The misunderstanding of Faith has spawned two types of Christians I call the “Legalist” and the “Liberal”. They exist across many denominations. When in groups I label them: “the Legalistic or the Liberal Church”; collectively, I call them the “Institutional Church”. Both Christians have a common belief about Jesus:
Jesus is the Son of God, a third of the Trinity, came in the flesh, born of a virgin named Mary, lived a human life, was 100% God and man; he was sinless, performed miracles, died on the cross, came back to life, seen by many, ascended to Heaven, Jesus is Lord. Jesus died for the sins of the world; anyone who puts their faith in Him is saved from the penalty of sin, is made into a new creature, reconciled to the Father, grafted into the Kingdom of God and made righteous. All those who believe in Jesus, are called believers, and believers will go to heaven. All those who don’t believe in Jesus will perish in Hell.
This is about the gist of it. You’ll hear the above among the majority of Christian denominations. If you hear something contrary, I wouldn’t call it a Christian denomination. Even though most Christian denominations have these beliefs in common, what they understand Faith in Jesus to mean is different.
The following content in this chapter notes what I have observed while conversing, attending church and living with these kinds of Christians. Their understanding of Faith in Jesus affects their character and lifestyle. I believe that most Christians fit into either category. I would like to confess, up front, that I have been both. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the fruit of their understanding of Faith in Jesus.
The Legalist believes that Faith in Jesus requires additional “works”, and these works usually involve things that go on within the church building they attend throughout the week. They believe sin can cause a person to “lose their salvation” and go to Hell, so they preach heavily against it.
They believe a Christian must endure to the end in order to make it to Heaven. Some even believe that their works save them. A Legalist once told me, “I show my faith by my works”. This sounds like James of the Bible, but a close examination of their works reveals something else. According to Legalists, here are a few works that label a person “A faithful Christian”:
- Regular church attendance
- Involvement in any activity labeled a ministry & regularly serving in that position
- Attending church appropriately dressed in “church” attire
- Tithing regularly, specifically in increasing amounts
- Public outward shows of “spirituality”: crying, fainting, speaking in tongues
- Abstaining from big sins (I’ll explain shortly)
- Adhering to any other rules created by their religious leaders
To some Legalists, church activity has become a culture in itself. The Legalist is a very busy individual; always keeping-up with their religious duties and daily rituals. They take pride in their work and it gives them a sense of self-worth. Because good works are important and sin is detrimental, these people tend to come off as arrogant; they begin to think that they are better than others based off their works and self-discipline from certain sins.
They can’t help but boast about how awesome a person they are. They resemble the Pharisees of the past. They use ministry titles to elevate themselves like: Apostle, Reverend, Minister, Bishop, etc. They brag about their service to God. When they give, fast, or pray, they sound a trumpet to make sure everyone knows about it. A dress code is standard in most Legalistic Churches, and sometimes, Sunday becomes a fashion show.
The religious leaders preach against, which are considered, big sins like:
- drug abuse
- physical abuse
Yet, they minimize and excuse other sins like:
- spiritual & verbal abuse
- pride & arrogance
- envy & covetousness
- selfish ambition
They also place their personal convictions on others and make them law. Once, a Legalist told me it was a sin to “drink”; but that’s not true. The Bible says: it’s a sin to be a drunkard; but because God told him to stay away from alcoholic beverages, he thinks this applies to everyone. I was also told it was a sin for a man to have long hair or a beard. Legalists have come-up with so many ridiculous rules I won’t even begin to list them.
Legalists make sure to keep their sins well-hidden, for fear of disdain, ridicule and condemnation from others. People “in sin” are looked at as weak, and weakness is despised. If discovered in sin, your brothers and sisters will gossip about you, shun, mock, patronize, and treat you like a sick AIDS patient. The knowledge of other people’s sin makes Legalists feel better about their own concealed sins; and it feeds their self-righteousness. Even if you testify about being free from drug addition, pornography, prostitution or sins they consider “big”, you will likely still be looked upon with disgust or mocked, even though you no longer are that person.
Therefore a Legalist has to be near perfect in the sight of others; without a spot. As they hide behind their facades and scoff at others, they forget the “horrible mess” they used to be (and in some cases still are) as they parade down the aisles in vibrant-colored suits and dresses. They love to talk about the errors in the lifestyles of others while overlooking the issues within their own congregation.
Depression and burnout are common among those who are over-worked by the church or living in sin, but they can’t tell anybody for fear of what people will say; so they suffer in silence and their sins get worse. The arrogant and boastful take satisfaction in their self-discipline over big sins apart from the power of the Holy Spirit; and all the while, they pat themselves on the back and say, “God is pleased with me”.
Most Liberals come from the background of the old Legalistic Church. A Liberal is the opposite of the Legalist. In fact, Liberals pride themselves on not being anything like their forefathers; “with all their works and rules.” The Liberal has been liberated from the legalism of old and into the reformed ways of Christianity.
Their understanding of Faith in Jesus is the simple belief in Jesus: mental acknowledgment of who Jesus is and what he did on the cross; and believing that he is the only one who can save them. Once a person makes a confession such as this, the person is “saved”. Their understanding of saved usually means: saved from the punishment of Hell. They get their understanding from scriptures like John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8-9.
Liberals also teach that no other work is required because, “It’s not by works, but by faith we are saved…” And no work of iniquity (which is sin) will lead to the loss of their salvation because “salvation is a free gift we cannot earn, nor can it be taken away.” Once a person has faith, the believer is eternally secure, they can never fall away, and they are guaranteed a ticket into Heaven no matter what. They call this doctrine: “eternal security” or Once Saved Always Saved (OSAS); and it is adamantly preached with scriptures to support this belief; and to refute anyone who claims the opposite. This is the biggest and most contrary belief to their legalistic forefathers. Because of the OSAS doctrine, Hell is a taboo subject. They believe it doesn’t apply to them; neither does demonic oppression because they’ve been freed from such things and are “covered” in Christ.
Because their forefathers were so judgmental and condemning when it came to the topic of sin, the Liberals have taken an opposite approach. Whenever someone is caught in sin or is known to be living in sin, the Liberal Church is often told not to condemn them (which is great). Liberals always use the account of the woman caught in adultery and how the Pharisees treated her as opposed to Jesus.
In a Liberal Church, anyone found condemning someone is looked upon as a disappointment for being so “un-Jesus-like”. Most Liberals (that I know) have taken this rule a step further and confused “reproach” or “rebuke” with “passing judgment” and condemning someone to Hell. So now, a fellow Christian cannot even make a judgment call, or rebuke another’s sinful actions without being labeled “an unloving, condemning Pharisee”. But condemnation and rebuke are two totally different things.
Rebuke is something done very infrequently in Liberal Churches. It’s often viewed as cruel and uncomfortable and Liberals don’t want to resemble anything of their forefathers. Religious leaders seldom preach on repentance, and wickedness is usually swept under the rug. It is often decided that “the person will grow out of that sin… we’re all on a journey”, is what you’ll hear. Religious leaders who’ve “fallen” are rarely brought publicly before the Body as instructed by the Word (1 Tim 5:19-20). When discovered in terrible offenses, in which they’ve damaged others, the “wolf” is usually quietly excused, their title removed, or simply transferred to another church.
The Liberal’s cautiousness when dealing with sin in their churches is called “love”. “We don’t want to be like the unloving Legalists of old… God will deal with them, you just mind your own business… don’t confront my sin and I won’t confront yours”, is what I hear. Sin is in the open, everyone knows it, but they won’t address it, instead, they gossip about it.
Because of the Liberal’s approach to sin and their doctrine of Eternal Security (no matter how much a Believer commits sin, they can’t go to Hell), sin is ramped. I have never heard a Liberal leader preach that sin is OK, but based off their teachings, it is implied. “Even if God doesn’t like it, He still will accept the Christian who continues in wickedness because that person ‘believed in Jesus’; therefore that person is eternally secure”.
The majority of the Liberals I know do not say that Eternal Security gives them a license to sin, but it did give them something else: a security net. It let them know that in the event that the Christian Race got too tough; they could take a breather, sit on the sidelines for as long as they wanted and rest comfortably. They’re safe, no matter what, there is no danger in complacency, and they can never fall away and die. So backsliders are often viewed as people “out of fellowship” or “out of agreement with God”, this is all they are, “they too will go to Heaven”.
Liberals treat God like the gym. It’s good to go and get muscular and fit, but it’s not required. The average American doesn’t look at the gym as a requirement for life. Likewise with Liberals and God: it’s fun to “get spiritual” at times, to draw near to God when in trouble, but it isn’t required; it isn’t necessary; they’re still going to Heaven regardless of the condition of their lifestyle.
Because Liberals have been liberated from the old ways, Liberals often come off as selfish. In my experience, Liberals look no different from the world other than their weekly church attendance. Another thing to mention: you cannot tell a Liberal that they are wrong or they will detest you for it. Why should they allow themselves to be corrected? They’re doctrine of OSAS seems to protect them from eternal consequence and even guilt. So when you see a Liberal, you often see a person who’s comfortable in sin, doing whatever they want no matter how it affects God or the neighbors they claim to love.
In turn, it is very difficult to get any favorable results from the instruction Jesus gave to Christians who’ve been offended by other Christians in Matthew 18:15. The majority of the brethren aren’t striving to be Holy in the first place, nor are they trying to “right wrongs” and take responsibility for the wounds they’ve carelessly inflicted on others. At most, they’ll try to avoid responsibility and will surely detest you for even calling a meeting such as Jesus instructed. Finding a godly “third-party referee” to manage the situation will be tough too because of the beliefs and attitude of the average Liberal leader. So don’t be surprised if you’re not treated with fairness. And if the Bible is even opened, you may be amazed to see it twisted before your very eyes.
Liberals “dress down”, (there isn’t a dress code like the Legalists command) their motto is: “Come as you are”. This often becomes a problem when women decide to come in what they wore on Saturday night; what a stumbling block for some of the men. Fornication is a big issue in the Liberal Church just like their forefathers, except it isn’t hidden, you will always find at least one couple “living together” or know of some engaging in premarital sex – many will admit it and some will even justify it. You can even listen in as they discuss what they did on Saturday night on Sunday morning at church. Pornography is the underground sin that nobody talks about but many men engage in, as I did, ashamed, but keeping it to myself until I decided to stop rebelling against God (oops, maybe I shouldn’t have revealed that, now the Legalists will talk about me).
In the Liberal Church a man can become a self-made leader (claiming he heard from God) and start ministries that seem more like entrepreneurial ventures. Some of these ministries abuse the people’s tithes and government grants to serve their selfish ambitions.
Many of the works that their predecessors deemed a person “Faithful Christian”, Liberals have also adopted, but without the standard that you have to do them to be saved. But anyone not following this unwritten rule may still be regarded as lazy, though they would never tell you to your face. Works continue to burn out and bring depression to those who think they serve God by serving their pastor, the facility and the many external ministries. Their religious leaders rule over them with insensitivity and tyranny; “who cares if you’re spiritually empty, you need to sacrifice for the Lord”, is what I heard implied in not so many words but on so many occasions. The workers are angry, malnourished and frustrated but don’t know why, yet they press on, or are pressured to keep working. And all the while, the Liberals pat themselves on the back and say, “God is pleased with me.”
First off, what I’ve witnessed in the Body has been depressing and frustrating; it’s repugnant! The Liberal and the Legalist will admit that there are huge problems in the Body, but they go right back to church on Sunday and do it all over again. They deny and justify sin, minimize the problem and shift the blame. What I hate about both groups is their two-faced character, their uncanny ability for flattery and platitudes. Have you every had someone tell you, “I’m praying for you” when you knew they weren’t?
I do admire qualities among both Christians though. For one, I admire the Legalist’s stand against sin and their pursuit of holiness, aside from the fact that they minimize some sins, condemn the flock, and think holiness is tied to their works. I like the fact that Legalists are more open to the gifts of the Spirit and the manifestation of his work, rather than minimizing these fundamental tools like the majority of Liberal denominations. I like the fact that Legalists abide by some set of rules, and I hate the fact that you can’t really hold a Liberal accountable without being despised and labeled a Pharisee.
I like the Liberals because they are liberal. It feels good not to have to wear a suit every Sunday and be under such dumb, unbiblical rules. Their liberation allows them to think outside the box and actually get involved in doing good work for their community. This allows the gospel to reach people outside the four walls of the church; but to bring someone from the world into an institution that is as crooked as Hollywood and Corporate America really angers me.
Both Churches are structured like corporations and market their “customers” the same way. Large community events, awesome light shows, entertaining praise music, in-house coffee bars and seeker-friendly messages are the icons of the Institutional Church today. The majority of new, emerging, Liberal churches claim to bring the solution to the problems in the Body by saying, “we’re different”, but they’ve been saying that ever since they emerged from their legalistic forefathers; and nothing has really changed for the good.
While both Christians seem opposite, they really are not. They both want you to become a member of their church and never, ever leave. Legalism is a part of both their lives, in some degree. They judge each other by their “spiritual performance” and look to receive rewards based on these performances. One of the purposes of the Body is to assist in the development of the saint, but these Christians aren’t really growing; they are simply occupied with more activities within their church. Their character doesn’t change, neither does their lifestyle. The many works they perform are simply a facade that fools them and others like them into believing that they are “faithful”.
The Institutional Church uses manipulation and intimidation for the purpose of domination. You can either be the oppressed worker or the oppressive leader, or something in-between, it doesn’t matter, you’ll end up as empty and delusional as the majority. In general, these Christians have three things in common: a misunderstanding of Faith, sinfulness and one really angry God.
After reading this chapter you may think of me as a mean-spirited, Christian-basher, but I am not; this is the just the bold and honest truth of an ongoing look at today’s Christianity. The sad thing about the average Christian’s response to this is: they don’t think it’s that serious. When I look at Christendom today, I don’t even want to call myself a Christian. Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians, your Christians are so unlike your Christ”. Perhaps, in order for the Body to be like Jesus we must understand what it means to have Faith in him.