point of laughter, and others are heart-breaking to the point of tears. I get why legalism develops as a human system. There is a social order produced, and we humans love our social order. The problem I’ve found, and that Paul is arguing, goes back to the definition I pasted at the top of this post: “adherence to moral law rather than personal faith.” Legalism actually chokes Spirit and Life and replaces it with a cheap imitation which actually destroys faith and, insidiously, feeds the flesh.

More about that in the chapters ahead.

“Oh Yeah. That’s One of Mine.”

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

One of the thematic threads I’ve observed throughout the Great Story is that the Spirit of God is not confined by the trappings of religion and its human penchant for systemic merit. Our human systems love things to fall into rigid rules and lawful order. Follow these rules, dress like this, talk like this, use these phrases, be seen doing these things, act like this when you’re in public, and everyone will know that you’re one of us.

Yet, as I’ve journeyed through the Great Story time-and-time-again I observe that there are those who follow the systemic rules on one hand while the whole time they are breaking the spirit of the law with the other. At the same time, there are those who don’t fit the meritorious religious system and its list of requirements, but who totally get the underlying Spirit that the system was trying to accomplish in the first place.

Then there is God accomplishing their purpose through the most unlikely character in the scene. The fool confounds the wise. The child shepherd kills the giant warrior. The least rises to rule over the greatest. The greatest enemy becomes the strongest ally.

Jesus channeled this theme over and over again. Perhaps the most challenging parable that Jesus taught was right at the climax of His teaching. He was getting down to the very core of his Message, and the leaders of the systemic religious order of merit would kill him for it. (See Matthew 25)

In the parable, Jesus divides everyone into two groups which He labels “sheep” and “goats”, but He might as well have labeled them “religious” and the “heathens.” Or, for the theme that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter, the “Jews” and the “Gentiles,” or perhaps it’s best labeled “God’s people” and “Those people.”

The first group looks like they belong to God’s flock because they look the part. They followed all the religious rules. They worked the system of merit for all it was worth. Jesus, however, says, “I never knew you” because while they followed the letter of the law on one hand, they ignored the heart of what the Law was supposed to create: love that looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

Then Jesus turns to “those people” who were never part of the religious system at all. They’d not earned one single merit badge from the meritorious order. Jesus says, “Come on in to my kingdom” because even while they were outside the religious “system” and didn’t follow the legal rules, they found the heart of God. They practiced the law of love. They looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

In today’s chapter Paul pushes into this theme big time. He’s writing to the followers of Jesus in Rom who fall into these two primary camps: Jews and Gentiles. From the Jews’ perspective it was the same systemic thought that Jesus had been dealing with. The Jewish believers saw it as “we God’s people” and “those people.” God’s people had been given “the Law” and had followed the religious meritorious order. The Gentiles, “those people,” were pagans, heathens, foreigners, and outsiders who had never been circumcised (merit badge #1) let alone practicing the exhaustive religious rulebook.

So, Paul picks up on Jesus’ theme and channels it as he begins his letter. The Gentile believers among Jesus’ followers, he’s basically arguing, are the goats in Jesus’ parable. They never had the rule book, the Law, yet they understood and obeyed the very heart of what the rulebook was designed to produce: love.

This morning I find myself challenged and taking a little heart inventory. Everyone knows that I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m one of the sheep and I make that abundantly clear in these posts. But, am I the sheep in Jesus’ parable? Am I looking all religious and righteous in these posts and then ignoring the very heart of what Jesus taught?

Ugh.

In the quiet I find myself asking who are the “goats” in my circles of influence? Who would my meritorious religious system tell me is one of “those people” but Jesus would look at that person’s heart and say, “Oh yeah. That’s one of mine.”?

Order and Freedom

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey I have been a part of worship with many different traditions. I was raised in a very liturgical Methodist church, meaning that every part of the service was very structured around ancient traditions. There was a lot of repetition and it was largely the same service every week with minor differences to account for different seasons of the traditional church year. I get how repetitive religious practices lose all power of their metaphorical meaning when a) no one remembers why we’re doing it in the first place and b) there’s no Spirit connection between the repetitive words/actions and the spirits of those worshipping.

At the other end of the spectrum I spent some time in the Quaker tradition (also known as the Society of Friends) which developed out of reacting to all the liturgical structure of the traditional church. In a traditional Quaker service (even their anti-liturgy style becomes its own form of “tradition”) there is little or no structure. Everyone sits in a circle and is quiet (they call it “centering”) until someone feels moved by the Spirit to speak or to sing or to do whatever. Anyone can do so and can say pretty much whatever it is they want to say. The original intent was that everyone would wait for Holy Spirit to prompt them and to be loving and mindful of everyone else in the group. It’s a beautiful idea, but eventually things were so unstructured that there were problems with things in many Quaker churches becoming what would be described by some as a chaotic free-for-all.

I have come to understand that we as human beings like and need a certain amount of structure and order. I think this is part of us being made “in the image” of our Creator. If you stop to think about it, everything in creation has a certain detailed structure and order to it. This is the way God made it. Even the seemingly chaotic tangle of bare tree branches is actually an orderly visual fractal. At the same time, you can get so lost in the order that you, as we say, “lose the forest for the trees.” I’ve come to believe that corporate worship is another example of truth being found at the point of tension between the extremes.

Along my chapter-a-day journey through Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth, I find there is no doubt that their local gathering was rapidly moving along the disordered chaos side of the spectrum. Paul points this out multiple times. There had been a breakdown to the point that Paul even says their weekly gatherings to worship were doing “more harm than good” (11:17).

In context, I find today’s chapter to be about Paul trying to reestablish some order and structure to the chaos in Corinthian worship. He’s trying to pull them back from their chaotic free-for-alls. Paul hints that they’d come to resemble a pagan food orgy (11:20-22), and the chapter reads like an instruction manual for bring some semblance of structure and order to the Corinthian gatherings. He sums it up by saying “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

This morning I’m thinking about differences, even in our human personalities. Some of us tend toward the side of “free spirit” in which we go with the flow. As such, it’s easy for us to get little accomplished and to create chaos around ourselves that becomes counterproductive. Some of us tend toward the side of detail and order. As such, it’s easy for us to major on the minors and to create rigidity that becomes counterproductive.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself seeking balance: freedom with ordered structure; order with room for movement of Spirit and expression.

Left-Brain Development in a Right-Brain Dude

When Moses entered the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law. In this way the Lord spoke to him.
Numbers 7:89 (NIV)

Confession time this morning. I am an organized wannabe. My whole life I have had a desire for my life to be organized, measured, well-structured and disciplined. In that effort I’ve dabbled in Day-timer, Day-keeper, Seven Habits, Scan Cards, pocket calendars, Palm Pilots, Outlook, and you-name-the-organizational-big-name-fad-gadget-system-of-the-moment-here.

My right brain always betrays me. Just ask my wife, Wendy, who is a certified, card-carrying rock star of the organized world, and also sports an amazingly developed, creative right brain.

Now, in my defense, I will tell you that I’ve progressed a long way in my life journey. I’m more organized and disciplined than, perhaps, ever. My organizational discipline has grown and developed over time and it has developed in parallel with my spiritual journey. Get this: I’ve come to realize that God holds the tension between right and left brain. The Creator is the ultimate fullness of both creativity and order. God is both limitless possibility and infinite detail. The further I get in my spiritual journey of unity with the Creator, the more balanced I find my life becoming in this regard.

Let’s be honest. Today’s chapter is a slog. It’s the longest chapter in the five books known as the Torah (a.k.a. Pentateuch, Books of Moses, Law of Moses). The chapter is incredibly ordered, detailed and repetitive as it describes the pageantry of the dedication of the traveling temple tent (called the Tabernacle) that the Hebrews carried with them on their march out of Egypt and to the promised land. In orderly fashion the leader of each of the twelve Hebrew tribes brings their offering to the Tabernacle. Each tribal leader brought the same gift, listed in the same order in detail. They brought the gifts in the same order given for the organization of their marching and their encampment around the Tabernacle. Today’s chapter is a left-brain’s dream on steroids (as the right brain reaches for a bottle of five-hour energy).

I’m reminded this morning of Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in Corinth where he writes:

Let all things be done decently and in order.

The kicker comes at the end of today’s chapter (if you make it that far) when it reports that after the orderly pageant God’s presence and voice became manifest to Moses when he would enter the inner sanctuary of the tent before the ark of the covenant [cue: Indiana Jones Theme]. In other words, God’s power, presence, and voice came at the end of well-ordered offering and dedication.

This morning I’m reminded of the description of the Temple of Solomon (designed to replicate the basic structure of the Tabernacle tent) the we read back in 2 Kings just a few weeks ago [here’s the post]. No order. The scroll with the law of Moses had been lost for years. The Temple of God had become an unruly farmer’s market style carnival of religious idols, complete with temple prostitution. No order. No discipline. No presence.

Despite the groaning from my creative, go-with-the-flow right brain, I’ve come to acknowledge along life’s journey that detail and organization are a critical, spiritual component. There is a certain peace, power and presence of Spirit that accompanies life and worship when things are managed in a detailed, disciplined, orderly way. And so, I press on in the development of my left-brain.

Now, does anyone know where I put my phone?

A Worthwhile Reminder

Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to destruction for the Lord, be it human or animal, or inherited landholding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord.
Leviticus 27:28 (NRSV)

Today we wind down our journey through the ancient laws of Leviticus. The final chapter is the ancient Hebrews’ rules as it related to charitable giving above and beyond the regular sacrifices already covered. The ancient Hebrews could dedicate items, even servants or children, to God’s work at the tabernacle (the giant tent which served as nomadic temple) and later the temple that took its place.

For example, in the first chapter of 1 Samuel, Hannah gives birth to little Samuel and dedicates the boy to the Lord. She gives Samuel to the temple for the work of the Lord. In ancient days this would have been a precious gift, not only from an emotional point-of-view, but also from a financial standpoint. The culture of that day attached great worth to boys as they would grow to become warriors, hunters, merchants, and providers. Hannah could have considered Samuel to be security for her retirement, a son who would care for her and provide for her in her old age. Yet she gave her “one and only son” to God.

So, let’s say that a few years later Hannah’s husband kicks the bucket and leaves her destitute. She has second thoughts about giving Samuel to the work of the temple and returns with “givers remorse.” She asks for the boy back. According to the code of Levitical law in today’s chapter, such a “redemption” could be made. Depending on Samuel’s age at the time of redemption, Hannah would have to pay the redemption fee. In many cases, depending on what gift was being redeemed, a 20 percent redemption tax was added.

Then there were items that could never be redeemed. If a foreign idol had been taken as plunder during a battle of conquest, that idol was “devoted to destruction” and had to be destroyed. The person who plundered it had to give it to the priests to be destroyed and couldn’t redeem it. That’s why, in the story of Joshua, a man named Achan got into such trouble. He took plundered idols for himself and didn’t give them over for destruction. That was “against the law” and Achan paid the penalty for it.

This morning my mind is mulling over many things. I’m kind of glad this journey through Leviticus is over. It’s definitely not “feel good” devotional material that pumps my heart full of inspiration at the start of the day. I confess I’m ready to move on. At the same time, I’m thankful for the layers of depth that Leviticus provides to other events and sections of God’s Message. The stories of Samuel, and of Achan, have new layers of understanding for me now.

As I think about summing things up, Leviticus reminds me that God is a God of order, despite our human penchant for making a chaotic mess of life and creation. Leviticus beckons me to seek the Creator’s natural order when life and relationships are in chaos. And, for me, that’s a worthwhile reminder.

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The Eagle, Sovereignty, and Redemption

A photo I snapped of the eagle soaring over our cove a few summers ago.
A photo I snapped of the eagle soaring over our cove a few summers ago.

Does the eagle soar at your command
and build its nest on high?
Job 39:27 (NIV)

When I was a child in elementary school, I remember studying the American bald eagle and how near they were to extinction. I have memories of thinking that I might never see one and how sad that would be. The few that did exist, I was told, were in the wild of Alaska or the Rocky Mountains far from my home on the rolling plains of Iowa.

Much to my joy, bald eagles have become a fairly common sight near my Iowa hometown in recent years, though the sight never ceases to stop me in my tracks and fill me with wonder. Conservation efforts have worked. At our place on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri there are eagles which nest in the back of our cove. There is nothing quite like the  sight of that giant raptor with it’s snowy white head and tail soaring right over you. This summer we even had the treat of watching a young eagle dive into the shallow water at the back of the cove over and over and over again learning to catch fish.

God’s questioning of Job in today’s chapter focuses on His sovereignty and care over creation. I find it interesting that creation has a natural order to it which God set into motion. It fascinates me how the animal and plant kingdoms operate in symbiotic relationships and function amazingly well in the propagation of life and the natural environment. Humanity has a way of coming along and messing things up more often than not. I would argue that it is a consequence of the Fall, and perhaps that is part of God’s point to Job.

I’m looking forward to seeing the eagles again at the lake this summer. They remind me that there is hope of redemption, even at the brink of extinction. A eucatastrophe in nature. This summer there will be an added layer of meaning as I remember God’s questioning of Job, and me.

Chapter-a-Day 2 Chronicles 26


But then the strength and success went to his head. Arrogant and proud, he fell. One day, contemptuous of God, he walked into The Temple of God like he owned it and took over, burning incense on the Incense Altar. 2 Chronicles 26:16 (MSG)

There is an order to things. God is a God of detail and order. It’s one of the reasons I really like Bach, Handel, and other baroque music. There is a symmetry and order to the music. It reminds me of God’s left brain in the midst of the chaos we make of His creation.

There was an order to things. It’s back to the archetypes I mentioned a few chapters back. Kings and Priests had different functions. They each performed a unique role. Kings aren’t Priests and Priests aren’t Kings. When Uzziah broke rank and tried to take the priestly role by force bad things happened.

I look back over my life and see so much of myself in Uzziah’s actions: Refusing to rest in the order God created; Discontent; Wanting to be what I’m not created to be. Snubbing the role God’s given me on life’s stage because I want someone else’s spotlight.

Today, I’m seeking to rest in that natural order of things. I’m celebrating the role God’s given me in this life and place He’s given me. I’m enjoying God’s left-brain.

(Enjoy a little Bach with me!)