In the 19th century the church added going to the (live) theater and playing cards.
In the 20th century it was dancing, drinking, movies, tattoos, and piercings.
In the 21st century, all that stuff is okay. But legalism still thrives under a different guise. The church has rightly shed its archaic taboos. Thank God. But we’ve substituted a different legalism. Not a legalism of rules, but a a legalism way more depressing and harder to spot.
I got my baptism of fire as a young 20-something sitting on a church board. It was a large church board–22 men at times. Great guys who all wanted to see God’s best. We just could never agree how to get it.
I’ll never forget a heated discussion about why Christians should serve God. One of our venerable board members, a man whom I respected then and still respect today, closed off the discussion by slamming the table and announcing with finality: CHRISTIANS SHOULD SERVE GOD BECAUSE IT’S OUR DUTY AND OBLIGATION.
Hmmmm. I sat there stunned and, I gotta admit, confused. I couldn’t argue; it wasn’t my place. These men were twice and three times my age. Plus, I didn’t know what to say. Running through my mind was the question: “AREN’T WE SUPPOSED TO SERVE GOD OUT OF GRATITUDE?” Still, I couldn’t argue that it was also our DUTY to serve God… How could I put that contradiction together?
I did an unscientific study of some megachurches and the topics of their messages. Really important topics like relationships, finance, parenting, marriage, sexuality, pornography, serving the world, sacrifice, time management, trusting & following Jesus.
Relevant topics, to be sure. The church needs to be talking about all this stuff. I love the creativity and directness and practicality that today’s church uses to address these burning issues. But…
- It is not a legalism of RULES: don’t dance or drink, go to movies, or play cards.
- It is not a legalism of DUTY: grin and bear your walk with God; sanctification by grim determination.
- It is not a legalism of LAW-KEEPING: the imposition of Mosaic or other requirements on today’s Christians.
- It is not a legalism of SUPERIORITY: in which we look down our self-righteous noses at those nasty outsiders.
- It is not a legalism of SCRUPLES: the superadditon of requirements and prohibitions the Bible never imposes.
Nope. It’s a new legalism.
It is A LEGALISM OF OMISSION.
I guess I should define my terms. What is legalism anyway?
Legalism is the belief that humans by human effort can merit the approval of God.
That’s why I suggest that 21st century legalism is a legalism of omission. Let me explain.
Every time we churches offer up the PRACTICAL steps of sanctification we create an internal “ought” in our listeners. A duty, an obligation, a demand. An external pressure to conform to the standard we have just erected.
- You ought to spend quality time with your kids.
- And have a date night with your spouse.
- And tithe and/or give offerings.
- And have a budget and financial freedom.
- And serve God somehow.
- And use your spiritual gift.
- And not use pornography.
- And wait till you’re married.
- And read your Bible and pray.
- And love your loud neighbor.
- And not sin or be critical or gossip.
- And share your faith.
- And not waste time.
- And be in community.
- And do what Jesus would do.
- And not be lazy.
- And have plenty of free time and take breaks.
- And be organized.
- And give back to your community.
The oughts add up, don’t they? And how can you argue with this list? They are indeed duties and obligations of the Christian life. Genuinely, authentically, unarguably, biblically.
That’s why our churches are preaching these highly relevant, practical topics–a development for which I’m truly grateful.
We are even preaching the PRACTICAL STEPS along with the “oughts” so you can make them happen. See how nice we are?
And therein lies the 21st century legalism:
EVERY TIME WE PREACH AN OUGHT WITHOUT SIMULTANEOUSLY PREACHING THE ABSURD IMPOSSIBILITY OF THAT OUGHT APART FROM THE SUPERNATURAL POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT AND THE INDWELLING CHRIST, WE HAVE BECOME LEGALISTS.
Sorry for shouting.
It’s a legalism of omission. I’m telling you what to do but omitting the ONLY POWER by which you can do it in a manner pleasing to God. I am sending you on a quest to merit the approval of God BY HUMAN FRICKIN’ POWER. The essence of legalism… and you never saw it coming.
And you, dear Christian, take in ought after ought after ought until you are crushed by a weight you were never intended to bear.
Leaving you three options, as I see it.
- Drop out of church altogether.
- Fake it (and feel guilty over your repeated failures, but don’t let anybody see the mess within).
- Get therapy because there’s obviously something way wrong with you.
I am so, so sorry.
Paul writes, “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God–and righteousness and sanctification and redemption– that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.”” 1 Corinthians 1:30, 31, NKJV.
Translation: if it’s good and holy and liberating and it happened in your life, it only happened by the power of Christ, so quit patting yourself on the back.
It also means there is a fourth option for our churches–the only hope for the redemption of American Christiandom…
Dad update: My dad (Roy) has come through his extensive surgeries so remarkably well that the doctors are amazed… for which we give all glory to God. Thank you so much for praying. Yesterday he began radiation & chemo–a six-week regimen. Please pray that God would eliminate the nasty side effects, and bring him through great. His swallowing and speech are excellent. Overall strength is too. Please pray that he not be utterly wiped out through the radiation/chemo. Thanks.