The Dual Dangers of Legalism and “Traditionalism”

Our Mesoamerica Genesis office is working diligently on assisting churches that exist in large urban areas to become healthy and missional.  One of the first steps in doing so is to take a church health survey in order to discover strengths and weaknesses.  It’s a brave task to undergo actually.  No one wants to find out they are sick, or even worse, dying.

One of the biggest reasons we have found for lack of health in congregations is a combination of legalism and worship of tradition.  Having order and obeying the laws of God are quite important to be sure.  But if we allow our adherence to rule-following to get in the way of mission and loving the world around us, we’ve missed the mark. Tradition is a wonderful thing, and celebrating our rich heritage is a must as Christians.  But if we think the methods from decades ago are holy in and of themselves, we are in dangerous territory.

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Jean David Larochelle’s book in Spanish, A Natural Development of Faith, has much to say about legalism and “traditionalism,” as he calls it:

“The message of the gospel is not negotiable. We do not doubt it. Every principle is eternal.  Every principle is immutable.  Every principle is spiritual and every principle is divine.  But strategies are not principles or doctrines. Neither are they eternal.  I say again, one of the greatest sins of the church is to try to win a postmodern generation with primitive strategies.”

The Good News is not good if it is not understandable. When we do not update our methods for different generations or cultures, we can be almost certain they will not understand them, let alone respond positively.  Grace is diluted by the importance we place on rules and tradition.

“Doctrinally, legalism and traditionalism can become positions essentially opposed to grace . . . God has given freedom to his church, but many continue tying it to legalism and traditionalism.”

In reference to the Pharisees in John 9 who questioned the blind man who received his sight, Larochelle continues, “It is sad to note that, for them, the day of rest had been given priority over the person. Things, interests and laws were a priority over the human person.  Nevertheless, Jesus also made them see that he was opposed to the foolish traditions and legalism they had invented in respect to the day of rest . . . They did not rejoice with the man. They saw humanity through eyes of judgment.”

In closing, the author invites us to evaluate ourselves. “Consider if you have legalistic, rigid attitudes or thoughts towards others or towards yourself.  In the story we are analyzing, which role would you like to take – that of the Pharisees or of Jesus? Which role have you played? Which would you like to play from now on?

These are essential questions for the whole church and for each Christian who desires to reflect the love of Christ in their society.

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