Just a note: this post really needs some editing, but I’m doing a 30-day challenge of writing without editing. Sorry.
One of the things I’m noticing about people who work in churches is that they’re a lot more concerned about pleasing others than most folks – or at least pleasing those with the loudest voices. And I get it. I’m struggling with it myself. While I’ve always been someone who has wanted others to like me, there’s nothing quite like working in a local church. There are judgmental people everywhere, but perhaps nowhere as much as a religious institution.
In business, you’re constantly trying to impress people – customers, coworkers, the public, etc. But in a church, it’s different. Instead of people simply judging you based on your work, you’ve got people who are judging you to a whole ‘nother depth. Criticisms now take on a divine stamp. “I don’t like what you did there” becomes “God doesn’t like what you did there.”
And we go along with it. We tell ourselves, “Well, I don’t want to offend so-and-so.” It doesn’t matter that they’re wrong. It’s our duty, we believe, to capitulate. We make every concession to avoid potentially offending someone until we’re paralyzed and unable to do what we believe God is calling us to do. We become trapped by the legalism of a few people.
And, like I said, I get it. But I’m struggling with this. By such a standard, we would stand against Jesus himself.
In the temple [Jesus] found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.John 2:14-15
Clearly Jesus wasn’t concerned with appeasing the money-changers and pigeon-salesmen of his time. And, of course, we could cite passage after passage where Jesus straight-up called out and challenged the Pharisees. He didn’t care that they thought he shouldn’t pick grain or heal someone on the Sabbath. He didn’t care that they thought he was a glutton and drunk (apparently he had a reputation for eating well and enjoying wine). He was consumed by One Will, not the will of the masses.
But obviously I’m not advocating that we don’t care about people. I think there’s a difference between caring for people and caring about what they think.
Paul actually had a lot to say about this, and perhaps he says it best in Romans 14. I’m not gonna quote the whole thing, but a couple of parts are worth including here.
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.Romans 14:14
And later, he writes:
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean…. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.Romans 14:13-14
While we could spend a lot of time reflecting on these passages, I just want to point out a few things.
1. There’s a difference between weakness and legalism.
As Paul goes on to say in Romans 15:1, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” When Paul writes this, we’ve got to remember that this is written by the guy who rebuked Peter for not associating with the Gentiles. This is the guy who didn’t mince words with the Corinthians or Galatians. Paul was as hard on the Judaizers as he was on any sinner. When Paul says to “bear with the failings of the weak,” he’s not talking about capitulating to other people’s desires or theology.
The difference between weakness and legalism is a matter of conscience. For Paul, there’s no excuse for leading someone to stumble – that is, leading someone to act against their conscience. In fact, Jesus said something quite similar. It’d be better for you to have a heavy stone tied around your neck and be tossed into the sea than to lead someone into acting against what they believe.
But legalism is different. Legalism is less about conscience and more about control. The weak person is ready to follow anyone, whether into righteousness or into sin. The legalistic person is unwilling to follow anyone, whether into sin or into righteousness. Legalism is just one way we try to control others, and sometimes to control God.
2. We’ve got to resist legalism, seriously.
In general, I don’t like to fight. Although I can sometimes be a bit argumentative, I really hate making someone feel bad or upset. So I try to avoid confronting people unless absolutely necessary. But legalism can’t be avoided. When legalism sneaks into community, it destroys people, and it hinders the community from stepping into God’s freedom. Look how Paul speaks to the Galatians:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?Galatians 3:1a
Or consider what Jesus says to the Pharisees:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.Matthew 23:13
We shouldn’t doubt for a minute that we must resist legalism, even if it means making a few people upset.
3. Then, and only then, can we truly be sensitive to those who are weak.
Sometimes in church I come across a new follower of Jesus who hasn’t quite learned how to fit in with the church culture. They look different, talk different, and act different. They’re not doing anything wrong; they’re just different. But the religious folks in church don’t like them because they don’t follow their rules. The religious folks aren’t mean; they’re just exclusive. They think ushers should wear suits, musicians should play organs, choirs should sing hymns, pastors should exposit, attendees should tithe, and so on.
Now contrast these religious folks with “weak” folks. These are people who sometimes struggle to stay sober. Unlike the legalists, they’re not telling other people they can’t drink. The danger isn’t in upsetting them; it’s in leading them to sin – to act against their conscience. They don’t think they should drink, but you’re enjoying your wine and your liberty in front of them.
When Paul speaks of bearing with those who are weak, I think he’s talking about those kinds of folks – not the opinionated masses who prefer a specific flavor of religion. It’s the weak – not the legalists – who we need to bear with. It’s difficult because it means giving up our liberties for their good, but we do it because Christ himself did it. So Paul writes:
Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”Romans 15:2-3
Finally, I’m reminded of a quote from Martin Luther, who wrote about much of this in On Christian Liberty:
Therefore fight strenuously against the wolves, but for the sheep and not also against the sheep.Martin Luther