Dear Young Christians: Reject Legalism, NOT Discipline!

Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe /

Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe /

Within the evangelical Christian universe, few things are more damning than being labeled 'Legalistic.' The term evokes images of strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, unforgiving judges, and worst of all —unpopularity

When churches, schools, pastors, institutions, and communities are viewed as legalistic, they are demonized and shunned — sometimes rightfully so.

One disturbing trend I’ve noticed — especially among young believers — is to assume that everything associated with a few of legalism’s attributes: structure, requirements, consequences, and work, is legalistic — it’s not.

Christianity's 5 Most Popular Scapegoats

Scapegoat illustration, durantelallera /

Scapegoat illustration, durantelallera /

Within Christianity it’s easy to criticize. Here are some of the most common scapegoats:

1)  Conservative Fundamentalists

Christianity’s negative public image is — sometimes rightfully — blamed on these people. Perceived as being exclusive, resistant to change, addicted to power, and very aggressive, they’re characterized as anti-women, anti-science, anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, and anti-evolution.

Ten years ago the top scapegoat would’ve belonged to ‘Progressive Liberals,’ but what a difference a few years make. Despite the dramatic change, we can often be guilty of blaming fundamentalists just as easily and unfairly as they used to blame others.

A Convenient target, we often use them as a punching bag. Many theologians, bloggers, pastors, and leaders have become obsessed with fighting and arguing against fundamentalists, and it ultimately becomes a distraction. It’s so easy to focus on those we disagree with that our entire faith becomes a set of reactions to our opponents instead of a life lived promoting the Gospel of Christ.

Learning to Love Complexity

Blue vintage globe map photo courtesy Shutterstock.

Blue vintage globe map photo courtesy Shutterstock.

Tumult in Egypt reminds me how complicated the world can be, especially for a culture like our own that is shaped by good guy vs. bad guy dramas.

Who are the “good guys” in Cairo? Is the ousted president a good guy for being democratically elected or a bad guy for pursuing isolationist Islamic policies? Is the military saving Egypt or preserving privileges?

It isn’t just the inherent complexity of any human situation. It’s the complexity of societies that have rules and histories quite unlike our own.

'Love Your Neighbor' Wasn't Just a Suggestion

The most recent discussions of U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East, once again say more about politics during an election year, than they do about the fundamental issues we must confront if we want to see substantial change.

So let’s look at the basic issues and fundamental choices we need to make.

Today the Middle East — where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25 — is a region dominated by humiliation and anger.

Failure + rage + the folly of youth = an incendiary mix.

The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep (literally and figuratively). We can start with the fact that our oil (and its economy) lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive and backward regimes, the continual presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy.

Add to that incindiary cocktail the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Islamic world. Fundamentalism — in all our faith traditions — is both volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it becomes hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.

Love Casts Out Fear

Sunday School image,  joyart /

Sunday School image, joyart /

A couple of years ago, I remember speaking to a middle-schooler about his worries of the world. During our conversation, he told me one of his biggest fears centered around Muslims. When I asked why Muslims generated so much fear in him, he said they were scary and are out to hurt people.

"Look at 9/11," he said. "Terrorists may take over the U.S. and then the world."

Around the same time I heard similar concerns from a 10-year old in my Sunday School class who joked about the terrors of Islam and how Muslims were going to take over the world. Again, I asked him where he received these ideas, to which he responded, “from my church back in Southern California.” 

Both times, I had to remind my students that sometimes churches get it wrong. All people are created in the image of God. Every person is a child of God. God’s love brings understanding, reconciliation, and peace among one another. God’s love casts out all fear.

Christianity As Impurity Cult, or It's Okay to Leave

Host and chalice image, robodread /

Host and chalice image, robodread /

The Church is not a purity cult. We try to turn our institutions into purity cultus of behavior or belief all the time. We're really good at it. We've fought wars over our theologies wrapped in nationalism. We've crusaded from west to east all in the name of the purity of the Church. "Ex filio" was a war cry a thousand years ago.

Rachel Held Evans is right. Evangelicalism may very well be losing a generation and by extension, we all are. But then some of us have been losing parts of generations for a long time. Some of the Boomers walked never to return. More of Gen X did the same. Now the enormous generation of Millennials is having its say. Many are voting with their feet. They are tired of the culture wars. They are tired of the purity fights. Many people from various generations are. They are all voting with their feet. The same thing is happening in Catholicism though some are choosing to stay. If it weren't for the influx of Catholic immigrants to the US, we'd see the same statistical free fall in Catholicism that the mainline is experiencing.

John Schmalzbauer answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Missouri State University Sociologist John Schmalzbauer

Missouri State University Sociologist John Schmalzbauer

Every so often, evangelicals get the urge to ex-communicate. Feminists, open theists, and universalists have all drawn the ire of their co-religionists. In the absence of a central religious authority, such efforts are doomed to fail.

According to most scholars, evangelicalism is more of a network than a unified church. Magazines, publishing houses, colleges, and parachurch groups play a bigger role than ecclesial bodies. While condemned from many pulpits, the emerging church continues to publish with Zondervan and Baker. Owned by the same company as Zondervan and Fox News (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), HarperOne has provided a home for Rob Bell and his Love Wins.

Though it hasn’t been easy, Bell has remained a part of American evangelicalism.

Fried by their battles with fellow believers, some have decided to ex-communicate themselves. Even then it is hard to cut the tie. As in the case of cultural Catholicism, religious terminology may haunt a post-evangelical’s speech. Commenting on this phenomenon, Tony Jones wonders whether evangelicalism is the “new Jewish" — more cultural than confessional.