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The New Legalism

By May 20, 2008One Comment

American culture is endlessly moving through cycles. It emphasizes one end of the spectrum, and then over-compensates by bouncing in the opposite direction. The Republicans are in favor, and then the Democrats take the lead. Spirituality is the flavor of the month, and then atheism has a surge. Even female modesty has experienced a recent rally in the midst of long-term hyper-sexuality.

Cycles are a very real part of the culture we inhabit. And the Church is no exception.

One of the cycles of recent Christian culture has hinged upon the spectrum between personal holiness and social justice. One generation would emphasize the importance of rigorous discipleship and guarding the integrity of the Church. A subsequent generation would find this focus too self-absorbed, and would therefore respond by focusing on the poor and suffering in the world. They would remind the Church of Jesus’ heart for the marginalized, pointing out that the Pharisees emphasized holiness while Jesus emphasized grace.

But the cycle did not end there. Yet another generation would notice a slipping in the area of personal holiness, so it would re-emphasize the significance of one’s lifestyle. What we do with our time, our bodies, our words, our thoughts, what we read and what we listen to–all of these things matter to God and distinguish Christians from secular non-profit organizations. It is our relationship with God through Christ, not our service projects, that make us Christians.

So on the cycle goes. Back and forth and back and forth.

Given this trend of never-ending cycles, where are we right now? In my opinion, we are presently swinging toward the service-oriented end of the spectrum. Our generation has recognized a moral blind spot in the area of social justice, and has begun the necessary work of remedying it.

And let me say that I completely agree with this movement. We need to care for the poor and oppressed so exceptionally that the world takes notice. What’s more, our love for others is an echo of the love God has for the world, and it is our prerogative to reflect that love to the best of our ability.

BUT, let us not swing too far. This is where I fear we are beginning to err. Service to the poor has becomes so trendy that it has come to define the Christian life itself. If you are not supporting certain public policies, if you are not engaged in grass roots ministries to the poor, if you are not volunteering regularly at a soup kitchen or raising awareness about genocide, then you are not walking with Christ.

Now don’t get my wrong–all of those initiatives are fantastic. I support them whole-heartedly. However, at times I am hard-pressed to discern who is more judgmental: proponents of the social justice Gospel, or fundamentalists? Each has their own standards for Christian acceptability–if you are not living the lifestyle that these various camps set forth, then you are not a true Christian. Or at least not a very good one.

With all of this in mind, it’s important that we pause and remember that the most fundamental component of the Gospel is a message of grace, not a requirement of work. The word “Gospel” itself means “good news,” so while we are called to respond to this news, we must be careful not to overshadow the news of God’s love by adding stipulations for His acceptance. God has intervened on our behalf prior to any good work of our own, and for that we praise and follow Him. As my pastor frequently reminds us, religion is about do; the Gospel is about done.

So beware of legalism. There is the typical Pharisaical emphasis on holiness that we all recognize as blatant legalism, but there is a new legalism that is creeping upon us as well. It is far more subtle because it challenges us to love the world to the utmost, but even in this Christ-like action we can compromise the purity of the Gospel.

One Comment

  • Dawson says:

    Do you think that the divide between social justice and personal holiness is just a false dichotomy (thinking it is an ether/or rather than a both/and)? If Jesus’ Love commands hallmark social ethics (love God Love others), that is the love of God produces timely social justice (love of others) and consistent personal holiness then I think you hit the nail on the head (southern for right on sister). All legalism is loveless even when it looks so zealous. Your words are timely and as always well written… (I envy that about you – can I say that?)

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