The Problem with Law Based Churches

The text for this sermon is Galatians 5. It is part of a series of sermons on Galatians.

I have always been a history nut. I have always kept abreast of world events, even as a kid. On my tenth birthday, August 9, 1974, I remember watching on our small black and white TV used in the kitchen, Richard Nixon announce that he was resigning his presidency for the good of the nation. I doubt if too many other ten year olds were paying as close attention to this culmination of the Watergate scandal, especially on their birthday.

In High School I took a course on communism that my school offered as an elective. That’s right, while other kids were taking fun and easy classes for their electives, like aerobics, I was learning about Marx and Lenin. In a conversation that I had with my mom, I mentioned how interesting the class was and how much communism sounded like the kind of churches described in the book of Acts. In Acts, you will remember it tells us that the early church threw in all of their possessions together and lived fully in community, trusting and serving each other entirely.

My mom, likely fearing that in the midst of the Cold War I would get put on some FBI watch list, set out immediately to convince me that communism sounds good but it just doesn’t work. People need incentives to do the right thing. If you just trust that people are going to work for their neighbor, they are going to let you down. She pointed out that Stalin bringing together all of the farms of Russia into one collective, took away the incentive of farmers to work hard like farmers need to do to be successful. What resulted in the thirties was massive starvation where millions died in communist Russia. Communities need to be built on laws not trust to thrive.

This bleak assessment of humanity might have been the argument of the “invading” Christian missionaries in Paul’s Galatian churches. Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians to counter their message. These missionaries likely told the Galatian churches that Paul baptized you into the faith without giving you proper instruction on the law and how to keep the world’s vices from overtaking your life. Paul told you all about love, God’s love, good stuff. But Paul didn’t tell you how to live in the world we live in where you can’t trust love and we need laws to keep each other honest. The law helps all of us from going adrift into selfish, fleshy, sinfulness. Paul is a dreamer, they might have said, but communities solely built around trust in each other without laws  just won’t work.

Today’s reading is Paul pushing back from this dose of realism that the Galatian churches had so quickly accepted. Paul argues that churches built around laws immediately start moving away from the work of the Spirit begun in baptism. In today’s lesson, Paul doesn’t explain why, but we can guess his arguments.  Residents in law based churches focus inward to their own behavior and their own salvation, rather than outward to interacting with love to all of their neighbors. While at the same time, paradoxically, they judge the outside world with real scorn at the laws they have broken. And since no one can keep all of the laws, they reassure themselves that they have kept the really important ones, as they figure it and surely more than their unsaved neighbor. Simply put, law based churches become all about themselves and grow to seem themselves opposed to their world.

Paul is sticking by the hope of a loving community that is walking with the Spirit. Paul doesn’t buy that communities of love will be morally adrift, as the backers of law based communities suspect. If churches are walking with the Spirit their members should have little interest in the obvious things that we know are bad. We don’t need laws to spell out that fornication or drunkenness are bad. Not because our personal desires have changed, but because our primary desire becomes our neighbor. Fornication, sex with partners outside of marriage and commitment is bad because it uses our neighbor as an object to gratify ourselves. Drunkenness is bad because our drunken state endangers our neighbor. The Spirit will lead us away from those actions that hurt our neighbor.

It is interesting that in Paul’s list of known and common sins, the sexual sins that get all of the headlines are hardly mentioned in Paul’s list. Paul’s list contains eight different minor sort infractions that rarely get much attention by law based churches. Strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, envy, dissension, factions. These are the common everyday ways that we disappoint each other in community. The insidious small things that weaken our churches.

Law based churches are led away from God by focusing our lives inward on ourselves and our salvation. Churches that walk with the Spirit are led outside themselves, focusing their lives on their neighbor. A church walking with the Spirit will be open to the flexibility and freedom the Spirit, too. They will be willing even to break laws in order to love better. When success is measured as loving our neighbor, and not simply honoring an ancient edict, the church is allowed to change with the world to love better.

Great reformers in the church have trusted this sort of freedom. Luther challenged a hierarchy in the church that was more interested in sustaining itself than the people of God told to give money to buy salvation. Wesley walked into the fields of coal miners bringing church to workers forced to work Sundays by wealthy church goers in London. King made us see the face of God in the black faces forced to sit at the back of the bus. These leaders were not calling us to follow the law, but to break the law. They remind us that a church can be completely law abiding, while leaving the Spirit at an intersection miles back.

Nations likely need laws and incentives to keep good order, but Paul believes the church should be someplace different. We don’t need laws to tell us how to walk in the Spirit. If our lives of faith are spent walking  in the Spirit, our actions will show an unselfish love of neighbor. If we are walking in the Spirit, we will serve our neighbor and forget about our needs, our desires, our stuff.

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