Legalism in List Form (You Know… For Legalists)

Divine Embrace

I have been reading, off and on, through Robert Webber’s “The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life”  The book is broken down into two parts:

Part One: The Crisis – How Spirituality Became Separated from the Divine Embrace

Part Two: The Challenge: Returning Spirituality to the Divine Embrace

The entire first section is basically a historical sketch of spirituality in the Christian tradition.  In 4 compelling chapters, Webber traces the ins and outs, ups and downs, of Christian Spiritual Life through the major time periods:

(AD 30 – 1500) Rescuing Spirituality from Dualism and Mysticism

(AD 1500 – 1900) Rescuing Spirituality from Intellectualism and Experientialism

(AD 1900 – 2000) Rescuing Spirituality from Legalism and Romanticism

(AD 2000 – ) Rescuing Spirituality from New Age Philosophy and Eastern Religions

I was reading through the chapter on AD 1900 – 2000 this week and I thought Webber offered a very interesting and clear picture of 20th century legalism – something my own fellowship has suffered from immensely.  And not to beat a dead horse (I rarely ever talk about legalism though), but I think his sketch of legalism is worth sharing here.  (Also, I think it is sort of funny that he does it in list form – you know… so legalists can understand it.)

First, a Story

Webber affirms his families faith.  He makes it abundantly clear that he both loves his parents and appreciates their deep faith and love of God.  In particular, he remembers how much his parents served others at church, and cared for their family of faith in actions of compassion.  But, he remembers clearly the moment he discovered they were legalists:

My first conscious experience of evangelical legalism occurred when I was eight years old.  During that summer I was sent to a YMCA youth camp for a month.  Each week the kids were taken into town to see a movie.  Since I didn’t know better, I went.  When my parents heard that I went to a movie, they were shocked and quickly instructed the camp leader that I was not allowed to attend any more movies.  So for the rest of the summer, when others went to a weekly movie, I remained on the campground alone under the supervision of a camp leader who was appointed to watch over me.  The question of whether or not to go to a movie is in itself not the issue.  My parents’ refusal to allow me to go to a movie was symptomatic of a much larger and pervasive issue within the evangelical world – its legalistic mentality. (pg. 81)

Now, a Definition 

“Legalistic Mentality” – according to Webber, a legalistic mentality “constitutes a particular way of seeing reality.  A legalistic mentality defines spirituality in terms of what a Christian does not do.  Those who question the established dos and don’ts are regarded as rebels and are often ostracized in one way or another from the community.  Unfortunately these dos and don’ts often get int he way of seeing the real ethics of Christian Spirituality such as growth of character; the concern for justice, and the care of the poor and the needy.” (pg. 81)

The Doctrinal List

All evangelicals agree that the Bible is the final authority in matters of faith and practice; legalism adds that biblical authority can be expressed only with full, plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible.  

All evangelicals agree that God is the Creator; legalists add a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and insist that the Scripture teaches that God created the world in seven days.

All evangelicals agree that the Bible is to be interpreted by God’s people; legalists insist that there is only one valid interpretation of every text reached through the biblical, historical, exegetical methodology of interpretation.

All evangelicals agree that the church is called to reflect on Scripture and develop a theology of the Christian faith; legalists insist that there is only one kind of theology – propositional truth.

All evangelicals believe in the church; legalists insist that their church or fellowship is the only pure church and all others are apostate

All evangelicals believe in the second coming of Christ; legalists insist that their particular view of the end-time (i.e., pretribulation rapture or premilliniarian) is the one true eschatological worldview.

All evangelicals believe in the ethical life supported by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love modeled by Jesus; legalists deduce teachings from ethical admonitions of Scripture and create a handy list of dos and don’ts to be followed scrupulously.

All evangelicals believe in the spiritual life; legalists define spirituality as reading the Bible daily, praying regularly, going to church every time the door is open, witnessing to everyone you meet, and maintaining rules that define said spirituality.

(pg. 82)

What would you add, delete, or change?


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