The Challenges of Legalism and Unhelpful Traditions in Romania

Once again I sat in a church building. Once again I listened to the same old style of preaching, the same traditional ideas, the same thing I have experienced for the last seven years. Next week I will sit in another congregation and experience it once again. What am I describing? On the surface, those sound like the words of a disgruntled missionary. Is he fed up with “the same old same old”? Has he forgotten why he serves? Know that I am not talking about being bored in church or upset with ministry; far from it. What I want to share about is one of the greatest challenges in Romania for evangelicals. Being faithful amid legalism and unhelpful church traditions in Romania.

Legalism and Unhelpful Church Traditions in Romania

Who let him into the pulpit? This is something evangelicals often find themselves saying in Romania. I remember a few years ago listening to a gentleman who said, “We must come to church in suits, exactly as the Bible says.” I had to restrain myself from shouting, “When did God say that?” 

This is a form of legalism, and it’s often the result of people adding their own ideas to Scripture. These ideas can sometimes be seen as necessities and become deeply-ingrained traditions. Those traditions then become the norm for the church. This kind of legalism in Romania takes the focus away from Jesus by basing one’s spiritual standing on a certain way of living or dressing rather than on grace. Unfortunately, clothing requirements are only the tip of the iceberg.

Traditions Viewed as Truth

Over the years, I’ve seen certain traditions in Romania treated as biblical truth. In general, preachers must wear suits, men and women must sit on separate sides of the room, women must wear headscarves, and (worst of all) anybody can stand up and say whatever he or she likes. I have heard heresies taught in churches without any pushback from the leaders, and I have heard young women verbally attacked for not wearing the “right” clothes. When somebody suggests that these practices need to change, things can get heated very quickly. 

Often, those who attempt to engage in biblical discussion on these kinds of traditions are met with fury and anger. This leads to frustrated youth who tend to abandon their church, which then leads to frustrated older members who think the youth just want everything to be “cool.” At the same time, some youth adopt the church’s legalistic practices as biblical truth. In time, they will butt heads with the next generation that wants change. 

So, what are true evangelicals doing about this problem?

How Legalism in Romania is Being Met

I once brought some of these matters to a pastor. Many young people had come into his church, but nobody wanted to stay. Why? Because the traditions were unbiblical and the young people were fed up. The pastor said he saw the problems, but he would not talk about them because he wanted peace. Unfortunately, skirting these issues is all too common for Romanian church leaders. Evangelicals need to address these problems with love, but in many cases, we need to be bolder.  

This brings another problem. Some evangelicals have been too bold. People make podcasts and YouTube videos decrying everything they see as wrong. Unfortunately, their attitude is creating a bad reputation for people who want simple and honest dialogue. Others have said “enough is enough” and set up their own churches.  I would prefer all true evangelicals in Romania to stick together and work under the same umbrella. 

Hope in Doing Things Right

There are two things Romanian evangelicals are doing to make kingdom progress.

Focus on Discipleship

The first is found in Christ’s Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19). 

Romanian evangelicals are realizing that we must get out of our buildings and into the streets, schools, hospitals, and prisons. Through these efforts, new people are coming into the church. Conversion, however, is only half the battle. 

We cannot simply hold an evangelism meeting once a year, tick some boxes, and say we have done our job. We need to follow up with discipleship. Discipleship has yet to take a proper grip on Romanian churches—I am trying to model it through my ministry—but it is slowly catching on amongst evangelicals. Today, new believers are shown more than a baptism catechism. They are being taken through the Scriptures and taught how truth should impact and transform them every day. Eventually, by God’s grace, more and more young believers will see the truth about Christ’s church and stand united for biblical truth.

View the Church as Christ’s Body

The second thing I’ve observed is that we are starting to see ourselves as Christ’s “body” (1 Corinthians 12:12–31). Romanian evangelicals are beginning to band together to take a stand for the sake of the gospel. But we are at a critical point, because the progress of the gospel in Romania could very quickly fade. If evangelicals continue to hold fast to the truth together, then who knows what the Lord will do.

It can be very difficult to be a true evangelical in Romania. However, it is also an immense privilege which, through years of faithfulness and perseverance, the Lord might turn into an immeasurable blessing. Together, Romanian evangelicals are standing up and speaking out for the sake of Christ. Our prayer is that legalism in Romania will continue to fade and the future will be bright with the fruit of hard gospel work. It has been and will continue to be a long battle. However, the church in Romania is seeing more and more of the precious light of Christ. People are abandoning hope in their traditions and looking, once more, to their Savior. We hope and pray this will continue.

I hope you will pray for us in Romania. And may our experience be of use to you if you are in a location where you are struggling with legalism. Make disciples and unite with those who hold to the truth.

Robert D. Norman has been a missionary in Romania for almost eight years. He is married to Ema and has also written several books, including Joseph: God Meant it for Good and Green Leaves based on Psalm 1. Robert is passionate about evangelism, discipleship, preaching, writing, and biblical counseling. He holds a Masters degree in Theology and is currently pursuing a Masters in Biblical Counseling as well.

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