Why Legalism Can’t Be the Answer

Recently, I had a conversation with someone who explained their frustration at the amount of churches in America continuing to push a legalistic view of Christianity instead of applying theology to real life. She wasn’t against the need for discipleship, accountability and holding to biblical principles of morality, but rather the constant focus on enforcement of these principles through rule making. I couldn’t agree more. What came to mind was the phrase, “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do.” It is a phrase which focuses on behavior, not the heart and fails to recognize the complexities involved in moral decision making within the modern society. If Christians are going to face the issues of today, a legalistic approach will simply not suffice.

The culture we live in today is increasingly complex. Each day we are bombarded with a litany of information, opinions, viewpoints and commentary through which we are expected to formulate our own understanding of these issues through the lens of a Christian worldview. Adding to this, the advance of technology has opened the door to an entirely new set of challenges, particularly in the area of bioethics. For example, what is the right decision when a woman suddenly finds herself with stage four cancer in the middle of a pregnancy where it is determined that chemotherapy treatments are required immediately to have any chance of survival? If preserving life is the necessary requirement, whose life has more value?

Christians are not immune to providing an answer to how we view these increasing complex issues. Yet, when addressing these issues, churches tend to employ some form of reductionism in order to simplify the issue into a nice, neat sound bite which are legalistic in nature or they fail to address the topic altogether. This does nothing to help Christians and everything to stifle conversation because it removes the engaging dialogue necessary to consider every aspect of the issue. Instead of becoming contributors to a conversation based on thoughtful analysis of biblical principles, we become people who merely parrot the words of those who fit within our cultural tribe; whether it be Christian or otherwise.

Social media has only exacerbated this issue, with people attempting to engage in “debate” through 244 characters or less, thereby careening conversation into an endless ditch primarily filled with half truths and a simplistic view of just about everything except issues related to sports or pop culture. Since social media is not a platform capable of engaging in the level of discourse required for these issues, we inevitably end up seeing exactly what Elbert Hubbard observed when he said, “if you can’t answer a man’s arguments all is not loss, you can still call him vile names.” Christian leaders are often just as complicit in this abandonment of meaningful, respectful dialogue and in so doing not only lead Christians into the ditch with them, but dishonor the name of Christ before a watching world. When Christians begin taking their cues from these leaders, who should know better, but themselves are unable to articulate the deep rooted dimensions of these issues, we should not be surprised to find our current situation.

This does nothing to actually help those who are impacted by these issues, nor does it move the conversation along in any helpful way towards engaging the culture around us. Instead, it creates a reactionary based approach towards the issue, where engagement with the topic doesn’t occur until some event requires them to suddenly become innately knowledgeable. This might be a natural tendency, but leaders in the church need to recognize the importance of preparing their congregations to think through these issues before they reach the crisis point. Abortion, racism, palliative care, euthanasia, artificial reproductive technologies, immigration and the use of information technology are no longer issues for just a few people, but every person will, in some form or another, be required to take a position on these issues. They have become highly politicized issues, but that doesn’t mean we should back down from the discussion. These topics have moral implications and leaders in the church are in a unique position of influence to provide the biblical, ethical framework for the Christians in their congregation to whom they teach, counsel and disciple.

Christians need to understand how and where the Bible addresses these issues or they will inevitably turn to alternative sources for answers. The Catholic Church has done well at addressing some of these issues, particularly in bioethics, through the publishing of encyclicals which are distributed as an official position for those in the church to follow. Some Protestant groups have exercised similar approaches through the development of statements which address a particular issue and are available for adoption by individuals, churches and denominations.

Despite these efforts, many churches are not helping people trace the biblical arguments which support the conclusion, but instead merely reduce their view to the conclusion. They merely state whether something is right or wrong, but do not articulate the rationale leading to the result. As a result, Christians are often unable to engage in a detailed debate or discussion with each other over the topic, let alone an unbeliever who may hold an alternative view. For example, many Catholics are likely to declare abortion is wrong based on the mere fact it is condemned by the Pope and a Protestant will similarly resort to the position of a Christian leader within their denomination or tribe; neither of which articulates a biblical basis for such a belief. This approach inevitably leads to a form of legalism which only states the what, but not the why for the argument.

While the Bible does provide answers to the complex issues we face today, it might not be a simple straightforward answer as many would like. Make no mistake, the Bible provides us with a clear understanding of right and wrong in many straightforward ways. Homosexuality in any form is sinful, there is no maneuvering room, but what about when it comes to the use of IVF or personal technology? These issues require hard work where diligence, patience and the application of proper hermeneutics are key. It requires us to recognize these need to be discussed, not just glanced over. Study of these topics can be aided through access to helpful articles, books and commentaries which are able to describe the complexities of a particular issue and apply both a systematic and biblical theological approach to derive implications. Only this will allow us the ability to speak coherently about the why of our beliefs.

If Christians do not take seriously the need for this level of engagement at the individual level, we will leave the politicians and the media with the loudest voice. Transformation of the culture away from the current trend of pluralistic, self-derived moralism where happiness is central, will only be possible if we can articulate our position in a way which extends beyond a legalistic framework. Describing homosexuality as wrong in a simplistic phrase which stops at stating “the Bible says so,” is the children’s Sunday School song equivalent of “Jesus loves me this I know…” and does nothing but increase the existing tension with unbelievers. The Bible not only states the immorality of homosexuality, but the reason why; and so should we. It is not always an easy task, but it is the one to which we are called.

Consider also our calling to one another as fellow heirs of God’s grace. The Christian community might be filled with individuals, but it is not driven by individualistic ideals. The responsibility of leaders in the church is to teach, but that doesn’t negate our own responsibilities to one another to love one another through speaking the truth in love. Somewhere a Christian is trying to decide whether an aging parent should be allowed to end their life while in the final stages of dementia in order to alleviate their suffering. A couple is working through the pros and cons of artificial reproductive technology, wondering whether the Bible speaks to these types of issues. Most likely the first person these people will turn to after consulting Google will be their pastor. The next person might be you. The question we should ask ourselves is whether we are adequately prepared to help a fellow brother or sister think through these issues within a biblical framework without merely providing a legalistic view which gives simple answers as to whether something is right or wrong. Not only this, but are we prepared to engage in a discussion with a fellow Christian who might believe something different? Can we articulate the why, not just the what of our beliefs?

Part of what it means to live in a fallen world is being placed in situations we were never designed to be in, making moral decisions we were never intended to make. This is why we long for the return of Christ and the restoration of all things. It is the reason we desire to live in a world where certain decisions, like these, are no longer demanded of us. Until that day, we are called to live faithfully in the time and place God has placed us. This requires us to apply all of Scripture to all of life, not for the sake of rules, but for the glory of Christ. If you are a church leader, become knowledgeable in these areas and teach them to your congregation. If you are a member of a church where these issues are rarely addressed, ask your pastor or elders if they would be willing to provide opportunities within the church to learn more about and discuss these topics.