Unpacking Legalism

Target Audience: Religious Christians, Conservative Evangelical Christians, Christians

NOTE: I have used certain points in this blog post that appeared in the sermon notes for Frosh Part 4:  Bewitched, from The Meeting House, October 1, 2017. As this document is “released into the common” I will not attribute the specific parts that I quote or use in this blog post.

LegalismIn one of my first political science classes at York University in Toronto, the professor entered the room and asked, “What is the definition of democracy?”. After taking  definitions from a few students, he told us that there are probably as many definitions of democracy as there were students in the room. The same might be said about legalism. 

Among the study questions in this past week’s sermon notes was this one, “Are there forms of this bewitching (from the Greek word ‘ebaskanen’ meaning wicked magical spell, witchcraft, evil eye, a powerful curse) in the church today we should be wary of?” Last Sunday, the message was from Galatians 3:1-18. It occurred to me that before we could answer that question, we had to unpack the concept of legalism. A simple definition might be helpful, but we need to understand it from a conceptual perspective to see how it impacts the life of a church or a follower of Jesus. 

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn one thing from you. Did you receive the Spirit be the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1,2 NIV).

One of the more influential films I watched while in university was Lord of the Flies. It is about a group of children who are stranded and isolated. At first, they are a democratic group, but slowly they move toward a more authoritarian style of social organization. It is relevant here because most Christians favor a democratic style of organization for churches, but at the same time, they also crave rules, regulations, laws, and moral codes to limit choices and thinking. I function best in an environment with high structure and boundaries. An environment that is entirely spontaneous could trigger an anxiety attack in me, quite literally. I draw an enormous amount of security from structure. Maybe I rely upon structure and routine a bit too much, but most of us like the idea of routine, having a schedule, and the idea of rules, laws, and boundaries. For the most part, they keep us safe.

When does structure become legalistic? I believe that otherwise good structure and boundaries become legalistic when they oppress or suppress appropriate freedom of expression. Boundaries and structures, along with rules and laws, are useful for maintaining order and achieving commonly agreed upon objectives. In a church service, for instance, there needs to be an order of service to facilitate coherence in music and teaching. If anyone and everyone was permitted to “do their own thing” whenever they felt like it, there would be very little edification or education achieved. It would descend from order to anarchy to chaos. Structure allows leaders to achieve their goals of teaching and edification of the church. 

The Jews in the Old Testament definitely had structure. In fact they were awash in structure. There are 613 written laws in the Old Testament. Over a number of centuries the Jewish leadership added many rules, customs, traditions, and supplementary laws to the original 613. There were three “markers” that divided the Jewish people from every other culture and race. They were: circumcision, sabbath, and diet. These three things separated the Jews from all other races. In and of themselves, they were merely cultural choices. They became legalistic when they not only separated people God created, but were used to exclude people who did not conform to those three markers.

Let’s expand the concepts of circumcision, sabbath, and diet to unpack the concepts of legalism in our society. 

For the sake of this article, let’s make circumcision a paradigm to represent our physical bodies that can include personal appearance, grooming, clothing styles, ethnicity, skin color, weight, and race. Because I am not using circumcision in a literal, physical sense here, I will include women in this paradigm as well in each of the above mentioned categories. Depending upon your personal opinion about physical circumcision, it may or may not be something you consider to be healthy or necessary. When we use the conceptual markers I listed above to exclude or define people, we have become legalistic. For most Christians these days, things like race or color are barriers that have long been shattered in many evangelical churches. What about personal appearance or clothing styles, though? If someone wanted to teach in a Sunday morning service in blue jeans and a t-shirt, would that be okay where you worship? The markers or categories listed above are only a partial list of things that tend to separate people with respect to our bodies. In some cases people who are overweight might not be considered appropriate leadership models as it reflects a lack of personal discipline. Legalism with respect to our paradigm of circumcision can be a barrier that would prohibit or obstruct a person based upon physical characteristics from serving God in our churches.

I will also make the sabbath into a paradigm as well to represent ethnic culture. Everyone who reads this blog article has a particular culture. For the purposes of this blog article, culture refers to any set of customs, traditions, practices, or rituals that make your culture distinct, different or separate from another culture. That doesn’t mean your culture cannot share values or things with other cultures, but the total of your customs, etc., make your culture distinct from other cultures. Some of the markers that tend to divide or exclude people in culture today are: money, social status, employment, heritage, nationality, political ideology, religion, material possessions including money, moral values, education, sexual orientation, and mental illness. These markers can be very deceptive. Of course we shouldn’t exclude someone on the basis of money or material possessions. That seems fairly obvious, but is it? Are people who are highly successful in business more likely to be given leadership positions in your church than someone who does not appear to have the “qualifications” to lead? Are leadership positions available to people who are not highly educated? Can someone lead in your church if they hold political beliefs or religious beliefs that are not entirely in line with what the church or denomination believes? I believe that the deeper we dig, the more likely we will find legalistic policies and practices in most churches that are there specifically to exclude certain people from service within that church. The policies may have been there for decades, virtually unknown to most people in the church because the current leadership does not revisit the constitution or governing principles of the church regularly. If someone attended your church from another culture or faith how well-equipped is your church to deal with the disparity of culture that might come into play? I believe that sabbath legalism is the most treacherous and insidious form of legalism. We can so easily move from inclusive to exclusive and not even be aware of the movement. There are so many good reasons to exclude people. We can usually find Bible verses to support our views, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are right. 

As with circumcision and sabbath, I will make diet a paradigm as well. What we eat is largely a matter of personal choice, so this paradigm will deal with personal choices. In the New Testament our first century brothers and sisters in Christ were concerned about things like eating meat sacrificed to idols, whether or not eating pork was allowed, or whether drinking alcoholic beverages is appropriate. Some churches still have strict morals or codes of ethics around consumption of alcohol. Beyond food choices there are numerous other choices that tend to divide people today. One of the choices that I have experienced relates to entertainment. Is it right for followers of Jesus to watch movies that are violent, or have sexual content, or use profanity? Is it appropriate for Christians to listen to music that has violent or profane content? In some cases, the debate over choices can be downright silly, such as what kind of salad dressing one should put on a salad. What version of the Bible is the best? I’ve witnessed many contentious debates about Bible versions. I am not going to spend too much time trying to unpack this paradigm because it is an easy one for anyone who reads this blog to do themselves. I would, though, challenge everyone who reads this blog to unpack it for their own information and education. I have friends who are vegans or vegetarians and they are not always gracious in accepting my choices in food. I have a feeling many may be able to relate to that point. 

I believe that legalism appeals to most of us because it creates a safe place where we do not have to wrestle with difficult or unpleasant moral or ethical choices. When the Apostle Paul extolled the virtues of liberty a little later in the book of Galatians, he exhorted them to guard their liberty, protect it, and don’t let anyone steal it from them. There will always be a tension between guarding our liberty and being legalistic. Many people around the world, particularly in more progressive nations with respect to race, cannot understand the rationale behind the white supremacist movement in the United States. It isn’t that the US has cornered the market on racism or bigotry. I believe the appeal of white supremacy is that it is a very safe place for people who feel threatened by other races and cultures. In the same way, legalism provides this same safe place for Christians who fear living in liberty where other people can make choices and be different without being sinful. While that may be true, God has given us liberty, choice, the ability to be different without it being sinful. I believe we need to not only embrace that, but celebrate it, and praise God for it. 

As always, comments are welcome. 

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