I’ve noticed that it’s always some other church that’s the legalistic one. It’s never my own. If it’s mine at all, it’s always the church I used to attend before I got free from all that legalistic nonsense. This is curious to me, for if there is such a thing as legalism, then someone must currently be stuck in it, but I can find few if any who will claim that status.
Yet we all have behavioral expectations. Every church or Christian institution I know of has categorized certain choices as inappropriate or off limits. In the Bible college I attended, we had all kinds of rules. Men weren’t allowed facial hair unless they were Jewish. We couldn’t grow hair past the top of our collars. We couldn’t walk on the grass. We couldn’t stay out past 11:00pm. Lights out at 11:30pm. No walking on the grass (clearly this one bugged me). No public (or private) displays of affection with girls. Girl had to wear skirts past their knees.
Was this legalism? Perhaps.
But if so, what might it mean to be free of legalism? Does trouncing on some freshly cut Bermuda Grass constitute freedom from legalism? For many it does. Because we think of legalism in terms of a particular set of rules, we tend to define freedom from legalism in terms of non-conformity to those rules. If your church doesn’t include instrumental music for corporate worship, then “freedom” means hiring a rock band. If your church doesn’t allow girls to show any skin below the chin, then freedom must mean the abandonment of such standards of modesty. The more skin the more freedom? Seems a suspicious trajectory if you take it far enough. But IF we define legalism in terms of rule keeping, this is the only definition of freedom available to us: not-rule keeping. But surely God has made us to be defined by more than what rules we do or do not follow.
What if legalism is something else altogether?
Paul tells as story in Galatians 4 about Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Through Hagar, Abraham’s son Ishmael was born. Through Sarah, Abraham’s son Isaac was born. They each represent one of two ways we can live before God. The two ways can be discussed with various terms: legalism/freedom, spirit/flesh, etc. The overall context of Galatians is Paul’s answer to the issue of legalism. Male believers in Galatia are being pressured to conform to Jewish law, specifically circumcision. This story lies at the heart of Paul’s response.
I find it interesting that the story isn’t about rules at all. It’s about source. The issue between Hagar and Sarah is that one relied upon what Abraham could do apart from God’s promise, provision, and power. The other relied upon God (though Abraham and Sarah obviously still had a role to play!).
Legalism is ultimately an expression of self-reliance. It’s not about rules. It’s about source. The problem with the Law isn’t that the Law isn’t right. It is. It just isn’t powerful. It can’t help you fulfill what it requires. It leaves you in the position of having to rely on self. Self-reliance is the root of legalism.
Once I recognize this, the issue of rules becomes a non-issue. If I’m truly legalistic (self-reliant), I can do so either as a rule keeper or a rule breaker. Either path, I’m relying on myself. If I conform to Bible Belt cultural mores concerning alcohol consumption or if I choose to adopt a more European approach–either way, if I’m relying on self I’m ultimately still bound in legalism.
On the other hand, if I’m looking to God(rather than my ability to conform to rules or my freedom to not conform) as my source, then there are very few rules that will bother me. His power enables me to follow any rule. This is the only model I’m aware of that makes sense of Paul’s actions. He wrote to the Galatians that if they submitted to circumcision then Christ would be of no benefit. This same Paul required Timothy to be circumcised in order to appease the Jews. Which is it Paul? Which rule should we follow? It’s not about that.
The Galatians were being asked to rely on their own effort to fulfill the Law. This isn’t congruent with Christ. Timothy wasn’t being asked to rely on his effort. His trust was in God’s power, promise, and provision. With God as his source, Timothy is free to submit to a great number of rather uncomfortable rules.
It’s all about source.
There’s no need to react to laws that prohibit by casting off all constraint. We are ultimately free to submit, to yield, to prefer others, to serve them. We can submit to rules, even unnecessary rules, without offense. This is true freedom from legalism.