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. Many of these cultural and value differences found their expression in a set of rules for civic conduct. In addition to these proscriptions, his church culture also enforced a particularly prescribed set of rules: no dancing, no drinking, no card playing, no long hair. These rules were held sacrosanct. Their violation would invite censure from the community and stern warnings that his eternal standing with Almighty God was now 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 he had finally found a community that would be free from the constricting rules and legalisms of his upbringing. Yet, he was in for quite a surprise. While he had indeed moved far away from the many rules of his childhood town, he was chagrined to discover that his new community had just as many rules. These rules involved intricacies relating to garbage disposal, the banning of plastic bags at the grocery store, and the sanction of 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 had grown up. In both communities, oddly, he found that the rules seemed more beloved than the people they were meant to shape.

In listening to this story, I was jolted by the sting of self-recognition, finding myself within the details of self-righteousness in both communities. Too often, I easily look down on others who fail to live by my rules. Or, I can easily elevate one set of standards, while denigrating a person holding to the alternative. Regardless of the rules involved, it is easier for me to love rules than people.

What might be at the heart of the human tendency towards legalism? 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 contours for human thriving and well-being grow into strictures that bind, stifling life and wholeness. Eventually, the standards themselves become the gods that are worshipped. But these are punitive gods who damn all who fall short. 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 to which all others must bow. Perhaps humans find it easier to love legalities because it is easier than loving people. People are inconsistent and imperfect, messy and unpredictable. Rules help to control and confine that messiness.

Into a world in which piety was equated with precise interpretation and obedience to the law came a man who frequently shattered this rigid understanding of righteousness. 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, this man from Nazareth 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 that at the heart of the Sabbath law for rest was to allow God to work on behalf of human wholeness by healing those who were diseased, broken, and therefore excluded from community and from worship. The rest God intended for humanity was expressed not in the rule of non-work per se, but in working for the good of 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. His ministry challenged the lettered adherence to the law, which brought death and revealed that the spirit of the law was to promote life.

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 are far more apt to love themselves. And we often love our rules more than people. 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 Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

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

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