I have some bad news for you if you’re a fundamentalist and also most likely if you’re an evangelical Christian.
There’s a pretty good chance that many of the leaders who enforce all of the rules and doctrines you’re supposed to follow are partying pretty hard on the weekends or have a secret vice that contradicts all of the rules for holy living they impose on you.
I’m serious about this. Some of these former pastors talk to me about publishing their stories because they know how hollow such a secret life can be. The number of national scandals of religious leaders who are household names are only eclipsed by those who are unknown but still mired in scandal and contradiction.
A well known court evangelical, who is outspoken in his partisan political positions and notable for leading an increasingly fundamentalist Christian university, recently posted a vacation photo of himself that clearly violated several of his own rules. In fact, many employees at Christian universities, churches, and other parachurch groups would be fired for similar photos.
This isn’t the first time this person has released evidence of his double standards, and he has a lot of company among similar pastors and fundamentalist leaders who enforce strict rules in public while living an indulgent double life.
There’s something rotten about it all. Considering that Jesus was most critical of the religious leaders who were laden with rules and remained “white washed tombs” on the inside, we should remain wary of a Christianity that demands adherence to excessive lists of rules. The longer the list of rules, the more likely adherents are to forget the point of it all.
Ironically, the leaders who enforce the rules of their tribes and issue warnings about “slippery slopes,” are among the first ones to slip and slide away from their own standards.
If you’re angry or despondent about such behavior, I don’t blame you. However, all is not lost. In fact, there is something much better for us if we’re willing to rethink what holy living can look like.
Spiritual Formation as an Alternative
The alternative to rule bound legalism isn’t anything goes, feel good religion or a surrender to the prosperity Gospel. Spiritual formation through the supernatural and mysterious work of God in our lives offers an alternative to the piles of rules for personal moral behavior.
In fact, there are still rules of a sort. We could say that a “rule of life” that guides our formation helps us keep space for God’s influence and transformative power. A rule of life helps us define our values and spiritual practices so that we make space for them each day.
Spiritual formation doesn’t rest primarily on external duty, obligation, or enforcement of rules. It looks to the inner work of God in our lives and trusts that the Spirit moves even in unseen ways in our hearts.
Catholic writer Henri Nouwen writes in his book Spiritual Formation:
“Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves.”
He then adds:
“Thus to live the spiritual life and to let God’s presence fill us takes constant prayer, and to move from our illusions and isolation back to that place in the heart where God continues to form us in the likeness of Christ takes time and attention.”
Sustainable Spiritual Formation vs. Double Life Legalism
The biggest difference between the duty of external rules and the formation of God’s internal work in us comes down to what’s sustainable. There is tremendous pressure and energy that must be exerted to stick with the program of external rules. Meanwhile, spiritual formation calls for discipline and space for practices, but it entrusts the work of formation with God’s indwelling Spirit.
The results of spiritual formation are determined by God as we surrender our lives. We have a role in the process, but God’s renewal comes to us regularly like a spring of water that sustains us.
It is quite likely that those laden with rules will either develop secret vices as a way of letting off some steam or simply run out of energy to uphold all of the rules. This type of legalism is powered by fear of being outed and expelled from the group. It struggles to show mercy to those who have failed because membership in the group demands following the rules.
If the power for spiritual transformation comes by faith in God’s power at work in us, then we have something that can last for the long haul. We will certainly fail, but our failure is often rooted in exerting control over our lives rather than surrendering ourselves to God’s love and to the Spirit’s quiet work in us.
Call me crazy, but even as an avowed Protestant myself, I’ll take Henri Nouwen’s sustainable and quiet path toward spiritual formation over the double life of hard partying fundamentalists. Besides the inner emptiness of legalism, I’ll bet the fundamentalists also have really bad taste in wine.