The New Legalism

Our mission as Christians is to preach the Gospel to the nations. Most of us are pretty clear about that.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19)

What we often neglect, however, is the very next verse.

and teachingthem to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:20)

Discipleship includes teaching converts to obey Jesus’ commands. In this way, we will bring the laws of God to the nations.

Now, the laws of God should never be confused with legalism. We must differentiate clearly between these two ideas.

A popular understanding of the word "legalism" would probably include something along the lines of engaging in "good works" to try and merit salvation. And it certainly would include that idea. But I think ithere's also more to it than that.

Legalism is what happens when Christians mix God’s laws with man-made laws. In other words, we make up rules for what holiness should look like and then expect people to follow these rules. We apply public pressure, and even shaming, in order to get everyone to conform to our man-made standard of what a particular group thinks holiness should look like.

The thing about legalism is that it can have a premise based on God’s law, but then veer into a weird world of complicated regulations in terms of how it’s 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 the way the Pharisees lived this law out became highly complex, and somewhat peculiar. To the point that they were tithing on spices. And they neglected 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 tenthof 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 are probably based on God's law if you trace it all the way back to the root. But the way it's lived out brings you to a destination that is far from where you should be. And results in you neglecting other, also weighty, parts of God's law.

I have become persuaded that Social Justice and Critical Race Theory the holiness code of our cultural moment. This has become the values, language and moral code of progressive and woke Christianity. And if you don't obey, "social justice warriors" act like the new Pharisees. They are watching, willing and ready to point out your moral short-comings according to their standards. Obey these laws or you will be marginalized as a human, and as a Christian.

Now, let’s be clear. Is racism condemned in scripture? Yes. Hating my neighbor in my heart because of her ethnicity would violate God’s standards of justice (Gal. 5:20).

But is this complex list how I MUST live out God's law of loving my neighbor? No. Should I be kind to my neighbor? Of course (Eph. 4:32; Luke 10:25–37). Should I be willing to ask the Lord to reveal places in my life where I can grow? Absolutely. Are there things that we can do better as a church and society to live more in step with God's definition of justice? Definitely. Let's have that conversation. Calmly, biblically and respectfully.

But there is nothing about white privilege or white fragility in the Bible. BUT many Christian leaders are talking as if there is. These are ideas put forward by a framework called Critical Race Theory. As Christians, we are under no obligation to accept this framework, its terms or its definitions. I can simultaneously be against racism AND against CRT. That's actually possible.

In addition, while the new legalism tells me that I MUST love my neighbor in these ways, its simultaneously condoning the breaking of God's other, also weighty, laws, such as the prohibitions against theft and destroying my neighbor's property. This is where legalism leads.

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. 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. 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).

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.

If you hear the new legalism from your pastor on Sunday, get into a conversation with the Lord about your next step. And go follow, and prayerfully consider financially supporting, my podcast partner, Monique Duson, over at the Center for Biblical Unity.