Legalism and Worldliness
Over the decades, fundamentalists and other evangelicals have played a kind of game. It is a contest of mutual recrimination. To fundamentalists, evangelicals have often said, “You are legalists.” Fundamentalists have generally replied, “You are worldly.” Both parties seem to find pleasure in this game, though neither has ever really won it.
Of course, most evangelicals are not conservative evangelicals. In common with other evangelicals, however, conservative evangelicals still tend to view fundamentalists as unnecessarily legalistic. For their part, many fundamentalists are not even willing to recognize a difference between conservative evangelicalism and other branches of non-fundamentalistic evangelicalism (usually classed under the broad label, “neo-evangelical”). These fundamentalists believe that any evangelical who is not a fundamentalist is a new evangelical and simply must be worldly.
An uninformed observer might wonder what all the fuss is about. One group observes some strictures that the other does not. Why worry about it?
The answer is that Christianity is more than a set of doctrines. Christianity is also a life lived for the love and to the glory of God. Just as some doctrinal affirmations or denials are not compatible with the gospel, so also some ways of living are not compatible with the gospel.
According to 1 Corinthians 5, certain patterns of conduct (if not repented of) should eventuate in a so-called brother being delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. When pursued by a professing Christian, these patterns of conduct are so reprehensible as to bring scandal upon the gospel. The apostle does not require disassociation from unsaved people who practice these patterns of conduct, but he demands that professing believers who engage in them be “put out from among you.”
Writing to Timothy, Paul specifies that if someone does not provide for the members of his own household, he has denied the faith. Paul actually states that such an individual is “worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8). Again, such conduct brings scandal upon the gospel. It constitutes a practical denial of the saving grace of Christ.
To God’s people, practice should matter as much as confession. Most Christians recognize this principle almost intuitively. They will not excuse an adulterous pastor simply because he is orthodox. One can deny the faith in deed as well as in word.
Scripture is quite clear that a “world” exists in opposition to God (Jn. 15:19). A believer must not love this world—not even the things in the world. Someone who loves the world betrays that he does not possess the love of the Father (1 Jn. 2:15).
These are reasons to take worldliness seriously. Worldliness is a threat precisely because it displaces the centrality of the gospel in the life of the believer. Worldly believers are more focused upon the satisfaction of self within the present order than they are upon the glory of God. Concern over worldliness really is fundamental to Christianity.
But then again, so is concern over legalism. Legalists believe that outward observance or performance is a key to acceptance with God. They believe that some element of their salvation or their sanctification is secured by their outward acts of obedience. Such an attitude directly contradicts the biblical understanding of God’s grace.
Not all legalists make up their own rules, but some do. To be sure, Scripture does not forbid Christians from adopting extra-biblical practices and disciplines. It does not even enjoin believers from teaching such disciplines to others. What it does forbid is the communication of non-Scriptural disciplines as matters of Christian faith.
We all practice extra-biblical disciplines. We set our alarm clocks, brush our teeth, and shake hands in greeting. We not only practice these disciplines but also teach others to do so. That does not make us legalists.
What we must not do is to assert authority to bind the conscience. We must not present a rule as a matter of morality or Christianity when Scripture does not. Christ alone possesses authority to command the conscience. No matter how sensible our rules may seem to us, we must remember that only the Master has the right to command His slaves. If Christ is the Lord of our conscience, then we have no right to subject ourselves to ordinances after the commandments and doctrines of mere humans (Col. 2:20-22).
In short, both worldliness and legalism are serious matters. They are even grave matters. They touch the very heart of the Christian faith. They are boundary issues that impinge upon the gospel.
Fundamentalists are right to object to worldliness, just as evangelicals are right to object to legalism. Yet no fundamentalist would accept the label of legalist, while few evangelicals would embrace the designation worldly. Almost everyone wishes to reject both labels.
Fundamentalists and evangelicals (including conservative evangelicals) have been playing the game of mutual recrimination for some time. Neither side thinks that the other is playing fair. Nevertheless, both sides agree that some difference exists between them.
Over the next couple of essays, I hope to do at least two things. First, I wish to unpack the difference, providing a more accurate description of what both sides acknowledge. Once the difference has been identified, I would like to take a further step. I will evaluate the difference for its seriousness. Specifically, I will attempt to assess the extent to which this difference ought to affect the possibility of cooperation between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
I threat’ned to observe the strict decree
Of my dear God with all my power and might.
But I was told by one, it could not be;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.
Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.
Nay, ev’n to trust in him, was also his:
We must confess that nothing is our own.
Then I confess that he my succor is:
But to have nought is ours, not to confess
That we have nought. I stood amaz’d at this,
Much troubled, till I heard a friend express,
That all things were more ours by being his.
What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.