“Blessed be God, there seems to be a noble spirit gone out into Wales, and I believe, ere long, there will be more visible fruits of it. What inclines me strongly to think so is, that the partition wall of bigotry and party-zeal [i.e., “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos”] is broken down, and ministers and teachers of different communions, join with one heart and one mind to carry on the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. The Lord make all the Christian world thus minded! For till this is done, I fear, we must despair of any great reformation in the Church of God.” (George Whitefield’s Journals, Banner of Truth Trust, 1978)
Once my life as a believer started getting some traction about six years after my conversion, I soon jumped the curb in my zeal to take the word of God seriously. Like too many novices, I drove right off the road into legalism and barely realized it.
In fact, it took quite a while to realize how much it affected me and for how long. It was like the lines in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 111: “my nature is subdued/To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.” It stained everything.
Despite its superficial similarity to sincerely trying to obey God, there are some pretty important differences. Legalism—and that has to include the innocent-sounding “spiritual principles” we jot down in our spiral notebooks if we misuse them—tries to compartmentalize righteousness.
Or another way of understanding it is a series of fences that can lock together to form enclosures, which in turn can add more fences within the enclosure to form additional enclosures. Or snap together in series to form adjacent enclosures. If you’re not feeling claustrophobic yet, there’s more.
Legalism is a demanding form of righteousness. “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome” (1 Jn 5:3). “His commands,” properly understood, aren’t burdensome, but legalism is.
First of all, those metaphorical sections of fence are the rules that define right and wrong. And there are so many! Tell me again: How far can I walk on the Sabbath before it’s classified as “work” and therefore prohibited? Since books haven’t been invented yet, I have to tow this scroll around on a roller tied to a piece of cord. That is so tedious!
And because it’s so tedious, there is a strong temptation to cut corners when no one is looking. Who’s gonna notice? So the corollary to “staying inside the fence” (righteousness) is “don’t get caught on the outside of the fence” (sinful). So it may look like you’re zealous for the law, but in fact you’re just as wary of getting caught in something that appears wrong.
And if that isn’t cumbersome enough, the kind of novice believer that clings to legalism like a security blanket tends to assign certain forms or ways of doing things in a one-to-one correlation with certain “spiritual principles” or rules. That includes ways of doing things that evolve from the first time doing it this way into making a habit of it and then into emerging from the chrysalis with wings as an imperative.
You can pray a certain way, using particular phrases. You “red flag” other behaviors, such as women who participate too much in public meetings, though Paul made a point of saying to the Corinthians, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39). (Sounds like they’re included to me.)
As you can imagine, a lot of novices in the same room are like my experience of the bumper-car colliding egos of my freshman classmates at Hopkins living in the same dormitory. Everyone is top ten in their public/private school class, confident to the point of arrogant and, make no mistake, ready to rumble.
The best way to illustrate this is to look at me. A couple of years after becoming a Christian, I was asked to do a temp stint as a counselor at a church-sponsored summer camp for middle- and high school students. I wasn’t really keen on it because it was operated by the mainline denomination I had been confirmed in, but I gave in.
Before the week of camp got started, all of us staff went into town for pizza. We all sat around one big table, and when the meal was served, I waited for a moment thinking someone would take the lead and say grace before eating. No one did. I was only a toddler Christian, but I already had the idea that you always did this, even in a public restaurant. (Or, because it was a restaurant and you had to “let your light shine before men.”)
And I got that idea because, at one point, before I knew you were “supposed to,” (1) I was in a group where I was introduced to this custom. Then (2) after a few times where the custom was repeated on other occasions, it became automatic. And after that, (3) it became an imperative; you must do it.
The difference between (2) and (3) was (2) was like wearing a casual shirt or shirt and tie to church. The shirt-and-tie combination was more common, so it carried a little more weight, but no one excoriated anyone for wearing just a nice shirt to church. But (3) was like wearing your boxer shorts on the outside of your pants. You don’t do that.
By itself, the omission at the table wasn’t such a big thing. There are certainly more serious omissions. But I realize now that something that “wasn’t such a big thing” grew into an outsized image in my mind. I flagged these people as insincere and/or shallow in their faith.
When you think about the kinds of distortions that take place in the way we “read” each other’s behaviors, you begin to understand Jesus’ image of the “plank in the eye” of the self-righteous and the “speck of sawdust” in the eye of the “guilty” brother (Mt 7:1-5). It’s like looking in a funhouse mirror.
As I said, I eventually escaped from legalism. Years later, I don’t remember when, I stopped saying grace in public places like restaurants. And I don’t remember anything in particular that precipitated the decision. I no longer thought it was so important, and certainly not necessary. I never received a memo from the Spirit of God to tell me otherwise.
The reason I didn’t mark the day probably has to do with the fact that an awful lot of church-related behavior continues because of inertia, like Newton’s principle that a body in motion tends to stay in motion until a countervailing force is applied. We just keep doing things because, for as long as we can remember, we’ve always done them that way.
Of course, that’s pretty much what a tradition is. Some traditions set aside the word of God (bad, obviously), while others are simply ways of trying to obey the commands employing specific, appropriate practical means (neutral). And others, like kids at the mall, have gotten separated from their parents (i.e., we can no longer see the connection to the command on which the tradition is based, and therefore in need of renewal).
But to get back to inertia, there are times, when you’ve got a moment to think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, that you realize that if you didn’t do this it wouldn’t really matter. It doesn’t make a difference, in other words.
Does not saying grace in a public place mean I am not thankful for the food I am about to eat? No, of course not, not necessarily. But turn that around. If I did say grace, mechanically and without much feeling, because I “know I should do this” even though I’m in a bad mood and God’s provision is looking mighty scarce this month, is that a “blemished sacrifice” such as Malachi condemned? (Mal 1:6-8)
The old, legalist me would be wringing my hands trying to work this out, what with this “spiritual principle” to balance against that one. Me, now, will just repeat the question from two paragraphs ago: Does it make any difference? Do I need to be concerned about these things at all? Should I be “straining at gnats” in the behavior of others at the same time I’m willing to suspend fellowship with a brother or sister for whom Christ died?
Maybe another example will help. If we’re thankful for the food we receive, why aren’t we just as publicly thankful for other good things? Why don’t we, for example, all close our eyes, join hands and bow our heads when Dad sticks the key in the ignition and the car starts! Here’s a Responsive Reading you can use if you want to add this to your family devotions this week (If you like it, I can make up some more. Out of whole cloth):
LEADER: O Lord, you are the Maker of heaven and earth, and we are truly thankful that the car has started and after 3 seconds the Check Engine light has gone out because, if it doesn’t, that can mean expensive repairs.
REST OF THE FAMILY: Yea, verily Lord, and the Brake light and the ABS light and the little thermometer icon as well. And thank you for the cupholders, which is the first feature prospective car buyers ask about, according to dealership surveys. Amen.
OK, just to be clear, I am not poking fun at saying grace in restaurants per se. “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Rom 14:13). If you feel you should, go ahead. It makes no difference to me.
But don’t tell me I have to. The command I just quoted from Paul is a two-way street. Telling me I have to is putting the “stumbling block” of legalism right in my path again. I’ve walked that way before and it made my life (and a lot others’) more difficult.
Let’s make “the rough ground level” and “the rugged places a plain” (Isa 40:4). We can all walk on that path.