Monday, April 30, 2012

What I Mean By Legalism: the most prominent mode of thinking (Is It Worth It: The Wedding Ring Discussion continued)


As I have stated already, the response that has unfolded from my original post, The Wedding Ring: Is It Worth It? was not something I anticipated. My intention all along was generated out of sincere concern and a passionate desire to do something about the losses we’re experiencing. My prayer is that each of my readers will be drawn closer to the heart of God through this discussion.

In response to those of you who have insisted loudly that I committed grievous error and therefore should have remained silent, my response is “No, silence is not better.” Private notes, along with the public comments, continue to pour into my email box. It is clear from these that there is much we need to talk about, and how much better it would be if we would talk about things before we part ways.
I’ve been accused of speaking like I know the answers. The ideas I present are not original to me. If it sounds as though I am fully persuaded of them, it is because they have worked in my life. I’m not pretending to have all the answers, and I’m not looking down on anybody. If what is expressed here is helpful, I’m grateful. If not, in all kindness of spirit, I ask you not to continue reading. Many things I share with you have literally changed my life.
Surely, it is clear that there has been confusion over my use of the word legalism. I’m using this word very literally. I do not intend it as a pejorative label or a stereotypical caricature of anyone. I won’t consciously do that.


What I share with you in the rest of this post is based on studies with my local church family over numerous years. Much of it comes from notes taken during those study sessions.


From Webster we have: legalism- “strict adherence to law or prescription.”

In particular, my interest concerns the mode or method of thinking people use to come to the conclusion that something is right or wrong, how they justify behavior to themselves and (of course) to others if questioned.


Think with me for a minute of some of the possibilities. I’m trying to survey them from neutral ground at least initially…

How do humans justify their actions?

One way we might justify our behavior is on the basis of whether it brings us pleasure. We see this expressed in “If it feels good, do it.”  We might even muster a semblance of accountability and ask the empty chairs of our mind, “So what’s wrong with feeling good?” to which is answered, not a word, and so we feel quite justified. (I couldn’t stay neutral very long on that one!) This would be the hedonistic mode.

Another possibility goes like this. “I do what I want when I want because I want to… do you have a problem with that?”  Here, the only thing controlling behavior is my will—there are no other constraints. This would be the despotic mode. (Despot: ruler with absolute unlimited power)

The legalistic mode of behavior justification then is simply: the pattern of thought in which behavior is justified and truth is determined by strict adherence to laws, principles, rules.

Now read the definition again before you go on and ask yourself, “Does this apply to me?”

If after reading this definition you quickly note it says, “strict adherence” and since “I don’t believe in ‘strict adherence’ of rules, it doesn’t apply to me,” you are experiencing the impulse to legalism. You might read the sentence I just wrote and want to respond with “OK, I didn’t even notice it said ‘strict,’ so I am not that way.” Or in that same sentence you might pick out “quickly note,” since you didn’t “quickly” note the word “strict,” this is about someone else.

Legalism is distinguished by a tendency to emphasize the “letter” of the law rather than the intent of the giver. “It says what it says.” There may be considerable discussion of what it says, even interpretation of what it means, but at the end, the result is universal, necessary, and certain… the end of the story.

The tendency to legalistic thinking is natural and strong. It is reinforced by many years of childhood and adolescence in which our conscience is formed and our will is regulated by rules. (There is no avoiding this; of course, a child with no rules quickly develops modes of thinking that are hedonistic or despotic. Sadly, it is one of the “triumphs” of modern psychology that many in society think it wise to celebrate despotic children.)

I have determined to avoid applying the label legalist to persons in this discussion. Rather, I will talk about legalism as a mode of thinking for justifying and defending positions. Whether a legalistic mode of reasoning justifies a label or not, labels don’t promote understanding, so I think if we are to use it at all, it should be reserved for those who willingly endorse legalistic methods as proper.

When I say “I am not a legalist,” I mean “as a follower of Christ, I reject it as a means to understanding God’s will,” which is not the same thing as saying there are no rules in my life.

In case raw definitions are hard to relate to, let me give you an example.

If you have children, you’re surely well-acquainted with what it means to think legalistically. Suppose you tell your son that it is time to clean his room and that you don’t want to see anything left on the floor that doesn’t belong there. After a while, he comes out to announce that he is finished. You go to inspect. Indeed, nothing is on the floor that doesn’t belong there. But then you realize that there are army men in the underwear drawer. There is a combination of unmatched and dirty socks in the toy box. You turn to him; the question on your face is obvious. He says, “But you said, nothing on the floor.” And you know what, he’s right—legalistically. The first time this happens, you might argue, well, children just don’t get it. And so, they might not. But if he were being honest he would readily admit that he knew enough about your intention to know that what you wanted was everything put in its proper place. But he can still say with total literal truth, “I did what you said.” However, he may well not be honest, and so in order for his behavior to be properly molded, you have to modify the laws that he is under. So now the law becomes, clean up your room and put stuff where it belongs. Notice that the behavior will change to match the new law but the heart may or may not change.

Legalistic systems have an intrinsic problem when they are based on a set body of law, because history and technology introduce ever new possibilities for human behavior. What do you do when your belief system is based on a set of laws which is thousands of years old, and now you are dealing with TV,  iPads, Internet, and Virtual reality?

There is probably no system of legalism more fully developed than Rabbinic Judaism, the dominant form or Judaism since the time of Christ. For the Rabbi’s, no detail of Jewish life is beyond the reach of Jewish law. For them, law is a dynamic living thing. When history and technology change the issues, they simply adapt and reinterpret. Something seemingly as remote as whether it is lawful to ride an elevator on the Sabbath is an issue of concern because to start the elevator you push a switch which creates a small spark which could be considered equivalent to kindling a fire on the Sabbath, and kindling a fire on the Sabbath is prohibited.

Now, at first to us this would seem to be a horribly restrictive way to live. But actually there are elements of this approach which we human beings find very attractive once we see the deeper issues. At first glance you might ask, why would anybody submit to that? But suppose you are an earnest follower of God. Have you ever felt a yearning deep in your heart to please God in every part of your life? Have you ever wondered, “Why doesn’t the Bible just spell everything out so I can know exactly what I’m supposed to do?” Imagine if you could know at every moment of every day exactly what is lawful.

You see, legalism does have an appeal. However, Christianity reveals that a legal mode of thinking cannot bring a person to a place of being just before God. “...the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ...but...we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” “...therefore by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight...” “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness...”

If you read all that Paul writes about law, you begin to realize that he rejects not just the law of the Jews but law as a category, law as a mode of thinking, thinking which says, “I am justified because I did everything you told me to do.” Paul offers a distinct alternative to this type of thinking.

Now, there is an incredible thing that happens when you reintroduce legalism into Christianity. Remember with Judaism you’re never in doubt because law is reinterpreted to cover everything? But in Christianity, which isn’t a legal system, you constantly have issues for which there is no law, especially as technology and culture change. Those who insist on forcing legalism on Christianity usually try to make it work by doing one of two things. Either they create law where there is none, or they take the position that since there is not certain and specific law on an issue, we are free to do as we please.

Free to do as we please?! Who would ever have dreamed that law-mindedness could lead a Christian (one who is like Christ) to feel justified in insisting that the only input of any weight on an issue had to come in the form of a command, otherwise, we are under no constraint at all.