What's better - the ultra-strict, adhere to every rule, try super hard not to sin type of Christian OR the full of grace, anything goes, "don't worry about sin it's not a big deal, that's why Jesus died, right?" kind of person? Well, to be honest, we don't really know if one of these is inherently better than the other. But, you can be damn sure that Matt's going to give you a piece of his mind on the matter in this post!
I’d like to try to logically assess some of the reasoning behind why people gravitate toward a legalistic approach to the Christian faith. Not surprisingly, I have never understood it, mainly because I see no logical benefit. Arguing in favor of more rules seems counter intuitive to me.
The type of legalism I’m referring to is not a doctrine. It is, in fact, a pejorative term that describes the tendency to take man-made suggestions, rules, and practices, and elevate them to the level of essential doctrine.
The big question is WHY anyone would want to do that! Seriously, why? Assuming that everyone is doing their best to interpret scripture, but aware that no one is getting it exactly right, there are only two fundamental ways for people to approach this matter, to err on the side of rules, or to err on the side of freedom. I suppose there is a third way in which the person actually thinks they are hitting the nail on the head. In that case they are neither a legalist, nor an abuser of God’s grace. The theological term for this person is asshole.
On a side note, I am all about eliminating biases and evaluating things logically, but I will concede my background may give me some biases that I bring to the table, so here they are…
I hate school. I hate teachers and authority. I hate programs and big systems. I hate rules that are made to control me. I never got along with any teachers in school. And trust me, they genuinely disliked me as well, and probably for good reason. I really don’t like the education system, and I really don’t like the similarly structured churches and religious structures. They fail me. I fail in them. The last thing I ever want is more rules, and as I type this, as I have been my entire life, I truly am astounded that anyone would choose more rules, but yet they do.
I regularly encounter people who confess in a comical, pseudo self-deprecating way to being a “recovering legalist”. I translate this one of two ways. 1) “I have always tried really hard to not sin because that’s how you get to have a better life, better relationship with God, and/or get to Heaven.” Or, 2) “I spend a lot of time condemning others and judging them in my head for their failures in areas that I am naturally not inclined to fail.” Usually it is a combination of the two.
To be clear, there are varying degrees of legalism, and everyone can point to someone more legalistic than themselves and someone who isn’t “taking their holiness seriously.” It really is a spectrum. But hear me on this, the opposite of legalism isn’t sin. In fact my argument is that legalistic tendencies if anything are more harmful and fucked up than the sins that they forbid. The heart of legalism is really dark and insidious and it is anti-gospel. You should take it seriously. It is to be prideful, self-focused, and mistrusting of God. At every level it is false teaching, which I’d argue is always worse than smoking pot for instance. As in, perhaps someone wrongly believes it’s okay to smoke pot (and it might actually be ok, not my point), but even if that person is “over-indulging in freedom” and “cheap grace”, or “sinning so that grace may abound”, or whatever you want to call it, I am certain that they are doing LESS damage than those who even passively teach through their actions that you must be holy so that you will be accepted. And although I know that isn’t your official position, think about it. Many of your actions do in fact communicate this belief.
So really, WHY do all of us to some degree want more rules? Obviously more freedom and fewer rules is the logical choice, right? It would be much more fun, relaxed, and pleasant. So I’d like to argue that the only logical reason you would not choose it is, that like every ugly sin, you get something you really want in return. After giving it a quick 33 years of thought, here are some reasons that I can come up with for why people trade freedom for rules and systems.
Laziness: Even though the Bible commands you to be bold and promises the Holy Spirit will guide you, you prefer the comfort of a checklist. For you, it’s not as hard to stay off the Naughty List as it is to evaluate every situation using all of the discerning power that God has given you.
What you get out of this: Comfort
Insecurity: You are a person who struggles with insecurity and perhaps codependency. You are more worried about who you are to other people, and you want to please them. As it pertains to God, you have a false notion of Him as a disappointed authority figure who you need to please. This is not how God sees you. Alternatively, many of you act out of insecurity in an opposite fashion. This plays out when you are overly judgmental of others to make yourself feel better using a set of do’s and don’ts as measurement. This is not how God measures you. This is gross.
What you get out of this: Approval
Pride: This whole thing really is about you and your achievement. You are really good at it. You value discipline and want to inspire others to be like you. In fact, you probably should just become a Buddhist because you are all about self-denial.
What you get out of this: Self Confidence
Fear: This one really gets dangerous. You as a leader, parent, or authority figure use fear to instill rules on others because you don’t trust them or God. Yikes. You are now training up new generations that will feel the aforementioned insecurity for the rest of their lives. Don’t do this. The people you care about the most, like your children, and those under your spiritual leadership WILL mess up. You ultimately can’t protect them, keep them from sin, or even keep them alive. Your job is to model and lead by example.
What you get out of this: Control
Power: The manipulation of others for the purpose of acquiring power combines all the weaknesses from each of the above categories and wields them to accomplish your will. This is present in all major institutions, including the Church. It is responsible for many of the greatest atrocities in human history. It is present in your church today. It is present in your relationships today. I am not going out of my way to be overly cynical, but simply mean that we are all like this. It is built in to our nature.
What you get out of this: Power, duh
Yes, I am guilty of all of these, and so are you. We are weak. We must fight these tendencies in our personal relationships, family systems, and churches. It is worth the fight. Don’t accept human rules being elevated to Biblical mandates. It is nothing short of abuse and false teaching when you do so.
P.S. I just heard this thought at church this week, and I believe it’s a more loving summary of what I’ve been trying to say.
My paraphrase: We are not good at being loved. Additionally we are not good at loving. So it’s no wonder that we expect our relationship with God to be transactional. If we receive all that we do, then it follows that we must owe something, right? I guess as it turns out legalism is logical after all.