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.
leigh ann says
I do enjoy your posts on faith. I can not even articulate and organize my thoughts enough to give an insightful comment, but I did go back to the Beth Moore post comments. I read and reread the latest one. Hmmmm….I guess everyone’s journey to Christ is different and unique. I hope you are feeling better! Keep the discussions going…I bet there are plenty of readers just waiting to jump into the mix. Beautiful snow!!
Sandy Toes says
The churches in American have almost become silent and so have the members sitting in the pews. Churches have taken their tax decuctions and with that came a “cost” that they could not speak out. We have become no different than the “world” and “society” around us!
When I first started reading this, I found myself nodding along and “amen-ing.” Then the Holy Spirit said to me, “What are you being so smug about? You’re just as bad, looking down on those who haven’t reached your level of ‘spiritual maturity.'”
Thank you so much for sharing this. I needed to hear it.
Do it yourselfer says
I am deprogramming from pietism as we speak. It is a long hard process…after being in a church for 15 years…that promotes it. I didn’t know what to call it. I can no longer sit among it. If I’ve learned anything…it’s that I know nothing and that the ground is level at the cross.
WOW! What a great post! I so needed to hear that this morning.I always try to help others but often find myself judging others for not being as “holy” as me. God is always showing me how to witness to someone that is less fortunate as me or that is going through something and needs his guidance through me. I also am going to try that stew and cake you made. It looks scrumptious!! Have a great day!
Edie, Wow. This hits really close to home and is gonna require more thought and study than I can give it right now while my 2 little ones play at my feet. Your posts like this are always enlightening and appreciated. I have never heard of the term Pietism and will definitely look more closely at myself and the things I do. Thanks!
Really beautiful thoughts here Edie. It’s a lot to wrap my mind around, but I agree with you on this.
As I have been reading your posts on Christ, I have often wondered what Lutheran’s believe the meaning of life is. I am sincerely curious because I have always been taught life is a ‘test’. That we were brought here to be tested and do our best to return to Him some day. If it isn’t about us climbing that ladder and trying to become like Him so we can return to live with Him again, than what is it? That is a huge question I know, so maybe you can email me or somthing? Thanks for your thought provoking posts, the wheels are turning!! I absolutely love these discussions and hearing what everyone else believes. 🙂
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” –Westminster Shorter Catechism
(I know, it’s Presbyterian.)
I wonder if the me-centered preaching started when people were falling away from church because they didn’t see its relevance to their lives.
At Bible study last night we reviewed homework having to do with being anointed like David. I was the only one who questioned the idea that anyone has been anointed since Pentecost. But maybe I’m the one with a misunderstanding.
Dana and Daisy says
wow, this is so well written. so true.
I’m so glad I came here tonight and read this. We were talking about this tonight at our mid week service. How Christ died for our sins and no “works or services” (and ladders!!) are going to make anything different.
I think that is what had attracted me to our church. There weren’t those “levels” of members. We were all equal and wanting to learn about Jesus and the Bible. I think that is why my husband felt so comfortable right off the bat. I’m so thankful!
Thank you for always posting such awesome things! Also, I am giving serious thought to homeschooling. Thank you for writing about this as well! 🙂
I agree 100% with you, it is through Christ alone that we are saved not of ourselves or works but by His blood and grace.
Darcy @ lwm3b says
I loved this post. As someone who almost never writes about religion I can promise that I find the ‘holier than thou’ types to be intimidating.
For those of us who are squatting securely and humbly at the bottom-most rung it’s often nothing but righteous indignation I feel from those climbing above me.
And do they make me want to be more like them? More “churchy”? More “christian”?
No. They are like magnets at opposite polar ends. Rather than herd the stragglers to believe, they repel others away with their offensive, holier-than-thou attitudes.
Afterall, if that’s how very Christian Christians behave, well then… nothankyouverymuch. The message is lost. They end up driving away would-be believers. Repulsive rather than magnetic.
I believe if people spent less time trying to show everyone how holy they are, proving how many verses they can recite, how much more piety they possess than me… people wanting to find a clear, unobstructed path to Him would have a much easier time.
This is my first time here. Your blog is beautiful – both in design and content.
Trudy Royston says
Hi Edie, I am on an extended visit to spend time with my work-away husband. I have so much free time, it is a 190 from my life at home. Besides cooking for my sweet husband and working on “any ole project I feel like”, I have been enjoying your archives. I appreciate your willingness to thoughtfully reflect and share your views…and recipes.
I am the mother of 7 sons and I have been surrounded by testosterone for many, many, many years. I love hearing about your adventures in homeschooling with your daughters. I am so happy for you too, to be in that place of appreciation (not perfection), cherishing (and some days just surviving) them for who they are right now. What a blessed gift!
Sincerely (That’s Northern for “loves and hugs”),Trudy