Externalism and ‘Churchianity’

Galatians 5:16

JP: By Warren Vanhetloo, retired Central Seminary professor


From a reader: Dear Brother Van – In my experience, the problem in the conservative, fundamental church is not with those who would maintain certain standards to be saved, or as an outworking of their salvation. It is with those who maintain their own pet lists to be sanctified, and who look down their noses at those who either do not accept their lists, or who have a different list. What shall we call those who claim and proclaim that sanctification comes by either law or list keeping? Galatians?

Response: Your distinction is valid. Since the term legalism or legalist has a clear Scriptural reference to working to be saved or to remain saved, we need to find another term to use regarding those who judge sanctification on the basis of a pet list. Obviously that is common and needs to be addressed. It does not help to confuse it by using a term that already has a different meaning. Let’s just invent one for this response, since I am not familiar with a term in common use regarding the practice: an ‘externalist’ is one who judges spirituality on the basis of outward conduct. Externalism is the emphasis on external conduct in specific areas as evidence of sanctification.

Lists of acceptable conduct as a Christians differ greatly, some by area, some by denomination, some by culture, some by ancestry, some simply by reaction to things of the world. My conversion experience involved an item on a list. A friend and I had occasionally attended the theater together. One day I was telling him of a movie coming up and asked if he would like to go. His reply was that he no longer did that. I did not reply in any way, but the Holy Spirit inwardly emphasized, ‘He has something you don’t have. He’s different.’ After I was saved, I needed to adopt my own list.

Much of what I understood to be acceptable in the new life I had entered was based on the lives of those in the church. The “list” was typical: Keep the Ten Commandments. Do not smoke or drink. Do not go to pool halls or dance halls. Do not trade in a store where liquor is sold. Most things on the list had been family requirements; now I was adopting a life style for myself.

Many items on lists through the years have dealt with external contacts or activities: the length of women’s hair, that men should be clean shaven, that dresses are the acceptable church attire for women with suits for men, that church members should attend every service, no running in the sanctuary, no guitar or drums in a worship service. One that amazed me: Anyone with an interest in sports is not spiritual and not to be trusted.

It appears that lists used to be mainly concerned about moral matters, whereas more recent lists try to characterize “Churchianity.” The concern appears to be more of personal preference, of the way things have always been done, or, often reaction to emotional expressions of a younger generation. All these are social, not spiritual, but the term “socialism” already has specific meaning. “Etiquette” will not do either. “Externalist” may not be best, but it has some merit.

Lists in Scripture are primarily of internal qualities which are expressed outwardly, such as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Gal 5:22-23). Genuine spiritual growth and conduct is an outworking of these special graces. The outworking by individuals includes some of the items on lists of externalists, but for an externalist, the real reason for the choice seems to be more for personal acceptance or community approval. Each one of us, however, is responsible directly to God, and not to the judgment of fellow believers. It’s not our assigned task to dictate the personal conduct of another of God’s elect.

Sanctification is inner God-likeness. Emphasis in our preaching and teaching and in our personal evaluation of proper conduct must be on righteousness of the inner man. The outer man can ‘fake it’ or adjust to conform to social expectations. God looks on the heart. Using His Name in vain is an expression of the heart, of the inner man. A sincere Christian will be much more concerned about God’s evaluation of his conduct than he is about things on the lists of fellow humans. When the heart functions right, the feet will do the right thing.

Lists can be helpful to new Christians or immature believers. We need to re-evaluate our lists occasionally as to whether they are based on clear Scripture teaching or on nothing more than social prejudice. There can be good uses for lists. But when lists are used as clubs to downgrade others or to exalt self, they are not honoring to God. As another wrote: “These guidelines may take the form of social customs, which tend to become quite strong. The result is that many are offended, not because of the Gospel, but because of the actions of those who bear the name Christian. The Scriptural guide is found in Romans 14.”

God is Spirit. Inner, spiritual conformity is to be pursued. Outward, cultural conformity may or may not be commendable. Externalism, thinking that outward conduct is what is really important, and endeavoring to enforce a standard of external conduct, is really not acceptable. We ought not to judge a brother. We should not downgrade another. Each one of us individually will stand before the judgment seat of Christ (Rom 14:10-13). We have enough to answer for in our own individual choices. We are improperly endeavoring to act as God when we assemble lists and try to enforce them. Let’s try to use only God’s lists.


Comment: Cogitations are sent free by Dr. Warren Vanhetloo, a retired seminary professor now living in Holland, MI. Previous postings may be accessed from www .cbsvan .net I am an independent Bible-believing Baptist, a dispensationalist, anticipating an any-moment rapture, tribulation, a pre-millennial reign of Jesus, and final judgment. Whatever I write may be reproduced and shared if without change or misrepresentation. My purpose is three-fold: to agitate unto serious cogitating, to stimulate spiritual birth, spiritual growth, and spiritual service, and to share bits of humor.

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