A New Legalism

Some time ago, I attended a conference in which a well-known speaker related the cultural and value differences between his current home in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and his childhood home in a small town in the Southwest United States. These cultural and value differences found their expression in a set of rules. As a young man, his church culture enforced a particularly prescribed set of rules: no dancing, no drinking, no card playing, no long hair. These were rules that could not be violated. To do so would not only invite censure from the community, but he was also warned that it would put his eternal standing with Almighty God in jeopardy.

As it sometimes happens with this kind of upbringing, the conference speaker moved as far away from his hometown rigidity as he could. He escaped to the Pacific Northwest—a part of the United States known for its laidback attitude and freethinking ways. The speaker believed that he had finally found a community that would be free from the constricting rules and legalisms of his childhood. He was in for quite a surprise. While he had indeed moved far away from the many rules of his childhood town, he discovered that the rules of his new neighborhood involved minute intricacies relating to garbage, the banning of plastic bags at the grocery store, and skateboarders or musicians in the common areas of his upscale townhome complex. The wrath of God may not have been invoked in the threats of punishment, but the speaker suffered the self-righteous censure of this community just as bound by legalism as the one in which he grew up. In both communities, oddly, he found that the rules seemed more beloved than the people they were meant to shape.

In listening to the speaker relating this story, I was embarrassed at the sting of self-recognition, finding myself within the details of his story. I might have easily looked down on one set of rules, while perhaps elevating the rules of the other. Yet, I grimaced at the irony of my own self-righteous response. Regardless of the community rules involved, human beings seem to be lovers of legalities.

Why is it that human beings become legalists regardless of the rules involved? The desire to have clear boundaries, and a concern for decency and order to guide communities, is both necessary and prudent. Yet somehow rules meant to offer shape for community living often grow into gods we come to worship—gods who serve as judge and jury for all who fall short of their dictates. Clear boundaries become walls of separation dividing human relationships and community, and the enforcers quickly draw lines around the righteous and the unrighteous. Legalism prompts one to declare her "virtue" as the clearly superior standard.

Perhaps humans find it easier to love legalities because it is easier than loving people. People are inconsistent and imperfect, and are more easily controlled and confined by rules. Jesus, in his life and ministry, frequently shattered these easy definitions put in place by those legalists in his day. He upended expectations and eluded the tightly drawn categories of those who sought to control him. He often kept company with those deemed unrighteous—prostitutes, tax collectors, and others called sinners—and he earned the label of "glutton and a drunkard" by those whose laws drew clear boundaries around appropriate company. For those who had clear rules about the Messiah of Israel, Jesus eschewed political power and stood silently before those who would eventually order his crucifixion. And for those who wanted a "rebel" Jesus, wholly antinomian and defying every convention, he answered by challenging his followers towards a righteousness that exceeded that of the most religious-of-the-religious in his day. In his own words he told those who would follow him that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

Far from being a measure for establishing self-righteousness or from creating a new legalism for his followers, Jesus fulfilled the law by revealing its true intention. He showed the true intention of the Sabbath law for rest on the seventh day not by enforcing rest rigidly but by healing those who were diseased, broken, and therefore kept separate from their communities. The rest God intended for humanity was expressed not in the rule of non-work per se, but in the spirit of good for all in need of reconciliation. Fulfilling the law, he restored relationships and opened the door for transformation; he reconciled persons to one another and to God.

Indeed, when he was questioned about the greatest commandment Jesus replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." Jesus understood that the ground of the law was a love for God and a love for persons. To replace the love of persons with a love of the rules missed the point. Loving the rules for rules' sake engenders self-love; loving God engenders love for others.

As the conference speaker suggested in his twin-stories of community legalism, human beings often miss the command to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. As legalists of many stripes, we often prefer to apply our community rules broadly and widely as a function of our self-love. But in the idolatry of legalism and the attempt to prove self-righteousness, we ironically depict a truth spoken long ago: The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.

Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.

(1) Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28.

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