The ‘Religious People’ Boogeyman

by Jared C. Wilson November 8, 2017

There is something I've heard time and time again from the leaders of attractional churches that I find really distressing, in some cases perhaps indicative of something bordering on the spiritually abusive. It is certainly divisive. It is so common a rhetorical practice among the preachers and speakers that I fear it is a systemic dysfunction in the attractional church paradigm which has defined itself largely in contrast to the boring, irrelevant, "traditional" church. This is what I'm talking about: The warning that there are "religious people" in our churches threatening our contempo-casual culture.

First of all, there are people in every church, no matter what kind of church it is, who struggle with the distinction between law and gospel, who struggle with the driving place of grace in their pursuit of holiness, so it won't do to deny that legalism looms in our churches. Legalism lurks in every heart, actually, mine and yours. But this constant invoking of the judgmental "religious people" is very often a boogeyman. It's an imagined threat, a scare tactic employed to both justify dumb exercises in license and arouse the self-satisfied mockery of self-identified "grace people."

I remember first reflecting on these theoretical lurking legalists when the elders of a church I attended fired our lead pastor. This pastor — a minor celebrity in the attractional world at the time — hosted rallies in parks, spoke to the local news, etc. to give his side of the story.

He said the reason he was fired was because the elders wanted to satisfy "religious people" who wanted to make the church more stuffy and traditional. This was demonstrably not true. He was fired for a long record of unrepentance in the areas of self-uncontrol, short-temperedness, verbal abuse, isolation, and the like. But I also knew his claims weren't true because I'd been in the church long enough to know that those "religious people" weren't there. That kind of person wouldn't have lasted a month at our church. Our music, our architecture, our dress, our media, and our message was designed in part to repel them.

I've seen it happen over and over again, especially as other prominent leaders in the attractional world disqualify themselves and lose their platforms. The specter of the judgmental "religious people" is very often brought up, if not as the cause of the pastor's fall, at least in the ensuing discussions, as anyone who finds their removal justified is labeled a legalist or what-have-you.

With a moment's thought, the logic is easy to see, actually: Those kind of "religious people" hate these kinds of churches. So they don't go to them. The truth is that people who hate attractional churches and the pastors who lead them, the people who are beyond humbly critical and well into legalistic judgmentalism, the people who want stuffy traditional "boring" worship don't go to attractional churches. Legalistic hatemongers who get out of bed hungry to rant on their blogs or what-have-you about Steven Furtick actually exist, yes, but they go to other churches. And even if these kinds of churches did happen to have these kinds of people skulking about their congregations, out of a sense of masochism or whatever, they do not have them in any sizable number that would merit entire productions devoted to their offense.

So we're left with two options, really:

– Pastors who invoke the "religious people" boogeyman are really just trying to offend people outside their church. This might be good for laughs and applause, good red meat for the congregation, good for entertainment, but it is also profoundly stupid. If you make decisions at your church out of a desire to thumb your nose at people at other churches, you need to get a life.

– Pastors who invoke the "religious people" boogeyman are really just bullying and dismissing sincere people in their churches who have concerns or questions about the goings-on. It's a fantastic way to deflect all criticism, whether it's legitimate or not. It's a great way to insulate oneself from reflection and accountability by drowning it out with the fan club's laughter and chest-thumping.

"Pharisee," "legalist," "religious person" is the church version of Godwin's Law, shutting down any discussion with an extreme labeling of your opponent before the discussion really even gets started. It is the rhetorical nuclear option specifically designed to shut up anyone with questions and paint them among their brothers and sisters as graceless jerks. But I think it actually works the other way around:

Employing the "religious people" boogeyman ironically indulges in what it professes to decry. It is a great way to pray along with the self-justified pharisee, "I thank you God that I'm not like those religious people."

If you've got real legalists in your church — and you do — the only righteous way to intentionally offend them is by preaching the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. Everything else is just vain posturing and prideful provocation.