Saturday, March 06, 2010

Why a Dose of Legalism Insures Church Growth

--Legalism is good for the Adventist soul. --

During Seventh-Day Adventism's earliest decades legalism was a prominent force in attracting new converts to the church. At the 1888 General Conference the message of Righteousness (Justification) by Faith was introduced to the Seventh-Day Adventist church by E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones with great resistance from leaders and the rank and file. Ellen White backed up Waggoner and Jones, as well as W.W. Prescott. Nevertheless, it was not Christ Our Righteousness that became a catch phrase from then until the 1970s when it started catching on, but rather, it was Elder G.I. Butler's Obey and Live catch phrase that won out.

In Western Seventh-Day Adventist congregations of the United States, Europe and Australia, Righteousness by Faith is the dominant catch phrase for the most part, while in the Emerging World, and among ethnic or racial minorities in these Westernized congregations previously mentioned, Obey and Live with a hint of Christ our Righteousness insures that church growth continues steadily. Why is this? In spite of Righteousness by Faith being a wonderful approach to Christianity, in some mainstream Western churches, especially in so-called Progressive churches, there has been a trend for some time to allow more secular elements to integrate themselves into the church. This secularism sometimes leads to less adherence to traditional Adventist mores and regulations. Some of these might include, at times: lesser attention to strict sabbath observance; freer approach to sex outside of marriage as long as it remains monogamous; liberal use of jewelry; use of caffeine and/or wine with meals; accepting evolution as explaining, in part, how we got here, supporting same sex causes, etc.

Of course, mainstream Christian churches in the United States are experiencing wonderful mega growth, with the enticements of Justification by Faith, Pop Rock or Pop Rhythm & Blues music in their worship services, plus the ease of Sunday services and no need to keep the entire Sunday holy as do those who keep the seventh-day sabbath such as Jewish believers and Seventh-Day christian observers, e.g., Adventists and a few other groups. In addition, you have the Prosperity Gospel movement at some congregations which fuel mass churches and world-wide following via multi-media formats and the Internet.

Legalism appeals to new converts in countries or communities of the emerging world due to the fact that one is, to some degree, earning one's salvation by keeping the Sabbath, paying tithe, refraining from intoxicants, unclean meat, worldly amusements and sex before marriage. Of course, legalism can also be attractive to people who live in the so-called First World. While some mainstream christian congregations also refrain from some of these vices, it is easier to become a member in good standing in one of the mainstream Christian churches than it is to do so in a traditional, mainstream Seventh-Day Adventist church.

Of course, some mainstream non-ethnic and non-minority Adventist churches contain members who genuinely love the Christ Our Righteousness message and through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit are able, for the most part, to adhere to the constraints of the Adventist lifestyle. Among these are sincere members who claim that they don't feel constrained at all. By the grace of God, they claim, the constraints don't seem unpleasant at all, or at least, most of the time. However, members in these white or mixed churches are leaving faster than new converts are coming in. It is equally true that in the emerging world you have some members, new or long-tern, that in spite of having a more legalistic element in their midst, also love Christ and through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit are able, for the most part, to adhere to the constraints of the Adventist lifestyle. In both groups, it goes without saying, there are folk who genuinely benefit from their particular type of congregation and its concomitant approach to Seventh-Day Adventism.

It is not likely that the Obey and Live message of the pre-1888 pioneers will ever be the norm in the mainstream or progressive churches of Seventh-Day Adventism's western churches. For that to occur would be regression, or some might call it, reformation or revival. Of course, anything is possible. In a way, it is almost shameful that the legalistic element is sometimes routinely promoted in the emerging world or among ethnic or minority congregations in the West. The justification for doing this is that unless you infuse legalism with just a touch of Christ our righteousness, or vice-versa, some feel that you might as well sound the death knell for Adventism worldwide. Better to be a living and partially legalistic church than to focus on righteousness by faith only and be a dying church.

Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron to equate death and dying with an Adventist church that focuses on Righteousness by Faith only. The observable truth, however, is that legalism is good for the Adventist soul. So it was in the beginning. Thus it will be to the end of time.

Then again, maybe there is another very obvious alternative that still needs to be spelled out.

Alternate title: Seventh-Day Adventism is becoming a hard sell in the West

--To be continued--