“All too often legalism is employed whenever we consider obedience inconvenient.”

"The word legalism is overused. Sometimes I tell my students at the seminary where I teach that they may use this word once a year and no more. All too often legalism is employed whenever we consider obedience inconvenient." - Derek Thomas

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Bert Perry's picture

....I would even defend, somewhat, those who would impose extra-Biblical rules from the charge of legalism because they simply believe--wrongly IMO, but they believe it--that what is at hand truly is Godly/Biblical morality, a necessary response to God's grace.  Few will actually confess to trusting in works for salvation, but more will say that failure to adhere to limitation A or B is evidence of either a failure to grow in Christ, or a lack of relationship to Christ altogether.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Bert Perry wrote:

....I would even defend, somewhat, those who would impose extra-Biblical rules from the charge of legalism because they simply believe--wrongly IMO, but they believe it--that what is at hand truly is Godly/Biblical morality, a necessary response to God's grace.  Few will actually confess to trusting in works for salvation, but more will say that failure to adhere to limitation A or B is evidence of either a failure to grow in Christ, or a lack of relationship to Christ altogether.

I agree with you that those who hold that such extra-biblical rules are are moral necessity are wrong to do so.

My view on "extra-biblical" rules comes down to the reason for them expressed by those who want the rules.  There are "practical" reasons, for lack of a better term, and there are moral reasons, which you refer to above.  As an example of the former, the owners of the sanctuary we rent do not want any food or drink in the sanctuary besides water.  For those of us that enjoy coffee in the mornings, that seems tough, but it's not because of a misguided moral sense of the rightness or wrongness of consumables besides water.

On the latter, I used to be more sympathetic to that argument, especially when I was younger, but seeing those types of rules justified for "moral" reasons, while maybe not directly "legalism," is still harmful, and I now resist that justification on the grounds of scriptures like these, among others:

Deut. 12:32 - "What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it."

Mark 7:7 - "Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."

Certainly the Mark passage (and the parallel one in Matthew) are in the context of legalism (washing of pots and so on, in order to be "holy").  While I certainly don't believe it's wrong for people to build their own "fences" out of conviction to help them obey what is in scripture, it's an entirely different matter to apply those personal convictions to others with the idea that the standards that arise from those convictions are a moral necessity for everyone.

Dave Barnhart

Mark Snoeberger's picture

The author states that "legalism...is the proper word whenever...I am being asked to obey a command over and above that which God has given to me in the Bible."

I appreciate the fact that Thomas opposes the overuse of the term, but methinks he still overuses it. Are we really to imagine that every command that exceeds the letter of Scripture is an instance of legalism? He cites the prohibition of beards, but why stop here? Is it legalism to tell people they can't come to church naked? Is it legalism to tell my children they can't eat a whole bag of Halloween candy or must eat broccoli at dinner? Is it legalism when I tell my students they must attend class? By Thomas's definition, all these things are legalism, because the Bible is silent on these issues. That's a real problem.

I get it that legalism is bad. I really do! Paul speak of legalism as another gospel that, if followed, bars one from heaven itself. It's really, really bad. But if a term used for justification by works in one context can be applied to "eat your broccoli" in another, the semantic range of that term is much too broad, and equivocation is inevitable. We need better theological vocabulary.

 

MAS

T Howard's picture

dcbii wrote:

Certainly the Mark passage (and the parallel one in Matthew) are in the context of legalism (washing of pots and so on, in order to be "holy").  While I certainly don't believe it's wrong for people to build their own "fences" out of conviction to help them obey what is in scripture, it's an entirely different matter to apply those personal convictions to others with the idea that the standards that arise from those convictions are a moral necessity for everyone.

Dave, these are the issues that get the greatest pushback. I remember when several conservative evangelical leaders expressed concern / dismay that so many Christians were imbibing Game of Thrones. For these leaders, GoT was clearly a moral, not a practical or Christian freedom, concern. How can one continually watch gratuitous sex and violence and come away spiritually healthy? The response was that GoT could be enjoyed for its artistic value, the sexual violence could be overlooked, and those who objected to GoT were fundamentalist prudes (aka legalists).

There are moral issues that are not directly addressed by Scripture, but that can still be reasonably deduced applications of Scripture. The strength of these applications depend on how far removed they are from the text of Scripture. I believe reasonably deduced applications of Scripture do not "add to" or "diminish from" Scripture.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

T Howard wrote:

There are moral issues that are not directly addressed by Scripture, but that can still be reasonably deduced applications of Scripture. The strength of these applications depend on how far removed they are from the text of Scripture. I believe reasonably deduced applications of Scripture do not "add to" or "diminish from" Scripture.

I don't generally disagree with this, but a lot hinges on the definition of "reasonably deduced."  I agree with your GoT example, though the issues there are pretty close to what scripture directly addresses.  Portrayal of immoral acts, or getting entertainment out of such would be hard to justify (even though I know there are some that do so).

In a simplified way, I've always looked at it like this -- we see direct commands in scripture and those have a high level of clarity.  We can also see things that are directly logically implied by what is written.  I tend to put "universal" applications in this bucket, even though I know there's some disagreement on what, if anything, is actually a universal application.  I would also put your "reasonably deduced" things here, even if we might disagree on some things at the edges.  However, there is another level beyond implication, and that is inference.  When someone infers something from the text that is not stated or directly implied, and derives their deductions from this inference, it then, at least in my mind, becomes a personal application or fence.  These are the things that end up being the most controversial and fought over when applied to others.  This analogy is oversimplified, but is a reasonable approximation of how I approach this.

To go a little further with your consumption of entertainment example, what about portrayal of drinking?  If those consuming are not getting visibly drunk, then I think whether or not it's OK to watch this would hinge greatly on your view of the Bible's position on alcohol.  If one believes all consumption of alcohol is wicked, I could see that person thinking that being entertained by such would be almost as bad.  But given that not all Christians agree that the Bible is that clear on all consumption of alcohol being wicked, there will be disagreement on whether or not someone can watch a portrayal of drinking.  Declaring it to be wrong for all Christians, would, IMHO, go beyond what the Bible would support, as would blanket prohibitions on beards or wire-rimmed glasses (which was actually a thing when I was young), or any number of other fundamentalist shibboleths that have come and gone in my lifetime.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

T Howard wrote:

(snip of comments on Game of Thrones)

There are moral issues that are not directly addressed by Scripture, but that can still be reasonably deduced applications of Scripture. The strength of these applications depend on how far removed they are from the text of Scripture. I believe reasonably deduced applications of Scripture do not "add to" or "diminish from" Scripture.

Agreed, but when we're talking specifically of legalism per se, we are asking the question of whether anyone trusts in those "deduced applications" for their salvation.  Agree or disagree with a particular application, I'd hope we'd all agree on that.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.