Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thoughts on Legalism

Legalism is often defined by Christians strictly in terms of whether a person is doing “works” to attain salvation or win God’s favor. As Paul said in Galatians 2:21, “I do not frustrate the grace of God, for if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” I know of no Christian who would argue that this is legalism.  But many Christians limit it to that.  They say that as long as your reason for following your particular group's rule or practice is not to earn God’s love but rather as a grateful response to His love for you ~ then it’s not legalism.  But after journeying through legalism and coming out the other side, I have come to disagree.

The New Testament teaches that legalism means more than seeking to be justified by works of the law. You can love Christ with all your heart, and you can believe that you are doing everything you do out of love for Jesus, and still be walking in legalism. In fact, a person’s very zeal to go the extra mile for God can make them especially vulnerable to legalistic practice. It’s very easy, when you want to serve God with your whole life, to listen to the myriad of voices in Christianity that say, “If you really love God with all your heart, you will do A, and B, and C. Those who don’t do these things aren’t really on fire for God.”

I know this from personal experience. When I was in college, as I have mentioned earlier, I was in a campus ministry group that became well-known for its coercive religious teachings. Our hearts were right, but many of our practices amounted to what Jesus called “binding heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and laying them on men’s shoulders.” (Matthew 23:5.)

For example, this group forbid all music, television, movies or books that did not meet its high standards of spirituality, based largely upon verses like Psalms 101:3 – “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes.” Many of us went even further and threw our television sets away or burned our books and recordings. But does “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes” actually mean, “throw out your TV”? Or was the Psalmist describing how he expressed his devotion to God, in terms of where he put his focus? In fact, the Bible itself is full of all kinds of things that, if you applied the Psalm as we did, we shouldn’t have been reading about at all! Murders and rapes and warfare and adultery are all things that come “before our eyes” when we read the Scriptures. So is just reading about these things, or watching The Ten Commandments on TV, “setting” wickedness before our eyes?

In fact, my group was going way beyond what the Bible texts actually said, to impose on ourselves all kinds of restrictions and “oughts” and “shoulds” that weren’t really there. And then patting ourselves on the back and looking down on others for not measuring up to our standards.

So what is legalism, if it’s more than just seeking to earn God’s favor through works?

Colossians 2 and Galatians 4 both talk about legalism in terms of bondage to the “rudiments” or “elements” of the world, such as “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” All of these sorts of things, Colossians 2:20-22 says, are “ordinances of the world“ which are “to perish with the using.” Verse 23 goes on to say that such things “have indeed a shew of wisdom in will[ful] worship and humility, and neglecting of the body,” but are of no real spiritual use. Galatians 4:9 calls following the “elements” of the world “bondage,” and gives as an example (v. 10) the observance of “days, and months, and times, and years,” as if these observances were what following Christ were all about.

That word translated “rudiments” or “elements” in Colossians 2 and Galatians 4 is the Greek word “stoicheion,” which means “first things from which others. . . take their rise; an element, first principle.” (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine, 1966 Ed., p. 22.) When used in conjunction with God‘s word, it refers to the first principles of God’s truth (Hebrews 5:12), but when used in conjunction with “the world,” the word usually means the basics of the physical nature of the earth or of the body. Legalism, then, means living in such a way as to be in bondage to physical, time-bound, earthly principles. These would include rules about eating and drinking, observing special days, and how we treat our bodies (especially, as Col. 2:23 says, neglectful or harsh treatment of our physical bodies as a way to show worship or humility). Jesus even said that marriage was of this physical world (Mark 12:25), and Paul said it’s easier to focus on spiritual things when you‘re not married (1 Cor. 7:7, 32-35) — so being focused on marriage and childbearing, as if these were what Christian living was about, could become bondage to earthly principles as well.

So even if you love Jesus, and consider all your physical, earthly actions as a way to show devotion to Christ, it is possible to still be legalistic. Colossians 2:20 says we should consider ourselves “dead with Christ” to earthly “rudiments,” considering them to be of lesser importance– because we are “complete in Him” according to verse 10. Christ is the “body” or substance of a reality of which earthly things are only a “shadow.” (v. 17), and we are therefore to “let no man judge you” regarding how we handle the rudiments or elements of the world (v. 16). Outward acts of devotion are not wrong; they can even be good– but they can also turn into bondage for us in the way we practice them.

Here are some characteristics of what I have come to recognize as legalistic practice:

1. Making something in the Bible about physical living on this earth, which is not set forth as a commandment, into a commandment. Ways of living that people practiced in the Bible become prescriptive rather than descriptive– we are all supposed to live our lives the same way they did in Bible times, because that’s the “biblical way.” Or we take something the Bible is silent about, and read that as a reason to consider that thing suspect. “The Scriptures speak only of parents training their own children, so sending them to school-- any school-- is at best a poor substitute for homeschooling.”

2. Taking a real or perceived commandment in the Bible to a level of restriction or obligation that goes beyond what the Bible actually gives. The Pharisees had a way of doing this with the law of Moses. The law said, “Don’t work on the Sabbath.” The Pharisees said, “Healing someone is work, and therefore you can’t heal someone on the Sabbath.” The law said, “Don’t eat what is unclean.” The Pharisees said, “You must follow the traditions of ceremonial hand washing in addition to not eating foods that the law calls unclean.” Jesus angered the Pharisees by refusing to follow these over-and-above rules. But some Christians take a verse in the Psalms like “children are a blessing,” and take that to mean that we should never restrict our family size– even when the mother's body is weak and worn out from constant pregnancies.   This comes very close to that neglectful or harsh treatment of our bodies in “bondage” to the “rudiments” that Colossians 2:23 warns against. (Note: 1 Corinthians 9:27, where Paul says, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection,” must be balanced with his warning against willed harsh treatment of the body in Colossians 2:23. In 1 Cor. 9, Paul is speaking of keeping himself free of fleshly self-indulgence, and likening this to the physical discipline of training for a race. This passage in no way commands us to ignore our bodies’ warning signs and push them beyond their limits when it is within our ability to protect them.  Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, after all, and we need to take good care of them.)

3. Setting a standard that, though it gives nominal freedom of choice (“this is only what God‘s speaking to me. You don‘t have to do it if God‘s not speaking it to you”), in every practical sense, effectively eliminates that freedom. “The Bible doesn’t actually command you to live like this, but if you really loved God with your whole heart, you would hear Him speak this to you, and you would come to the same convictions I hold.”  I have found that this kind of thinking is at the heart of coercive, spiritually abusive religion-- where religious guilt is used to manipulate and control.

4. Confusing the meaning of a text with the application of a text, and making that application universal. “Application” refers to how the meaning of a passage applies to our own personal lives in the here-and-now. Any one passage of Scripture can lead to a variety of personal applications, and no one application constitutes the meaning of a passage. This is what my religious group was doing with Psalm 101:3, when we treated the text as if it actually meant, “No TV, no non-religious books or music,” to be followed by any Christian who was serious about serving God– when in fact, we were choosing a certain sacrificial lifestyle as a means of applying the meaning of the text, and not very accurately at that!

Legalism is not just thinking you can be justified or earn God’s favor with your works. It’s living in terms of elemental physical principles instead of spiritual freedom. It’s imposing those terms on both yourself and others, in order to (as Galatians 3:2 puts it) “be made perfect by the flesh.” It’s thinking you can become part of God’s extra-special people (“God’s Green Berets,” my religious group used to say) by choosing a "sold-out" lifestyle. There were all kinds of things we did– all kinds of sacrifices we made– not to earn favor or salvation, but to be (and show ourselves off as) more holy.

I know that Jesus said that if we love Him we will keep His commandments. But He also said, “Learn what that meaneth: I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13.) He was talking about living life in terms of what is within instead of what is external– a heart of mercy and love taking precedence over outward acts of “holiness.” What I have come to understand-- the hard way-- is that it's mercy within that God considers the most holy. Outward acts are not wrong– but I've learned to keep them in their proper place and not enter into bondage to them. I've learned not treat them as if they were the substance of Christian life. That means holding mercy in my heart both for myself and for others. 

When we as Christians do that, our “moderation will be known to all” (Phil 4:5), and we will not bind heavy burdens and lay them on anyone’s shoulders to carry.

Not even our own.


The Blog bites better than the Bullet. said...

thank you! a very clear working definition- helps me a lot.

wickedqueenofmean said...

Oh Kristen, That was poignant and beautiful. Thank you

Toni Legates