Are You a Legalist??

willywonkalegalistHave you ever met an anti-legalist? They’re like the legalistic sort of church folk, only they take things to the opposite extreme. The legalists like Christian movies? Great, let’s hate Christian movies! Legalists don’t read Twilight? Read all the vampire stories!

If you by some miracle haven’t encountered an anti-legalist, go read some random Christian blogs that rant about the dangers of purity rings, or find an online support group for kids whose parents didn’t let them watch PG-13 movies. That should give you the general idea.

So here’s my thesis: Legalism and anti-legalism are twin forms of idolatry. Why is that? Because both lifestyles are based on people’s opinions and our own desire to leave an impression, rather than on God’s will for us. And why is that? Well, that’s what the post is about.

We need to start by defining the terms. What are legalism and anti-legalism, and what’s wrong with each one?

The problem with legalism is that it is contrary to the Gospel. No one can (or should) question that. In essence, legalism takes good and beautiful choices, and uses them to become standards that all Christians should follow. It assumes that we and our perfect homeschool families and flawless courtships (complete with a first-kiss-wedding) can and must earn the approval of God. Anyone who doesn’t do worship services and potlucks exactly the way we do just isn’t as awesome as we are. Our way is the right way, and theirs is the wrong one. God forbid we should ever be associated with those people!

But guess what? Anti-legalism is also contrary to the Gospel. It operates under the premise that moral standards that are not specifically commanded in scripture are a threat to our freedom in Christ. It assumes that Josh Harris and God’s Not Dead 2 must be spurned and ridiculed; Harry Potter is the only way to prove that we are truly free in Christ. Anyone who even tolerates the idea that kids shouldn’t date until age 18 just isn’t as awesome as we are. We must fight legalism and the judgmental attitudes of others! Our way is the right way, and theirs is the wrong one. God forbid we should ever be associated with those people!

Do you see what’s so tragically laughable here? Legalism and anti-legalism are, at their root, exactly the same concept taken to two different extremes. In both cases, decisions are based less on what God is asking me to do, and more on how I see myself and how others will perceive me. It’s just like boys and girls throwing mud pies at each other on the playground because the opposite gender hypothetically has cooties- never mind the actual mud on your own clothes.

Now, to be clear: calling your relationship “courting” instead of “dating” does not make you a legalist, and reading a book by Suzanne Collins does not make you an anti-legalist. The problem is not the action itself, but the motivation behind the action. Both forms of legalism happen when we take the focus off of God and put ourselves and our works in the spotlight. The mindset in both cases is one of “people need to see what I’m doing for God, not what God is doing in me.” Legalism and anti-legalism are both idolatry because the ultimate standard is how I appear to others.

I have to look perfect at church. 

I dare not look too perfect at church. 

I have to save my children from a life of sin.

I have to save my parents from a life of judging lest they be judged. 

People, it’s time to wake up! We simply have to stop putting that pressure on ourselves. God didn’t assign us the responsibility of being perfect; who are we to assign it to ourselves? If gaining the approval of man through my own behavior is my motivation, then there’s no room for God. And a life without God is the most dangerous life I can live.

So what’s the point? Well, here’s a quote. I don’t care if you like Doctor Strange or not (based on what I’ve seen, you probably don’t), but the Ancient One aptly summed up the truth everyone is missing:

It’s not about you.

God is the center. People are not God, and we never will be. It’s not our job to live perfect lives in front of others, nor to prove to others that we have the truth about living perfect lives. If that was really the case, we of all people should be most pitied. It would mean that Jesus’ death doesn’t really matter after all, and God has forsaken us. It would mean that it’s up to humanity to save itself. That sounds blasphemous, yet it’s exactly what we proclaim when we live to create an impression on others. And we can do that just as easily when we’re reading Harry Potter as when we’re listening exclusively to Christian music.

Sure, it’s okay to hate Christian movies, just as it’s okay to skip the Divergent trilogy. But what’s your reason for disliking either? So often, we make decisions based on how we appear to others. If I refuse to spend money at Starbucks, will people think I’m legalistic? If I wear this, will people think I’m making myself cheap? Sure, we should have a care about how we treat others, but here’s the thing: people are always going to judge us. Remember the farmer, his son, and their donkey. If we build our lives based on other people’s perceptions, we will end up dissatisfied and depressed. It’s impossible to create the perfect impression forever, and God didn’t make us to live like that anyway.

The thing we need to change is our motivation. We should really be making our decisions based on what God asks us to do. That’s the life He created us to live. Where does God want me to spend my hard-earned money? Does my clothing reflect the honor that God has given me as His son or daughter? And yes, people will still judge us or think ill of us, and sometimes that will hurt, but it doesn’t matter as much when we know we’re doing what God would have us do. It’s truly amazing how the earth grows strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.

It’s all about God, anyway. What right have we to add to His commandments?

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