If you grew up going to church in America, and certainly if you grew up among so-called evangelicals, you have heard of the terms “legalism” or “legalist”. I can just say “legalist” and you get what I’m talking about.
If you didn’t then, this long post is a slapped together attempt to trot out tropes I have encountered in church contexts that will help you get the idea of what “legalism” is like. Once you have that image before you, I want to suggest that a new legalism has shown up in secular society! Let’s call it secular-legalism. Think of political correctness. Think about how many disclaimers people have to make now before they can say anything. There is a fear of offending everyone, and of getting sued by anyone. The point of this post in a nutshell is that legalism has gone from the church and out into the secular public square. This is ripe for analysis.
What I say below is not analysis. I am indulging in a bit of late night rambling to illustrate religious legalism for those who didn’t come up in Church and thus don’t get the “irony” of it showing up in a secular context – en masse.
Religious Legalists. A legalist was or is a person who felt the need to check up on and point out places in other’s lives where they were failing to live up to appropriate “Christian standards”. “Isn’t that car a bit too fancy for a Christian, it must have cost a fortune?” “Isn’t that dress too short?” “You let your kids watch what?” “If she were serious about being a disciple of Jesus then she would be here with us this morning.” You get the drift?
Trying to explain legalism or legalistic people (in the church) is messy because legalism is both a feature of healthy human nature and of broken human nature. As a result, it has a thousand faces. There are the obviously harmful sides of legalism such as what happens when people slightly break the strict laws in some Islamic nations and a community member points the offender out. However, in this post I am recalling the more subtle harm done by the legalism in American Christian churches. This is more of a nitpicking and fault finding atmosphere created by one or more people. And honestly I am really just trotting out the “common cultural version of it” – and not at all a deep analysis of what the real nature of legalism (and even the good sides of it) was. I want you to get before your mind this fact however.
Note well: Legalism changes people. It causes people to start living in ways so as to avoid being pointed out by the legalist. We may share certain kinds of ideas less for fear of criticism. We may become more likely to blend in. Don’t say or do anything to stick out.
For many, legalism has was classically portrayed by the Pharisee’s in the Gospels. They accused Jesus of breaking the religious law by healing a man on the Sabbath. In telling the paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk home, Jesus had supposedly given the paralyzed man leeway to “do work” on the Sabbath, thereby violating the law of Moses. The lesson was that the Pharisees’ perfectionistic zeal for their own system of religious rules blinded them to the miracles Jesus did; miracles which revealed his Messianic identity.
During the last 50 years, many people have complained that the Christian church was legalistic or hypocritical. Even if there was just one or two perpetrators in a local congregation, it was easy to blame “the church.” It became an easy excuse for people who wanted to quit attending church to point out that the church was full of hypocrites or unloving legalists. The underlying complaint was that this sort of fault finding and nitpicking contradicted Jesus’ imperatives to “love one another” or “not judge lest ye be judged”. In response, thousands of Christian churches addressed this issue over the last 30 years and preached about the grace and loving patience of God. Churches by the thousands became more patient and accepting over the last generation. The culture in many churches has genuinely changed (in my opinion). Today many churches struggle with going to the other extreme, thanks to a, “Come as you are, anything goes” mindset.
So here is the irony…
Mainstream America, secular America if I can use that term, has developed its own version of legalism. Suddenly we find ourselves in a society of legalists of a non-religious flavor. Our nation is drowning in politically correct fault finding, criticism of things as simplistic as handshakes and minor clothing details of our leaders. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have fueled this secular-legalism by giving everyone a platform to comment. We have gone from believing that everyone has equal worth, to believing that everyone’s ideas (i.e. my ideas) are as good as anyone else’s. The nation’s news agencies are a big player here, by giving repeated airtime to groups from every corner calling out public figures for less than picture perfect performances. The nation’s fiberoptic networks are full of millions of critics, insulters, and backseat-drivers, trolls, shamers, grumblers. Whether the subject be a president, a local police chief, a university director, a school teacher, a parent, a pastor – everyone has a criticism to offer about their performance. Whereas the church was once blamed in past generations for legalism, now that legalistic fault finding is in full force outside the church. Whatever you are doing right now – there is a good chance you are wrong.
You may or may not agree that the virtue of showing others grace was alive in the American public sector. It doesn’t matter, that virtue has died in the last five years.
Grace is dead in the public sector. “Did she show enough remorse?” “Did they give a statement soon enough?” “Was the wording perfect?” “Are they protecting the victims enough?” “Why aren’t they releasing information quickly enough?” “Who shouldn’t be playing golf when?” “Why weren’t their disaster protocols perfect?” “Who offended who with what garment?”
This is an interesting twist. The first comment people will make is that it is nothing new. Something is new. Perhaps what is new is that we’ve all been legalists all along, but technology has given us the power to expose that fact.
Ready for one last twist? The church as a mandate to put an end to its legalism, but mainstream America does not. The church’s mandate comes from her savior – Jesus. She knows that she has learned grace through the kindness of God, a God who in the person of Jesus Christ, came and associated with all the failures of his society. A God who heals and forgives our failures. Christians have a reason to be gracious – their God is gracious, patient and forgiving. Secular society has no such mandate and no such reason. What then will stem the growing tide of secular legalism?