Pietism began as a movement in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Lutheran church as a reaction to strict orthodoxy. Pietism emphasizes the subjective, individual experience of the christian with less emphasis on doctrine and the objective work of Christ on our behalf. Pietism is so rampant and pervasive in American christianity, so a part of the wallpaper, that we hardly notice it. I grew up as a full blown pietist and didn’t even know it. The emphasis for me was always on ‘my christian walk’, ‘my testimony’, ‘evidence in my life that I’m a christian’, and so on. Back in those days, pietists had a much different face than today. We abstained from tobacco, alcohol, secular music, dancing, secular movies and often participated in programs such as The Victorious Christian Life, Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles and whole host of Bible studies whose primary focus was on the christian and his experience of faith. Pietism may have had a face lift but as a movement and an epistemology, it is alive and well and very influential in American christianity. Today, it is manifest in various forms and seems to have loosened it’s strict model for morality. Most of the above mentioned ‘sins’ are now loosely tolerated if not accepted but there is still a profound emphasis on obedience to the law as the method of growth in Christ and on the subjective experience of the christian in worship and in evangelism.
There is an assumption that there are levels of spirituality; that we are somehow ‘climbing’ a ladder of holiness, which makes it dangerously easy to look ‘down’ on the ladder at who’s has not yet achieved your high status of moral and religious excellence. I know full well the ladder of sanctification lifestyle because I ‘climbed’ these rungs for years. Until I fell off the ladder and came crashing to the ground and saw my life ‘shattered’ right before my very eyes. Very few people came to my aid…..because it’s hard to help someone on the ground when you’re holding so tight to your own ‘holiness’. I don’t blame them either. I’ve done the same thing many times to others and I heartily repent for the how my pietism obscured the pure gospel of Christ. Pietism makes it easy to judge those who don’t seem to be showing the ‘fruit’ that our lives are producing.
Pietists are often very mission minded; certainly in and of itself a good thing. But often what they offer to the lost world is ‘a christian life like mine with my lifestyle of integrity and prosperity’ ; the emphasis being on the practical advantages of being a christian. Pietists are often characterized by tight fellowship and accountability groups and offer that ‘fellowship’ to the world as another benefit of becoming a christian. It is often a very Christ-less movement in that most of the ‘benefits’ that are offered to the world do not hinge on the redeeming work of Christ….but instead on the sanctified life of the believer.
Pietistic worship is often centered around emotional and heartfelt responses with the preaching often focused on the making the life of the christian more….holy, moral, sanctified, and righteous. A common phrase heard in a pietistc bible study would be “What does this verse mean to you?” This movement in christianity always drives us back to ourselves instead of to the One who can truly teach us and feed us, with his Word, His body and His blood. This shift toward looking inward for meaning is a dangerous shift away from the all-availing work of Christ on our behalf and His alien righteousness which is imputed to us freely. Craig Parton, a lutheran apologist, wrote,
“Thus the greatest threat to the church today is not from the ACLU, Martin Scorsese, The New Age Movement, Gangsta Rap, Planned Parenthood, Time-Warner, Madonna, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, or Hugh Hefner. The greatest threat is a crossless pietism that has been given luxury-box seating within the walls of the church militant. It is a crossless pietism with confidence in the old Adam and in the life-giving power of the law. “
Pietism is alive and well, in our churches and in our own lives. And even though I’ve learned what ‘name’ to call it, it rears its ugly head in my life all the time. The old Adam in me wants to trust in my own subjective experience of Christ IN me versus the objective work of Christ FOR me. Christ came and died in my stead, fulfilled the law perfectly in my place to set me free; to rescue me from the all the climbing and to set me on the sure footing of His perfect atoning love and grace. And tomorrow, when I construct another ladder of my own works and my own private spirituality and righteousness, He will again come with His Word and sacraments to remind me that there is one type of christian: the one saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
For a more clear presentation of this subject, try this article written by Craig Parton or this online radio segment from Issues, Etc. featuring host Todd Wilken and guest Dr. Larry Rast.
And just so you know, I am so thankful for you my blog readers. For those of you who are so kind to send comments and emails and to read my sometimes ‘wayward’ rantings. I pray for you and thank God for the encouragement you have been in my life.