One of the questions I was asked to address with a group of pastors and church leaders in Virginia several years ago was “How have you avoided legalism in your church?” I responded that I think the key to avoiding legalism is keeping the main things the main things. Legalism happens many times in a church simply because the pastor or the elders inflate the importance of externals and underplay the importance of heart issues. The Pharisees had the externals down; they were nearly perfect in every way…on the outside. But inside, Jesus said, the Pharisees were filled with dead men’s bones. They were hypocrites, and therefore could not afford to ever let their guard down and be real with each other. The heart issues remained hidden to all but Christ.
I went on to relate this to how we raise our children. What we praise in our children will be emphasized in their lives: their looks rather than their character, their talents rather than their servanthood, their intellect rather than their heart for God. If our emphasis is on the externals, then we are raising little Pharisees who will make their lives (and those around them) miserable. What we praise in our children will be those things we value the most, and which they will develop with the most zeal.
It is the same with a church. What we celebrate as a church defines what is important to us and ultimately what we will become. I heard a great teaching on this a while back at a luncheon for pastors. The speaker, Rick Sessoms, said that the “products and practices” of a church do not happen in a vacuum but are the direct result of what the church really values. The question for a church then is simple: How do we know what we value? Sessoms offered the following questions as guidelines.
1. What do we measure? If the definition of success for a church has to do with nickels and noses, bottoms in the pews and bucks in the plate, that may be an indication of what matters most there. Jesus said it plainly: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 2. How do the leaders respond to crisis? Do we ‘shoot our wounded’ or offer them grace and help to overcome? 3. What do the leaders model and teach? A church whose convictions are rooted in fear will not produce healthy fruit. Fear that everyone will not behave exactly the same way, for example, can lead to external controls resulting in fake smiles and play-acting pew-warmers. Also, do the leaders possess on Monday what they ‘profess’ on Sunday? 4. How do we allocate scarce resources? This is a crucial test for a church. During tough economic times, does the church cut funding to missionaries who are depending on them for support? 5. What behavior do we (really) reward? Do we applaud those who are successful in business because they help fund the operation of the church while overlooking the fact that their families are falling apart?
What can we do with this information? I think we can and should evaluate our own lives and the life and health of our churches, to see if what we value are the same things Jesus taught and modeled for His disciples. Those things will be matters of the heart, matters of character, development of leaders who know how to lay down their lives, compassion for the lost, and wisdom that is anchored in the Word.