By Apprising Ministries special correspondent Bob DeWaay

There are no extraordinary Christians; but being an ordinary Christian is an extraordinary thing. How I wish I would have understood that when I was a new Christian. But I didn’t. Soon after my conversion I began a quest to become the best possible Christian. In so doing I fell prey to teachings that promised me a Christian life superior to that of ordinary Christians. What I did not know was that I had embraced pietism. I didn’t become an extraordinary Christian and I did walk straight into error.

My journey into the “deeper life” oftentimes involved embracing contradictory teachings. For example, two of my favorite teachers in the early 1970’s were Watchman Nee and Kenneth Hagin. One taught a deeper Christian life through suffering [1]) and the other taught a higher order Christianity that could cause one to be free from bodily ailments and poverty.[2] The hook was that both claimed to have the secret to becoming an extraordinary Christian. I found out that they didn’t.

My dissatisfaction with the Christianity taught in Bible College[3] led me to join a Christian commune some months after graduation. That group’s founder taught that all ordinary churches and Bible Colleges were caught up in “religious Babylon.” He taught that the kingdom of God was to be found by quitting one’s job, selling one’s possessions, giving the money to the commune, and moving in together to be devoted to the “kingdom” twenty four hours a day. So in my search to become an extraordinary Christian I did what he said and joined.

By the time I had fully explored many versions of pietism seeking to escape the tainted Christianity found in ordinary churches, I had squandered the first ten years of my Christian life. I was converted in 1971 and by 1981 I had given up on becoming a superior Christian. I bought a house for my family and began a car repair business to pay the bills while I tried to figure out what to do with my calling to preach now that most everything I had been taught, practiced, and taught others had failed.

By God’s grace I went back to the Bible and determined to merely teach verse by verse from that point on. It took another five or six years to rid myself of the various errors I had embraced and then I taught Romans in 1986. Through that study I came to appreciate the doctrines of grace. That understanding opened my thinking and was the turning point for my ministry. I also came to realize that the wrong-thinking that attracted me to pietism was that I held to a theology based on human ability rather than grace alone. Once I grasped that, I never looked back.

If the “secret” to a higher order Christianity is based on something we discover and implement (the secret to the deeper life), then it makes sense that some Christians could achieve a higher status than others. But if salvation AND sanctification are God’s work through His grace, then we are all in the same boat, and there’s no higher order.

Pietism is difficult to define because it can be taught and practiced in an unlimited number of ways. Some versions appear to be innocuous while others are so radical that most people would see that something is wrong. I now know that no version of pietism is actually innocuous. If a teaching is called pietism but teaches no more than what God has always used to sanctify Christians, then it is not really pietism. Real pietism always harms those who embrace it.

The essence of pietism is this: It is a practice designed to lead to an experience that purports to give one an elite or special status compared to ordinary Christians. The Bible addresses this error in the book of Colossians.[4] The false teachers in Colossae claimed to have the secret to a superior Christian experience that would cause people to rise above the bad “fate” they feared. Paul went on to explain that they already had everything they needed through Christ and His work on the cross. Another way of stating this is: If after having fully trusted Christ’s finished work on the cross, you are told that you are still lacking something, you are being taught pietism.

Church history is littered with misguided pietistic movements. Many of them are linked with mysticism. I will give examples later in this article. Pietism can be practiced many ways including enforced solitude, asceticism of various forms, man made religious practices, legalism, submission to human authorities who claim special status, and many other practices and teachings. The fact that pietism has many forms can be seen by the litany Paul gives in Colossians:

Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day — things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Colossians 2:16-23)

Paul calls this approach “self-made religion” which is exactly what all forms of pietism are. They all suggest that having been converted by the Lord through the cross and practicing His ordained means of grace by faith are inadequate. They have discovered a better way that leads to a higher order experience. Paul says they have “the appearance of wisdom.”

His list includes ascetic practices. These appear to most poorly taught Christians to be what the Lord wants. They reason, “Of course God is happier with a person who sells all and moves into a convent where he takes an oath of poverty than He is with someone who goes to work forty hours a week and uses some of the money to buy things.” Is He? When I was a pietist, if someone told me he prayed two hours a day, then I had to pray three hours to make sure I wasn’t missing out on something. I reasoned, “Of course God is happier with a Christian who prays three hours than one who prays two.” Is He? When I was a pietist I would work on cranking up my desire for holiness because I reasoned that holiness is found through something in the person rather than through God’s grace. Based on sermons I’d heard I reasoned, “Christians are not experiencing a higher degree of holiness because they do not desire it enough.” Is that true? No, none of these pietistic statements are true.Such teachings lead to elitism and comparing ourselves to others. The Bible tells us not to do that. Paul stated that these practices “are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

God is committed to the holiness of everyone He has redeemed. He makes them holy through His ordained means of grace. Paul warned both the Galatians and the Colossians against adding anything to the work of Christ: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Colossians 2:6); “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). This means that salvation is by grace through faith and sanctification is by grace through faith. There is no secret principle to be discovered that creates higher order Christians. Here is how it is explained in Hebrews: “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:10, 14). Pietism is an attack on the scriptural truth that Christ has already done it all and that this is true for all Christians. I believe in progressive sanctification, but God is sanctifying all Christians by the same means.

Pietism in Church History

Since pietism existed in Colossae in Paul’s day it has always been in the church. But we want to analyze some expressions of it to see why it arises and how it works. Church historian Justo Gonzalez chronicles the beginnings of the monastic movement which was apparently a reaction to a perception that popularity and success had tainted Christianity after it was endorsed by Constantine.[5] The question they dealt with was how to overcome Satan (pietism often offers special protection from Satan) who was tempting people with success now that martyrdom was no longer available. Gonzalez writes, “Many found an answer in the monastic life: to flee from human society, to leave everything behind, to dominate the body and its passions, which gave way to temptation. Thus, at the very time when churches in large cities were flooded by thousands demanding baptism, there was a veritable exodus of other thousands who sought beatitude in solitude.”[6] This version produced the Desert Fathers as they have come to be known.

Some documents from the early church fathers describe the lives of “anchorite” monks who fled society to live in the desert. One was Anthony who gave away all his riches before entering his new life: “He then [after leaving his teacher] went to live in an abandoned cemetery, where he subsisted on bread, which some kind souls brought him every few days. According to Athanasius, at this time Anthony began having visions of demons that accosted him almost continuously.”[7] Ironically, fleeing the city to escape Satan’s temptations did nothing to actually deliver him from Satan.

The monastic movement led to the idea that one could become a higher order Christian and be more pleasing to God. The movement also introduced mystical practices that today are being brought back into the church under the guise that they came from a time when Christianity was pristine and not tainted by modernity.[8] What is really happening is a repeat of history. When Christians perceived that the success of churches in times of prosperity caused certain ills, they fled to solitude where they became mystics. This process is happening today again. But these pietistic movements did not lead to a more pristine Christianity in the past, nor do they do so today. They lead to elitism as Gonzalez points out: “On the other hand, this sort of life was not free of temptations. As years went by, many monks came to the conclusion that, since their life was holier that that of most bishops and other leaders of the church, it was they, and not those leaders, who should decide what was proper Christian teaching.”[9] Some today have determined that ordinary Christians[10] are so tainted by modernity that these elite ones refuse to be called “Christian” but rather prefer the term “Christ followers” because the elite deem themselves to be following Christ in a pristine way that is not true of the rest of us.

The monastic movement became more organized and still exists today. The Roman Catholic Church acclaimed their deeds done beyond what is required of ordinary Christians and developed a teaching called “works of supererogation,” a teaching rejected by the Reformers.

An example of the ‘works done beyond’ are the monastic vows taken by certain monastic orders: They are considered works of supererogation in Rome. Those who take the vows are deemed more pious than ordinary Christians.

Luther wrote a lengthy essay demonstrating that scripture rejects the validity of monastic vows.[11] His essay is also an interesting look into the issues that were debated at the time of the Reformation. One key issue for Luther was that the monastics went beyond the gospel and made commandments out of matters that God has not commanded and in so doing sought to achieve a superior standing before God. One such example was celibacy. Luther argued that vowing something that God had not commanded is sinful: “The very foundation of the monastic vows is godlessness, blasphemy, sacrilege, which has befallen them because they spurn Christ, their leader and light, and presume to follow other things they think better.”[12] They thought they could improve on the teachings of Christ and live a superior spirituality by swearing oaths to live pious lives beyond anything Christ required of His people. Luther condemned this as sinful. Luther wrote, “If you obey the gospel, you ought to regard celibacy as a matter of free choice: if you do not hold it as a matter of free choice, you are not obeying the gospel. . . . A vow of chastity, therefore, is diametrically opposed to the gospel.”[13] So in Luther’s day, he taught that Christians were in error and sin if they bound themselves by oath to a practice not required by Christ. Though they may think themselves more pious than ordinary Christians because of their special vows, Luther called them gross sinners…

Some of our Evangelical denominations have been pietist from their very inception. Charles Finney’s teaching in the mid 19th century caused the problem. Finney’s teachings, as I have argued before, were heretical. He too taught Christian perfection. Wesley at least held to prevenient grace so as to avoid Pelagianism.[14] Finney was fully Pelagian in his approach to both salvation and sanctification.

[15] And his innovations permanently changed much of American Evangelicalism. After Finney other perfectionist movements arose. The Holiness movement, for example, came not long after Finney. Both the Holiness movement and the subsequent Pentecostal movement held to second blessing doctrines that by nature are pietist because they create an elite category of Christians who have had a special experience that ordinary Christians lack. The Keswick Holiness (also known as the “Higher life” movement) movement is an example of pietism and elitism as well. The Holiness movement in general is a pietistic movement that claims a special experience that creates higher order, (often supposedly perfected) Christians. They are in error. Ironically, the deeper life or higher order Christians do have something distinct about them—they have embraced error.

Today the largest new pietist movement is the Emergent Church. As I pointed out earlier, pietism often arises in response to the perception (sometimes warranted) that the church has become too worldly and it seems true once again today. Some now assume that since ordinary Christianity is compromised, they must discover an extraordinary way to become better Christians. One Emergent leader has even entitled one of his works, “A New Kind of Christian.”[16] But this movement really isn’t all that new. It draws on teachings and practices found in other pietist movements in church history. In fact, a recent Emergent book includes essays by those experimenting with communal living, something I tried in my pietist days![17]

Furthermore, the Purpose Driven movement is also a pietistic movement. Rick Warren claims there are world class Christians that are in a better category than ordinary Christians. He had his followers take a long oath at a baseball field to pledge themselves to serving his new reformation. I already mentioned the apostles and prophets movement that is pietistic. So ironically, three huge movements in American evangelicalism (Purpose Driven, Emergent, and C. Peter Wagner’s latter day apostles) are all based on pietism. The three movements seem radically diverse, but each one claims to be a new reformation and each offers a higher status than that of ordinary Christians. (source)

End notes:

  1.  Nee had an unusual anatomical sanctification scheme that requires distinguishing between body, soul and spirit with the spirit being the pristine source of sanctification and the body needing to be subdued as the soul learns to follow the regenerated human spirit.
  2.  One thing Hagin and Nee had in common that probably attracted me to both of them was the idea of the primacy of the human spirit and the idea of gaining special knowledge by following ones spirit.
  3.  Though the college had a pietistic 2nd blessing doctrine, my teachers were sound and pointed me in the right direction. I could have been saved from years of error had I listened more closely to some of them.
  4.  See CIC Issue 69; March/April 2002 The Colossian Heresy Part 1 for a detailed, theological explanation of Colossians chapter 2. HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/COMMENTARY/ISSUE69.HTM
  5.  Justo L. Gonzalez The Story of Christianity Vol. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984) 136, 137.
  6.  Ibid. 137.
  7.  Ibid. 140, 141.
  8.  The Emergent Church movement is well known for doing this.
  9.  Gonzalez vol. 1, 143.
  10.  When I speak of “ordinary Christians” I mean those who are truly converted but claim no special or elite status. Nominal “Christians” who are actually unregenerate are not Christian at all in the Biblical sense.
  11.  Martin Luther, The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows from 55-Volume American Edition Luther’s Works on CD-ROM (Fortress Press, Concordia Publishing: Minneapolis, 2001) Vol. 44, page 243.
  12.  Ibid. 260.
  13.  Ibid. 262.
  14. Pelagius was an early heretic, condemned by church councils, who taught that all humans have the ability to obey God without a prior work of grace.
  15.  See CIC Issue 56 Charles Finney’s Influence on American Evangelicalism — HTTP://CICMINISTRY.ORG/COMMENTARY/ISSUE53.HTM
  16.  Written by Brian McLaren
  17. An Emergent Manifesto of Hope Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones editors (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007)

See also: