The New Legalism


Originally posted: 6/3/20

Updated: 5/16/21



Read the books!


Do the work of antiracism!


Decenter Whiteness!



These are the calls to holiness in our cultural moment. These are the new directives to "do better" and become better people. We’re even hearing these messages within many churches. One church recently encouraged its 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. But are these acts necessary to avoid being racist? Those who do not participate in them are looked at with suspicion; in some cases, they’re even labeled as apathetic about racism.


I would like to stand back and ask an underlying question: Are these acts what God actually requires of us? What does God's word say?




God’s Word on Racism


The term "racism" in a classical sense is defined as, "a belief that usually involves the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others" (Dictionary.com).


Although the term "racism" is not found in Scripture, this classical definition is reflected in the following sins:

  • Favoritism. Racism involves showing favoritism toward a group, or disadvantaging a group, based on their ethnicity. Just as God judges everyone according to the same standard, He does not want His people to show favoritism or have unequal weights and measures (Lev. 19:15; James 2:1–4).

  • Hatred. Racism often involves storing up hatred in our heart toward a group of people based on their degree of melanin (1 John 2:9, 11; 3:15; 4:20).

  • Verbal sins. God's word condemns speaking verbal curses over our fellow image bearers. Using slurs and telling jokes about people based on their melanin or ethnicity violates the basic dignity of others (James 3:9–10).

Most of us can agree that racism in this classical sense of racism goes against God's commands. But how do we avoid--or atone for--this sin? Do we have to adopt the framework of Critical Race Theory? To read their canon of sociology books? I don't think we do. Let me explain.




God's Law vs. Hedge Laws


There is wide confusion about God's law among Christians today. Following is a brief survey of Mark 7:1-23, a passage that illustrates how culture's laws don't always gel with God's law--even they are based on 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 that they believed would help them obey God's laws more completely. For the purpose of this article, I am going 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.”

Now, let's pause for a minute and 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 the Jewish leaders developed a complicated loophole of non-biblical hedge laws (the "traditions of the elders") that actually end up causing them to 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.”

Once He gets into the house, 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 is explaining that the "traditions of the elders" have switched the focus away from the actual problem and provided an unnecessary solution. 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


Legalism is not the law. Legalism, or insistence on strict adherence to a set of rules, is what happens when Christians vault our preferred hedge laws over God's law. It’s 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.


Now, legalism can be based on God’s law, but it has a way of 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 neglecting other laws, even 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 and CRT


I have become persuaded that Social Justice and Critical Race Theory ARE the holiness codes of our cultural moment. "Doing the work" of 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 cancelled. Within the church (or Christian higher ed), the sincerity of your faith may even be questioned!


This popular graphic is used all over the internet 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” or “hedge laws” that are put forward to help prevent us from participating in covert racism.

But the question is: does this complex list demonstrate how I MUST live out God's law of loving my neighbor? I would say no. Showing partiality, using slurs, or hating my neighbor in my heart because of her ethnicity would violate God’s standards of justice (Gal. 5:20). This graphic implies little more than a bunch of "hedge laws" that are intended to tell me how I must obey God’s commands. There is nothing about White privilege or White fragility in the Bible. There are no commands in Scripture about decentering Whiteness or performing the works of antiracism.


BUT many Christian leaders are talking as if there are!




Is CRT a Good Framework for Christians?


Such are ideas put forward by the framework of Critical Race Theory. As Christians, we are under no obligation to accept this framework, its terms, or its definitions. As Christians, wecan simultaneously be against racism AND against CRT. That's actually possible.


As we consider the implications of CRT, 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, while the new legalism tells me that I MUST love my neighbor in specific ways, it may simultaneously condone the breaking of God's other laws, such as enacting processes that promote racism against the “oppressors” in the name of equity. This is where legalism leads. We end up calling evil "good" and good "evil." God, through "His 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) 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 that we can only discover by “doing the work” of reading books in sociology and following the new rules of CRT.


Yes, 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 (aka "traditions of the elders"). 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).


Our mission as Christians is to preach the Gospel to the nations and teach them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us to do (Matt. 28:19–20). Discipleship includes teaching converts to obey Jesus’ commands. God's word has quite a lot to say about how to love our neighbor in many practical ways. That's where we can focus our attention and study.


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.