The Siren Call of Legalism

We’ll start with a bit of observational science. Not much. It will be important later.

Watch two vehicles heading the same direction on the interstate, but in different lanes. When one overtakes the over, they tend to get closer, each moving a few inches closer. This is thought to be caused by the change in air pressure between two moving objects. As two objects pass each other,  they create a lower pressure system between them than that which surrounds them and, thus, there is a slight pull that is generally unnoticed and easily corrected (in newer cars, electronic steering controlled by the car’s computer systems minimize, but can’t eliminate, this effect).

A much more dangerous narrowing of the gap takes place when two cars, heading opposite directions, pass each other. Once again, we often see a few inches of closure before the drivers subconsciously correct. This time, the low pressure system is not the main culprit. Rather, the fact is that we tend to move toward that which we are watching. Think of the pull you feel as you stand near a large drop-off. You feel it because you are looking at it and are aware of it. If you don’t take corrective action with your balance, you can go right over (and it is thought that that is exactly what happened to Jimi Heselden, the inventor of the Segway, who drove off a cliff into a river).

I thought about this effect as I considered how easily it is to fall into legalism whether one considers oneself on the philosophical/religious left, right, or center. It seems that ancient sailors are not the only ones who are in danger of hearing the call of the Sirens and steering their craft onto the rocks. For those without knowledge of ancient Greek literature (no shame in that!), the Sirens were a mythical female/bird hybrid that sang songs so mesmerizing and alluring that sailors could not help themselves. They followed the songs only to lose their ships and their lives on the rocks hidden under the surface. Another version of the Sirens said their songs were so peaceful and lovely, they put the sailors to sleep. Once they were sleeping, the Sirens would board the ship and kill the sailors. It was impossible to resist the songs so Homer had Odysseus order his men to plug their ears and tie him to a mast so that he could hear them without following them to his doom.

Let’s move from the Sirens to the Pharisees. If all you knew about the Pharisees came from the Gospels, you would most likely think of them as the bad guys of their day. In fact, they were the restorationists, very serious about living a righteous life that would please God and return His favor to His people. They were focused and intentional  about keeping the law — or The Law — that God gave them via Moses. Their first error was keeping the law while not allowing it to change their hearts. The second error was that they were not content with following God according to their tradition; they required that all others do exactly as they did. If they did not fall into line, Pharisees treated them as enemies, not brothers.

When people think of the term “legalist” they tend to think of people to their right but, the fact is, legalism shows up all over the spectrum. The right is easy to spot and pillory but when I lived in that world, I took it very seriously. How seriously? I can remember a year where I had laryngitis to the point where I had nothing but a tortured squeak when I would try to speak. Doctors told me not to even whisper so my vocal chords could heal. Yet, on Sunday, I would make myself squeak out at least a song or bits of songs because I was convinced that if I skipped one of the five acts of worship, God would not accept any of my worship. When we baptized someone and a tiny bit of them didn’t go under, we baptized them again for we truly believed that anything above the surface negated the baptism entirely. We believed this so strongly that young ministers were told how to make sure a woman’s hair was completely submerged (and this was in the 60s-70s when women’s hair could reach Crystal Gayle lengths). I can remember a song leader stopping a song because someone was tapping their foot and he could hear it. We were then given a 5 minute talk on why tapping your foot hard enough to be heard was adding an instrument to the music and, thus, sinful, negating our worship if we did not stop it. This happened more than once.

I could go on for pages and pages and so could many of you.. It is easy to laugh at this sort of legalism but, please, don’t. We didn’t think of ourselves as legalists; we thought of ourselves as rational people who wanted to please a mighty God. We thought we were making God happy and it upset us that others didn’t agree with us. In self defense, we developed a simple catechism. I can remember Bible classes where we asked “Why do the Baptists use instruments in church” and the answer was “Because they don’t believe the Bible.” Another child asked “Why do the Methodists sprinkle instead of immerse” and the answer was “because they don’t believe the Bible.” We had the same answer to questions about Catholics, Democrats (or Labour Party), etc. ad infinitum.

As I studied and prayed my way to a more grace and love based faith, it wasn’t long before I found another legalism out there that wanted to pull me in. It came from the left. I read blogs that said I had to divest myself of any form of patriotism. Pledge allegiance to the flag? Idolatry! Join the military? You are attacking the Prince of Peace!  I remember how I felt listening to a minister talk about a church in his community that actually honored a man who just retired from 30 years in the Army. The minister was appalled that anyone “who calls themselves a Christian” could join the military or honor those who did. This was a hard pill to swallow for a man — that would be me — whose family had a 300 year history of military service and whose son was a United States Marine. In the church that raised me from 0 to 30, patriotism was part of the faith. We didn’t have the flag on the stage and we didn’t sing patriotic songs like “God Bless America” in church but hippies and protestors were shunned and considered ungrateful sinners. But pendulums swing. That’s is what they do.

Now, I often find myself in circles where pacifism in one form or another is assumed. I am not a pacifist. When I’ve told some ministers — most of them under 40 — they assume I’m a warmonger who doesn’t believe the Sermon on the Mount. It seems that nuance — that one can be an anti-war pacifist, say — is lost in the rush to stake out the new minimums of the faith. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut in certain places and just not go to some events…just like I learned to be quiet and avoid some events when I was on the right.

Then came social media and virtue signaling. “Virtue signaling” is making sure that others know that you agree with their passion and their dislikes by chiming in on social media. It is supposed to prove you are righteous and demonstrate your acceptability in your group. It is one click above those horrid “If you love Jesus you have to click like on this meme” things that make most of us shake our heads and move on.

I have taken a lot of fire for not joining in the attacks waged by left and right. Just a couple weeks ago I was upbraided by a brother right after my sermon as the people sang the last song. He couldn’t wait for the song to end to tell me how wrong I was not to attack Trump and the right. He was and is very disappointed in me…but others have been very disappointed (vocally and in print) that I said nothing in support of Trump and the right and that I didn’t preach against Hillary. As the country grows more divided, the Siren call of left and right gets louder, each side insisting that you agree with them and attack the other.

Everything that we see or hear is an opportunity to divide. In a recent Super Bowl commercial, Ram Trucks paid $5 million to air an ad that consisted of Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes about the honor of serving others. Ram had received permission from the King estate to make the ad and the estate approved the final ad…but the internet went ballistic. Half seemed to love it and half hated it and both sides were appalled at the other. And each hardened their position on social media, almost insisting that if one wished to be a good person, they HAD to move to their side. That is legalistic thinking, if not legalism.

Those of us who lived through the 70s and 80s remember that a movement began in our church that had, I believe, the best of intentions but devolved into legalism. It was called Crossroads, the Boston Movement, or the International Churches of Christ. They said that our congregations were dead, lifeless, without passion and fervor, and no longer were interested in discipling the world, teaching all to follow Jesus. And they had a point. A great number of our churches had devolved to become franchise churches offering approved franchise goods and services to those who liked our franchise. If we captured a Baptist every now and then, all the better, but the main aim was keeping the franchise the way we got it and without upsetting the members who gathered expecting a franchise event.

I can remember going to several meetings where the leaders of this new movement spoke with our leaders. Every meeting I attended, I’m quite glad to say, were civil and informative. I left each of them believing that the Boston Movement folk had a lot of good things to say and that their take on the deadness of many of our churches was spot on. The problem was with how they reacted to that lack of life, discipline, and fervor in the local churches of Christ. They established leaders that maintained strict discipline over others, setting up “soul talks” to closely monitor each individual. Abuses occurred, as they always will when one person is put in an authoritative position over another. The ICC developed a reputation for legalism and disrupting churches, families and schools with the demands they placed on their members. It was a new legalism. (The ICC has gone through several times of fire and reformation since then and is a still evolving church. At present, it isn’t wise or fair to paint all of them with the same brush we used in 1980)

And that was the first time I heard about legalism…and it was from our leaders who aimed that word at their leaders. Once I heard the term and saw it applied, I knew it applied to us as well and that was an uncomfortable realization. It was from that time that I began watching for legalism in my own church and in the lives and churches around me.

This is not a call to go to the middle of the road. I would think we should know by now by observing possums and armadillos that the middle of the road is not always a safe place. But legalism is sneaky. Its mechanism is easy to understand. It works something like this…

Can we all agree that praying for 30min at some point in the day would be a good and beneficial thing for the individual, the church, and the Kingdom? Okay then…make it a rule. Make it a law that, to be spiritual and pleasing to God, you have to pray 30min a day. Wow. That went sideways quickly.

Legalism is sneaky. It still gets me from time to time. And, speaking for those, like myself, who have fallen into legalism more than once, allow me to say that we are generally the last to notice where we are.

You see, each car that passes wants to suck you in. It is easier to go with the flow as there is less pressure if you do…but you will crash and die. It is better to focus on your own life and behavior, allowing your positions to change as led by the Holy Spirit than it is to decide you have found IT and you need to call others to IT, attacking them when their IT differs. When an attractive group sings a song that appeals to you, it is easy to join in and head that direction without thinking of the rocks that might lie under the surface.

At the risk of further alienating readers, allow me to say that this is another reason that I enjoy reading ancient creeds. Those that have survived and stayed popular — such as the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed — lay out a very simple faith, free of the barnacles that have attached themselves to our ship of faith over the centuries. They are a reset button, a wake up call that reminds us that not all of our thoughts, opinions, and positions are ancient and we might need to be more gracious about the way we hold them.

So You Want to Be a Minister?

I am not sure how it all came about, but I have become somewhat of an Ann Landers or Agony Aunt (Google it, kids) to quite a few ministers. Most of them are young but a few, like myself, are nearing their dotage. At the same time, I am getting more and more emails from young men and women who want to be ministers and spend their life in service to the Lord. The latter group is asking for advice in how to prepare to live out their calling. So here it is.

One of my first pieces of advice is to get a trade, skill or profession in addition to their ministry degrees. If all you can do is preach, you might find yourself being held hostage to a paycheck. In my religious tribe, we are facing an incredible shortage of preachers, but it isn’t because we have no one who wants to serve. I’m convinced that many would love to serve, but, the way we have organized our churches over the years makes the profession of ministry a very tenuous and fragile thing. That poison pill has finally worked its way into our bloodstream and churches are closing left and right. Dr. Trace Hebert of Lipscomb University has tracked this and found 1034 congregations of the mainstream Church of Christ that have shut their doors since 2000 and the downward slide seems to be picking up speed. Any survey of “minister wanted” ads on a variety of websites and in publications such as The Christian Chronicle reveals that the majority are small congregations where the pay is going to be low (or where you have to bring some support with you) and the resources very lean. Many of them are dominated by a family group or one or two elders who maintain tight control over the aging congregation. You can spot those by ads that say they want a “sound” preacher or one from “our brotherhood preaching schools.”

Young and well-educated ministers don’t answer those ads unless they have nowhere else to go. Once there, they find themselves frustrated by rules laid down and enforced by people who have never built up a church, never gained a degree in Bible or ministry, and who have no idea how to do the job of a minister. And if the minister has a belief that is not shared by those in power? Or if the minister does not believe something that is considered a necessary belief by those in power? He is stuck (I would say he or she is stuck but the fact is that none of those placing these ads would welcome an application from a woman). He has to choose between his integrity and a paycheck. If he has school debt, a wife, children, or needs healthcare this becomes a truly devastating, soul destroying crisis.

The larger churches in our tribe treat their ministers with great respect, pay them well, listen to them, and treat them as equals with the shepherds, not as temporary, easy to change hirelings. That is one reason they are growing and doing so much good in the Kingdom. Of course, the rejoinder from those smaller congregations to the prospering congregations is “they must not be sound.”

So, I warn those entering the ministry: It isn’t just that you might live a muzzled, frustrated life if you have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do; it is also a fact that, in almost any other job, you can go through personal crises and still have a job. But if you or your wife or child suffer from depression or anxiety disorders, it is unlikely that most churches will put up with that for long and out you go. It is unfair, unkind and unchristian but it the way it is. If your marriage is rocky or, worse, ending, you can be out of a job the same week your marriage ends. With low pay, you likely have almost no savings to live off of and any severance pay you get won’t last long. No wonder I find so many former ministers working in other fields now.

It sounds like I am discouraging anyone from entering the ministry but what I am trying to do is make sure they walk in with eyes wide open and prepared to survive the capricious and thoughtless ways of some elders and church committees.

Have another skill. Be a nurse, a plumber, an electrician, long haul semi driver, accountant…whatever your gifts and interests lead you to. Avoid getting a teaching degree as your fall back because I know dozens of ministers who tried to stay in their town after getting forced out of the pulpit only to find that they weren’t hiring teachers in their locale. And if they were, the pay was abysmal.

So many ministers – men and women of all ages – tell me in person, on the phone or in email that they wish they could say what I say and do what I do. They are not saying that they agree with me about everything or that I am their hero (lots of better ones out there, people). What they are saying is that they sense a freedom in me and a lack of fear that they wish they could share. How did I get here? I have kept other jobs going the entire time I’ve been in ministry. It took years to set up, but I can go to work at a university, or I can go on the lecture circuit for schools, hospitals, companies, military groups and law enforcement. I can play instruments behind singers and maybe even harmonize with them. I can work in therapy and counseling and more than a few have suggested I do stand-up comedy (not at all sure about that one). The point is, I have kept those exit ramps active and polished. That gives me freedom to speak and teach and grow and change my mind and… you get the idea.

You have heard people say that if they could live their life over, they wouldn’t change a thing. I call those people Slow Learners. I would change almost everything except Jesus and Miss Kami. One thing I got right entirely by accident was loading up my resume and skill set with non-ministerial jobs. That way, when someone “writes me up” or a congregation that invited me to come speak dis-invites me and I have to wave bye-bye to a nice check, I am okay. I might be sad and a bit poorer, but I will be fine. As the great philosopher, Gloria Gaynor, said, “I will survive.”

I want all ministers to have that freedom. In our church system, they do not at present. I could go on and on about the flaws and errors in our present system but going into ministry is rather like going to war. Military leaders know that you do not go to war with the resources you want; you go to war with the resources you have. And we enter ministry not with the system and resources and world we want, but with those we’ve got.

Be real. Be ready. Be prepared. And then, be fearless.

Where is the Danger?

“Distant Voices” is a wonderful book written by one of the top scholars in the Stone-Campbell Movement, Leonard Allen, now at Lipscomb University. It was published quite a few years ago and remains in print. He documents how diverse our church was before the Civil War and the creation of “brotherhood papers” hardened hearts and split us again and again.

I was thinking about that again this week as I puzzled over something that has happened again…for the umpteenth time. Before I describe it, please understand that this is not a backhanded attack or passive aggressive whine: I am genuinely puzzled about something.

I and my congregation were described, but not named, in a few Facebook posts. The posts were not flattering. I was sarcastically called “one of those giants among us” who tell us we’ve all got it wrong.

Me? A giant? I’ve seen my name listed along names that I DO consider giants of faith but I don’t belong there. Let’s review: I am just Patrick. I am Bill and Catherine’s son. I have no degrees in Bible or Preaching or Theology. I am working out my own salvation with fear and trembling, as Paul told the Philippians to do. I am as fault-ridden and error prone as anyone you will ever meet. I am so sinful that it took a supernatural act to save me and I am not nearly as holy as I want to be. I often state, in public, on the record, that I’m quite disappointed at how little progress I’ve made over the years in that area.

I’ve done a lot of speaking at churches over the years but I never went to a church that didn’t first ask me to come. They often had to ask a few times because I’m rather infamous for being an introvert who needs a lot of alone time to function in public for brief periods of time. The leaders who ask me to come to their churches or youth events almost always assign me a topic and scriptures to use and then set parameters on me regarding time allowed and the temperament of the congregation. I must be good at staying in my lane because I usually go back to the same places over and over.

I have never monetized my lessons, selling them or selling books to try to “get my message out there.” My lessons are all over the internet because others record them and post them. I don’t. I have never made a penny off of them nor have I tried to sneak them into the homes of people who don’t want them. I have a YouTube channel but it only consists of my amateurish guitar work.

So…how am I trying to change their churches and why do they feel I’m a danger to them? Seriously – that baffles me. I know of a great many preachers who don’t believe what I believe and who preach their heartfelt and sincerely held beliefs with incredible skill. I don’t mind. They don’t bother me. So why does the very fact that I exist and that I teach what I believe pose a threat to them? (This is a very broad brush. The fact is that only a very tiny percentage of ministers who disagree with me react this way. However…they make loud noises online and in print)

If I may be forgiven for doing so, I would like to suggest that this response to speech you don’t care for mirrors that of Antifa protestors who scream in the streets and shout down any who dare disagree with them. It seems to be the same as those students who won’t allow a speaker at a university if they might be triggered or frightened or told they are wrong. True – those who’ve named me as a danger to their churches haven’t burned down any buildings or thrown rocks like the Antifa crowd but they have certainly done so metaphorically, trying to burn down my reputation and those of others who might agree with me on a point or two. And rocks? I’ve had a lot of those across the threshold as well – metaphorically.

A couple churches that asked me to come speak to them told me that they hired security after getting vicious emails from other local congregations. I do not know what the content of those emails was but it was enough for the shepherds to take precautions. That seems so anti-Christ in spirit and tone. Again, if I was coming to force my way into their churches, that would be one thing. But going to a church that knows me and wants to hear from me on a certain subject threatens you and your people how, exactly? Why must those who disagree with you be shamed and silenced? Do such tactics mirror Matthew 5-7, Romans 14-15, and Acts 15 or the marchers of Antifa and the screaming mobs on some campuses?

When I look at Acts 15 where two groups of Christians met with a serious disagreement, I can’t help but note that none were “named and shamed” but, rather, the wisdom of the elders and the Spirit (“it seemed wise to the Spirit and to us”) led them to not even address the issue brought to them in their letter back to the churches. They didn’t want to “make it harder than it has to be” and told everyone to, basically, stay sexually pure and not act like pagans. They allowed each group to be who they were where they are.

I’m at Fourth Avenue in Franklin, TN. I love this church and they love me. I can’t see how anything we do here is a threat to anyone else. We aren’t trying to change anyone. If their church members are listening online they are doing so because they chose to do so. They were not pressured and we don’t advertise the posts as “must listen!” Is the very possibility that some of their local members might be listening and might decide to agree with us the reason for those Open Letters sent out by their leaders? Paul said he didn’t care who preached or why they preached as long as they were speaking about Jesus – even if someone was preaching for the express purpose of making Paul’s life harder (Philippians 1). So why are these posts so dangerous that some leaders feel required to leap to their keyboards or, as happened in two cases over the last few years, randomly write letters of attack to our elders and members?

I see no scripture allowing that. Yes, some apostles were led by the Holy Spirit to correct this or that but surely none of these Keyboard Kommandoes consider themselves apostles inspired to write by the Spirit…right?

Jesus said that we were allowed to point out the faults of others only if and when we were faultless (Matthew 7:1-5). I find no way around that. I do not believe that I have ever named those who’ve attacked me or the churches I’ve served over the years. If I have, I was wrong and beg their forgiveness.

I’m just Patrick. I’m trying to follow the steps of Jesus the best I know how. Surely that is not a danger to anyone else. But, if it is, is that due to a fault in my teaching or a fault in their heart?


The Genetic Flaw That is Killing My People

I’m no geneticist but I’ve worked enough with DNA to know about genetic flaws and how some of them are ticking time bombs just waiting to take down an otherwise healthy individual. While Alzheimer’s has multiple causes, Early Onset Alzheimer’s has one: a gene that is dormant until, suddenly, when its host is between the ages of 40-55, a fast paced version of the disease overtakes them. In 3-5yrs they will be dead. The only reason this gene still exists is that it does not strike until the prime reproductive years of its host have passed. In other words, they’ve had their children — half of whom will carry the gene — before it makes its move.

My people, the church I love, have a genetic flaw that kills, not at birth, but later on once a congregation has been established. Some fault for this flaw’s inclusion in our DNA has to come from my tribe’s founders, a crew of mainly Scots and Scots-Irish who brought their cultural assumptions with them to America. In Scotland, the elders of the kirk (church) march solemnly into St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh every year for the Kirk Session. Inside, cloistered from all others, they make the decisions that will rule the Church of Scotland for the next year. While there were a variety of ideas about the office of shepherd — or elder — among the early leaders in the Stone Campbell Movement, the “ruling board” mentality won out. And it is a genetic flaw that waits until the absolute worst time to shut down growth, freedom, and the lives and fortunes of its ministers.

I’ve had three friends fired in the last 16 days. None were given a cause. For two of them, it came out of the blue. They entered a meeting believing all was well. They ended it with a letter, a stern warning not to discuss anything with anybody, a bit of blackmail…and facing the task of telling their family they were going to have to move…somewhere. I used the word “blackmail” because I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in many of these firings over the last few years. It is almost as if our genetic flaw is mutating and becoming even worse. A clause is inserted into the notice of termination: insurance coverage and salary will continue for a period of time but only if the fired minister never tells any member anything about their firing, problems with elders, etc. They are to go mute or, worse, lie and say they had decided to resign and move on (I’ve seen this order to lie in three letters over the last year). If they don’t comply, well, their family will not eat and their insurance coverage will disappear. And this is Christian? This comes from leaders of Christians?

Our genetic flaw elevates men of business or those who’ve had success in other secular realms and then appoints them rulers over the spiritual lives of a church. It also gives them power over the minister and the direction of the church. This power deferential is real and has to be acknowledged. A dear man of God and a friend of mine named Gary was once my shepherd. He made the comment that the elders and the ministers were friends. I replied, “We are friends, but there is something always hovering over that friendship. One of these friends can fire the other. But the other friend has no ability to respond in kind.” Adding to this tense and awkward situation is: those with the least theological education and with the least experience in building and leading churches have absolute power over the one with the most education and experience in the room.

I’ve heard for 30yrs that our church has a serious preacher shortage. We tried plugging that hole with schools of preaching but most of those (and the quality and philosophy of these varied widely) have closed and most of their graduates are not in the ministry today. Look at online and print ads for ministers and you find that most churches are small, ruled by elders, and unable to pay a decent wage, especially to a man who has a young family and who has invested years and a lot of money getting a theological education. Most of the ads are looking for a franchise preacher who will preach the franchise doctrine to please those who like the franchise. The code word for that kind of man is “sound.” By “sound” they mean “traditional, controllable, and who will never rock the boat or have an original thought.” And with the rapid firing of so many ministers comes the loss of those men to ministry. They and their families have had enough. They quit our church or they quit ministry. Most often, they quit both.

I spent a good deal of the last 20yrs flying all over the country working with elder/shepherd groups that asked me to come help their church reboot, find and verbalize a vision, or otherwise change their congregation’s trajectory. Looking back, most of those churches made some improvement. Some didn’t. More than one invited me in, paid me well, and had me at their table only so they could push back, ignore what I suggested, and, by so doing, justify inaction while saying they had tried. This left men who were poor leaders in their positions of power, unthreatened and (functionally) unopposed. They were like a married person who agrees to counseling so that they can claim they tried (and “prove” that counseling didn’t work).

I have tried to go through my memory and emails to count but I was unable to nail down my numbers. My best guess is that I have seen 18 good men fired in the last 12 months. I know of more than twice that number of minister/friends who are trapped in churches where the elders constantly criticize them and play control games with them and each other. Those men are hostages to a paycheck, unable to quit while dying on the inside. And I know four good men — GOOD men — who cannot find a pulpit because they are thinkers and doers and elders are afraid of them (I honestly cannot think of any other reason they have not been chosen for a pulpit).

This has got to stop. There is a grand total of one elders’ meeting in scripture…and I am being generous in calling it an elders’ meeting. It is in Acts 15 and the leaders said it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and them not to make things harder than they had to be. They never addressed the quarrel brought to them in their letter. Instead, they told both groups to stay pure and not act like pagans. They didn’t demand obedience or uniformity. And while we are counting, there is a grand total of one line of instruction on how to pick and place men into the position of elder: the minister (Titus) was told to pick and place them. How many “we do things the Bible way” churches do you know of that follow that particular example?

We are not perfect at Fourth Avenue (for I am here and that makes it de facto an imperfect church) but we have a better shepherd/minister relationship than most. They ask me what the Bible says about things and invite me to teach them. I acknowledge their superior skills in pastoral care and prayer (no false humility here — they are miles better than me). They are shepherds full of love and sacrifice. I am a pastor who is half gunfighter. We get along famously because we respect each other’s gifts and do not consider our own to be superior to those of the others.

It’s almost as if we had decided to let love be our law, Jesus our Lord, and answering his prayer for unity our goal. It is almost as if we considered this congregation to be the family of God and we were determined to treat each person accordingly…including me, the minister. “Behold how good and pleasant it is…” indeed.