The New Legalism
Originally posted: 6/3/2020
Updated: 5/16/2021, 8/15/2022
Read the books!
Do the work of antiracism!
These are the calls to holiness in our cultural moment. These are the new directives to "do better" and become better people. We even hear these messages within many churches. Last spring, I read that an increasing number of churches were encouraging congregants to do the work of antiracism—as a sort of "decenter your whiteness" campaign—for Lent.
These declarations often come from a good place, namely a concern for the victims of racism and injustice. But are these specific acts necessary to avoid being complicit in racism? Those who do not participate in them are looked at with suspicion. In some cases, they’re even labeled as apathetic about racism.
Very few are asking an underlying question: Are these acts what God actually requires of us? What does God's word say?
God's Law vs. Hedge Laws
There is wide confusion about God's law among Christians today. The following is a brief survey of Mark 7:1-23, a passage that illustrates how man-made laws don't always gel with God's law. In this survey, I explain how I think this passage applies to our current discussion about "doing the work of antiracism."
Let’s begin with the Pharisees as they criticize Jesus for going against their traditions:
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?"
Notice the phrase, "according to the tradition of the elders." The Pharisees and teachers of the law were guided by an ancient holiness code that had not been commanded by God. Rather, these were extra laws--or what I call "hedge laws"--that they believed would help them obey God's laws more completely. If we are going to understand what God requires in terms of holy living, then we need to be able to differentiate between "hedge laws" (the "tradition of the elders") and God's law (the commands that are actually stated in the Bible).
Let's continue in Mark 7:
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
Notice the problem Jesus is highlighting. Jesus’ problem is not with God's law. It’s that the Jewish leaders are making sure to obey the "human traditions" (the hedge laws) neglecting the "commands of God" (God’s law).
Jesus continues explaining the problem:
And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
God's law says, "Honor your father and mother." God’s law also identified some things as “Corban,” items dedicated to God or given to the sacred treasury in the temple. These laws are actually in the Bible.
But here is the problem: the Jewish leaders developed a complicated loophole of non-biblical hedge laws (the "traditions of the elders") that actually ended up causing them to use the Corban law as a shield to neglect the fifth commandment. So, instead of caring for their aging parents, they would simultaneously neglect their parents and enrich themselves, thus nullifying God’s law by using a man-made practice.
At this point, Jesus is done talking to the religious leaders. He turns to the "crowd" (the regular people) to further explain the problem:
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
Later, He gives further details to the disciples:
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Jesus explains that the "traditions of the elders" (hedge laws) have switched the focus away from the actual problem and provided an unnecessary solution. God’s standard of righteousness isn’t about obeying a bunch of hedge laws. What makes us righteous or “clean” is our obedience— in thought, word, and deed—to God's written word. To God's actual laws.
God's Law vs. Legalism
Many Christians believe that being saved by grace means that God’s law has no connection to us. This is a mistake! When Jesus tells the disciples to go into the nations and preach the gospel, this includes also teaching them to obey all of Jesus’ commands (Matt. 28:18-20). Yes, we are saved by grace. But that’s not the end of the Christian life. It’s only the beginning. God expects His people to walk in humble obedience to His commands. Obeying God’s law is discipleship, not legalism.
Legalism is the insistence on strict adherence to a set of rules that are not found in God’s word, either explicitly or by principle. Legalism is what happens when Christians vault our preferred hedge laws over God's law. It’s what happens when we create our own holiness codes and then expect people to follow them. We may apply public pressure, and even shaming, in order to make everyone conform to our man-made standard of what we think holiness should look like.
Legalism can also sometimes be based on a legitimate principle of God’s law, but then it starts veering into a weird world of complicated regulations in terms of how the law is lived out. For example, tithing was a law under Moses. God's people were to give a tenth of their income and harvest back to the Lord. But this law became highly complex, and somewhat peculiar, in the way the Pharisees lived it out—to the point that they were tithing on spices. And they ended up with more important laws such as justice, mercy and faithfulness.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.You blind guides!You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matt. 23:23–24)
This is the fruit of legalism: highly complex systems of obedience that, while probably rooted in God's law, lead us to a destination far from where we should be. Even worse, it results in our neglecting other important parts of God's law.
The "Works" of Social Justice
In the last few years, I have become persuaded that social justice is the holiness codes of our cultural moment. "Doing the work" of social justice and antiracism has come to comprise the accepted values, language, and moral code—not just in our culture, but in many of our churches too.
"Social Justice Warriors" act as the new Pharisees. They are standing by watching, willing and ready to point out others’ moral shortcomings according to their human traditions—their hedge laws. The clear message: obey their "laws" or risk being publicly shamed. Even within Christian circles, the sincerity of your faith may be questioned if you don’t adhere to these standards.
This popular graphic (and similar variations) is frequently used in Human Resources trainings to explain the new definition of "white supremacy." The actions and attitudes listed here indicate what makes a person "unclean." Ideas such as “white privilege” or “color blindness” are the new holiness code, the hedge laws to prevent us from participating in covert racism.
But here is my question: Is this complex list of terms and values consistent with what God’s word says I must do in order to love my neighbor? I would say the answer to that question, in most cases, is no.
In my candid opinion, this graphic lists little more than a bunch of "hedge laws" that are intended to tell me what I must do to be considered a “good human” by others. But here is the problem: there is nothing about the terms, or even the concepts of, “white privilege” or “white fragility” in the Bible. There are no commands in Scripture that describe white people as being more vulnerable to the sin of racism, or people with more melanin as being less likely to engage in ethnic partiality. Ideas about the nobility of decentering whiteness or Kendi’s vision of antiracism have no foundation in God’s law. Yet many Christian leaders are talking as if they do!
God's Standard vs. Social Justice's Holiness Code
As we consider the implications of the new holiness code, we need to discern where God’s law ends and culture’s hedge laws begin. One way to recognize this is to consider whether the hedge laws cause a neglect of God’s law. For example, God’s law tells me to “love my neighbor as myself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:35-40). God’s law also tells me very specifically how to love my neighbor. Here are just eight examples. In these examples, I have focused on God’s instructions for how His people ought to love their neighbor when they are involved with an effort to adjudicate the truth of a matter.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (Ex. 20)
Do not spread false reports. (Ex. 21:1a)
Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness. (Ex. 21:1b)
When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit. (Ex. 23:2-3)
Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. (Ex. 23:6)
Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death. (Ex. 23:7)
Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. (Ex. 23:8)
One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deut. 19:15)
As you can see, God’s command to love our neighbor includes details. It’s not simply based on our feelings or the changing winds of culture. There is something steady about God’s eternal moral law that transcends culture.
The new legalism also tells me how to love my neighbor. But this list can look very different from God’s law. The holiness code of social justice tells me that it is a virtue to engage in partiality for some groups and to intentionally disadvantage other groups based on race. The new legalism also tells me that I must fight against all “oppression.”
Prior to celebrating diversity, we must first eliminate intolerance. No matter what form it takes or who does it, we must all take action to stop intolerance when it happens. Working towards a celebration of diversity implies working for social justice – the elimination of all forms of social oppression… Social injustice takes many forms. It can be injustice based on a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or economic class. (Mary McClintock, “How to Interrupt Oppressive Behavior,” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 483)
In other words, to be an advocate for one oppressed group requires that I must be an advocate for all oppressed groups (as defined by social justice). This would include being an ally or activist for such causes as “reproductive justice” (a.k.a. abortion on demand) and “marriage equality” (a.k.a. gay marriage).
This is where legalism leads. We end up calling “evil good and good evil" (Isa. 5:20).
If we want to know how to live a holy life, we need to look no further than the explicit commands of Scripture, not the complicated new "traditions" of humans. As Peter tells us, God’s "divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. Through these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world on account of lust" (2 Peter 1:3–4).
God's people "should not grow weary in doing good" (Gal. 6:9). We should engage in careful, biblically solid, and evidence-based conversations about justice and racism. But when "doing good" becomes defined as a super complicated system of thoughts and deeds, some of which actually contradict God's law, then you know you have stumbled into legalism (a.k.a. the hedge laws, or the "traditions of the elders").
The laws of God should never be confused with legalistic traditions masquerading as modern-day purity laws. With practice, study, and prayer, we can learn to differentiate clearly between God’s law and the hedge laws of today’s cultural moment. So, if you find yourself exhausted and confused by all the virtue signaling on social media, Jesus says to you, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).