The Shield of Legalism

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
St Teresa of Avila
15 October 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I sometimes wonder about the way we (and by we I mean those who tend to align themselves with evangelical churches, but I’m sure it’s more widespread than this) use the word legalism. It feels as though we use this word as a shield to guard against asceticism openly and sometimes discipline secretly. As anyone who has spent any time reading these letters will know, I believe in liturgy, I believe in Christian practices beyond, but not excluding, things like feeding the hungry, evangelising, going to church, etc. I’ve even experienced some Christians who wouldn’t want to make hard and fast rules about any of those things either. How many times have I heard sermons or small group lessons––how many times have I said––don’t let these things become tasks on a to-do list, doing them just to check them off? And yet, this isn’t exactly the picture given to us by the Scriptures, and it certainly is not the task given to us by those who have come since the writing of the Scriptures.

Let me give you a few examples. First, from Christ himself: In Matthew 23, Jesus is upbraiding the pharisees. In the Gospels, these guys are the villains in every story where they appear.  This makes it hard for us to remember that they weren’t always the bad guys. For a long time they were the religious faithful when even the priestly classes were failing. Christ recognises this when he tells his audience, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,  so practise and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practise’ (Mt 23.2-3). While the pharisees in Christ’s day are falling short in acting rightly, they are still to be obeyed. In fact, Christ notes later on that the Pharisees do right in tithing even on the smallest of herbs they have, but do wrong in neglecting the weightier aspects of a righteous life (Mt 23.23). So it would seem that some regular disciplinary practice, such as the pharisees did and taught others to do, were not inherently wrong, only their attitude was.

My next example comes from the book of Acts. The story comes from Acts 3. It is a familiar one. Peter and John come across a lame beggar asking for money. Peter tells him they have no money, but what they do have, they will give to him. Then he commands the lame man to stand up in the name of Christ and he does. It is an awesome story about the power of Christ the healer and defending the faith in the face of adversity (for Peter and John are later taken to the Sanhedrin and commanded not to talk about Christ). However, there is an important element at the beginning of the story which I left out. Peter and John weren’t simply out on a stroll. Rather they were headed to the temple for an appointed time of prayer, ‘One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon’ (Acts 3.1). It seems that the apostles were in the custom of praying at set times during the day.

We have gotten ourselves into the habit of thinking anything we do or learn by rote cannot be felt, cannot be a lived reality. Yet I think the shield of legalism is really a prison keeping us from a deeper reality, one of order and spontaneity. In a previous letter, I wrote how physical things and spaces matter. Well, so do our actions and there are some things the Church has been for such a long time (having a liturgy, daily fixed hour prayers, fasting in certain seasons or on certain days, etc.) that today we might call legalism. Yet, if we allow them, these things can transform us. Oh it is true that simple actions and actions only will not necessarily make a difference. Two students of the piano practice their scales and arpeggios everyday. They learn their theory, perform their songs, etc. One does so dutifully, the other sulkily. Yet the one who does so dutifully will be the better pianist over all. They will feel the music, but only in part because of their attitude, their actions have much more to do with it. In fact, even the sulky one can be made to come round, simply by doing. Remember the parable of the two sons. One promised to work in the vineyard but didn’t. The other swore he wouldn’t but did. C. S. Lewis talks about this in Mere Christianity. What Lewis says about pretending to be Christ, can, in my opinion, be applied to all ritualistic, disciplined, ascetic, practices:

‘What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we all have noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already’ (Book 4, Chapter 7).

When we fast, pray, do church in a liturgical manner, follow the Church Calendar, etc., we are practising for life with God. We are, in a sense, pretending that Heaven has come to Earth, and as we pretend, we begin to make what we pretend into reality but only if two conditions are met: 1. We do so by, with, and in the grace of God; 2. We do so not simply to look better ourselves, but to make the world look better.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

4 comments on “The Shield of Legalism

  1. This may be off topic, but your post put me in mind of a difficulty I sometimes have teaching. I often find with my ethics students that legalism is used as a shield against forming a clear world view. That is, in determining that they don’t have the right to make legalistic proscriptions about how to live a good life for anyone else, they excuse themselves from the task of having to figure out what it means for themselves, what they actively want to pursue, what standards to hold themselves to. Perhaps that’s the sulky legalism.

    • Michelle,

      I don’t think it’s off topic at all. As you well know, I think liturgy is an expression of reality and ethics is the same. There may be aspects of one’s ethics (not, perhaps, unlike one’s liturgy/ascetics/discipline) that cannot be applied to all people even though its foundation is in one’s understanding of reality. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other aspects that can and ought to be applied to all people. Really, it seems almost like a democratic problem, that is, there is no definition of the Good, therefore as a group we decide what is good enough, to a certain extent. Except that there are so many varying opinions on what is even good enough, that either the majority is deemed an insufficient majority (say 51%) or there is no majority. This trickles down (unlike economics) to the individual who sees a sea of options and not wanting to bind anyone else doesn’t, in turn bind themselves, probably because they cannot picture any one option (or group of options) as being indicative of reality. How to overcome that, is a very different question. The only solution I’ve come up with so far is to make them read fairy tales.

  2. This is good, David. We are all very different beings. Legalism tells us we are not and there is only one route or one way to experience God, when God cannot be controlled or confined. God holds the power to reveal Himself through and in any created thing. In terms of daily ritualistic practices, why not look at liturgy and these kinds of prayers as creating a habit of dependence and habit of experiencing God in the way in which He designed you to receive Him, There is a test that I give my leaders that assesses how you experience God – I bet you would score high on Traditionalist. I’m high on Naturalist. Check it out!

    • Sara,

      Of course, care must be taken not to be prescriptive in all instances. For instance, despite being incredibly pro-Liturgy (thinking it the best expression of reality), I don’t prescribe what kind of Liturgy is best. Is it Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist? I don’t think it’s necessarily any one of those. However, there are things I think nonnegotiable. I think the Church Calendar, the Eucharist as the heart of the Worship Service, fixed hour prayer (nonnegotiable for some, not for all), and fasting (to name a few) are nonnegotiables. I think they best express reality and worship but how we live them out must be different to a certain extent. The problem for me is too many people think any boundaries equals legalism when they don’t. God is boundless and free to express himself in anyway fitting with who he is, but he is also a God of order. He is also the God who worked amongst the ancient and medieval Christians who developed these liturgical practices, it’s their history that makes them nonnegotiable for me. What liturgy gives us are the boundaries, not to limit God, but to free us to see the best, the highest expression of our love for God.

      I took the quiz, by the way. You’re right, I came out high Traditionalist, Sensate, and Intellectual. I would have had a higher Naturalist score as well if it weren’t pitched against the Traditionalist. I think the problem is we can pigeonhole ourselves with identity markers like this or Meyers-Briggs scores or Spiritual Gifting quizzes, etc. Just because I would attend high mass services every day of the week if I could doesn’t mean I don’t also want to retreat into the woods and see God in nature. In fact, it is the former that leads to me the latter. When God can be specially present in water, wine, bread, and oil, he can also be present in rocks and mountains and rivers. When he can be present in incense, icons written on wood, stained glass windows, and statues, he can also be present in clouds, sunshine, and trees. Each prepares me for the other. The same would go for social justice, ascetic, etc. So many of these things have, in the Christian tradition, there source in high liturgical forms of worship.

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