We’ll start with a bit of observational science. Not much. It will be important later.
Watch two vehicles heading the same direction on the interstate, but in different lanes. When one overtakes the over, they tend to get closer, each moving a few inches closer. This is thought to be caused by the change in air pressure between two moving objects. As two objects pass each other, they create a lower pressure system between them than that which surrounds them and, thus, there is a slight pull that is generally unnoticed and easily corrected (in newer cars, electronic steering controlled by the car’s computer systems minimize, but can’t eliminate, this effect).
A much more dangerous narrowing of the gap takes place when two cars, heading opposite directions, pass each other. Once again, we often see a few inches of closure before the drivers subconsciously correct. This time, the low pressure system is not the main culprit. Rather, the fact is that we tend to move toward that which we are watching. Think of the pull you feel as you stand near a large drop-off. You feel it because you are looking at it and are aware of it. If you don’t take corrective action with your balance, you can go right over (and it is thought that that is exactly what happened to Jimi Heselden, the inventor of the Segway, who drove off a cliff into a river).
I thought about this effect as I considered how easily it is to fall into legalism whether one considers oneself on the philosophical/religious left, right, or center. It seems that ancient sailors are not the only ones who are in danger of hearing the call of the Sirens and steering their craft onto the rocks. For those without knowledge of ancient Greek literature (no shame in that!), the Sirens were a mythical female/bird hybrid that sang songs so mesmerizing and alluring that sailors could not help themselves. They followed the songs only to lose their ships and their lives on the rocks hidden under the surface. Another version of the Sirens said their songs were so peaceful and lovely, they put the sailors to sleep. Once they were sleeping, the Sirens would board the ship and kill the sailors. It was impossible to resist the songs so Homer had Odysseus order his men to plug their ears and tie him to a mast so that he could hear them without following them to his doom.
Let’s move from the Sirens to the Pharisees. If all you knew about the Pharisees came from the Gospels, you would most likely think of them as the bad guys of their day. In fact, they were the restorationists, very serious about living a righteous life that would please God and return His favor to His people. They were focused and intentional about keeping the law — or The Law — that God gave them via Moses. Their first error was keeping the law while not allowing it to change their hearts. The second error was that they were not content with following God according to their tradition; they required that all others do exactly as they did. If they did not fall into line, Pharisees treated them as enemies, not brothers.
When people think of the term “legalist” they tend to think of people to their right but, the fact is, legalism shows up all over the spectrum. The right is easy to spot and pillory but when I lived in that world, I took it very seriously. How seriously? I can remember a year where I had laryngitis to the point where I had nothing but a tortured squeak when I would try to speak. Doctors told me not to even whisper so my vocal chords could heal. Yet, on Sunday, I would make myself squeak out at least a song or bits of songs because I was convinced that if I skipped one of the five acts of worship, God would not accept any of my worship. When we baptized someone and a tiny bit of them didn’t go under, we baptized them again for we truly believed that anything above the surface negated the baptism entirely. We believed this so strongly that young ministers were told how to make sure a woman’s hair was completely submerged (and this was in the 60s-70s when women’s hair could reach Crystal Gayle lengths). I can remember a song leader stopping a song because someone was tapping their foot and he could hear it. We were then given a 5 minute talk on why tapping your foot hard enough to be heard was adding an instrument to the music and, thus, sinful, negating our worship if we did not stop it. This happened more than once.
I could go on for pages and pages and so could many of you.. It is easy to laugh at this sort of legalism but, please, don’t. We didn’t think of ourselves as legalists; we thought of ourselves as rational people who wanted to please a mighty God. We thought we were making God happy and it upset us that others didn’t agree with us. In self defense, we developed a simple catechism. I can remember Bible classes where we asked “Why do the Baptists use instruments in church” and the answer was “Because they don’t believe the Bible.” Another child asked “Why do the Methodists sprinkle instead of immerse” and the answer was “because they don’t believe the Bible.” We had the same answer to questions about Catholics, Democrats (or Labour Party), etc. ad infinitum.
As I studied and prayed my way to a more grace and love based faith, it wasn’t long before I found another legalism out there that wanted to pull me in. It came from the left. I read blogs that said I had to divest myself of any form of patriotism. Pledge allegiance to the flag? Idolatry! Join the military? You are attacking the Prince of Peace! I remember how I felt listening to a minister talk about a church in his community that actually honored a man who just retired from 30 years in the Army. The minister was appalled that anyone “who calls themselves a Christian” could join the military or honor those who did. This was a hard pill to swallow for a man — that would be me — whose family had a 300 year history of military service and whose son was a United States Marine. In the church that raised me from 0 to 30, patriotism was part of the faith. We didn’t have the flag on the stage and we didn’t sing patriotic songs like “God Bless America” in church but hippies and protestors were shunned and considered ungrateful sinners. But pendulums swing. That’s is what they do.
Now, I often find myself in circles where pacifism in one form or another is assumed. I am not a pacifist. When I’ve told some ministers — most of them under 40 — they assume I’m a warmonger who doesn’t believe the Sermon on the Mount. It seems that nuance — that one can be an anti-war pacifist, say — is lost in the rush to stake out the new minimums of the faith. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut in certain places and just not go to some events…just like I learned to be quiet and avoid some events when I was on the right.
Then came social media and virtue signaling. “Virtue signaling” is making sure that others know that you agree with their passion and their dislikes by chiming in on social media. It is supposed to prove you are righteous and demonstrate your acceptability in your group. It is one click above those horrid “If you love Jesus you have to click like on this meme” things that make most of us shake our heads and move on.
I have taken a lot of fire for not joining in the attacks waged by left and right. Just a couple weeks ago I was upbraided by a brother right after my sermon as the people sang the last song. He couldn’t wait for the song to end to tell me how wrong I was not to attack Trump and the right. He was and is very disappointed in me…but others have been very disappointed (vocally and in print) that I said nothing in support of Trump and the right and that I didn’t preach against Hillary. As the country grows more divided, the Siren call of left and right gets louder, each side insisting that you agree with them and attack the other.
Everything that we see or hear is an opportunity to divide. In a recent Super Bowl commercial, Ram Trucks paid $5 million to air an ad that consisted of Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes about the honor of serving others. Ram had received permission from the King estate to make the ad and the estate approved the final ad…but the internet went ballistic. Half seemed to love it and half hated it and both sides were appalled at the other. And each hardened their position on social media, almost insisting that if one wished to be a good person, they HAD to move to their side. That is legalistic thinking, if not legalism.
Those of us who lived through the 70s and 80s remember that a movement began in our church that had, I believe, the best of intentions but devolved into legalism. It was called Crossroads, the Boston Movement, or the International Churches of Christ. They said that our congregations were dead, lifeless, without passion and fervor, and no longer were interested in discipling the world, teaching all to follow Jesus. And they had a point. A great number of our churches had devolved to become franchise churches offering approved franchise goods and services to those who liked our franchise. If we captured a Baptist every now and then, all the better, but the main aim was keeping the franchise the way we got it and without upsetting the members who gathered expecting a franchise event.
I can remember going to several meetings where the leaders of this new movement spoke with our leaders. Every meeting I attended, I’m quite glad to say, were civil and informative. I left each of them believing that the Boston Movement folk had a lot of good things to say and that their take on the deadness of many of our churches was spot on. The problem was with how they reacted to that lack of life, discipline, and fervor in the local churches of Christ. They established leaders that maintained strict discipline over others, setting up “soul talks” to closely monitor each individual. Abuses occurred, as they always will when one person is put in an authoritative position over another. The ICC developed a reputation for legalism and disrupting churches, families and schools with the demands they placed on their members. It was a new legalism. (The ICC has gone through several times of fire and reformation since then and is a still evolving church. At present, it isn’t wise or fair to paint all of them with the same brush we used in 1980)
And that was the first time I heard about legalism…and it was from our leaders who aimed that word at their leaders. Once I heard the term and saw it applied, I knew it applied to us as well and that was an uncomfortable realization. It was from that time that I began watching for legalism in my own church and in the lives and churches around me.
This is not a call to go to the middle of the road. I would think we should know by now by observing possums and armadillos that the middle of the road is not always a safe place. But legalism is sneaky. Its mechanism is easy to understand. It works something like this…
Can we all agree that praying for 30min at some point in the day would be a good and beneficial thing for the individual, the church, and the Kingdom? Okay then…make it a rule. Make it a law that, to be spiritual and pleasing to God, you have to pray 30min a day. Wow. That went sideways quickly.
Legalism is sneaky. It still gets me from time to time. And, speaking for those, like myself, who have fallen into legalism more than once, allow me to say that we are generally the last to notice where we are.
You see, each car that passes wants to suck you in. It is easier to go with the flow as there is less pressure if you do…but you will crash and die. It is better to focus on your own life and behavior, allowing your positions to change as led by the Holy Spirit than it is to decide you have found IT and you need to call others to IT, attacking them when their IT differs. When an attractive group sings a song that appeals to you, it is easy to join in and head that direction without thinking of the rocks that might lie under the surface.
At the risk of further alienating readers, allow me to say that this is another reason that I enjoy reading ancient creeds. Those that have survived and stayed popular — such as the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed — lay out a very simple faith, free of the barnacles that have attached themselves to our ship of faith over the centuries. They are a reset button, a wake up call that reminds us that not all of our thoughts, opinions, and positions are ancient and we might need to be more gracious about the way we hold them.