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The legalism spiral in religion

To fixate on the letter of the law is to miss out on grace. But rejecting all limits isn't the answer.

Legalism and reactions against it are a constant part of religious life. It lies at the center of disputes over the changes Pope Francis is attempting to bring to the Roman Catholic Church. It divides progressive from conservative Protestants, Indeed, it defines the conflict between liberal and conservative forms of many religions.

Legalism can be defined as strict adherence to the letter of the law. Use of the term today normally has a pejorative connotation. A legalist is fixated on law, seems to miss the principle behind the law, or tightens legal obligation beyond what is right, reasonable, or good for people.

Legalism is a perennial tendency in religion, at least in the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But so is a reactive anti-legalism.

Speaking of the Christian tradition which I know best, I think it is fair to see a kind of legalism and anti-legalism spiral.

Those raised in legalism often recoil, moving into an extreme anti-legalism when they are free to choose their own adult religious commitments. Then they have kids. These kids, raised in libertarian or anti-legalist environments, often grow up to seek a version of religion which has clearer and more binding demands, and…so it goes.

Let me explain with an example.

My particular religious social location is a Baptist congregation outside Atlanta. I teach Sunday School each week to a diverse group of about thirty souls.

This past week I taught on a passage in Luke 6 in which Jesus tangles with the scribes and Pharisees over the proper practice of Sabbath observance. In one incident Jesus gets in trouble for allowing his disciples to glean some grain on the Sabbath. In the second he heals a man in a synagogue on the Sabbath, also evoking resistance.

The command to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy is crucial in Judaism. One aspect of honoring Sabbath is to refrain from any kind of work. The question in these texts is whether Jesus and his disciples were violating Sabbath by “working” in these two ways. Jesus appeals to precedent, to human well-being, and to his own lordship over the Sabbath to defend his actions. His adversaries are not convinced.

This led into a discussion in our group about Christian forms of legalism. Fully half the class responded yes when I asked whether they would describe their religious upbringing as legalistic. I was quite surprised. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Conservative Baptist religion has had plenty of legalism. A lot of it has been focused on rules related to sex.

A congregant in her forties described a Christian camp of her teen years in which “mixed bathing” was banned.

But this was not enough. Young ladies had to cover themselves from shoulders to knees when they walked to the pool.

But this was not enough. During the time in which the heavily clad young ladies were walking to the pool, all young men were confined to their quarters and distracted so as not to think about their lithe young female classmates in the act of walking to the pool, where they would be swimming.

It is perhaps not coincidental that this kind of prudish legalism has produced a systemically anti-legalistic response among many millions of Christians who were raised in it. I think this explains a lot of the spirit of ex-Southern Baptist and ex-evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity. Where legalism dominated, many, many, Christians want a religion of grace, mercy, and freedom.

Personally, I pick erring on the side of grace over erring on the side of legalism all day long. But sometimes we do in fact err on the side of grace, and I have seen it many times in ex-legalist Christianity.

Anti-legalist churches are, as to be expected, gracious, welcoming, and inclusive. What they don’t really know how to do is to offer demands or draw lines when they might be needed.

Because sometimes demands and boundaries are needed. Given human nature, sometimes we need someone to tell us where the limits are, and what we are not allowed to do, not just where the freedom is and how forgiving God is.

Legalism kills by squeezing the life out of us. But a reactive anti-legalism can kill by not keeping us away from actions that can ruin our lives – and that of others.

If raised in legalism, anti-legalism looks really, really good. If raised in anti-legalism, sometimes a little bit of clarity and structure looks really, really good. And so it goes, in the legalism spiral that constantly churns in the world’s great religions.