Much has been written and discussed over the last few decades about the tension within the church between legalism and love. These two aspects of Orthodox Christianity produce a dichotomy which pull the believer in seemingly opposite directions. Many want to renounce legalism as the church's standard mode of operation, finding such rule keeping to be stifling to their own happiness and spiritual fulfillment; but they also recognize that the Bible has a lot to say about obeying the rules. If legalism is such an evident part of the Bible story and such seems so at odds with the principle of love, what is one to conclude about the relative importance of the two?
Firstly, I think it is useful to recognize that a procedural and exclusionary Christianity is by its very nature legalistic or law based. If salvation is achieved by following the plan and by that method only, then the church as an institution has boundaries which are defined by rules. That is the very essence of legalism.
If one accepts this orthodox definition of the church, then Christian legalism is not only unavoidable, it is essential. If love operates in such a church, then love must do so in concert with legalism. Thus the church has been involved in a longstanding effort to reconcile what seems to many to be irreconcilable. Despite that effort we witness the continuing spiritual angst noted above.
Next, it is possible to reconsider some of the prevailing assumptions about the Bible and to draw different conclusions about its ultimate message. Most people see the emphasis on rule keeping (legalism) in the Bible as an example of how God would have us live today. The rules may have changed between the Old Testament and now, but these folks see enough evidence of a rule oriented New Testament Church to conclude that legalism and its judgments are still spiritually essential. Within this assumption we encounter the ancillary idea that the New Testament church example is the governing example for today. In my mind, any hope of dealing with the legalism question necessitates a re-evaluation of this premise.
I believe that a more careful reading of the NT will lead one to note that the NT church operated in conjunction with a still functioning Judaic system. The book of Romans indicates that both the church and the Jews of the first century were involved in a special role which facilitated a completed redemption (Romans 11:15, 12:1, 13:11). It is evident from the book of Acts (21:20-26) that the Apostle Paul not only continued Judaic practices after his conversion but also condoned that for other Jews. Was that continued reverence for Judaism an aberration or a part of God's continuing plan? Many today see a role for
There is no necessity to project the message of Romans or the role of
Once one considers the alternative that the NT scriptures, in large measure, were directed to the first century church only and not mankind in all future generations, then the seeming impasse between legalism and love has a hope of resolution. One can then conclude that, as Paul stated in Galatians 3:24, legalism was a temporary instrument of instruction, destined to be superseded by the completed work of Christ.
What was the lesson mankind learned from legalism, especially under the Judaic system? The history of
Seeing biblical legalism as a lesson in what does not produce righteousness instead of as the only route to righteousness makes a dramatic difference in the legalism versus love debate. Love, under this paradigm, does turn out to be the supreme principle of the Bible, superseding all else.
Of course, relinquishing an allegiance to legalism would also challenge the boundaries which we tend to draw around the church, defining who and who is not acceptable. That is likely the major reason why we struggle so much to let go of an aspect of our traditional faith which produces so much confusion and drives so many people way.