Sunday, 21 June 2009

Evangelism-driven legalism

I've been thinking a bit recently about a subtle form of legalism which I think seems to be common in many evangelical churches.

The argument runs a bit like this:

  • Unbelievers will have the gospel commended to them by Christian behaviour, and so will want to ask questions of Christians.
  • Therefore make an effort to impress non-believers by your behaviour - this might take various forms: be outgoing, be generous at work, arrive early at church to chat to newcomers... and so on.
It's certainly true that lifestyle commends the gospel. But I feel uneasy when I hear this sort of teaching. Here's why:

1. It seems to forget or sideline the place of grace. Titus 2, for instance, speaks of how different groups can commend the gospel through the way that they live - older men, older women, younger men and slaves. But the whole chapter is bound up with a theology of grace: Titus 2:11-14. The gospel of Christ (and the redemption in full from sin that he has achieved) gives a Christian a whole new perspective and teaches them to say no to ungodliness. The chapter is bound up with Jesus and his grace, not merely with exhortation.
2. For this reason, the implication of the above exhortation without grace is that Christians should try hard to be something that they are not really e.g. friendly, outgoing, generous. These actions are stripped away from the salvation we have received in Christ.
3. This effectively relegates godliness to a place where it is not much more than a piece of bait that can be dangled before non-believers to win conversations.
4. It also is likely to promote self-righteousness and/or despair amongst believers as they seek to strive towards these outward forms of behaviour. This behaviour is not coming from believers' hearts, and it ignores the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
5. This emphasis means that believers consider that if they show non-believers their sin, they've blown it forever.

There is a missing stage to the above teaching...
  • Jesus' gospel of grace has freed you and empowers you to live a life of love.
  • Unbelievers will have the gospel commended to them by Christian behaviour, and so will want to ask questions of Christians.
  • Therefore, be what you are called to be - loving Christ above all, and therefore radically seeking to meet the needs of others, trusting that all your needs will be supplied by Jesus. Be confident in the transforming power of Jesus to commend itself, even in someone as sinful and broken as you.
Dave makes a helpful addition to this post.

4 comments:

sarahdawkins said...

that's really interesting (and true)
It's def a case of good things done with bad motives which can characterise a lot of areas - all seemingly good things are sinful if done from impure motives.
Guess one application from what you've said is discipling people from the scriptures and not from what a Christian should look like!

Dave K said...

Great post Peter. Thanks a lot.

I've flagged it up on my blog.

Chris said...

thanks Pete - totally wasn't with you initially, but see your point - how different from the "be what you are" ethics of the new testament!

Hope you & linda are well.

Elisabeth said...

Absolutely agree! Thanks for the corrective comment.