Pietism and the Downfall of Modern Christianity
Church leaders lament the condition of society in our day. They sense apathy in the church, and a lack of serious commitment and zeal. Moral conditions have deteriorated, driven in part by our civil government. Evangelistic-minded leaders observe: “In the old days you could put up a tent, bring in an evangelist, and people would come out to hear him. Today nobody shows up”.
There is a serious lack of critical thinking as to the causes and solutions of these things. While there are many causes, the common denominator is usually pietism. Pietism must be understood for what it is if we are to progress Biblically and honor our Lord.
What is pietism?
“Pietism” holds different definitions and meanings depending on the context of usage. There was a formal movement within Lutheranism in the 18th century called Pietism; while having some parallels, it is not what we discuss here. For the sake of the present discussion, we will define pietism as “a radical and unbiblical division of thought and practice between the spiritual and the secular”.
An aside: although outside the scope of this short article, it is interesting to study the relationship and similarities between pietism, Gnosticism and eastern religions.
This is a worldview issue. A person’s perspective with relation to pietism affects how he interprets, analyzes, and acts upon the issues of life. Consequently, it is a determining factor in the health and Godliness of the church and of society as a whole.
The Pharisees were pietists:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.-Matt. 23:23
Just as in most churches today, “spiritual” duties (for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin) were elevated above what Jesus considered “weightier matters”: “the law, judgment, mercy, and faith”. Does this sound like your church? Are your efforts most welcome if they pertain to increasing church attendance, beautifying the edifice, or promoting programs, but unwelcome if you suggest doing the difficult work of carrying Biblical teachings and action into the surrounding culture? Jesus said we should do BOTH :“these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone”. Interestingly, He considered the matters that we might view as more “temporal” to be “weightier“.
James condemns pietism in strong terms:
And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? –Jas 2:16-20
The inward-focused faith that James describes is DEAD faith, opposed to a faith that works itself outward to our surroundings. A pietistic, inward-focused faith is preoccupied with “how do I come closer to the Savior, how do I become a better Christian, how do WEbecome a better church”. A living Biblical faith, while not ignoring these important things, is more focused on “how can I apply my faith to ALL of my life, and then to the world around me?”. It is a comprehensive faith that results in comprehensive change in the world,including but not limited to the personal salvation of many souls. We are seeing fewer individuals turned to Christ because we have willfully allowed society to turn away from Him.
If we claim to honor and love Christ and His Word, yet sit silent while the institutions around us blaspheme God, drive our culture away from Christ, and impose ungodliness through governmental force, what doth it profit? If we say we love Christ in church on Sunday, and fail to stand up for Christ in our society, culture, and government on Monday, faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Dead faith is a serious and frightening thing.
Pietism is always inward-focused, which is a good description of American evangelicalism. “Me, me; us, us”, as the world passes by and yawns.. People who have been Christians for decades are subjected to endless self-improvement, as though with enough time we achieve perfection…while practically never being challenged or led to apply the things that we know about god and His Word to all the institutions that affect us, our families, and our churches every day.
Christians waste time re-learning, over and over, the things that were in most cases grasped when they should have been: within the first year or so of conversion. This is not the case in the Bible, where we see men and women with glaring personal deficiencies acting in obedience to God and addressing the societies in which they live. Certainly we need to be diligent in our personal lives; personal piety is an important part of our life. Daily inward devotion to Christ is vital…but as our Lord pointed out it is not the whole package:
“And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.” Jn. 2:2
The greatest irony lies within the worldview of the pietists themselves. The same people who champion “just preach the Gospel” (by which they mean exclusively the gospel of personal salvation…remember, it’s all about “me, me, me”), and lament that evangelistic efforts fall on deaf ears, are often those who discourage efforts to apply God’s Word to the culture at large. Their willful and intentional abandonment of the culture goes to the root cause of the deaf ears that they lament. They cannot see that a century of abandonment of cultural institutions by their unbiblical “just preach the gospel” philosophy has left God’s enemies in charge of education, the news and entertainment media, etc. As a result several entire generations have grown up with very little sin-consciousness. How do they expect to take the gospel to a society that they have abandoned through the effect of their pietistic worldview, and have people to respond to concepts that are entirely foreign to them? Of course God the Holy Spirit quickens whom He will; but He promises to do it in response to preaching, and we are preaching to a world of people who have been numbed to the message by the institutions that we have failed to influence…indeed failed to seize and operate for God’s glory.
Life is a “package deal”; education, vocation profession, culture and government do not exist in a spiritual vacuum, yet the pietists act as though all those things can be abandoned as “secondary” (or less) yet the Gospel will flourish. The talk of the pietists may soundspiritual but it isn’t; in fact it is self-defeating sinful heresy. Let’s be done with the hypocrisy and be about truly carrying the gospel…ALL of it…into all areas of life. Biblically there is no other way.
~ Jim Mogel