revjoaquinwillisweb.gifOn March 8 this year, the United Church of Christ (UCC) celebrated “Amistad Sunday,” one of my favorite occasions. 

We recognized nationally the July 1839 slave mutiny that changed both U.S. history and that of the United Church of Christ.

La Amistad became a symbol in the movement to abolish slavery after a group of African captives aboard the Spanish schooner bearing that name revolted.  They were subsequently recaptured and sold into slavery, resulting in a battle over their legal status that eventually saw them returned to their home in Sierra Leone in 1842, according to historical accounts.

Members of the Congregational Church, an early denomination of the United Church of Christ, raised money for the legal defense of the enslaved Africans.

It is UCC’s passion for social justice that has fostered better relationships among America’s diverse people and races, and brought many into its fold.  As a denomination, we were sorry to see the Obama family leave as a result of racially themed issues. 

We find in Isaiah (29:13), “The Lord saying:  “These people come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” 

This passage speaks to me, warning against worshipping tradition and doctrine that fosters a “religious spirit” capable of impeding salvation.  

There has lately been much concern about the influence of denominationalism.  Where tradition replaces faith, and where rules displace worship, there will be decline. 

We hinder our salvation in many ways:  by not spending adequate time with God to enjoy being in His presence; and by failing to develop a prayerful life, thereby shortchanging our joy and prolonging bitterness toward others.   

Those who study God’s Word in depth, yet fail to seek experience of Him, suffer from religious legalism.

In Matthew (12:13), Jesus heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue.  Jesus did not delay to consider whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath.  To the Pharisees, Jesus demonstrated that loyalty to God must prevail over that of manmade rules, or to religious spirit. 

The Pharisees’ religiosity distorted the character of God through deception, control and manipulation. This religious spirit was a force opposing Jesus, designed to intimidate and turn His relationship with God into a set of mandates.  This spirit ran Christ out of the Temple.

Today, Satan does not want Jesus in the workplace because, through His authority, change can occur there.   

In Breaking Free, author Beth Moore advises, “Legalism results when three conditions occur: 1.) Regulations replace Relationships; 2.) Microscopes replace Mirrors; 3.) Performance replaces Passion.”

The benefit Christ brings to the man with the shriveled hand is a relationship with the Savior, not only the ability to return to work.   A regulation did not replace the Word of God. 

In Matthew (12:10), the Pharisees microscopically examined Jesus’ actions in an attempt to accuse him.  They should have used a mirror to reflect upon their own behavior.  Beth Moore tells us, “Modern-day Pharisees must watch out for looking for reasons to accuse.”

Moore warns against those who “tend to love a good church ‘soap opera’ because often their relationship with God is so unexciting.”

If obedience to God is not motivated by our love and devotion to Him, we are guilty of legalism.  Religious performance is no substitute for passion.  Only in the authentic belief of Him, glorifying of Him, surrendering to Him, and seeking peace and security in
Him can we enjoy “the benefits of salvation.”

This blessing does not derive from a denomination or its traditions, but from a personal relationship with God. 

The Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis is pastor of the Church of the Open Door at 6001 NW 8th Ave., Miami.   To contact the church, call 305-759-0373 or email the pastor at