Legalisms or Logos?

by Kenneth Wray Conners

Mr. Conners is lay leader of First United Methodist Church, Germantown, Pennsylvania, and author of Stranger in the Pew and Who’s in Charge Here?

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 17, 1975, pp. 1152-1156. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There seems to be a growing preoccupation with personal salvation, with being “born again,” with biblical literalism, at the expense of ministering to the neighbor. Religion in America is becoming more conservative just when Christ’s radical theology is most needed.


During a talk at a large suburban church, I refer to Christ’s first and great commandment and the second which is like it as a basis for discussing who our neighbor is, and some of the ways in which we can express our concern for that person. At one point a man in the group raises a hand in protest. "You have been speaking a lot about the neighbor, and what we can do for him," he says, a bit testily. "But I would remind you that loving God is the first commandment. That’s where the emphasis must be."

"Can we really separate the two?" I ask. "Isn’t the second equally important? Doesn’t it authenticate and implement the first? Without the second, don’t we run the risk of piety and preoccupation with ecclesiastical law -- even idolatry?" He shakes his head in disagreement.

"‘For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen,’" I quote, "‘cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.’ Can we lightly dismiss our role of Samaritans if we really take Christianity seriously?" Clearly, he is not convinced.

The scene shifts to London’s St. Mark’s Church. Before preaching to the congregation of the American Church in London, which worships in the British church’s sanctuary, I speak to an adult class. When we come to the question-and-answer period, a good-looking teen-ager, his brow furrowed, asks a perceptive question which has troubled many people twice his age: "There have been many great religious teachers besides Christ, and millions of good people have followed them. Are all of these people doomed? Where does Christ stand in comparison with, say, Muhammad or Buddha? And how about the people who never heard of Christ? Are they doomed, too?"

In reply I express may own conviction that no one who believes in God, and seeks to do his will through prayer, worship and loving acts, is doomed. As for Christ, we who call ourselves Christians regard him as the uniquely great teacher and very special manifestation of God in our midst: one who shared our existence on planet earth, bore our sins, gave his life for us, and miraculously reappeared to his disciples and others after death -- in what form, we do not know.

Instantly several hands are up. Eyes flash and lips are taut:

"John 3:16 tells us that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’

"He who does not believe is condemned already."

"He who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him."

The scene shifts again, this time to a dell-like setting on a warm summer Sunday evening. A worship service sponsored by 15 area churches has just ended. As guest speaker, I am greeted by a handful of persons as the congregation files out of the glen. One is a man of 35 who looks at me intently as he clasps my hand. "Are you born again?" he inquires.

"Why do you ask?"

"Well, you spoke about God tonight, but you spoke a lot more about social issues and becoming involved in them. It made me wonder if you’ve been born again."

"You mean in a flash -- some sudden overwhelming conversion experience?" He nods. "In that sense, I haven’t. With me, it continues to be a gradual process -- a pilgrimage. I hope I am reborn every day as I strive to become, in the words of Paul, ‘mature in Christ.’ But I can assure you I have an unshakable faith in God and his concern for us."

He looks dissatisfied. "You heard me quote Elie Wiesel this evening," I remind him, "and his words about the horrible holocaust in which 6 million Jews were put to death. This happened in a so-called Christian nation. If I stress the need to be concerned about those who are hungry, ill-treated, and without power, it is simply because it is so easy for all of us who feel we have been saved to be maneuvered into doing some very unchristian things out of fear, indifference, or a lack of sensitivity or compassion. In fact, down through history the church itself has been guilty of many of the sins it piously condemns."

He turns away, a troubled look on his face.


Encounters such as these invariably fill me with sadness, for they reflect religious attitudes which through the years have brought controversy, tension, bitterness and divisiveness to many churches and denominations, yet continue to be held by sincere persons convinced of their allegiance to Christ and his church. Such attitudes gravely weaken the church and all it should stand for. They misrepresent Christ and his gospel. They alienate sensitive people concerned for the human race, its survival and future welfare. And because they gain so much visibility -- take on such an aura of authority and religious "truth" -- they lead people outside the church to conclude that Christianity really is irrelevant to the world and its problems, confirming them in their resolve to shun organized religion and go their way as humanitarians, free-thinkers or iconoclasts. The church is immeasurably poorer for the absence of these creative, imaginative people.

Yet today there seems to be a growing preoccupation with personal salvation, with biblical literalism, at the expense of ministering to the neighbor -- unless, of course, that ministry is "evangelistic." We see it in the flourishing of fundamentalism; in the controversy raging in the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod; in the phenomenon of the Jesus freaks, the spreading charismatic movement, the popularity of Transcendental Meditation; in attacks on the National and World councils of churches and the cooling of ardor for such social issues as racial justice, world peace, and the abolition of hunger and malnutrition.

What are the theological and psychological roots of this preoccupation with "being saved," with being "born again," with deploring involvement in messy political, social and economic problems of the day? The line separating theology from psychology can be a tenuous one. After all, theological "truths" are usually sought after by very fallible human beings, whose reasoning can be warped by all the misapprehensions, distortions and prejudices fostered by their egos. One difference between a saint and a practicing theologian is the saint’s ability, to shed -- for the moment, at least -- the personal hangups that beset ordinary mortals, enabling him (or her) to receive, clearly and sensitively, the penetrating insights that God would have one grasp. Although it may be presumptuous to seek to analyze theological motives apart from the psychological, let us attempt it -- without benefit of sainthood!


Those who affirm with certainty that they are saved seem to be making three theological assumptions. First, they are categorizing themselves as members of what Peter calls "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people" (I Pet. 2:9-10). Second, they are implying that they have entered into a covenant with God which unconditionally binds the party of the second part to the terms of the contract. They regard themselves as the party of the first part: it is they who made the contract, not God. It never occurs to them that God might insist on inserting a theological escape clause, to be exercised by him in the event of nonperformance on their part! And third, they are basing their claim to salvation on their own evaluation of their personhood vis-à-vis God’s grace. All these assumptions, they would insist, are rooted in the Scriptures and therefore are beyond challenge. But surely this is a self-serving misinterpretation of Christ’s teachings and life!

For isn’t God -- and not man or woman -- the sole judge of any person’s ultimate destiny? Isn’t it presumptuous for us to look upon the gift of grace as a promissory note, payable upon demand? George Caird, principal of Oxford’s Mansfield College, illumines this point in Principalities and Powers by relating the story of a former bishop of Durham, accosted one day by a member of the Salvation Army. "Are you saved?" asked the Salvation Army worker. "That depends," replied the bishop, "on whether you mean in the past tense, the present tense or the future tense. If you mean ‘Did Christ die for me,’ undoubtedly; if you mean ‘Are my feet firmly set upon the highway of salvation,’ I trust so; but if you mean ‘Am I safe home in the blest kingdom meek of joy and love,’ certainly not."

Christ offers us a God-centered gospel, not a self-centered religiosity designed to bolster our complacency and smugness. He underscores this by warning that "not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). in the same vein, he cautions that many are called but few are chosen." And he compares the difficulty of a rich man’s entering the kingdom of God with a camel’s passing through the eye of a needle. At the same time he holds out hope for even the worst of us. When the disciples ask him "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looks at them and says, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God" (Mark 10:26-27).

As for the assumption that a covenant with God automatically assures preferential treatment, the author of Hebrews comments on the failure of the first covenant by paraphrasing Jeremiah’s words: "for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord" (Heb. 8:9). In much the same way, the new covenant also requires a commitment on the part of each Christian. It must be considered not a basis of privilege for the "in" people, but a call to service. Jesus spells out the nature of this commitment when he says: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:37-38). John reinforced the significance of this second commandment by observing, "If any one says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (I John 4:20).

Perhaps of even greater significance is the way in which Jesus responds to the question put to him by a lawyer: "And who is my neighbor?" He might have been expected to reply: "Your colleagues at the Bar Association" or "the members of your temple" or "your friends of the Coliseum Athletic Club." Instead, he relates the story of the stranger who fell among thieves on the Jericho road and was stripped, beaten and robbed. And he is specific and eminently practical in describing what a Samaritan should do to help a stranger. The neighbor, then, is simply a stranger -- any stranger -- in need. Jesus makes no reference to his race, his color, his religious beliefs.


Finally, the assumption that those who are "saved" belong to an exclusive and privileged class is refuted by Jesus in many biblical passages. Referring to the scribes and Pharisees, he deplores the fact that "they preach, but do not practice . . . they do all their deeds to be seen by men . . . they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. . . . He who is greatest among you shall be your servant" (Matt. 23:3-11). Even more pointed were Jesus’ remarks while dining at the home of a ruler who belonged, to the Pharisees: "When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you" (Luke 14:12-14).

If God is the God of all humanity, and if God is in Christ, sent to this planet to experience and share in the burdens of humanity, then our Christ clearly has a compassionate concern for all peoples, be they Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, agnostic or atheist. Paul reflects this all-inclusive God when he writes: "There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality" (Rom. 2:9). Moreover, if we dare to call ourselves followers of Christ, surely it must be our mission to have a similar concern for all peoples. We cannot be members of a tribal enclave, a privileged or "superior" group. We must share in the problems and inequities that afflict our brothers and sisters.

But here is where we so often encounter a reluctance on the part of those who stress being "born again" to acknowledge our responsibility as Christian citizens of a world in trouble. Too often they shun involvement in the dirty affairs of politics, business, and social issues. Critics of Jesus expressed the same point of view when they asked: "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Matt. 9:11).

Basically the "born-again" Christian regards the world as evil and secular, and his church as elite and sacred. Through evangelism, individual souls may be "won to Christ," but social issues are so complex that the Christian should leave them in the hands of the politician, the economist, the industrialist, the social scientist. Although we daily pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," these words are seen less as a call to social action than as a prediction of the second coming. Prophecy becomes a challenge to find in global events the catastrophes predicted in the Bible as the precursor of Armageddon, rather than a prophetic call to a nation’s leaders to repent and work for justice and human betterment. Because creation ostensibly ended with the biblical era, we who follow are not considered a part of the ongoing creative process, but are to function as the custodians of religious dogma and ritual, oblivious of Christ’s words, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandments of God, in order to keep your tradition!" (Mark 7:9).

Such thinking would appear to eliminate organized religion from any concerted effort to deal with world hunger, poverty and illiteracy, public health and sanitation, and prison reform, despite the disturbing implications of Christ’s warning: ". . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. . . . as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me" (Matt. 25:35-45).


If there is any validity to these biblical and theological interpretations that seem so at variance with religious conservatism and fundamentalism, how is it that conservative denominations and sects are showing phenomenal growth? Can an explanation be found in psychological traits deeply ingrained in the American character? Are there forces at work in our society which foster such growth?

I would suggest five concepts that appear to wield a powerful psychological influence on Christianity as practiced in contemporary America.

1. A yearning for simplistic answers to spiritual questions. Amid the mounting tensions and complexity of our computerized society, more and more people seek a simple, positive, authoritarian brand of religion. In one sense, it is a nostalgic desire to recapture the warmth and coziness of "the little church in the wildwood." In another sense, it is a vague longing for a religious "fix" -- what Marx liked to call "the opiate of the people." In either case, it results in a flight from religious pluralism and an insistence on rigidity of belief, conformity with biblical literalism, acceptance of often sterile dogma.

2. A static "frozen" religion, in which the Bible is viewed as the final revelation of God. The concept of a spiritual journey during which the pilgrim strives to come to grips with tough questions, and to become more "mature in Christ" as he finds his relationship with God and with other human beings taking on new and deeper meaning, is rejected, as is the Teilhardian concept that we are evolving spiritually toward "omega." This attitude squeezes out what Henri Nouwen refers to as "space" -- the area needed to permit the meaningful interchange of ideas and insights which can lead to spiritual growth and understanding.

3. Pietism or religiosity as opposed to secularism. Essentially this is a compartmentalizing or "bottling up" of religion so that the sacred and the secular are safely separated. Because this separation can lead to elitism and holier-than-thou attitudes, it somewhat parallels the class distinctions we maintain in our secular society. Keeping the church divorced from politics, from business ethics and from controversial social issues assures the purity of the religious body and prevents the contamination of its members. But how often the leaders of conservative denominations resort to political chicanery to win internecine battles and preserve the sanctity of their positions! The illusion of religious vitality frequently is maintained by arguing the legalisms of biblical stories which were written to lift us allegorically to insights about great truths. And evangelism is emphasized at the expense of serving "the least of these." An extreme but significant example is the TV evangelist who deplored the sending of rice to feed the starving millions of India because "a day or so later they will starve anyway -- so let’s send them, instead, the Bible!"

4. The cult of "success" based on rugged individualism. Those who founded our nation were pioneers who stressed self-reliance, the conquest of a new and virgin land, and a machismo based on force, power and schemes to outwit the opponent. As the nation grew and we experienced the opening of the west, the pangs of the industrial revolution, the exploitation of natural resources, the advent of wars, the abolition of slavery, and the enslavement of urban minorities, the Christian church adopted the success criteria used by industry and finance. Size, wealth and prestige were worshiped more religiously than all that the cross symbolizes. In conservative congregations, ministers surrendered their prophetic duty to expose the evils of society in order not to offend members for whom the church had become a badge of respectability. Washington prayer breakfasts and invocations at banquets became a pleasant way of tacitly endorsing the status quo. In the meantime, churches became innocuous, irrelevant, ineffective and inbred.

5. A preoccupation with personal salvation at the expense of Christian social concern. If only the individual can be converted, it is said, he will make his Christian witness felt in his vocational life, eliminating any necessity for the church to become directly involved in the messy issues that plague society. This can be true, to some extent, provided the church member is in a position of secular power and authority. But as persons move up the executive or political ladder, their involvement with the church unfortunately tends to diminish. Moreover, conflicts of interest inevitably appear. With the issues confronting society so intertwined with power structures, only organized efforts by thousands of aroused Christians, using modern communications techniques, can register on the public opinion meters of corporations, unions and legislative bodies. Anyone holding to the hope that more simple methods can be effective is invited to read the daily headlines chronicling the scandals and corrupt practices of public and private officials, most of whom, sad to relate, are church members technically in good standing. And if we really are striving to find God -- the God who is not locked up in some sterile sanctuary -- we are likely to encounter him while "on mission" in a hospital, a slum, a prison or a counseling center.


What conclusions can we draw from all this? First, in view of the appalling gap separating Christ’s example and our performance, we church people -- conservatives and liberals alike -- need to declare a moratorium on pious platitudes, admit our hypocrisies, and re-examine what we really are living for in the context of Christ’s imperatives. Will our personal gods continue to be nationalism, vocations, sports, the stock market, power and wealth, and the church itself?

Second, with our world in economic, political, sociological and psychological turmoil, are we Christians willing to place the needs and welfare of disadvantaged peoples ahead of maintaining our own plush standard of living? The Arab nations have forced us to glimpse what a more austere life might be like. For Christ’s sake can we, an undisciplined people, begin to think in terms of a self-disciplined life, foregoing some of our transient pleasures for the deeper joy of helping humanity -- to the point, even, of casting our votes for proposals which are contrary to our self-interest but which can help to alleviate poverty, promote peace, and confer dignity and self-respect on those less fortunate?

Third, in view of scattered signs among some evangelicals of an awakening concern about national and world problems, can all of us in churches -- liberal as well as conservative, laity as well as clergy -- have the grace to seize every opportunity for dialogue, to the end that we may begin to realize that behind our pluralism lies a God-inspired hunger for a better, more just world? And can we vow to do this with humility and a willingness to admit that our version of "truth" may not be the only valid one?

In offering these suggestions, I must confess that they confront me with a difficult struggle. We liberals too often mount soapboxes and voice lofty ideals, but avoid the nitty-gritty work of implementing them. A friend frequently uses the expression, "He’s an orthodox liberal!" Could he be referring to me?