Legalism by any other name….

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Picking up from yesterday’s post (so go read that one first if you’re behind)….

I hesitate to write this because, frankly, I think this issue serves only to highlight my own blind spots, lack of love toward people I disagree with, and sinfulness. ha!  But the topic continues to surface in discourses with people ranging from parents at school to friends in other cities. It merits discussion.

One of the more recent criticisms leveled in our direction has been (supposedly) that we (the Rameys + a few others) label people we disagree with as “legalists.”  The implication is that we’re being unfair, grabbing the moral high ground via ad hominem attacks and labels.

“Legalist” according to Webster is “strict, regimented conformity to a religious or moral code/law.”  Most people I grew up with defined it as “adding works to grace in order to be saved.”  Evangelicals like to broaden that definition to mean “thinking you can make God happy by what you DO, instead of trusting in the blood of Christ to have changed what you really ARE.”

To be fair, my definition of “legalism” has certainly expanded to include finer shades of bad theology (more on that later). But for the record — I’m not the one who’s been tossing around the label when it comes to particular people. I’m happy to categorize ideas. If you find yourself holding to one of them …. well, “if it walks like a duck, and acts like a duck….”  But I don’t generally toss people into categories — humans are too complicated to be easily cataloged.

People bristle at the term “legalist” — and I don’t blame them.  I try to keep my own pride and arrogance in check by reminding myself that I, too, happily attempt to make God happy by what I do (instead of resting in the redemptive love of the Father for my acceptance)…. but I’m a sinner, and I’m pretty sure that even the effort of trying to remember that “I commit the same sin” somehow just feeds my self-righteous pride. *sighs*

Is there a better term for the varieties of warped definitions of sin?
Do we, like our forefather Adam, need to pass these beasts before our eyes and give them new names?

Fundamentalism, with all of its formative influences on my upbringing (and still influencing me by reminding me of bondage I never wish to experience again), was entirely consumed with avoiding sin. My Christian school had a thick rule book.  BJU’s dormitory handbooks took an hour or more just to read.  And each year brought new rules.

Ironically, they picked the worst possible methods for accomplishing their goal. Paul’s words – not mine – in Colossians admonishes “But mere commands like ‘Don’t touch! Don’t taste! Don’t handle that!’ are powerless to restrain sin.”  Setting up “fences” around the Law makes you a good Pharisee (the Gospels are my source here) but a failure at sanctifying yourself.  Galatians (the entire book) screams the message that it is Grace, not Law, which changes us into the image of Christ.  And God saves me because He simply wanted to, not because I was pretty enough to merit His attention.

The term “legalism” didn’t really get popular until the 70s or 80s, and Fundamentalists have an entire system of defenses built against the term by now. Evangelicals have criticized Fundys for decades for merging Southern cultural taboos into their interpretation of God’s standards for holiness. But Fundy’s retort, “Legalism refers to believing in works-salvation. We don’t. So eff off.”

People I’ve encountered in recent years around NCC/NCS have the same “eff-off” attitude, but it’s because they associate the term “legalist” with BJU-type Fundys.  A few examples:

  • A parent literally looked me in the eye and said, “Our family has no problem with alcohol. In fact, we have wine with dinner occasionally. My husband even smokes a cigar once a year. So don’t call me a legalist! I don’t have those hangups” … and then proceeded to suggest that the Much Ado poster with Joey holding an (empty) glass (implying liquor) and people behind him holding cigars crossed the line of what a “Christian school” ought to be portraying in their drama program.   (I don’t wanna harp on drama here — it just happens to be in the spotlight and thus provokes most of the fights.)
  • Somone of importance once criticized my iPod contents. This person implied that I listen to various kinds of music merely because I “was trying to be cool” to form relationships with the kids I teach. (I bristled at the idea that my music tastes are merely a manipulative tool for earning some kind of ‘coolness’ which I can then leverage for ministry purposes.) They asked me if I could maybe find less-controversial ways to be “hip and cool.”


  • The theme becomes all the more common from middle-school parents looking at the upper school: “Yes, we understand your theology,” they tell me. “You’re dead right –No fences! …. But you’re being unrealistic here– some things are just too dangerous for kids to play around with. So stop implying that any kind of music is OK [Ed: That’s an oversimplification of what I think], that teens can drink and smoke [Ed: Also an oversimplification], that it doesn’t matter what people do [Ed: Downright misunderstanding].”

The implications fly by thick and fierce:
If we would simply control behavior, we could control the heart.


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