4th February 2006

Blog :: Christianity and Legalism

Craig Alan Myers over at Dunker Journal said something recently that I've heard before.

IT'S AMUSING that people say that there is legalism in the Church of the Brethren. No doubt there is, in places. But I've been hard pressed to find any. Legalism is, in the New Testament sense, attempting to gain salvation through works. There are really few in the Church of the Brethren who believe that.

I understand where he's coming from. Some Christians seem to use the charge of legalism as a defense mechanism against any attempt to see the Bible as normative. Vernard Eller's excellent book Towering Babble deals with this tendency within the Church of the Brethren (and invites you to examine your own Church experience) to claim the New Testament as the "only rule of faith and practice" but then resist actually applying that rule in any meaningful sense.

That said, it is an evasion of the issue of legalism to define it as "attempting to gain salvation through works". This seems to be a defense mechanism as well; Who me, legalistic? No I don't believe I am saved by my works, so it can't be true...

This is one of the commonly understood definitions of legalism in Christianity. Another commonly understood definition of legalism among Christians is requiring/encouraging believers to adhere to the Mosaic law. Again, this is not the same thing as believing that keeping the Law saves you. Bill Gothard is an example to me of someone who believes Christians ought to keep the Mosaic law because it's a good idea, not because it saves you. He teaches the importance of circumcision and emphasizes ritual purity in sex, dress, and diet. Galatians makes it pretty clear that emphasizing Law keeping (perhaps especially the old covenantal distinctives) is not a good idea. This sort of Legalism is pretty rare now, but the 1st century Church had to work this out, even calling the Acts council to decide this issue.

There are two other ways in which legalism has been understood that strike a little closer to home.  Jesus condemns two behaviours in the Gospels which are closely linked, but not exactly the same thing. Both can be understood as legalism and nearly every Church which takes the Scripture seriously as having normative force upon the lives of believers will struggle with these issues.

The first behavior is extra-Biblical regulation. Jesus addresses this behavior on the part of the Pharisees at length in Mark chapter 7

6 He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 7 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' 8 "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men -- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do." 9 He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' 11 But you say, 'If a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban"--' (that is, a gift to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, 13 making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do."

Note that Jesus' problem is not just extra regulation, but especially regulation that has the effect of nullifying God's command. This does not mean, however, that we are free to heap extra-Biblical regulation upon believers as long as we say "Not that you have to do this to be saved." In fact, it might be argued that heaping regulation upon believers is almost guaranteed to have the effect of nullifying God's commandments. This is because our all too human tendency is to make a rule with the original intent of honoring a principle but end up merely focusing on the rule. Rules are always easier than principles because it is usually easy to tell if someone is breaking a rule but frequently difficult to tell if they are dishonoring a principle. We end up then strictly enforcing the rule, paying attention to the rule, making sure people are keeping the rules and somehow forget to pay more than lip service to the commandment of God we meant to emphasize. This focus on regulation while missing the point is also legalism.

Jesus had more to say about this sort of legalism. In Matthew 23 he says

23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! 25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Jesus does not condemn the pharisees for tithing even from their spice gardens - he condemns them for being so focused on applying the rule of tithing that they forgot the "weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." They perceived their relationship with God as one made up primarily of "keeping the rules" and forgot what most interested Him. God has always more interested in the heart than in keeping rules. We reverse His priorities at the risk of becoming blind guides. Legalism can be found not only making extra-Biblical regulations but in focusing on the mechanics of God's commands to the exclusion of the heart of the matter.

How well does Jesus' sarcastic imagery represent us? Straining gnats and swallowing camels. This is so much more difficult to brush off than the primary "works for justification" definition of legalism. Very often my own obedience to God's command is joyless and perfunctory: doing things not because I am incorporated into Jesus' body but merely because of others expectations, my own self consciousness, or force of habit and tradition.

As I've read dunkerjournal (he's in my bloglines subscription) I've realised that I am a little less skeptical about the Emergent Church people than he is. Part of that stems from my experience with legalism both in my own life and in the life of the Churches I have been a part of. I am convinced in fact, that the  traditional Brethren insistence upon uniformity of practice across the Brotherhood has been counter-productive in some ways to the development of real righteousness by the Brethren throughout our history. Accountability and support and discipline on the part of the Body are necessary to the "believers Church" but can only happen in the context of relationship. Hence my sympathies to the Emergent people: I'm not sure they have any answers but I sympathise with their emphasis on relationship.

Perhaps a story about Alexander Mack would help illustrate the point.  I believe this is related in Durnbaugh's excellent Brethren history Fruit of the Vine, but I'm not sure and I'm likely getting some details wrong. Alexander Mack (in case you're not Brethren) was the leader of the German pietist movement that migrated to America and became the the Church of the Brethren (with various Brethren splits like the Old Order German Baptist Brethren, Dunkard Brethren, etc). Originally Mack was quite wealthy but most of his wealth was spent protecting the Pietists from persecution in Germany and getting them to America. By the end of his life (if I'm recalling this correctly) Mack essentially had no money.

He did have a non-Brethren admirer, however, who gave him a luxurious cloak. Perhaps it was made of silk or trimmed with fur; at any rate when news got out that Mack was wearing this expensive and worldly garment ill-befitting the simplicity of a Brethren minister, the local officials came to visit him to see how he was in the faith. They found Mack in his garden on hands and knees, wearing his cloak. When the delegation came into view, he stood up, wiped his hands on his cloak, and saluted each visitor in turn. Perhaps they discussed the weather and the tendency of all gardens to run to weeds, but somehow the topic of the cloak never came up. While Mack might be outside the (informal) rules concerning Brethren garb, it was obvious to those in relationship with him that there was not a problem.

This is the right way to handle accountability and it is the right way to handle areas of life that the Church addresses which Scripture does not give a clear word on. Legalism, far from being hard to find, has been a constant danger with which Brethren Churches have had lots of experience (I suppose here I'm speaking from my experience with the Dunkard offshoot of the Brethren movement and my reading of shared Brethren history; others will have to make application from their own experience). That history with it's failures and successes ought to give us a certain sense of humility about our attempts to walk the path of discipleship.

Posted on February 4th 2006, 11:27 PM