Change in Church and the “Religious People” Bogeyman

Demonizing opponents is (unfortunately) a common practice in churches where the leadership is making sweeping changes that are opposed by some in the congregation. Those who oppose the changes, the pastor tells the congregation, are just like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day who replaced God’s Word with their own traditions. They stand in the way of change and progress because they love their own comfort more than God’s glory. Jared Wilson calls this accusation of Pharisaism the invoking of the “religious person bogeyman.”

That is, when a pastor paints a vague picture of some unspecified group of people in the church who is against some unspecified change being made because they want to cling to some unspecified tradition, he is manipulating the congregation into siding against these unknown people (even though they don’t know why). In their natural desire to support and protect their pastor from criticism, undiscerning people may gullibly swallow whatever story they are being told. By using such tactics the pastor is practicing what Paul called cunning and underhanded tactics, in contrast to open statements of the truth (2 Cor. 4:2). Proverbs calls these tactics “devious” and likens such speech to crooked speech. Devious people do not fear God (14:2) and are an abomination to God (3:32).

Such a pastor creates in the undiscerning a disgust with and resistance to whatever tradition is being clung to by these unknown opponents of change. Because the tradition is not identified, congregants are not given the chance to judge whether or not the tradition is in conformity to Scripture and historic orthodoxy. They are not given the chance to be discerning like the Bereans who were praised for the refusal to simply accept what they were being told (Acts 17:11). The “religious person bogeyman,” in his opposition to proposed change, then, become an enemy to “progress,” even though no one can state exactly why. The effect is something akin to the “Two Minutes Hate” in George Orwell’s 1984.

Jared Wilson explains:

First of all, there are people in every church, no matter what kind of church it is, who struggle with the distinction between law and gospel, who struggle with the driving place of grace in their pursuit of holiness, so it won’t do to deny that legalism looms in our churches. Legalism lurks in every heart, actually, mine and yours. But this constant invoking of the judgmental “religious people” is very often a boogeyman. It’s an imagined threat, a scare tactic employed to both justify dumb exercises in license and arouse the self-satisfied mockery of self-identified “grace people.”

Wilson asks the question, “Why do pastors play the religious bogeyman card?” He proposes two possible answers:

We’re left with two options, really:

1. Pastors who invoke the “religious people” boogeyman are really just trying to offend people outside their church. This might be good for laughs and applause, good red meat for the congregation, good for camaraderie, but it is also profoundly stupid. If you make decisions at your church out of a desire to thumb your nose at people at other churches, you need to get a life.

2. Pastors who invoke the “religious people” boogeyman are really just bullying and dismissing sincere people in their churches who have concerns or questions about the goings-on. It’s a fantastic way to deflect all criticism, whether it’s legitimate or not. It’s a great way to insulate oneself from reflection and accountability by drowning it out with the fan club’s laughter and chest-thumping.

“Pharisee,” “legalist,” “religious person” is the church version of racist or Nazi. It is the rhetorical nuclear option specifically designed to shut up anyone with questions and paint them among their brothers and sisters as graceless jerks. But I think it actually works the other way around:

Employing the “religious people” boogeyman ironically indulges in what it professes to decry. It is a great way to pray along with the self-justified pharisee, “I thank you God that I’m not like those religious people.”

This is not an invective against change. Rather, it is a call to open statement of the truth and non-coercive arguments for new ideas. Pastor, if you want to bring change to your church, make a compelling argument. Don’t stoop to underhanded and devious ways by manipulating or coercing your church. If you have to manipulate your church through word games, ambiguity, coercion, and demonizing, then you have taught them to be gullible, easily led astray, and wide open to apostasy. If you can’t convince your church of a new idea through sound, biblical and compelling arguments, then maybe that religious person bogeyman is right.

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Nostalgia for the Past is Desertion from the Present Conflict

The task of theology in a decentered age is not easy, but theology never was. The crusader who nostalgically quests for the golden age of Christendom is in fact a deserter from the present conflict…

Perhaps all the challenges to contemporary theology derive, in part, from the anthropocentric turn. That turn has led to a dead end, the decentering and dissolution of the subject. Man was not created to be the center; he cannot like Atlas bear the weight of the world, nor can he fully convince himself that the world is not heavy. The way forward is, at the beginning, the way back. A radical return to theocentrism, a retrieval of our creedal heritage, and an emphasis on the community of saints concretely localized in the proclamation of Scripture and [the Lord’s Supper and baptism] may open a new global future for us.

Charlie Johnson, Sacred Page Blog

Christ to the Terrified and Smug

To those who are afraid and have already been terrified by the burden of their sins, Christ the saviour and the gift should be announced, not Christ the example and the lawgiver. But to those who are smug and stubborn the example of Christ should be set forth, lest they use the gospel as a pretext for the freedom of the flesh, and thus become smug.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 27, 35

The Revenge of Measuring Success by Results

I was sure that the long-standing practice by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike of judging success by numerical results had died a long overdue death in the 1990’s. My seminary education had instilled in me the commitment to judging my ministry as a pastor by the standard of whether it pleased God or not, that is, whether it was faithful to Scripture. Numbers mania had gone the way of the dodo by the late 1990’s.

Or so I thought. Pragmatism seems to have returned with a vengeance. In order to survive the ever-changing ministry environments of the past decade, many ministries seem to have made their peace with whatever changes of philosophy will keep their doors open.

To make matters worse, not many members seem to have noticed. Ministries that once prided themselves on their conscientious commitment to a thoroughly Scriptural philosophy and practice have overthrown all core values in a matter of a few years (or sooner). And those who challenge the turn to pragmatism find their protestations falling on deaf ears.

Carl Trueman, church history professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and ever keen cultural critic, writes about the turn to pragmatism he sees:

This all takes me back to a question I have raised before: in a world where success is the ultimate sacrament of absolution, who is there with the credibility to call the successful to account?  Not the man in the small church.  Suspicion that he is motivated by envy will always undermine his authority in such a context.  And, if we are honest, envy will likely always be a part of the motivation for such criticism. I preach total depravity, after all, and it is also the one example where I can honestly say I consistently practice what I preach.  What pastor of a church of fifty does not want to be pastor of a church of five hundred?  The church I serve has ca. 90 on a Sunday.  Yes, I would love a few hundred more.  If we ever got to four hundred, I hope we would plant a church, as long as I did not have to drink zinfandel and grow a soul patch.  But yes, I would be lying if I said I did not have a twinge of envy at those whose ministries are – well, you know, successful.  I guess that is the word.

So what about the successful?  Will they point out the problematic excesses of the self-promotional culture which seems to pervade much of the modern conservative evangelical church?  One can only hope so; but history gives little cause for optimism on that score.  Nobody wants to bash the successful, for our culture assumes that that would be to identify with failure and mediocrity.

The psychology of success is fascinating: those who are successful often start as well-intentioned people; but increasing success almost always seems to bring in its wake an increasingly relaxed attitude to the rules, a fuzzier conception of right and wrong and an odd sense of entitlement whereby the successful come to think that, for them, the normal criteria of behaviour do not apply.  This incremental exceptionalism is reinforced by the failure of those who should check them from actually doing so.  It is almost as if, for all of us, success (and in church we typically mean numerical size and growth) is the ultimate criterion of truth and that therefore as long as it seems to be working, as long as it is popular, it must be true.  You can ape the Hollywood aesthetic; you can be increasingly vague on the hard teachings; but as long as the machine keeps working as it should, everybody is happy — or at least comfortable in their silence.

… As long as you pull in the punters, especially the young ones, as long as your name on the conference flier helps to sell tickets, and as long as your preaching is popular with the rising generation, those with the standing to state the obvious and do something about the excesses will generally not do so for fear of spoiling something which seems to be working as it should.  Indeed, you will enjoy the benefits of a powerful and heady perfume which gives the successful a high and hides the hollow reality from outsiders: the sweet smell of success.  You just can’t beat it.

And when it all blows up, you can be confident it will be nothing to do with anyone.  “Seriously, guv, I never even knew the man…..”

I think we would do well to consider.

Rejecting the Genesis Account is Rejecting an Absolute God

It is true that this story of man’s fall is cast away as a relic of a mythological age by the average student of philosophy. But surely this is unjust. The question is not one merely of the historicity  of the book of Genesis. It is that, but it is also more than that. The whole philosophy of theism is involved in it. Anyone rejecting the Genesis narrative must also be prepared to reject the idea of an absolute God. The history includes the philosophy, and the philosophy includes the history.

Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith, Vol. II: A Survey of Christian Epistemology, (P&R, no date), 22.