Ask RC: What is Pietism?
Pietism is a view that looks at the broader world as a matter of utter insignificance, because it focuses exclusively on making the individual soul better. Radically individualistic and deeply Gnostic the movement eschews political involvement, denigrates the exercise of dominion and sometimes adds to the law of God. This, of course, ought never to be confused with piety, which is a good thing. Piety is godliness of character, a zeal to grow in grace and wisdom, to bear much of the fruit of the Spirit. Because these two are often confused it is not at all unusual for those more lax in the pursuit of holiness to accuse those more zealous with pietism. In like manner it is not unusual for some who are passionate about pressing the crown rights of King Jesus, who long to see His reign acknowledged, to look down on the pursuit of personal piety as a distraction.
Our calling, of course, is to labor to manifest the reign of Christ over all things, including our own souls. And we are to do so in concentric circles. That is, my first obligation is to pursue holiness myself. Next I am to labor to see that my children grow in grace. Next are those under my pastoral care, directly or indirectly. Finally I am to labor to see all institutions brought under His dominion. We ought all to recognize how tightly bound together these things are. The world, the church, my family will all get better as I get better. I haven’t abandoned them in seeking greater piety, but am instead serving them. In like manner, purifying the world, the church, my family in turn redounds to my own righteousness. No one can go wrong working to see the glory, the beauty of Christ’s authority more broadly recognized.
That said, here are some examples where piety ends and pietism begins. It is not at all unusual to hear some well meaning Christians argue that we ought not to seek to make abortion illegal, because, we are told, “It’s a heart matter.” We are told instead that we need only labor to win souls, and the abortion issue will take care of itself. The same, of course, could be said about murder. Murder is illegal, and people still do it. So why push to see murderers prosecuted? Isn’t soul winning so much more important? Well, the Lord we claim to worship established the state as in instrument of justice. He gives them the sword to punish evil-doers. Which means He calls them to protect the unborn. It is impiety to abandon them by abandoning our prophetic calling to the world. Of course we should be seeking to see souls brought in. As we should be seeking to see justice for the unborn.
Which brings us to our second example. There are those who argue that the sole function of the church is Word and Sacrament. The Bible, we are told, doesn’t speak directly to political issues. The church should not be speaking out against homosexual behavior. The church should not speak for the unborn. Culture is just culture, a human reality more than a spiritual reality. There is therefore no such thing as bringing plumbing, poetry or politics under the Lordship of Christ. This is pietism. It may be willing to affirm the Lordship of Christ over all things, but not in such a way that you could tell Jesus reigns. The Word calls us to make known His reign, to destroy the works of the devil and his diabolical troops. And the sacraments enlist and feed His army
Pietism is an ugly word, and we may be guilty of overusing it. One problem, however, is that pietism is an ugly reality. Piety calls us to call it out, in the name of our risen and reigning Savior.