Stuck in Legalism: The Airing of Grievances

(An excerpt from Chapter One of the new version of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People)

And at the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around, and you tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year!
—Frank Costanza, Seinfeld episode “The Strike”

Most of us chuckle over the invented holiday of Festivus. In the famous Seinfeld episode, Frank Costanza explains how he grew frustrated with the commercialism of Christmas:

Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.

Cosmo Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that, a new holiday was born: a Festivus for the rest of us!

Part of the “tradition” of Festivus was the airing of grievances to all who came to dinner. Frank Costanza’s frustration with Christmas commercialism mirrors my angst over the odd brand of Christianity that we’ve too often foisted on our culture. I am borrowing Frank’s concept of the airing of grievances. Actually, churchgoers are pretty good at the airing of grievances, even without the Festivus excuse. In the Seinfeld episode, the airing of grievances is followed by the traditional “feats of strength.” The head of the household selects one person at the Festivus celebration and challenges that person to a wrestling match. Festivus is not over until the head of the household is pinned. Wouldn’t that be a fascinating addition to our church bylaws?

Section 7: Resolution of Conflict

The elders shall invite the congregation to an annual church potluck, followed by the airing of grievances. The potluck shall be followed by praise songs and then the feats of strength. The congregational meeting shall not be adjourned until an elder is pinned to the mat by a church member.

Perhaps the sight of a volunteer wrestling with an elder would be silly enough to help us understand that 98 percent of our grievances are pointless in the context of the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment. But there is a place for the airing of grievances, especially in reference to the way we do Christianity in this culture. But I pray that I will always come around to grace and truth that enable the real feats of strength to be our focus. I hope we will learn how to trust God to demonstrate truly amazing feats of strength, such as forgiveness, selflessness, serving, and unity.

My Personal History with Legalism

My own grievances date back more than four decades (gulp) to a legalistic church in Chillicothe, Ohio. I have to start with my spiritual pedigree, since that figures prominently into my dysfunction. I was raised in a non-church going family. At the age of fifteen, I started going to church for a very spiritual reason: a cute girl I knew attended that church. Unfortunately, my first church experience was with a congregation that was so legalistic it went out of business.


The denomination this church was part of is not even around anymore because they couldn’t round up enough miserable people to keep it functioning. My nickname for our dysfunctional church body was “The First Church of Misery Loves Company…But We Probably Won’t Love You.” We sang “Amazing Grace” but wouldn’t have recognized grace if it had snuck up and bit us on our self-righteous backsides.

This church featured a lengthy altar call every Sunday to target the one or two unsaved folks who might have stumbled in. I was the target one memorable Sunday. They sang fifteen verses of “Just as I Am” and then the preacher told a tragic story about a man who rejected a moment like this and then was flattened by a steamroller on the way home. According to the preacher, the man was now being tormented in hell. Meanwhile, my ADD brain was wondering why a steamroller was out on a Sunday. Then we shifted to singing “Softly and Tenderly” about a dozen times. Apparently, all of this was designed to give me a little taste of what eternity would be like.

One of the pillars of the church was a matronly lady who was—how can I say this kindly?—not underfed. In a scene that would have been hilarious if it hadn’t involved me, this substantial saint tried to drag me to the altar. I was like a Labrador retriever being pulled into the vet’s office with legs splayed out and fighting every inch of the way.

This church wasn’t acquainted with the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation. Getting sinners to the altar was the goal, whether that sinner wanted to be there or not. Their philosophy of ministry was simple: “You will get saved, and you will like it!”

I resisted this church pillar’s gentle headlock to heaven that Sunday in spite of the risk of being flattened by a steamroller on the way home. But a couple of days later I did pray the sinner’s prayer, without being dragged anywhere. And that began a journey of good, bad, and ugly that has lasted for more than forty years so far. While it is true that I heard and accepted the gospel message after attending that church, my early doctrinal exposure would prove to be an ongoing problem.
Hypocrites or Healers?

The word hypocrite comes from the Greek word hyprokrites, meaning one who plays a part, an actor. Probably no word is more destructively used in describing Christians than hypocrite. André Gide once defined a true hypocrite (an oxymoron?) as the “one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.”

Inevitably, my first and natural reaction upon hearing the word is to think of people I consider guilty of hypocrisy. When it was revealed that Reverend Ted Haggard had been engaged in inappropriate relationships, my first reaction was to smite him with my hypocrite hammer. But instead I should have asked God to shine a light in my own dark places to see if a similar lack of integrity lives in my own heart.

One of the most stinging rebukes Jesus ever issued concerned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (see Matthew 6). These religious leaders liked to be seen and heard when praying, recognized when giving money, and pitied when fasting. Had the Jerusalem Broadcasting Network been on the air, you just know that slick-haired Pharisees would have hosted the prime-time programs.

Today, the church condemns those who drink and smoke and live immoral lives, while churchgoers freely engage in gluttony and gossip and selfishness and bigotry. The un-churched stand by in amazed, bemused, cynical, or angry observance of our hypocrisy. And they lose respect for our message.

As a young man, I sat through many sermons in which the preacher condemned tobacco and “devil alcohol.” Immediately following, the congregation would enjoy a potluck dinner where apparently the demon of calories was a welcome guest. It seems to me that morbid obesity is also a desecration of the temple (our body). Is that not also wrong? Overweight churchgoers often explain their extra pounds by citing low metabolism or thyroid disorders. I acknowledge that, for many, there could be a legitimate medical reason behind the weight gain. But if church members can fall back on metabolism as an excuse, shouldn’t we allow for the possibility that someone else’s addiction to nicotine might be similarly genetically predisposed? Or that someone with a weakness for alcohol or drugs could suffer from a brain-chemistry imbalance that exacerbates the problem?

We all are broken people, whether we are gluttons, gossips, smokers, drinkers, or hypocrites. I believe with all of my being in the life-changing power of God. I know He can empower an alcoholic to become and stay dry. I have witnessed that truth. I believe God can give a smoker the strength to snuff out his last cigarette. I am convinced God can enable a person to flush pills and drugs down the drain once and for all.

Church members love to condemn addictions. But not all addictions. The uncomfortable flip side is that Christians too often overlook God’s power to help us overcome certain of the “favored” addictions. Why don’t more Christians acknowledge the truth that God can give us the power to walk away from the buffet table? That He can give me the strength to bridle my tongue when I am privy to gossip that would hurt another person? Should I not recognize that God might want me to keep driving my unsexy old car or keep watching a conventional, low-tech television instead of a giant screen 3-D HDTV in order to free up my resources to help someone in need?

I marvel at Christ’s approach to sinners. Obviously He could not have condoned the lifestyles and actions of many who surrounded Him. Yet He was drawn to the spiritually needy and they to Him. Prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors all felt the need to hear what Jesus had to say. (Note to my IRS friends: In first-century culture, tax collectors were turncoats who unfairly extorted their own people for personal gain. Nothing at all like the honorable members of our fine government tax organization evaluating my home-office deductions on this year’s tax return.)

It seems the people who were the most uncomfortable around Jesus were the ones known to be the most religious—the churchgoers, as it were. Those who are most ill need the physician’s time, and Jesus gravitated to the ER cases. I have friends who are physicians, and probably no patient annoys them more than a hypochondriac. These unfortunate people drain the resources and time of medical personnel that could be far better used healing the truly sick. It seems to me that Jesus dealt with the hypochondriacs of His day (the Pharisees and other religious people) with that same attitude. Jesus had little patience with those who failed to recognize their true spiritual symptoms. But He was always willing to see the spiritually ill.

The church should be in the business of addressing spiritual illness. When you are deathly ill, you don’t start thinking of going to the health club: “Well, this will be a lovely time to get in shape. I feel horrible, and I think I’m going to die, but at least I’ll be a trim corpse.” Yet many churches have communicated that only the spiritually healthy are welcome there. The result is that the spiritually needy think their lives are too far gone to be accepted at church, when in fact their brokenness makes them ready to receive God’s amazing grace. But too many avoid the ER, thinking that going to church would make them uncomfortable or heighten their guilt. They sense they would be judged and treated with condescension.

Yes, some of these feelings are self-inflicted wounds. But many are not. We must face the possibility that we are doing things that make hurting people stay away from the church. Do you ever think your health is too messed up for you to go to the hospital? Does a hospital ever communicate that you are just a little too sick to come in? When did the church step away from its responsibility to heal emotional pain and meet physical, emotional, and spiritual needs? Steve Martin used to say, “Comedy isn’t pretty.” Sometimes ministry isn’t either. Sometimes it requires us to pay a price.

Most of us don’t much like to be around the truly spiritually ill because it makes us uncomfortable. Treating the spiritually ill is draining, and it comes with no guarantee of success. We would rather hire someone to clean up the mess and report back to us at a praise service. Yet how can we preach Christ’s love and not care about those with HIV/AIDS? How can we talk about God’s grace but ignore other people’s physical needs? How can we talk about the importance of giving and then spend money on things we don’t need, often to curry the approval of people we don’t really care about? How can we minister to others when we don’t first meet the spiritual needs of our own families? How can we win the respect of the world when we cruise around in luxury vehicles and turn our faces away from hurting people?

Do we think that if we ignore the problems, perhaps God will not hold us accountable?

My family had a wonderful golden retriever for fourteen adventure filled years. If Marley (of book and movie fame) was the “world’s worst dog,” then our dog, Charlie, would have been an honored runner-up. Charlie was an aficionado of used Kleenex and paper towels. He knew I disapproved of him running off with tissues, so each time he nabbed one, Charlie would dash to the family room and stick his head and front quarters under a Queen Anne chair. He didn’t realize that 75 percent of his body was sticking out, with his tail wagging wildly. He thought he was safe from retribution because his face was hidden.

Is it any less ridiculous to think that we Christians can avoid our responsibilities as Christ’s representatives on earth? Are Christians any smarter than Charlie when we avert our gaze from the needs of others and convince ourselves that God won’t notice? Somehow I don’t think

God smiles and says, “Oh, that Dave, he was just too busy to notice his friend was in pain. But that’s okay.” No. Instead, my selfishness sticks out just as noticeably as Charlie’s rear end. (There is a certain symmetry in that comparison.) Adam’s first impulse was to hide when God held him accountable in the Garden of Eden, and not much has changed since then in people’s hearts. It was just as futile for Adam as it was for Charlie and me to try to hide from our sin.

(More from Chapter One coming up. You can check out the book at