Evangelical vs Legalistic Church Practices

Zion was the first Lutheran church in Cleveland, founded in 1848 to serve the German immigrants in industrial Cleveland.  It turned into the Lutheran megachurch of its time, with a sanctuary that seats 1,200.  That building remains in use on East 30th, although attendance now averages about twenty.  I drive by it frequently.  Endowments have kept the buildings in good repair.

The founding pastor for 52 years was Heinrich C. Schwan, who also served as president of the regional district and vice-president of the national synod.  Elderly Lutherans today remember grandparents who respected Pastor Schwan highly.

Schwan did a conference presentation on “Propositions on Unevangelical Practice.”  He was disturbed that many congregations in his church body were pursuing legalistic practices.  Pastor Schwan carefully distinguished between church practices oriented to grace in contrast to the legalism seen in many evangelical churches of his time in the late nineteenth century.  He was constantly on guard lest legalism slip into church. Here some of his observations:

  • Since we expect justification before God, with renewal of the heart and the fruits of the Spirit only through the Gospel, in everything we do we should have this one thing in mind, to give free course and sway to the Gospel.
  • Evangelical practice demands manifestation of faith and love but does not issue commands about their aim, amount or mode.
  • Evangelical practice does not make the state of grace dependent on keeping the Law.
  • Evangelical practice bears with all manner of defects, imperfections, and sins, rather than to remove them merely in an external manner.
  • Evangelical practice should flow from evangelical knowledge but does so rather seldom and slowly.
  • Evangelical practice lets love be the queen of all commandments.

Still today, in the Lutheran churches adult members are reported as Confirmed Members and children are Baptized Members.  Most of those adults typically have what I call confirmed faith in distinction from convicted faith.  Those with convicted faith have renewed hearts and live the fruit of the Spirit.  Those with confirmed faith are usually there because of ethnic loyalty to Lutheranism.

The Apostle Paul carefully distinguished between living according to the new nature generated by the Spirit and according to the old, sinful nature of the world.  He constantly challenged the believers to leave their old nature behind and let the Spirit generate the new nature within them.

Every Sunday Pastor Schwan faced a congregation most of whom still thought according to the old nature’s dependence on legalistic thinking.  It is tempting to lead such a congregation by making rules for how to be members.  In contrast, Pastor Schwan thought that church practices ought to be dependent on grace rather than legalism.  But he was well aware that relying on grace does not work for most members.  Hence he made the observations listed above.

Evangelical practice bears with all manner of defects, imperfection and sins rather than to remove them merely in an external manner.  Evangelical practices work seldomly and slowly.  Evangelical practice lets love be the queen of all commandments.

What kinds of practices dominate in your congregation?  Evangelical practices are frustrating because they seldom work and then only slowly.  They are not a formula for fast growth and large offerings.  Congregations committed to the ways of grace may look dull and unexciting.

But the ways of grace and the Spirit actually do change some people, who grow in their understand and are empowered by the Holy Spirit. They do become excited about their church life.  Congregations with a high percentage of Spirit-driven convicted believers do in turn become exciting and often fast-growing.

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