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Trapped in the Church

I feel caught between legalism and cheap grace

Over the past few years I've found myself caught in a web of legalism and cheap grace. I grew up in a small Baptist church in South Carolina. It was a small, loving church, where everyone knew everybody. I loved it. It is where I received my foundation.

So why do I feel trapped? I'm trapped because although I have had many positive experiences in many churches, I have also seen the atrocities. I've seen a person bound by legalistic rules with no grace, and I've seen everything being swept under the blood. I've seen people behaving badly in both environments. In the legalistic church, there are blind spots. In the cheap-grace church, there is no conscience.


What do I mean by legalistic? Merriam-Webster defines legalism as "strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code." Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry defines legalism as "the excessive and improper use of the law." In my experience, it manifests itself in the form of rules, regulations, and community covenants. I was employed at a conservative Christian university. The community was composed mainly of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. Members of the culture were required to sign a covenant promising to follow the standards of the community. If the rules were not followed, it was grounds for termination.

This created, in my opinion, a lot of Pharisees. It was a family of individuals with a superiority complex, who failed to offer membership to those who didn't follow the same rules. It produced a climate of criticism, judgment, and hostility toward outsiders. It produced a culture that failed to foster relationships with those outside the family. It is so easy to become a Pharisee. We must all guard against it.

What's the problem with this environment? It fails to show grace to those who are struggling. It fails to truly acknowledge that we are utterly dependent on the Lord. It fails to recognize that we are all sinners saved by grace. It forgets Matthew 7:3-5: "And why worry about a speck in your friend's eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,' when you can't see past the long in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the long in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye." I love this Scripture because I've seen it manifested in two ways in the legalistic church: 1) The focus is always on someone else's sin. The person who has sinned is shown no grace, but criticized and sometimes shunned for their poor decision. 2) The person doing the criticism fails to focus on his or her own sin.

Many times in legalistic churches, there is a lot of focus on the "big sins." The primary focus is on fornication, adultery, abortion, homosexuality, and similar sins. However, we ignore other sins and how we treat others. Many times there is gossip, racism, injustice, pornography, and other forms of immorality. Many times we forget the "love your neighbor as yourself" portion of Scripture, and it doesn't always equate to sending a note card and inviting people to a potluck.

For example, at the Christian university I worked for, an employee can be fired for drinking alcohol; however, another employee can make racial slurs and maintain his or her job. The reasoning behind keeping the one employee is "We are all sinners. He just ‘fell short.' "

In the legalistic community, we have to do a better job at showing love and grace in this community. We also have to look at the blind spots that we don't want to uncover. We have to love each other better, not in words, but also in conduct. We need more transparency and authenticity.

The Other Side

I've also been in a myriad of environments where sin is prevalent. The excuse for lack of accountability is "We are under grace." We also hear, "No one is perfect," "We're only human," "God knows my heart," and "The pastor teaches me the Word…so that's all that matters." We have all heard these excuses for habitual sin. Are we all sinners? Yes! Do we fall short? Yes! Is it okay with God? No! Romans 6:1-2 states, "Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?" In this life, we will surely commit sin. We will not reach perfection until we see Jesus, but that does not give us permission to live unholy lives.

In the news we are inundated with stories of pastors and church leaders caught in immoral situations. In fact, we don't have to turn on the television; we see it in our own churches. I've seen it time and time again. My fellow church members tell me, "He is only a man." Is it okay for church leaders to live openly immoral lives? I don't think this is what Jesus intended when he said, "Follow me."

My Experience

When I confronted leaders with these issues, I was told, "We all fall short." I was told, "God knows the heart." I was told, "It doesn't matter what you do because we have grace." I'm always pointed to the blood. While I am aware of the power and magnificence of the blood, I don't think we should do away with accountability.

When I have conversations with members of the church, I always hear the phrase "No church is perfect." I am told, "The same problems are at every church." I know that is not true, but given my experience and the stories of others, it sometimes appears to be. It is my hope to find a church in the middle. It won't be perfect, but it will not fall into the categories of cheap grace and legalism. I have tried to change the communities I was a part of, but I felt like a prophet crying out in the wilderness. I am tired. I need rest in a healthy church environment. But where do I go? I feel trapped. I feel like I'm suffocating and when I try to breathe again, the wind gets knocked out of my sails.

My experiences have helped me redefine my relationship with the Lord. I'm desperately trying to love him and others in the face of adversity. My experience has also challenged me to consider what the body of Christ should look like. I have served in so many ministry capacities; however, I'm now in the muddy tunnel trying hard to move forward. I sometimes wonder where God is, but I know he is teaching me valuable lessons through this process. I know he loves me, but I don't understand why he allows me to see so much evil in the church. I'm trusting that this will ultimately work together for my good one day.

Carmille Akande is a licensed minister, attorney, speaker, writer, and blogger based in Dayton, Ohio. She has a heart for outreach and discipleship ministries and blogs at 2540ministries.blogspot.com.

July01, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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