Without question, one of the most disturbing trends in the world of theology is that, far too often, grace is eclipsed by theological legalism.
Twice today I encountered this in its most blatant forms by two very different types of people. Both were very passionate about theology and both, undoubtedly, believe that their attitude toward me or my teaching is justified and honoring to the Lord. However, I believe both of these men sacrificed the major issue – grace – in defense of minor issues in theology.
The first, whose name I will not share as he is undoubtedly well-known to most of you, caught me very much off guard (and it is not really easy to catch me off guard, as I receive dozens of “hate” emails every day from those who believe it is their job to put me back on the path of theological correctness). This man, a significant figure in the world of reformation theology, does not believe I take theology seriously enough. Of course, his reasons come (I imagine) from the fact that I don’t agree with him. And obviously, if I took theology seriously, I would agree with him! Ironically, this lack of grace often comes from those who believe most strongly in the reformed “doctrines of grace.” But this man sent me one of the most ungracious emails I have ever received. And, yes, it did hurt my feelings. But more than that, sensing that this man’s criticism of me comes from his general disdain for the “heresy” of Evangelical Calvinism – it discouraged me that someone who believes he is so right theologically could be so graceless personally.
The second came from a Fundamentalist who was quite disturbed that I would suggest that Catholics could be saved. To be fair, I remember in the mid-nineties when Billy Graham suggested the same on national television. I was so angry and confused. I could not believe that Billy Graham would be so theologically inept as to make such a suggestion. In order for me to retain the belief that Billy Graham was saved, I had to convince myself that he had just gone senile in his old age. But this came from someone who has been a believer for quite some time and is a leader in his local church. This one statement (“Catholics can be saved”) has served to disqualify me and all of my teachings. To him, I will forever be one of the many who has compromised my faith for the glory of acceptance among men.
Theological legalism is nothing new (and is certainly not limited to the world of theology). Think of the Pharisees who, according to Christ, strained out gnats and swallowed camels (Matt. 23:24). To the theological legalist, there is no such thing as a gnat. Christ spoke of the weightier things of the Law (Matt. 23:23). To the doctrinal legalist, all issues are equally weighty. Paul spoke of things of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3); to those who are theological Pharisees, everything is of first importance. There is rarely, if ever, a second.
I find this very typical of those who call themselves “true” Calvinists. You will sometimes be given more grace by these if you don’t claim to be a Calvinist. But if you claim to be so, you are never Calvinistic enough. They live to nit-pick all the minor details they believe you get wrong about reformed theology. Nothing makes them angrier than so-called “Evangelical Calvinists” (such as me). I also find this among those egalitarians who wear bitterness on their sleeves, believing everyone who opposes them is doing so in order to oppress. I see this among Christian evolutionists who attempt to belittle anyone who opposes their position (some even calling creationists “cultic”). This theological fundamentalism elevates doctrine above the mandates that the doctrine necessitates. Right belief becomes their primary call to righteousness.
And let me not forget Roman Catholics. The system itself demands acceptance of everything the Church has ever dogmatized, from the resurrection of Christ to the assumption of Mary. The Catholic Catechism – to which all Roman Catholics must submit – is almost as long as the Bible itself. And I rarely meet a gracious Eastern Orthodox. Though they disdain Catechisms, they seem to have an unspoken canon which produces an incredible arrogance. And then there are the Baptists . . . oh, where to begin?!
Of course, there are many exceptions to all of these and I don’t mean to indict any without qualification. There are some shining examples of grace, wisdom, and humility in all of these traditions. I think of my Eastern Orthodox friend Bradley Nassif. I think of Irene, our Roman Catholic commentator. I think of Thomas Schreiner, an incredibly humble Baptist scholar and pastor. And, as you have noticed, I placed my own Calvinistic tradition on the stand. But the sad truth is that very often, the deeper one gets into theological passions, the more corrupt our ability to treat others with grace and humility becomes.
Here are some ways to know if you are a theological legalist:
- You don’t think there are “minor theological issues”
- You always define yourself with the word “true” in front of it (e.g., “I am a ‘true’ Calvinist,” “I am a ‘true’ Baptist,” or “I am a ‘true’ Christian”).
- Your statement of faith or catechism is so detailed that no one but your particular tradition can sign it.
- Your passions focus on the small issues and this finds expression in your personality.
- Most of your theological writing and/or discussion focuses on where other Christians have gone wrong.
- You have a bulldog mentality with regard to your “pet” issues; you cannot let things go emotionally. You have to leave the room.
- When one disagrees with you they are forever defined by that disagreement (“There goes Joe the Arminian,” or “I would like to introduce you to Katie the Complementarian.”
- You think belief is either black or white, you either have it or you don’t; there is no in-between and certainly no room for doubt.
- You think all those outside of your tradition are either going to hell or are less spiritual than you are (i.e., all Catholics are going to hell, all Protestants are going to hell, all those who suggest otherwise are going to hell, etc.)
- There are only three reasons why people disagree with you: 1) they don’t have enough or the right knowledge, 2) they have compromised, and/or 3) they are justifying in some sin.
- No one outside of your tradition wants to talk theology with you (and you take it as a badge of honor).
- When you write about other Christians, you continually find yourself putting the word “Christian” in quotes.
- Your statement of faith is so qualified no one can understand it.
- You are always shutting conversation down by accusations of logical fallacies ad absurdum.
Of course we all have these problems from time to time. And I am not saying the word “Christian” should not be placed in quotes for some people. But if you find yourself identifying with many items on this list too often, you may have the problem of doctrinal legalism which, in my opinion, is the most dangerous trap out there for those of us who love theology. I have been there and still wrestle with my own theological legalism. But this is something we all need to repent of, and teach our students and children about its dangers.
If you love theology, please be the first to put on the attitude of humility. When someone speaks about you in this regard, don’t have your goal to be for others to think you are smart or right, but rather humble and meek. When others talk about your personality with regard to theological discourse, would they say you are arrogant and legalistic, or gracious and gentle? This does not mean we sacrifice our passions or beliefs, it just means we temper ourselves for the sake of the Gospel. The truth is too important for us to lose our witness due to theological legalism.
[Instruct them] to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.
Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.
2 Tim 2:25-26
With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]