Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lawlessness Is The New Legalism

Many churches pride themselves in speaking out against the enslaving evils of legalism. Pastors are always reminding their congregation to not get distracted by rules and regulations but to just concentrate on Jesus. Well, that's great. Or is it? Legalism has become such a negative buzz word that we no longer really know what it means. I'm a guy who likes to have words nicely defined. So, before we continue our little discussion on legalism, let's give it a definition.

In my understanding, legalism is an overemphasis on law rather than on God which usually results in the creation of additional rules. Legalists typically become judgmental of those who violate these laws. In short, legalism is idolatry. It's putting man-made laws above God Himself.

So, than what's with my peculiar title? If legalism is the overemphasis of law how can lawlessness be the new legalism? Didn't I just contradict myself? Just a few months ago I would have answered yes to that very question. However, then I got to thinking about the way that we often label people as legalists.

We take people who don't listen to rock or families that don't watch R-rated movies or girls who only wear dresses and then label them legalists. But what are we focusing on? The outward appearance. Laws. Rules.

There are many people in churches today who have strict rules about not having strict rules and then when people violate their no-rule rules they judge them for being judgmental.

I've seen families who homeschool their kids, don't listen to anything with a beat, hardly every watches movies, only read certain kinds of books, would never hear of dancing, dress in a very conservative way and attend a Fundamentalist, family-integrated church. But no one could ever justly call them legalists. They aren't focusing on rules. They're focusing on Jesus and this has caused them to live their lives in a certain way. They don't judge others who don't have their same standards, but focus on living their lives in a way that would please God.

On the flip side, I've seen believers who walk around like they're at a pop culture festival and live very legalistic lives. They may not think they have rules about dress or media, but they actually do. Their rules just have the extra convenience of commanding them to act 'lawlessly'. When people use the argument that the Bible never says "thou shalt not " what are they focusing on? The law. They aren't looking at the heart behind the law. Just the law and the law doesn't mention the particulars. They are very dedicated to their anti-rule rules and will judge and label anyone of violates them.

But before I start judging the lawless legalists, I must remind myself that we're all legalists at heart. We all have this natural, God-given draw toward order and it's much easier for that order to be controlled by rules rather than love.

We must all guard ourselves against the dangerous snares of legalism. At the end of day, if you're driving down a precarious road it doesn't really matter if you fall into the ditch to your left or the ditch to your right.


  1. I enjoyed your characteristically extraordinarily thoughtful musings very much, Joshua! Is it possible that the difficulty too often lies in the natural human tendency to want to control others to a degree that nothing said by Jesus require...s, instead of leaving it to people to exercise free will, aware of, and suffering, the possible consequences of straying too far?

    Extremely harsh, medieval Sharia law is an excellent example of the degree to which Semitic preoccupation with the imposition of laws devised by Man, and finding no support in the word of God, serves little spiritual purpose other than to excuse oppression of women and murder of non-Muslims, and suppressing all human joy and genuine pleasure by making everyone equally miserable.

    Did not Jesus himself enrage the Pharisees by quite outspokenly declaring them to forever alienated from God, so long as they in their foolishness imagined that they were close to Him so long as they made a big show of public prayer and obeyed their myriad man-created laws, regardless of whether they lived according to the Golden Rule?

    Does not an excessive preoccupation with obedience to man's laws more often than not excuse systematic violation of God's law? I suppose I am a "spiritual libertarian", looking principally to the word of Christ (which already sets an extremely high standard we are hard-pressed to meet) for guidance on what God, as opposed to some priest, rabbi, pastor or mullah, demands, and leaving it to free men and women to exercise free will, and receive the blessings, or suffer the consequences, of their choices.

    Of course, I was confirmed a Lutheran (which is not to say I am a Lutheran, through and through), and, coupled with my family's aversion to orthodoxy on most any issue, my perspective is pretty highly individualistic.

    This is not to say that society should therefore be as lawlessly nihilistic as ours has become, in so many ways, in natural reaction to which people inevitably seek to control and restrict others more. It is instead to say that the need for law and punishment, in my experience and observation, varies directly inversely with the degree to which people in society and in the world follow the Golden Rule.

    Paradoxically, we have more laws and law enforcement than ever in our society, yet we are as a whole more lawless than ever, especially in our economic, political and cultural leadership (and not just at the dark margins of society), which is more self-seeking and indifferent to the welfare of the People and the world than it has been in quite some time.

    After evolving from a country controlled by rapaciously Pharisaic corporate and political interests 100+ years ago, into a pretty decent and relatively just society in the 1950's and 1960's, we have slowly descended back into the swamp, and have again allowed rapaciously Pharisaic corporate, political, and governmental (big government unions) interests to rule us for their benefit, rather than ours

  2. Thank you for your insightful comment :-).

    I think that the key to this whole thing is that we need to focus on the principles behind the laws. Some times people can actually violate the spirit of the law by following the letter. If love for God and love for others is our primary goal than the rules will just fall into place by themselves.