Elitism and Legalism

By John of Let My People Go

Human beings need contrast for anything to have meaning to them. The term daytime, for instance would have no significance to people unless they have experienced nighttime, heat has no meaning without the experience of cold, love without hate means nothing and similarly being right has no special meaning unless others are wrong. Invalidation of others provides the experience of being right as others are shown to be wrong promoting the accompanying feelings of superiority and “specialness”. One of the characteristics of the generally accepted view of cults is that they claim to enjoy a unique and somewhat elite position with God himself and consider themselves “special” as a result. One need only read Joseph Smith’s account of how he came to receive the Book of Mormon to acquaint oneself with the idea that his followers are in possession of more “truth” than the next religion as God has told him personally that in effect all the other religions have strayed from Him and it was basically upon Smith’s shoulders to be the messenger of correction for the benefit of the world or more precisely for those prepared to subject themselves to the truth, his version of it, at least.

Invalidation of others is the strategy employed not only by Joseph Smith and the Mormons but by most religions, major and minor the world over, and quite obviously is the only means available to create a point of difference without which a distinct following or organizational membership becomes impossible. We are all familiar with these points of difference, growing up as Catholics we were repeatedly instructed that we were in the only “true church” the head of which, was no less, than Christ’s representative on Earth and as such, was infallible, the Seventh Day Adventists’ point of difference is that they know, unlike the others that the Sabbath actually occurs on Saturday, not Sunday, the Baptists know that that’s all baloney and that being fully immersed in the baptismal waters is the pivotal spiritual issue that others fail to give adequate attention to. Then there’s the old evergreen standard of the revivalists, you “must speak in tongues” to be “saved.” Of course every successful organization relies on point of difference marketing but they usually have in addition what is known as a “unique selling proposition” which in regard to the various religions is remarkably similar, it goes something like this, “your destiny whether it be eternal life or eternal damnation is dependant on being aligned with our religion as many others are in deadly error and if the “blind lead the blind, shall not both fall in the ditch” or some other such message of doom and eternal destruction that is conveniently invented and effectively utilized. Under these interesting arrangements the Baptists for instance would know that the billions involved with Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are certainly “not going” and they would have severe doubts about the Seventh Day Adventists, the Catholics, the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a wide selection of some 4,000 other religions, who haven’t chosen Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Their God, they would have us believe, although the very definition of love itself, would have no hesitation in preparing eternal fire for these groups as retribution for simply choosing unwisely, and that, as a product of the mis-information or the lies of supposed mischievous evildoers. Can you just picture God reveling in the unbearable agony of those, so disposed of, not just for an hour or two, but for an eternity? Can you just imagine a loving God issuing an eternal consequence in exchange for a temporal mistake in judgment? However, I digress; the much cherished pastime of invalidating others or being “right” is not limited to other religions or denominations but can often be seen to occur between congregations of the same denomination and even between individual members of the same congregation where competition for elevation on the pecking order is the prize. The secular community aren’t deprived of the fun either as evidenced quite commonly in the “your say” columns of the daily papers where everyone, ranging from evolutionists to gay rights activists to those who question God’s lack of intervention in the Tsunami’s are quickly, if not convincingly, corrected by the bearers of divine wisdom and truth. Invalidation, although effective in the process of empire building comes complete with a string of negative side effects particularly for those who are “wrong.” Inferiority is one that comes to mind and its stable mate, superiority another. People are essentially community animals and the prospect of rejection, loss of face or threat of isolation, are natural fears, that churches notoriously seize upon on in manipulative endeavors, causing severe anxiety on a grand scale providing, in reasonably liberal doses, the fuel of fear that fires profound bitterness, anger and out and out hatred. One need not have a degree in calculus to realize that judging the “unsaved” is totally unproductive to the max in bringing about their “correction.” Of course, invalidators simply don’t think of these side effects and wonder why the “lost” aren’t gathering around in ever increasing numbers to avail themselves of the benefits of the unquestionable wisdom they possess.

The internet, as we all know, allows for the rapid exchange of information on a mind blowing scale, a fact not lost on the religious community. One of these religious groups, a self proclaimed “ministry,” going by the name of watchman.org, perform a valuable service for God in their own minds, but also provide a classic example and personification of the spiritual elitism this article refers to. Watchman act as a kind of consultant to a handful of Christian denominations including Baptists and Episcopalians who strangely enough, have doctrinal differences with each other, though, obviously reconcilable to watchman.org and to the satisfaction of the religious denominations who share the watchman bed. An almost inexhaustible list of individuals and groups appear on their website replete with observations of their error or errors and any other “dirt” that can be sourced. Naturally some of the groups exposed have proven to be quite dangerous and should be avoided like the bubonic plague, however, watchman.org although offering a brief statement of what they do believe, proffer no evidence and make no attempt to demonstrate why or how their beliefs reside on the bedrock of absolute truth, demonstrating an ignorant and arrogant presumption on their part, and obviating the question of why , they themselves, don’t appear on their own list. Watchman are not evaluating religious beliefs per se, inasmuch as they evaluate them as they compare to their own religious beliefs and so, have a conflict, we are to assume that their beliefs are true, because they present them as a given, a fait accompli without Watchman making the slightest attempt to validate them, with either convincing proof, or compelling argument. Is this not a classic case of the elitist pot, calling the supposedly errant kettle black? It's extremely easy to identify the error in someone else's religion, even indulging in rational, logical thinking to do so, to spot the error in one's own religion, however, is entirely a different matter often requiring a blatant determined refusal to utilize the rational, logical and critical thought processes in order to avoid that realization of error at the most fundamental level, where indulgence in circular reasoning becomes the preferred tactical strategy.

Invalidation of any group or individual for that matter is fundamentally impossible without a standard in place to apply as the yardstick for correct measurement or judgment. This standard, from a religious perspective is the law, laws, or commandments contained in the holy book of your choice and is used to determine if people are in the “right” or conversely in the “wrong” as measured against the particular standards of any given religion. In the case of Christian religions, very clear contradictions occur which indicate that a state of utter confusion exists in the mind of the typical Christian in regard to many beliefs, which seemingly are, more reminiscent of a vague collection of unrelated images or superstitions circulating in their minds, as opposed, to a clearly ordered, demonstration of rational, critical thought that leads to logical, plausible conclusions. The main contradiction I refer to, regards the central message of the New Testament, and that is, that Jesus died on the cross in order to redeem mankind, a free gift, forming the basis of the Christian message that you are saved by grace not by works, lest any man should “boast.” Commonly called righteousness by faith, it is the main distinction between Christianity and other religions and is preached from the pulpit on a regular basis, being, amongst other things an effective point of difference. What is not preached from the pulpit on a regular basis however are the effective implications of this “grace” doctrine because taken to it’s logical conclusion, Christians, are totally and gloriously free, as there is nothing they can do, that could add in the slightest to the perfect gift that God has given through his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. Further to that, one can then see, that Christians really don’t have to do, or be, anything at all, period, they don’t have to pretend to be “good” or “happy” they don’t have to give to the poor, they don’t have to stay in that unhappy relationship, they don’t have to rock up to church every Sunday [or Saturday] and they don’t have to pay 10% of anything to anyone, they are totally and absolutely at liberty. “If the Son of God sets you free, you are free indeed.” It also means that there’s nothing that they are capable of doing that could possibly incur an eternal spiritual consequence, and to suggest there is, constitutes an appeal to the law and calls into question the power and efficacy of the blood of Christ. Now, your average run of the mill churchgoer, accommodates diametrically opposed concepts in his or her mind on just this issue, one being that people are saved by grace alone, while simultaneously believing they must try to observe the law in their Christian walk and be “good.” What you end up with of course is a sort of unconditional love that’s performance based, a situation which I believe most churchgoers would readily identify as the current reality of church life. It appears that the escape route to freedom, the “gift of God” has been rejected by Christians who don’t quite understand, apply or believe in their own gospel of peace preferring the maintenance of a “sin consciousness” in themselves and in others, insisting on the observance of a model of behavior derived from the “law” or in other words legalism, when in actuality, according to their own teaching the “law” in effect, has been abolished.

Make no mistake grace and legalism are totally opposed and therefore one cannot appropriate a little of each and retain the integrity of either, either you walk in grace or you obey the law, as the bible explains if one observes the law at all one must observe the whole law. A full realization and understanding of the gospel of grace also makes religious leaders, in effect, redundant, and perhaps explains just why the sermons on the doctrine of grace don’t venture terribly far into a full examination of the absolute freedom and spiritual assurance, the doctrine actually implies.

Judgment, obviously is the function of legalism and uppermost in the mind of the legalist is his conception of what and who is right or wrong, the law itself being the highest priority, enjoying more status than even the people the legalist purports it “serves,” and in complete contrast to the example of God and Jesus Christ who would never have submitted to the cross were the law more important than the people. Legalism presents a distorted, imbalanced and corrupted image of God and is identified even by our friends at watchman.org as the basis of Spiritual abuse.

Your typical legalist possesses and exhibits a stunning presumption along with the bliss of supreme ignorance and insensitivity. Completely impervious to pain, other people’s at least, He is apt to judge all manner of things in a flash. Fully armed with an intimate knowledge of God’s will and it’s application to the most personal and delicate areas of another persons life, the legalist, has supreme confidence in his ability to divine good from evil, eagerly deciding what others should and shouldn’t do in an instant. Not discouraged by the fact that he’s not acquainted with all the relevant details to make an informed judgment, neither does he suffer the unreasonable inconvenience of having to consider the actual ramifications of his edicts on the lives of others. He identifies no need either to necessarily follow the lofty sounding advice offered to others when facing similar circumstances himself. The legalist lurches from stunning presumption to the depths of hypocrisy raising his own self delusion to the level of art. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a Church for any length of time knows what I’m getting at. The couple believing they had a “ministry” in the area of marriage guidance counseling suddenly parting ways after years of advising others that “God hates divorce,” or the story recounted to me by a youth leader of a small church where an older woman was found to be carrying on an affair with a boy in the youth group, a situation of grave concern and the subject of a meeting of the Elders and others in leadership including the boy’s youth leader. The suggestion by one gentleman Elder that this was indeed an untenable situation requiring the ex-communication of the offending parties was immediately challenged by the youth leader who had been observant enough to note that the Elder offering this solution was himself having an affair with another woman in the church. Of course, such tales of the goings on in Gods house are legion, with people not so much suffering the accusation of hypocrisy because they’ve failed in an area, but, because they exhibit no qualms or restraint in the dutiful ego boosting exercise of advising others how to live. The ignorance of some of these people is astounding, for they, almost immediately, following their own failures, display a disarming resilience to learning the lessons of the awry presumption of their own wisdom by climbing back onto the high moral ground of the legalist to once again assume the mantle of judge.

This excerpt from the highly respected volume of “A Course In Miracles” provides another perspective on the exercise of applying judgment, particularly "snap" judgments.

“The aim of our curriculum, unlike the goal of the world’s learning, is the recognition that judgment in the usual sense is impossible. This is not opinion but a fact. In order to judge anything rightly, one would have to be fully aware of an inconceivably wide range of things; past, present and to come. One would have to recognize in advance all the effects of his judgment on everyone and everything involved in them in any way. And one would have to be certain there is no distortion in his perception, so that his judgment would be wholly fair to everyone on whom it rests now and in the future. Who is in a position to do this? Who except in grandiose fantasies would claim this for himself? Remember how many times you thought you knew all the “facts” you needed for judgment, and how wrong you were! Is there anyone who has not had this experience? Would you know how many times you merely thought you were right, without ever realizing you were wrong? Why would you choose such an arbitrary basis for decision making? Wisdom is not judgment; it is the relinquishment of judgment.”

Another problem the legalists encounter is one of consistency in the application of judgment. As already suggested the basis of judgment rests on the law in scripture providing the means of measurement of a persons “rightness” or “wrongness.” Any churchgoer has witnessed situations where the “law” component of the scripture is appropriated for one person while another in a very similar circumstance is apportioned the “grace” component of the scriptures. Puzzling as this appears the easy and most obvious answer and I suggest the most accurate is that the personal likes, dislikes, jealousies, insecurities, envies or alternately admiration and respect for one’s perceived level of success, social standing, possessions, sporting prowess, looks, charm or sex appeal comes into play as the pivotal criteria that decides the overall acceptance or rejection of a person, but publicly justified of course under the guise of a scriptural prerogative, quite contrary to any concepts of “justice” one might reasonably expect from those committed to the “truth” or indeed to God. This inconsistency goes unrecognized to a very large extent in the average church as leaders enjoy a position of trust and as such it is assumed by congregations that they are always acting in the interests of truth, justice and the American way. It’s quite an amazing coincidence that those who seek God’s will on any given subject are thoroughly delighted to discover just how often it ends up as a perfect match of their own. In the interests of demonstration a woman I know, attending a small church wore something of a label to put it mildly as a result of what was regarded as the immoral situation of living in a de-facto relationship or “living in sin” as the lingo translates. In contrast a perceived wealthy businessman visiting the church but living under exactly the same arrangements was afforded the attention of a visiting mother Theresa with only the soles of the pastor’s shoes being visible at one stage of proceedings.

Inconsistency, not only rears it’s ugly head in matters of equitable judgment and treatment of people, it’s existence is very evident at the level of agreement on a wide range of contempory issues like the ordination of women and more recently, of “gays.” Widespread disagreement persists on matters linked to social justice, international and domestic aid, criminal justice, capital punishment, family law, industrial relations, the merits of capitalism, socialism, communism, unionism, women’s roles, men’s roles, definition of “family”, divorce, marriage and re-marriage, gambling, temperance and appropriate sexual conduct and behaviors to name but a few. On many of these issues there appears to be, no unified response or truly representative view of the Christian community on the whole which begs the question as to whether the actual existence of an identifiable, genuine, typical Christian viewpoint or actual Christian entity is anything more than a monumentous modern day myth. Not only is it unlikely that religious viewpoints will ever agree on these issues, it’s unlikely that they will ever agree or have a consistent viewpoint on the meaning and interpretation of their own scriptural writings, due to the fact that firstly everyone is different. Science has proven that human D.N.A. is almost identical, in the order of 98% plus, with the balance of 2% allowing for variables like every person on the planet possessing their own unique set of finger prints for instance. Secondly, the scriptures, sourced from the Bible or the Koran, for that matter, are so contradictory from both a literal and implied point of view that it becomes virtually impossible, if logical processes of thought are a consideration, for a human being to appropriate and accommodate a workable belief in these same conflicting scriptures, on their own, let alone share a viable perspective with someone else.

Where elitism and legalism are significant components of so called "spiritual organizations" it is impossible that anything other than abuse can be produced, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual abuse is irrelevant, some form of abuse is the only possible outcome regardless of the existence of codes of conduct or ethics that wish to control or eliminate it's reality. As eloquently expressed in the scripture of Matthew 12:33 "Make a tree good and it's fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and it's fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by it's fruit". The "tree" of organized monotheistic religions is self evidently, man made, merely imitating true spiritually, fraud masquerading as genuine, death impersonating life.

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