Friday, May 17, 2013

Labeled a Legalist

If there's one thing that you don't want to be, it's a legalist. If you want to make a blanket accusation toward someone in a public dialogue that almost immediately discredits them, legalism is a good word to use. And if the accused has mentioned obedience, the accusation is likely to stick. That's an almost sure fire way to win a debate these days. Convince the hearers that your opponent is a legalist, and you win because legalism is bad.

Well, maybe you do want to be a legalist. At least some people do. I've heard some people unashamedly wear the name "legalist". I read this article, "Legalism: The Un-Sin" by Steve Klein in the Eastside church of Christ bulletin a couple of weeks ago. And, as an extreme example, Al Maxey posted this image on his Facebook page a few weeks ago (though Maxey certainly was not in agreement with the sentiment of the sign).
I wouldn't be comfortable saying that.
The original source of that image was a well written blog post by Josh Collins. I don't know Josh Collins and I haven't read much of his blog, but I liked that post.

And, to make things more confusing, Anthony Bradley suggests that "radical" "missional" Christians are creating a new legalism. This article makes that point, nearly suggesting that those who try to do big things in service to others are legalistic and narcissistic. I've heard similar warnings about Francis Chan, David Platt, Shane Claiborne and others who suggest a radical commitment to following Jesus. I never thought that the word "legalism" would ever be used to describe the likes of Shane Claiborne or Francis Chan.

But, hey, if you don't like someone, call him a legalist.

So, there are those who insist that legalism is evil, soul destroying, joy robbing. There are others who insist that the only way to please God is to be a legalist. Still others throw it around as a label for people who do extraordinary things. Which is it? I'm so confused.

Let's look at the definition of legalism from
1.strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.
     a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
     b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
So, here's what I think. I think that when people suggest that legalism is okay, they are using definition number 1 (though they would likely disagree with the "letter rather than the spirit" part). When folks are criticizing legalism, they are using definition number 2. So, what we have here is a misunderstanding of the terms. So, this begs the question... How does the Bible use the word "legalism"? IT DOESN'T!

So, what are we to do? If we're going to use the term, I think we have to be very specific in how we use it, and we have to specifically state what we mean. But that's a lot of trouble. So, how about we just not use the term? I don't think that's really the answer, either. It is a word and it does have meaning. I've used it, and I believe it has its place. However, I believe I'll be much more specific when I use the term from now on.

What I've seen happen far too often is this. Someone says, "you're a legalist." The accused may say, "yes, I am and so was Jesus." Then, the two walk away from the discussion not having communicated at all. The accuser thinks that the accused legalist believes in salvation through good works. The accused legalist thinks that his accuser doesn't believe in obeying God's laws. And neither one understands what the other believes.

To be clear, I'm not saying that there is no such thing as legalism (definition 2 above). It is real and I have been guilty of it. I am not above it. There are times that I still trust in my own works. There are times that I think I am better than others because my works are better than theirs. There are times that I make rules that God didn't make and I attempt to bind those rules on others and judge them for not following my rules. That is what I mean when I say legalism. Legalism is real. It's hypocrisy. It's joy robbing. It's evil. But "legalism" doesn't mean "more conservative (or more strict or more demanding) than me".

So, here's what we do. We label anyone more conservative than us as legalists or Pharisees or bigots. We label anyone more liberal than us as digressive or lax or permissive. We label people close to us as good and right. But all too often what we want to do is create a label and stick it on someone and then we'll know what to think about them and we'll know that we're better than they are because they have a bad label. This isn't at all Christ-like.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


The quote below comes from a pamphlet written by Barton W. Stone sometime near 1832. Much of what he says still rings true nearly two centuries later in 2013.
There are two kinds of human authoritative creeds -- one is drawn up in articles, and written or printed in a book -- the other is a set of doctrines or opinions received but not committed to writing or printed in a book. Each of these kinds of creeds is used for the same purpose, which is to exclude from fellowship the man who dares to dissent from them. Of the two, we certainly give the preference to creeds written and published; because we can then read them, and form a more correct judgment of the doctrines contained in them.
There are some among us very clamorous against written or printed creeds who yet have a creed of their own of which they are as tenacious as any other sectarian is of his written creed; and they are equally intolerant against those who dissent from their doctrines or opinions.
Barton W. Stone - An Address to the Churches of Christ c. 1832
Brother Stone makes two great points in this passage. First, creeds do not have to be written to be real. When I defended an unwritten creed, I did not like to hear or think that I was defending an unwritten creed, but it didn't make it less true. And, what brother Stone says about creeds, whether written or not,  is exactly right. Creeds have as their purpose to exclude from fellowship anyone who dares to dissent from them.

Not long ago, I was having a private conversation with a friend during which he pointed out one of our (By "our," I am referring to my faith heritage.) unwritten rules. He then compared our behavior in this matter toward new converts to the behavior of the strict Jews in Acts 15. Wow. He was spot on.

The situation in Acts 15 is that there are some new Gentile converts in Antioch. Some Jews, claiming to have authority from Jerusalem, began teaching that the Gentiles had to be circumcised also. Faith in Jesus was good, they said, but it was just a start. Those Gentiles needed to become more like Jews.
The elders and apostles in Jerusalem, with much prayer, discussion, study, and guidance from the Holy Spirit wrote a letter (Acts 15:28-29) to distribute among the brethren at that time. I find that a fascinating glimpse at how inspiration might work. I had always thought that God's will would be made more directly clear to the inspired apostles. Apparently, however, there was sometimes more to it than a trance or vision or sudden clear revelation. This was an open discussion about the topic with input from several people, with the scripture being read, and all this in the Spirit's presence. That's an example we'd do well to follow.

Notice the gist of this whole meeting that produced the letter: "We are saved by the grace of Jesus. They are saved by the grace of Jesus. We shouldn't add to that. Therefore, they must give up idolatry, but they don't need to take on our rules." Wow! That's not very exclusive at all. The letter didn't even exclude the Jews who were insisting on circumcision. It did correct their teaching, but it did not exclude them. Later, because of their continued divisiveness in spite of the apostles and Holy Spirit making it clear that the Gentiles were included, those Jews who continued to exclude, were marked and excluded. But they were marked and excluded because they were trying to exclude!

The gospel invites and includes. Creeds, whether written or not, exclude. Huge difference. If my message is exclusive, should I not ask, "Is it the gospel, or is it a creed?"

Have you ever stopped to think, "Why did the Jews want to bind circumcision?" One possible reason is that they wanted access to God to be the same way they had received it. They wanted Christians to look like Jews, too. They didn't want wild pagans to have access to their God. There was definitely a culture clash between Jews and Gentiles in the first century.

Are we the same way? Do we want all Christians to look like us? Do we want to be sure that they dress a certain way (conservative, white, American, and please hide your tattoos), that they observe the Lord's Supper at a certain time and in a certain way (only every Sunday, and only a small pinch of pie crust and a teaspoon or so of Welch's, please, no singing or any noise at this time, and we'd prefer you to just pass the plate if you're not one of us), that they worship the same way we do (traditional songs, prayer, sermon, and offering, stand when we say stand, bow when we say bow, and sit when we say sit and don't make any unwelcome noise or ask any questions), basically that they do things the way we do them? Do we believe that to become a Christian (or at least to remain a Christian), you must do things like we do them? And if you don't do them that way, then do we say that you're not really a Christian?

If our attitude and practice is thus, how are we different from the Jews in Acts 15? How are we welcoming? How are we inclusive? How are we inviting the lost and troubled? Short answer, we're not. We're instead rehearsing and defending our comfortable creed while the world is suffering and dying.

Galatians 5:4 rings in my head loud and clear when I think of how I have treated new Christians and Christians outside of my own faith heritage. I have fallen from grace by binding rules and traditions that are contrary to grace. I've failed to be a conduit for God's grace to others by serving others sacrificially and proclaiming to them the resurrection Gospel. Instead of placing primary importance on the death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-4), I've placed primary importance on "follow the rules like I do".

Rather than proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom's victory over evil, I've been telling people of the many barriers to entry into God's kingdom. Rather than tell a deeply powerful resurrection story and living a life that pushes darkness away, I have labored to convince people to be more like me, instead of more like Him.