August 1, 2011 Volume 25, Number 07
The curse of legalism
By Glen Shepherd | ChristianWeek Columnist
A woman's friend told her about his first time at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. The group welcomed him, accepted him, shared their vulnerability with him and encouraged him to believe that transformation was possible as they journeyed together. His sense of hope and joy was palpable.
The woman replied that his story of his new beginning at AA reminded her of the Church. “Let me tell you about the Church," he replied. “Their attitude was 'get your act together and then come back and see us'."
Years after I read that account in Rebecca Manley Pippert's book Out of the Salt Shaker, I still remember the impact it had on me. Pippert zeroed in on the difficulties we too often have with sorting out the relationship between obedience and grace, behaviour and the orientation and longing of the heart for God. It's the problem that so often separates “us" from “them."
We take commitment to Christ and the transformation inherent in the gospel seriously. Faith leads to transformation; transformation touches everything about us and our living; the presence of the Spirit of God in us changes our reactions and behaviour; that change lends authenticity to our witness. It speaks powerfully about how God has transformed us.
But sometimes the connection between grace, transformation and witness can be snared in the weeds of a legalism that gives faith a hard edge and turns transformation into a steep behavioural mountain.
Christian faith and experience is spiritual and begins internally. A heart longing after God finds its resolution in an acceptance of Christ as Saviour and Lord. But because faith is spiritual and activated within the recesses of a person's inner being, I cannot measure the heart of another from the outside.
If I cannot gauge another person's heart, I can observe her behaviour. And as I compare her behaviour with my behaviour, it is easy to move from observing that behaviour to assessing it. And if someone else's behaviour conforms to mine and our moral codes align, then I feel the comfort of discovering someone after my own heart. Without my realizing it, I have moved from observation to assessment and, most distressingly, to judgement of other people.
Maybe that is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer always felt that obedience to the will of God rather than piety had to be the important sign of Christian faith.
There is biblical warrant for an emphasis on the behaviour of the “children of light" as an indicator of where we stand spiritually. We wish our lives to show that we do not answer to the gods of our culture. But there are consequences of that emphasis which we must recognize. Let me suggest three dangers:
The danger of exclusion and closure. This emphasis on behaviour and judgment sends out signals of closure and exclusion. This can only discourage people who long to find the God of forgiveness and transformation.
Obscuring grace. When the lens to see God is one of behaviour and legalism, the grace of God becomes obscured. The heart of God, who is central to our lives, is hidden and distorted by our default reactions.
Spiritual pride. Perhaps the most insidious danger is that whereby we become proud of our standards, piety and righteousness, and we forget that we are sinners saved by grace. And when we feel pride about our piety and behaviour, the gospel of grace has, in reality, been completely subverted.
In his book What's so Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey recasts the parable of a prodigal son in the story of the daughter of a Christian family who leaves her home in upstate Michigan, ruins her life in Detroit and chooses to return home to her disappointed family. If you have the book, read the parable. Imagine it is the story of your daughter or your granddaughter. See if you can read about the welcome her family gives her after her wanderings without shedding tears. And let the power of grace free us from any pride in our behaviour or our piety.
Glen Shepherd is the president of Health Partners International of Canada.