Years ago, after listening to one of my sermons, a local pastor and I began talking about preaching styles. My messages, he said, contained plenty of Gospel grace. However, according to him, I incorporated “a little more law” into my sermons than he did. He confessed that his aversion to legalism had begun in the church in which he had grown up as a kid. His parents’ church. Complimenting my sermon, he joked that he wanted to preach “a little more law” in his own sermons, but the traditional, “hell-fire,” moralistic preaching of his youth still haunted him in some ways. As a result, he’d spent most of his ministry pushing back against what he perceived as a kind of cold, burdensome, dead religion. Having known my friend for a few years, it explained a lot. One way or another, we’re all shaped by our childhood. Especially in the church.
Thinking about my own upbringing and ministry style, I soon realized that he wasn’t the only pastor deeply influenced by his home church. I too had been molded by the church of my youth. In sharp contrast with his traditional, legalistic, Southern Baptist culture, I’d been raised in a contemporary, non-denominational atmosphere largely devoid of any moral rigor or theological teaching. Instead of legalism, there was an air of antinomianism in the church of my childhood. My own youth pastor had confessed to us one summer that he’d gone out to California and smoked marijuana on his vacation. Years later, three different pastors in our church stepped down due to affairs or moral failures. Eventually, doctrinal ambiguity had turned into moral ambiguity. As a result, my college and post-college years were a time of theological investigation and a search for deeper meaning. Not surprisingly, my ministry today is grounded in the precision and clarity of biblical theology. For better or for worse, I was shaped profoundly by the church of my youth.
In one way or another, every home church is an imperfect church. Whether as traditional Southern Baptists or as younger, hip congregations that meet in renovated malls, none of us can look back to a body of believers who achieved complete holiness. Christ’s bride is a sinful bride, adorned in His righteousness yet still indwelled with sin. She’s an imperfect spouse, and that means every kid that grew up in the church has a story to tell that includes sin of some kind. For my friend, it was Phariseeism with 10-foot walls to keep the world out. For me, it was a church seemingly identical to the world. The question isn’t whether we grew up in imperfect churches. The question is how God used those imperfect congregations to shape us as disciples. The wounds we experience in the church can either compel us to seek after Jesus in the Scriptures or they can cause us to walk with a theological limp as we seek to overcompensate for the shortcomings we witnessed firsthand growing up.
But the Christian walk isn’t a theological tight-rope between legalism and antinomianism. It’s a walk with the risen Christ. It’s abiding in the vine. Our past experiences in the church should never dictate our walk with Jesus more than Jesus Himself. Sadly, in raging against the church of their past, far too many Christians simply exchange one theological extreme for another, swinging the doctrinal pendulum to another misguided, incomplete view of God. For those who sat under years of Gospel-less, moralistic, legalistic preaching, a law-less, licentious gospel religion can often become the most appealing alternative. Young Christians who were taught relentlessly that drinking alcohol is a sin can sometimes find new freedom they never knew that they had as Christians, meanwhile neglecting temperance and the need for moderation. Trading in the yoke of slavery under the law, many Christians attempt to find freedom in Christ without any kind of moral law whatsoever, shackling themselves once again in the bondage of sin. And behind every flawed Christian ethic is an anemic view of the Triune God. Sometimes the doctrine of sanctification becomes little more than a small appendage to the doctrine of justification, essentially eclipsing the work of the Spirit with the work of the Son.
Spiritual refugees of legalistic preaching can often replace the harsh, vindictive, tee-totaling Judge of their youth with a benevolent Creator concerned less with obedience and more with authentic Christian community and acknowledgement of His sovereignty in all things. And if left untreated with the doctrine of love, wounds from our home churches can eventually serve as sinful surrogates for the Holy Spirit, dictating our reading of Scripture and normalizing our pretentious behavior, trading one brand of theological Phariseeism for another. For the rehabilitating charismatic, a new-found intellectualism can replace any kind of Spirit-filled worship. For the former drunkard, a new-found legalism replaces any sense of Christian liberty. Sinners are prone to extremes, and too often we choose one extreme for another instead of plotting a course with the very Scriptures authored for our sanctification and our good.
It is never God’s will to heal an emotional and spiritual wound by creating a gigantic theological limp. And that’s precisely why the Scriptures are so vital to Christian spirituality. Reactionary faith isn’t necessarily obedient faith. Our obedience is defined by the God of the Scriptures, not against the church we long never to become. Faith isn’t a pendulum we can swing one way or another. It is, rather, a pursuit of the living God in Christ. For those scarred by the spiritual iniquities of their childhood churches, Jesus calls us away from dangerous dichotomies and to the simple obedience that comes with faith in Jesus alone.