Contemporary evangelicals are constantly wringing their hands in fear that legalism might invade their churches, throwing them back into the dark ages of church history—that would be the 1950s.
Their concern makes perfect sense since the contemporary evangelical community is the product of the Baby Boomer generation, which embodies the hippie philosophy filtered through the yuppie mentality (anti-materialist hippies who grew up and realized that they enjoyed nice things like everyone else). And of course, that generation is all about cleansing society of any type of legalism. (Of course I speak in generalities. A segment of that generation has rejected that philosophy.)
In fact, its essence resided in hostility to laws of all kinds. Its central thesis was “I have a right to do my own thing,” which meant that they were a law unto themselves, and no external laws applied to them. Related to this rule of life that there are no rules, was their anti-authoritarian attitude and their “resist authority” bumper stickers. Another major hippie tenant was expressed as “If it feels good, do it,” a concept that rejected the use of the intellect and the law of reason. This rejection of reason was formalized in universities under the rubric of logocentrism, a perspective that viewed reason as a weapon used by white males to dominate people of color and women. They defied the sexual laws of God by their promiscuity and rejected the laws of medicine in drug use. By their dress they not only defied the laws of society, which might have been fine, but they defied aesthetic laws, seeking to make the point that any type of dress is equally as attractive as any other. They did likewise with music, breaking laws of music composition that had developed in Western culture across the centuries, bringing us music with little melody or real harmony. Of course, they detested civil law and anyone who sought to uphold it, referring to police as pigs. All of this has culminated in a Congress that defies the laws of economics, believing that we can spend our way to fiscal health, and the twice election of a lawless President, the ultimate representative of the Boomer generation and it’s hippie philosophy.
In the face of these expressions of lawlessness and more, it comes as little surprise that those of this generation who now control the contemporary evangelical church are terrorized by the specter of legalism tainting their pristine ecclesiastical world characterized by absolute grace, where they bask in the glow of God’s unconditional love and acceptance.
Though all this makes sense, where I get confused is the part about the threat of legalism. Where are all these rule makers and what is the nature of all these rules that are threatening to put the contemporary evangelical church in bondage? Today even the Pope is discarding historic church edicts while many evangelicals are busy trying to squeeze homosexuality into biblical Christianity.
It is interesting that the term “legalism” is not found in Scripture but the New Testament employs “lawlessness” 16 times. Jesus used the term in passages such as Matthew 7:21-23,
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (NKJV)
The Apostle Paul expresses concern regarding lawlessness in Romans 6:19:
I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. (NASB)
This is not to say that legalism cannot be a problem, but our problem is that we tend not to define it but instead label any call to righteous living as legalism. In addition, the oft heard claim that Jesus only ever condemned the Pharisees, which is not true, conveys the concept that God has no problem with the person living in debauchery but only the person telling us not to.
With pornography, cohabitation, divorce, and other expressions of lawlessness running rampant in the church, it seems that we might relax a bit regarding our angst over legalism, and join Jesus and Paul in their concern regarding lawlessness. Or another option would be to franchise evangelical churches as Outback Steak Houses, “No rules, just right.”