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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