Legalism or permissiveness

Legalism or permissiveness: an inescapable dilemma?

Do new movements of the Spirit, whose fiery beginnings offer such promise, inevitably face a decline into one extreme or another?

Dr. King is emeritus professor of English at Malone College, Canton, Ohio. This article is reprinted from April 16, 1980, The Christian Century.

I have been reading history—specifically, Quaker history. And what I have read has not made me happy; questions keep nagging at me. Troubling questions about the why of things, about weakness and error, about inevitability; questions of concern to every child of God.

They offended many

Go back briefly with me into Quaker history. In their early years (about 1650 to 1690) Quakers were marked by a fiery evangelism and an obviously and radically different style of life from that of their neighbors. They were like John the Baptist, calling upon all people—especially the religious establishment—to repent and bring forth lives suited to that repentance. They had, they declared, not merely heard the gospel proclaimed; they vividly experienced it, here and now in their own lives.

Setting out by twos, they ranged over the British Isles proclaiming that every one might—no, must—have the same experience they had had. Fiercely devoted to their discovery of life in Christ, they faced mobs, imprisonment, even martyrdom. They offended many by their tactics, sometimes interrupting the minister in his sermon, sometimes taking over his congregation after his sermon and preaching their own message. Driven out of town, they often returned the next day. Denied buildings to meet in, they preached in marketplaces and commons, and on bare hillsides.

Quakers offended not merely by their preaching but by their style of life as well. Flouting long-established custom, they refused to remove their hats in the presence of social and political superiors. They addressed everybody, even the Protector Cromwell or King Charles, exactly the same way they addressed the humblest peasant. They refused to pay tithes for the support of the state church, and to use what they regarded as pagan names for the days and the months. They dressed and lived quite simply. In worship services they sat in silence, without program or liturgy, without official minister. Quakers could by their appearance and way of life be instantly and infallibly identified—even from afar.

With no organization to shape or to enforce their practices, the Quakers nevertheless spontaneously achieved a remarkable unity in style of life, worship, and ministry. Warm love and care for one another grew rapidly. Early in their history they began the custom of making offerings to help those impoverished by persecution and other misfortunes. And despite much opposition, they still expected to win enough adherents to trans form the whole world and bring in the kingdom of God.

But if the Quakers offended many, they also won many. Thousands in the British Isles and in America became adherents. Even magistrates who tried them, and whom they defied and preached to in court, were on occasion softened, and sometimes themselves be came Quakers. Theirs was the most lively Christian movement in England during those years. One is reminded of the early chapters of Acts.

Presently, however, and little by little, Quakers began to change. Even in the period of persecution they were gaining a reputation for good workmanship and honest dealing, and many of them began to prosper. After the persecution lessened, it became in some ways helpful to be a Quaker—helpful to business success. Then some with less fiery devotion began to join the Society of Friends, while some earlier members relaxed into easier ways. The danger loomed of a slow slippage down into permissive worldliness and mediocrity after the glorious high beginnings.

That relaxing of devotion alarmed the still-devoted members. How were they to preserve the old fire and life? Agonizing over the danger, they grasped onto what they hoped would be the remedy. From the beginning Quakers had stated in general terms their principles of worship and Christian living in what they called "testimonies." These testimonies, neither highly detailed nor specific, had almost spontaneously been agreed on by early Quakers. Now, it seemed to the worried devout, was the time to make more use of the testimonies.

Walling out worldliness

By spelling out the heretofore general statements of principle in specific detail, they decided, worldliness would be walled out of the Society of Friends. The slightest deviation from proper Quakerly conduct could thus be pinned down, chapter and verse. For example, the women's meeting of York in 1712 declared: "We desire an alteration in these things ... as follows, viz.: Friends' gowns made indecently, one part over long and the other too short, with lead in the sleeves; and that Friends should come to a stability, and be satisfied in the shape and compass that Truth leads into, without changing as the world changes; also black or coloured silk and muslin aprons, as likewise hoods or scarves not too long or broad..."

Other matters also had to be specified. One involved headstones in cemeteries: Should Friends even have them? Should they lie flat or stand upright? What, if anything, should be engraved on them: name only, or life dates as well?

A crucial concern was marriage. Taking a spouse who was not a member of the Society and being married by other than the Friends ceremony were forbidden. Disownments (expulsion from member ship) for this cause cost the Society, it is estimated, some 5,000 young members over the middle period of Friends history.

This legalistic policy was not without opposition. Margaret Fell Fox (the widow of George Fox) called it a "silly, poor gospel." She wrote: "We must not look at colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours, as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them. But we must all be in one dress and one colour."

What was happening during this period in Friends' history was a change from bold expectation of conquering the world for Christ to fear of being infiltrated by the world and its spirit—a mood shift from the offensive to the defensive. The specifically worded testimonies—involving countless hours of discussion in meetings to work them out and then countless more hours to enforce them were a means of separating themselves from the world which they feared. They were determined to remain pure, not only from the influence of unbelievers but also from that of other professing Christians.

They succeeded. Those who remained as faithful members kept their distinctive style of life; but this life, once a means of winning people, was now regarded by non-Friends as quaint but hardly win some. The flames of evangelism died away. Friends sat silent in their little enclaves and slowly lost members.

As the eighteenth century ended, many Friends were realizing that this closed policy was not truly a success, and in various ways they began to come out of their isolation. Some, deeply under the influence of the Wesleyan revival, adopted items from that movement: the programmed meeting, a paid ministry, hymn-singing, evangelism. The result in the United States is the so-called evangelical wing of Friends.

But that wing is not without its faults. While thoroughly evangelical, it is not flamingly evangelistic: it has many small congregations that barely maintain their numbers and add few or no members from any source other than their own children—and not all even of them.

Evangelical Friends show almost no distinctiveness in style of life; they are not noticeably different from the members of other denominations or, in many areas of lifestyle, from the worldlings about them. Neither offensive nor defensive toward the world, they are largely similar to it and comfortable with it.

These Friends are highly individualistic, as are many evangelicals of all denominations, living by the principle that every Christian has the right to form his or her own beliefs and style of life. In deed, I once heard an evangelical Friends pastor say: "If I undertook to hold my congregation seriously to the testimonies, I would lose three-fourths of the membership," and his statement was received by Friends without surprise or dis agreement. It is unlikely that George Fox would easily recognize this comfortable people as Friends, any more than he would have recognized those of the defensive period.

Pattern of church history

But a history of this sort is not confined to Friends. The Anabaptists began in the 16th century with the same pattern of distinctive style of life, evangelistic fervor, warmth and unity of devotion—and persecution and success. Early in their history, however, there arose the fear of contamination by the world, to this day embodied in the Amish and Hutterian Mennonites. These groups have specific and strict rules, including prescriptions for apparel, and spend hours in working out and enforcing them—and in expelling those who fail to conform. Further, in the writing and speaking of more liberal Mennonites, there appear from time to time agonizings about their own loss of the distinctive Anabaptist life.

So also with the Wesleyan revival movement, which produced the Methodist Church. John Wesley, with the same intensity, preached the same experience of the gospel as did both George Fox and the Anabaptists—with the same success and some of the same persecution. But before he died, Wesley was to complain that the Methodists' distinctive style of life brought them prosperity and worldliness. Among them there developed the same alarm over worldliness creeping in, with resulting split-offs like the Wesleyan and Free Methodist churches. And among main line Methodists today there is the lament for the loss of the old fire and life and message.

The history of the wider church follows a similar pattern. First there was the church of Acts. Then hermits and monastic orders isolated themselves so as to guard their purity of faith and life. Presently, however, there developed—and persists to this day—the comfortable, permissive life of the majority membership.

Legalism or permissiveness—that is the dilemma of the church. It is not difficult to point out the flaws of both. The fault of the legalistic development is not in its motivation: the desire to preserve the values of an original movement. Striving to continue the good of a moving of the Spirit is right.

What is wrong is that the legalistic stance does not accomplish its aim. Rather than preserving the original character of the movement, legalism entombs and stifles it in prescriptions about the external marks of the changed life, neglecting the very life that produces those marks. The fruit of the Spirit is not acts themselves but qualities of the heart that produce acts. Various motives may account for the same acts, but a changed heart will, as the Epistle of James reminds us, invariably produce a changed life.

To quote John Audland, a Friend of long ago: "Force and compulsion may make some men conform to that outwardly, which otherwise they would not do, but that is nothing of weight, their hearts are never the better, but are rather worse, and more hypocrites than ever... for it is God alone by His powerful word of life operating in the hearts of people that changeth them."

Perhaps the most serious flaw in the legalistic stance is that it becomes almost inescapably a matter not of spontaneous unity but of we/they. We hold the high standards already; we know what is right. But they—the ignorant; the lax, the worldly—must be forced to live as we do. We will police them and preserve the faith. We will defend the old standards against them. Such an attitude cannot produce a loving fellowship, nor can it change hearts.

And so it fails, this well-motivated but wrong-headed effort to preserve a movement. The drift is from the propagation of the new life in the gospel to the preservation of a peculiar sect. The clever cage of rules by which alarmed members think to keep their treasure safe entraps them instead and the treasure some how slips out and away.

Reducing devotions and standards

But if legalism is isolating and ultimately futile, the permissive stance, although different, is, alas, no better. True, it rightly recognizes that outward compulsion does not bring about the gospel. It avoids isolation from the world, and the "I thank God I am not like others" attitude.

The escape is costly, however, gained not by an inner fire and devotion leading to a radical and distinctive style of life, but by a reduction of both devotion and standards. The process is circular: lowered devotion brings lowered standards of life; lowered standards bring lowered devotion. The result is a more or less open and sincere lukewarmness—Laodicea, a gradual erosion of Christian distinctives.

Those adopting the permissive stance do not say: "My meditation on the Word and communion with the Spirit have given me new light on how I may serve my Lord more devotedly." Rather, they say: "I have been too demanding of my self. I am permitted more ease in this matter." But that ease is almost inevitably defined by desire, by the "latest in sights" from psychology, sociology, new styles of biblical interpretation or what ever, but not by a consuming devotion.

This gradual easing drift produces its own hypocrisy: a denomination's official statements, publicly professed, of an expected level of Christian behavior, but constant violation of that behavior in the members' style of life. And that style inevitably will be individualistic, with a consequent low doctrine of the church. Each person will follow his or her own conscience: there is no mutual disciplining of fellow Christians in keeping with Matthew 18 and Galatians 6:1, 2. The church becomes not the body of Christ, within which there is mutual love and care, but a collection of atomistic individuals, each of whom goes his or her own way without taking any responsibility for one's fellows or accepting any concern from them.

Moreover, retaining contact with the world wins nothing. The permissive stance may, indeed, attempt evangelism, but only mildly, for it invites the world ling to a bland, culturally conformed Christianity. It does not proclaim: "If anyone will come after Christ, let him renounce himself and . . ."It says in stead: "Accept Christ, and you will be happy and comfortable. No sweat, no worry." And the worldling looks at the exemplars of this gospel, sees no great difference between them and himself or herself, and is not presently interested in fire insurance. The worldlings do not repel the evangelism; they simply disregard it.

Pointing to the faults of the legalistic and the permissive stances is small com fort. Questions still nag. Is one or the other of these developments of a movement of the Spirit inevitable? Must it be so I Is there no escape from this dilemma? And once either has taken place, can there be recovery? Or must there be a new movement? If a new movement appeared, what would it be like?

Inevitable? To date, no denomination (we are assuming that all of them represented new movings of the Spirit) has maintained its original distinctiveness and power. For the most part the development has been to the relaxed, comfortable stance. And this seems likely a priori. It is difficult in succeeding generations to reproduce the vividness of the original experiences, and so at least some later converts will have less than the original devotion. Further, there is the constant eroding pressure to conform to the culture in which a group lives. Hence I must sadly admit that it seems that the outcome I have described for the Quaker, Anabaptist, and Wesleyan movements is inevitable for any movement. Defensive isolation keeps the form but loses the fiery life; relaxed permissiveness—the commonest development—keeps an institution from having great distinctiveness or impact.

Can such development ever be reversed, so that an institutionalized movement regains its original character? Of course, the power of God must not be discounted, but I fear that restoration is most unlikely. It has not occurred in the three movements cited; I know of none where it has. And any such reversal would seem unlikely. An institution has structures, offices, boards, committees, vested interests, a "we have always done it like this" rigidity. These are all incombustible and can hardly be brought again to incandescence. Or, to change the metaphor, arthritis is not curable.

But out of one or more of these arthritic institutions the Spirit may bring forth a new moving, the old gospel again breaking forth in fiery life. If this should happen, what might the new movement be like? I offer some tentative suggestions, based on the Friends' beginnings.

The genesis will center on a person or a small group dissatisfied with what they presently see and experience in their religious life. With Friends it was George Fox and the "Valiant Sixty." From such a person or group, the conflagration will spread like fire in dry grass to others similarly dissatisfied, and the movement will be born.

These people—and their followers for some time thereafter—will have a stirringly new insight into and experience of the old gospel—not a new gospel or any thing additional, but a recovery of what has been lost or not fully understood. What is happening will be sensed as a new attempt to get back to primitive Christianity. But this attempt must be seen as new or different (or what is all the excitement about?), not only within the movement, but to outsiders as well.

Of course, a new insight or experience requires a new style of life to embody it. This new movement will have one that is radically different and counter-cultural, so perceived by its members and by outsiders (who may deem it so peculiar as to be offensive). But to some it will seem right and challenging.

The members of this new movement of the Spirit will not be silent about their new life, but will proclaim it warmly and eagerly, persistently and boldly. They will use the word of their new experience and different style of life as an instrument of attack on the prevailing culture and as evangelism. What they will proclaim and propose will be not Band-Aids and Mercurochrome for the civilian walking wounded, but drill for combat troops. Members will meet not for a weekly self-confidence session and an all-week sucker, but for training with sword and shield. The movement's proclamation will be a truly prophetic witness, a ringing "Thus saith the Lord."

And all of this—the insight, the experience, the style of life, the witness—will come out of a strikingly spontaneous agreement. No long debate, no rules imposed, little institutionalization, but a striking unity of the Spirit. There will also be a remarkable mutual concern and love for one another.

Such were the churches of Acts, the Friends, the Anabaptists, the Wesleyans. Such, I believe, will be the look of any new movement of the Spirit. And it will prosper and grow but for how long? No one can say. In the past, however, as one movement of the Spirit has passed into mediocrity, God has moved once more to break forth in a continuing display of His power. So, I believe, it will be again.

Copyright 1980 Christian Century Foundation.
Reprinted by permission from the April 16, 1980
issue of The Christian Century.

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Dr. King is emeritus professor of English at Malone College, Canton, Ohio. This article is reprinted from April 16, 1980, The Christian Century.

June 1991

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