06 September 2010

Advancing the Kingdom of Christ (Part 1/4)- The Error of Pietism

What is Pietism? This term is a bit complicated and can mean a lot of different things. Of course those who self-identify as Pietists will not agree with my definitions or comments.

One, it can refer to a historical movement within Lutheranism which focused on inward piety and the Christian life.


Two, it can refer in a larger sense to a tendency toward inward focus on the subjective Christian experience. Rather than view the Christian life as primarily a focus on the Person and Work of Christ in all that we do, pietism tends to turn inward. It focuses on the Christian walk and inner feelings regarding that walk, and measures one's success and level of pleasing God based on personal conduct.

Yet, it often operates in categories specific to its cultural context. Viewing culture as holy, or to put it differently, viewing the entire universe as The Kingdom, it rejects the validity of an impure Common Grace order and seeks to establish a Christian sub-culture, a realm of the pure.

Pietism is always a reaction to trends within the Church, usually due to trends within culture that have entered the Church. It sets itself up to combat worldliness. It's not always in every instance a bad thing. We need to be aware of worldliness entering the church. This means the Elders/Bishops are not fulfilling their duty. But to react and begin looking at conduct defined by the cultural norms and context…we can get into trouble.

Ironically, in trying to establish a sub-culture and defining piety with reactionary categories, the sub-culture is often just a version or reflection of the main culture it is derived from. I call this the Sacral Stop Point. If you didn't get that, they set up a miniaturized 'holy culture' based off of and dependent upon the larger culture. Their understanding of Christian Culture cannot be understood apart from the culture they are borrowing from or using as a foundation. So often the things they are upset about relate to cultural shifts rather than a specific teaching grounded in the Word of God. Or sometimes it represents taking perhaps a single verse, reading it through the cultural lens and then applying it out of proportion.

Pietists often pick a point historically when they think times were good and the Church was right. Usually their piety-standards are derived from the ideals and values of this period and specifically a rejection of the 'bad' trends which followed.

I've written elsewhere of those who view the 1950's as the golden age and equate Christian piety with the dress and customs of that time. Or with a different nuance we can detect the culture of the 1910's in the Holiness movement.

There are certain general fallouts from this type of thinking. Again these are generalizations, but common enough....

and Devotion to a leader,

1. Since so much focus is on the peculiar aspects of this stop-point in culture, rather than establish a true separate culture (which is not possible unless you altogether vacate), they show an extreme dependence on the mother culture. With this comes a certain xenophobia and cultural bigotry.

In America, these groups embed their faith in American cultural ideals...just ones from the past. They are hostile to modern cultural trends, but even more so to foreign ones because these directly threaten the foundation of their whole system. Rather than create an American counter-culture...they are wholly dependent on certain Americanisms for their very identity.

Hence, you have strange scene of people who in reality despise 99% of the American population, but still put In God We Trust stickers on the backs of their cars and hang flags in front of their houses. Fiercely patriotic, the country they love is a dream.

Again, they seek to be separate and yet are wholly dependent on an American culture to define themselves, an America they have romanticised, and thus they despise its present manifestation.

2. Since the essence of the Christian life is in conformity to these standards. And since the standards are often not found in the Scriptures, there is in practice little focus on Biblical doctrine. What standards am I talking about? Some readers will know already. But, let's say dress, food, music, books, movies, hair, acceptable occupations, geography, and much more. All these things can work in different ways within these groups. The focus is on their version of the Christian Life. The Biblical evidence is often garnered by a proof-texting method removed from context or from elaborate word-study arguments concerning the exact meaning of a word and yet totally ignoring the larger context or perhaps a New Testament text which would give greater light on the specific issue.

I've met many people who have spent tremendous amounts of time studying specific words in Hebrew which speak to garments. They develop certain ideas about what is modest, what sort of lengths these garments had, things like that. Or others have done whole studies on hair and what exactly this or that means regarding what is long hair, what is a covering and so forth. Does the Bible speak to these issues? Yes, but not in these types of precise terms. We are to apply these things with wisdom and understanding and dare I say carefully interacting with our cultural context. Different cultures have slightly different notions of modesty. Some seem a little loose by American standards, others quite conservative. The June Cleaver look of many an American pietist would appear whorish in many cultural settings and yet appear comic and nonsensical in others. There are right answers, but I would exercise great caution before I bound someone else's conscience. Calling something sin when God has not called it sin is legalism of the first order and the accuser can be just as guilty of sin, or in many cases the only one who is sinning. Pietists generally refuse to consider issues like this. They've got a system and look to go with it, a list of rules and they are non-negotiable.

Elsewhere I've employed my chocolate cake scenario. There's nothing inherently good or evil about a piece of chocolate cake. We can with a clear conscience enjoy it and praise God. But if I consume five pieces in one sitting I can make myself sick and something that was neither here nor there has now been used for evil.

I answer, we need to be wise about how we eat chocolate cake (or any other thing we do).

The Pietist says, forbid the eating of chocolate cake because someone might be tempted to abuse it and eat too much.

This is the wrong answer but the Pietist feels safe because the danger has been removed. The problem is when I eat the chocolate cake in front of the Pietist they then despise me but they are the party in sin. Also, by focusing on these types of issues (I'm being silly with the cake of course), they lose sight of the Christ and His Kingdom. They become consumed by these things and fall into the trap of thinking the Kingdom is about food and drink rather than righteousness, peace, and joy.

All of this works toward what I would call an anti-intellectual tendency. I don't mean this to insult the individual intelligence of these people. What I mean is since the focus is on code conformity, and only with this conformity comes the subjective feeling of approval in the eyes of God, the intellectual exercise of probing the Scriptures and developing doctrinal concepts is viewed with suspicion. It's not really important to them. What matters is practice. The Scriptures are read in a certain manner, but doctrine is suspect. There is a certain fear, I don't know what else to call it, of probing and developing doctrines which might turn the focus away from the code, question the code, or bring division within the adherents of the code. Doctrinal discussion can also lead to nuance which demands wisdom in order to apply God's commands in certain situations. These people tend to lean heavily on a specific but often unwritten list or rules and regulations not to be questioned.

Practice is important but is blind without a Theology to guide it. Our actions demonstrate our theological and philosophical beliefs. They are being put into practice. That's why we so keenly need to focus on Christ Jesus. Only through Him will we know God the Father. And we know God by His Word. This is the joy and wisdom of the Kingdom, to know God. Pietism is a downward looking theology, placing the Kingdom here, laying up treasures here, focusing here and most of all…..on me.

They fear theological study will lead to confusion and division. They fear it will lead to a barren intellectualism that lacks vigour. Yes it can. There's a danger in that as well. If you're consumed with study and knowledge but it doesn't play out in your life, you may know more than anyone else, but you're deceiving yourself.

Since time has stopped in the thinking of these groups and their very survival depends on this model, all modernism and its intellectual trappings are suspect. Many of these folk yearn for the 'simple' times. This is the romantic view of the past put into practice and to varying degrees they struggle with living in the 21st century, and yet wanting to reject the modern world. One will often find in their literature, sermons, and conversation, diatribes against technology and the modern way of life. I'm not saying there isn't some validity to some of what they say. I may even be somewhat sympathetic. We need to think about what we do and not just do it because it's the cultural norm. But with Pietism there is virtually no concept of Christian Liberty. They have no qualms about binding the consciences of others, even though the Scriptures condemn this in the harshest terms. Man cannot forbid what God has not forbidden.

This erects quite a wall in trying to reach these folks. Even questioning the validity of their legalism casts their whole system into doubt. The fear can become quite palpable and quickly turn to hostility and derisive condemnation.

There's nothing they hate more than someone who critiques their system or someone who outdoes and goes further than they. Legalists hate it when they are outdone.

3. Due to this anti-intellectual tendency there seems to be a great dependence and devotion placed upon their leaders. They are the only ones within the group who can validly investigate and study and then report to and teach the group. They function as the 'holy men' to be trusted, my term, not theirs. There's almost a cult of personality that develops around some of these men.

Despite rejecting the priesthood of Roman Catholicism they often in fact treat their pastors as priests. Some who read this will know exactly what I'm talking about, to others it may be somewhat difficult to grasp. And again, I'm generalising, there are always degrees of adherence. Not everyone will fit this exact mold, but some will.

When talking with these folks about the Bible, they often appeal to, "Well, Pastor X said," and develop arguments along those lines. The teacher is viewed as 'a godly man,' not to be questioned. Rather than study the issue out they tend to place their trust in this man. Questioning him ends up being a direct attack on Christianity again making it very difficult to get through to some of these folks.

It's interesting how the same attitude tends to play out in the political arena. Rather than focusing on issues and examining them, they tend to sign on with a particular candidate especially if he knows what things to say, often in an almost code, that wins them over. They're more interested in the character of the candidate and perhaps a couple of marker issues which for them finishes all debate. Serious debate on the actual issues is not something they desire to enter into.

What I find most strange is they tend to almost deify these men. Take George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. These men have hero status in conservative Evangelical circles, the unquestionable leaders, great men. And yet if Ronald Reagan was just a local man who attended their church, they would have run him out as impious and non-Christian and certainly ungodly. But for some reason when he's the President, he's given a free pass and his Christianity is extolled. Recently a book about Laura Bush came out and has received considerable attention in these circles. After Hillary Clinton, she was the perfect First Lady, a model wife for the Christian leader of America. And yet if they bothered to read other books about her and her husband, they would certainly come undone at her cigarette chain-smoking as well as his drinking and drug use. These people would not be tolerated within their own congregation, certainly not looked to for leadership. But when he becomes 'the leader,' it's like he becomes an untouchable. Questioning the Christian President would cast their whole world into doubt. It's sort of a case of their mythologised America combined with their leader-trust tendency. Personally I don't care what they do and what they did in the past, that's hardly my concern. As far as smoking and drinking, it is the Pietist who makes the issue out of these things. As with anything, it can be abused, but it matters little to me if someone drinks or smokes. Even these issues are often defined by cultural standards rather than the Scriptures.

Reminiscent of the Know-Nothing party of the past, they are almost disdainful of geo-political discussion, and fear once again rears its head when the domestic realities come to bear. They don't come out and say it, but it's almost as if they just wish 'all those other people' would just go away. As the demographics of America have changed they grow increasingly isolated.

One example. Visiting Niagara Falls one will find a tremendous number of people from South Asia. You are as likely to see bindi's as Nike baseball caps. A woman in salwar kameez is almost as common as seeing people wearing clothes from Old Navy. Indian restaurants are abundant and Hindi and Urdu float through the air. There also many people from the Middle East and it's easy enough to recognize Arabs, Kurds, and perhaps some Turks. Personally I find it a very interesting place.

We know Pietist-minded people who live not too distant from Niagara Falls and now in recent years refuse to visit, being fearful and uncomfortable around so many 'foreigners' and other languages.

This exposes what I think is the undercurrent, or perhaps some could argue the result of the fear and anti-intellectualism, and their attitudes about culture......racism and cultural superiority and pride.

This heresy has also been making quite a comeback in conservative Evangelical circles. It's always been there beneath the surface, but some are becoming defiant and trying to justify it from the Scriptures.

Pietism stems from a wrong view of the Kingdom of God. It is often driven by anger and fear. For others it is a self-righteousness, and for some it is genuine zeal but not according to knowledge. Always provincial, it must be rejected. There are untold multitudes who have confused this with Biblical Christianity and in frustration, defeat, and misguided guilt have entirely abandoned the faith.

In Part 4, I hope to discuss what is the right view of the Christian life, the life of the Kingdom, and what is the sum, the core of what the Christian life is all about. The answer once clearly seen exposes Pietism for what it is…false humility, or to put it another way, religious pride…the exact opposite of what we are supposed to be exhibiting. More to come….


Philip Robinson said...

Very interesting. I've been musing on fasting recently - where would you put that in terms of piety? I know Jesus said not to make a show of it, but do it so that nobody else knows.

Protoprotestant said...

As always...wisdom.

The Scriptures speak of it...it's a good thing, but as our Lord seemed to indicate...it can be made into something bad.

That's where it gets difficult. I wrote about some of these issues in the piece called Two Kingdoms and Separatism. I think a lot of it is the motivation behind what you're doing, where your heart is at. Just like the person who brags about fasting, a lot of people 'do' a lot of things not for God's glory...but for other motivations. Not always, but often they're actually rather self-oriented.

When touring Rome and watching all the RC pilgrims, I often reflected on how 'flesh-pleasing' that system is. You're doing things, climbing up stairs on your knees, touching tombs, fingering beads, kneeling, all things that really please the flesh. I can see why it appeals to people. It's tangible while Protestantism often seems cerebral. But in the end...what saith the Scriptures?

Like I said in the TK&S piece, sure my wife is modestly dressed and all that...the Scriptures do speak of these things. We need to be obedient, but with a lot of Pietistic people...it takes on a life of its own and becomes something else.

Piety yes, Piet-ism...no.

The Sciptures give us general guidelines not checklists. These people tend to like checklists, and then try and force them on everyone else.

I'm not sure how prevalent this would be where you are at. I know you have Baptists and folks like that, but are they the variety that has strict dress codes, all that sort of thing?

For example where we live, many a Baptist or Holiness lady would condemn my wife for wearing a skirt with flowers or something like that...too worldy. Or...you have to wear you hair in a certain kind of bun or it's not properly Christian. She's not a Christian, because she wears a ring or bracelet. All that kind of business. It's rather vexing, because that's what the Christian life is all about to them. They've taken Scriptural concepts like femininity and modesty and abused them and made them into something...ugly, spiritually ugly.

In the end as Romans 14 says, whatsoever is not of faith is sin. I don't want to bind anyone's conscience beyond the Scriptures, but I don't want them to bind mine either. Even when dealing with these people we don't agree with...we have to be wise. I don't want to trample them, even though they are more than willing to absolutely crush others.

So...fasting, absolutely. Is it necessary? I would say no, not everyone has to do it. It's a good thing, but if you're doing it should be kept quiet. Obviously you can't hide it from you wife, I think that's permitted (smile).

One thing I've encountered recently and I'll admit I'm not sure what to think of it...I know some people who fast regularly, a set time every week. My initial response is to think of Roman practice, but that's not what they're about...so I've been considering it non-historically.

I don't know. I'm not sure it's something that should be scheduled like that, that might miss the spirit of what it's all about... but I'm not going to be dogmatic. Fasting I will admit is a difficult topic. I read your post and I've been thinking about it a bit. I'll think I'll read it again, and continue to ponder it.

Great question. That's a perfect example of something that can be abused and yet in of itself is a good thing.

More than anything I pray for wisdom.

Protoprotestant said...

I added some comments at Philip's blog. The link to the post is here:


Anonymous said...

Such an important message. I can sure testify to my abandoning the faith, for a time...well, several times throughout the years, because of pietism.Hard road, trying to conform to 'others'. Although considered the black sheep, because I wasn't a cookie cutter image and because of this ended up living up to my name! What I thought was rebellion to God,(when I would have a sick feeling of 'somethings not right here) was actually rebellion to a system. (Charismatic...jumping though hoops for 30 plus yrs. - no different than the RC, touching tombs and so forth...because it IS RC.)I was always on a mission to be an extraordinary Christian and turned out an extraordinary Gnostic. Now that I am a Doctrines of Grace person, see the practice of pietism all over the place,in the Reformed camps, for the exact reasons that you have described here, and other posts you've put up. Who isn't writing books or blogging these days on 'Spiritual Disciplines" or some form of it? Great concern. So many new 'popes' running around and too many following and defending them. The sad thing is while so many are trying to protect themselves, they are falling for the very things that they are trying to protect themselves from. Does that make any sense? I'm thinking along the lines of the pietism that is linked with the mysticism that is so prevalent today. Since pietism can be practiced in so many different ways,gets tricky and can easily be passed off as 'normal'. As usual, you have made me step back and take a good look at the landscape of my own life and what is being thrown around out there. Also, good point on Reagan and Bush. Yep. Can I have permission to post some of your articles? Oh, please ;)

Victoria said...

For me, the way I distinguish between true holiness and pietism, comes down to this: Are one's pious behaviors the fruit--the result--the product of one's righteousness; or is one trying to use one's pious behaviors to PRODUCE one's righteousness?
The first is normal discipleship--a holy life through regeneration because the Holy Spirit is ruling; the second is dead religion--self-righteous works, a stench to God.
On the surface, they may appear much alike--same behaviors and actions, but the spirit of each differ. The first produces life in the disciple and power to attract others to the Lord of Life; the second is only death and repulsion.
Fasting regularly may be what He calls from someone, or complete abstinence from alcohol, or throwing away the TV, or other "mortifications of the flesh" (there's an old-fashioned term, yes used by RC but a valid term anyway). It can be a consecration, something intimate between a person and His Saviour Who purchased him. It can be a way to "buffet my body and make it my slave." It can be a discipline to keep the flesh in check. It can be a help to overcome a besetting sin of gluttony. Those are all good and fine reasons, IMHO.
It becomes a problem only when one tries to make it law, binding others. Or when one uses it to establish righteousness, to "buy" something from God.

Protoprotestant said...

Ref Traveler:

I read some of your stuff about breaking free from the Charismatic world. It can be rough road, one that has caused a lot of suffering.

There are some people who have never had that kind of experience, and they literally just don't understand what it's like. I've had some people who have grown up in shall we say, more sound Churches...and they think when you critique these other systems, you're just being too harsh.

No, it's that bad. I think with love and wisdom, we need to be harsh. Not sure how those go together, but the most extreme forms of Pietism are sending people to hell I'm afraid. It can be that destructive.

And yes I think I understand what you mean about how trying to protect themselves...they often fall flat on their faces.

Keep focusing on Christ! or else we get into big trouble.

I'm afraid Pietism is so inward looking it can easily slip into mysticism. It can be so oppressive, I think it can lead to sin.

Sure, post away. I'm not sure everyone who visits your site will appreciate it, but by all means. Feel free to critique as well. Just give me a heads up. I try to at least drop a line whenever I'm going to critique someone else's work. Just a courtesy... 99% of the time I don't think they care what I say.

Thanks for encouragement.

Protoprotestant said...


I think you're making the right distinctions. Actions might look the same in some cases, but wow...the motives can be very different. And, I think to some extent it shows.

In part 4, I hope to talk about what the Christian life looks like and how that builds the Kingdom. It won't be exhaustive of course, but the main point...the core of the Christian life...the antithesis of our lives by which we build the Kingdom is something you hit on...

Mortification and/or Self-Denial.

Putting to death the old man, dying to self.

Not very popular today is it? All I seem to hear is the opposite.

And as far as personal piety...yes, we have to know ourselves and be wise.

I would never (as some do) tell someone you can't have a television. I might argue that it's wise not to have one, but you can't say it's sin in and of itself just because people use it sinfully.

Do I personally have it? No. I ditched it in 1995 and don't miss it at all. Why don't I have it? It's often a waste of time...and I will freely admit, I will waste copious amounts of time watching it. So for me, it's better not to have it. I don't have the self control.

But I have no right to tell someone else the same. I know people who can with maturity and wisdom have cable television and not abuse it. I'm not one of them.

That said, the internet is great. I can watch news, documentaries even movies sometimes. I'm not opposed to video technology, I just don't want conventional television because of me.

I've known Christians who drink responsibly. I've known others who struggled with alcohol in the past and they know it's better to stay away from it. But they have no right to condemn those who have a glass of wine with dinner. But the guy having wine with dinner shouldn't have it while the abstainer is over at his house for dinner. Not because it's wrong or because he's being a hypocrite, but out of love.

Your last statement also shows I think that you're appreciating the difference between 'doing something' out of wisdom versus doing it to make one's self righteous, or as you put it 'buy' something.

This is where it gets nuanced and something that's okay, can become something bad. I may skip having television because I know my own temptations to watch stuff I shouldn't watch, or waste a lot of time. So I skip it. But if I then in a spirit of pride, think I'm better, more holy because I've checked this box as it were, then I can be in trouble. And even worse, if I judge others as lesser Christians for not following my example...I've taken a good and wise thing and made it into something bad.

I've taken something good and turned it into self-righteousness, in fact, I've made it into part of the gospel.

If I'm saying you have to do this to be a Christian, then that is gospel...and that's where Pietism can be really destructive. They actually can end up presenting a false gospel.

Wow, great comments.