Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The "Religious People" Boogeyman

There's something else about the "Did Perry Noble lie?" thing that I have found troubling for some time. Setting aside for the second whether Noble is evincing double-mindedness in the two stories, setting aside for the second the presuppositional problem that leads to thinking "Highway to Hell" in church (Easter Sunday or not) is a good idea, there's something Noble says in both video clips, something that is typical for him (but that he by no means has innovated) that remains a systemic dysfunctional philosophy of the prevailing attractional church paradigm. It is this: there are "religious people" in our church threatening our culture of contempo-casual.

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."

I remember first reflecting on these theoretical lurking legalists when the elders of a church I attended fired its lead pastor. The pastor called rallies in parks, spoke to the local news. He said the reason he was fired was because the elders wanted to satisfy "religious people" who wanted to make the church more stuffy and traditional. This was not true. He was fired for a long record of unrepentance in the areas of self-uncontrol, short-temperedness, verbal abuse, isolation, and the like. But I also knew his claims weren't true because I'd been in the church long enough to know that those "religious people" weren't there. That kind of person wouldn't have lasted a month at our church. Our music, our architecture, our dress, our media, and our message was designed in part to repel them.

With a moment's thought, the logic is easy to see, actually: Those kind of "religious people" hate these kinds of churches. So they don't go to them. The truth is that people who hate attractional churches and the pastors who lead them, the people who are beyond humbly critical and well into legalistic judgmentalism, the people who want stuffy traditional "boring" worship don't go to Newspring Church. Legalistic hatemongers who get out of bed hungry to rant on their blogs or what-have-you about Perry Noble et.al. actually exist, yes, but they go to other churches. And even if these kinds of churches did happen to have these kinds of people skulking about their congregations, out of masochism or whatever, they do not have them in any sizable number that would merit entire productions devoted to their offense.

So we're left with two options, really:

- 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.

- 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."

If you've got real legalists in your church -- and you do -- the only way to intentionally offend them is by preaching the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. Everything else is just vain posturing and prideful provocation.


Dan said...

This is really well said. Why is it we're so quick to offer grace to everyone but the religious legalist? Seems like not treating them graciously is almost a reverse form of legalism.

Sean Wilson said...

The voice of reason.

timb said...

There is a perverse kind of self-justification that goes on (or can go on) here by both sides.

Just as there are people who sit around blogging about issues in other churches so they can justify themselves by who they are against, the pastor can just as easily use the "religious people" charge as a self-justification.

When the "religious people" oppose him he finds more security for his life and ministry. 'they are opposing me like they opposed Jesus'. This can lead to pastors looking to stir up more trouble if they find they need more self-justification.

Yes the gospel is an offense, yes people will oppose us if we love Jesus. But our justification has to come from Christ alone, not from our ability to stir up opponents to us. Of course, this self justification leads to a deflection of all criticism and can lead to a lack of humility. There is indeed legalism in all of us.

Great post.

Dave said...

I think the "Highway to Hell" decision was not God-honoring. And I agree with you that Noble doesn't regularly face an audience for which the song would have the intended effect.


Do you think the fact that Noble did this on Easter may change your argument some? Churches see a spike in attendance on Christmas and Easter bringing a lot of non-Christians in the door. These people, as most non-Christians are geared, are largely legalists (of the Pelagian variety in most cases). Noble may have actually been confronting an issue that he anticipated for just that Sunday.

I know that there isn't a high-probability of this being the case, but it's worth discussing.

I am especially blessed by the fact that you concluded with an appeal to the gospel because that isn't found anywhere in Noble's discussion nor in most of the responses I've read.

Nate said...

Excellent. Thank you for working through this. Very helpful and gospel focused.

Sarah Moon said...

wow. convicting. and so true.

Justin said...

I really appreciate this post. I read James McDonald's reaction to the criticism that Noble was receiving and I was a little confused by his arguments that since Jesus offended the religious people, it's okay for Noble to do the same. Your point that we offend the religious with the gospel of grace was excellent and helpful. Jesus did not offend the religious community with over-the-top drama from the surrounding greek culture. Likewise, we should not offend with shock-jock material from our Howard Stern culture.

Thank you for speaking clearly with you eyes fixed firmly on the Gospel!

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO MUCH for this. So spot on.

Jonspach said...


Anonymous said...

I have a couple questions, you seem to state that there are people in every church that "struggle with the distinction between law and gospel, who struggle with the driving place of grace in their pursuit of holiness..." and are "real legalists". Is the phrase "religious people" aimed at these people? Sure it can be a cop out for all sorts of horrible situations like your own personal one described but does that mean that the only two ways this phrase can be used is as a boogeyman or in a bullying dismissive fashion. no. Is there a misunderstanding of what religion is? If religion is elevating a particular culture to the place where God ought to be and demonizing other cultures then the redemptive work of Christ in areas outside of their specified culture would be offensive to these particular "religious people" precisely because "God could never use that for his glory". I do not know Perry Noble and have not read/listened to him widely enough to know if he holds this view of "religious people" but is this a valid view of "religious people"? a people who need to repent of cultural idolatry? a people who need Jesus as much as anyone?

Chris said...

Excellent post. I confess that I love grace when it is for me, but the Pharisee in me struggles when it is shed on others.

Anonymous said...

If I agree with nothing else in this post, I can most certainly agree with this:

"If you've got real legalists in your church -- and you do -- the only way to intentionally offend them is by preaching the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ."

Bill said...

Thanks Jared

Unknown said...

Awesome job, Jared.

www.imageworld.com.au said...

Meanwhile why we are trying to sound intelligent, make a great point or get a response, multitudes of people are dying not knowing Christ. Less bloging, more praying, less arguing more shinning your light in your community people (forgive us all God, me included).

rdsmith3 said...


I believe that you intentions are good in writing this, particularly your emphasis on God's grace. I thank you for the commitment and focus you have for spreading the gospel.

In light of that, this is just a minor point to consider. I was not aware of this controversy regarding Mr. Noble, nor was I aware of the one regarding Mr. Mahaney earlier this year. You have mentioned both of them in your blog. When you write about controversies involving your fellow pastors, knowing that some of your audience has no idea of what is occurring, could this be considered a form of gossip?

Jared said...

RdSmith3, thanks for your concerns.

I believe gossip applies to private situations and appraisals. Both of the matters you mention were already publicized, the Mahaney thing widely and by his own organization, before I commented on them. In that respect, it would be like commenting on a news story that was on CNN and FoxNews. That you hadn't heard of it yet would not qualify it as gossip, I don't think.

rdsmith3 said...


I understand that the matters you referenced may have been well known in your circle, but I'm not sure that they are among those of us who are not pastors. As a result, I had to use google and read about the situations in order to understand the content and context of your posts.

You have worthwhile things to say, and God has blessed you with an ability to write well. I am just suggesting that you may have been able to make your points without having to draw even more attention to unhealthy controversies, in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:23. Thanks for listening.

Saved By Faith Alone said...


Please take as an extension of what you're saying and not a correction!

You said: "...the only way to intentionally offend them is by preaching the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ."

Well said, but may I offer a different statement: "...the only appropriate way to offend them is by preaching the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ."

In varying degrees we are all (or should be) offended by the condeming truth of God's Word. My heart tells me that Rob Bell is trying to make himself and his church feel special, or superior at the expense of others who simply don't fit their ideal template of "contempo-casual" as you so well put it!

In Christ,

Dan H.

Jared said...

Dan, good words. I appreciate your addition/extension.

I used "intentional" intentionally ;-) there, because I do think there are still appropriate ways to offend legalists that are not purposed that way. For example, when Christians living in the freedom of the gospel enjoy God-given liberty, this often offends legalists. But this is not the same as parading that liberty or exploiting it or giving into licentiousness.

In other words, a legalist at my church may become offended to learn that I drink alcohol or to see that our church dresses fairly casually for our gatherings, and these are offenses appropriate to gospel freedom but not intentionally carried out.

In other words, so long as I am not drinking or dressing casually to tick off legalists, I am simply enjoying liberty and their offense is appropriately caused.

Hope that makes sense of my distinction between intentional and appropriate.

Scott said...

I created the youtube video that started all the hulabaloo last week. Your blog post on this is so on the money I truly appreciate it and your willingness to think and write in a clear-headed manner about it.

As a Student Pastor, and one who is training to be a pastor in the future this conversation has been helpful in reminding me I can't simply label someone "religious" who disagrees with me.

Thanks again!



Anonymous said...

Very well said!

RE Teacher, Ireland

David Ould said...

thanks Jared

the last para is exactly the right conclusion.

Daniel Keaton said...


You said that after reading Jared's posts, "I had to use google and read about the situations."

No, you didn't. If you weren't aware of the situations and you got the vibe they were controversial, you were under no obligation to pursue them further.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Pastors who criticize other churches and bash other clergy make me sick! It's un-Christ like and a lame way to try and make yourself look better. Just one of the many reasons I left my legalistic church that wore the mask of a grace doctrine church.

rdsmith3 said...

Daniel Keaton,

I'm not really sure what your point is. I could have written my comment more clearly. You did quote me out of context, however. I said to Jared, "As a result, I had to use google and read about the situations in order to understand the content and context of your posts." I was not saying I had an obligation to do so, nor was I saying that I used Google because of some prurient interest I had. Moreover, Jared linked to another blog post on Mr. Noble, which encouraged further reading on the subject.

JS Park said...

I caught this post a while ago and quoted it, and came back to re-read your thoughts. I absolutely do believe there are "religious" people in the church, particularly my Asian-American one where the high standards of Asian culture often clash with the pre-qualified love of the Gospel. I also do love these people. Thanks for pointing out this distinction in a time when much snobbery has arisen from this un-nuanced thinking.