In my years of Christian fellowship and internet activity, I’ve learned much about the sin of legalism. First, some Christians are more legalistic than they’d ever know. Second, said Christians have no idea what real legalism is in the first place.
This is particularly prevalent in the issue of fiction, especially speculative storytelling. Yet it touches all kinds of Biblical doctrine and action, so some of that will also be discussed here.
Fiction. Clearly this topic recurs at SpecFaith. How much “speculation” or “grit” or curses or sexual content are too much? If a story includes questionable content, is its author not a legalist? If a story avoids this content, is its author vulnerable to challenges about freedom?
Nonfiction. Recently I jumped into a social-network group whose chief function is to mock and slam and of course swear vociferously at supposed “fundamentalists.” Despite this helpful approach to engage lovingly with other created human beings formed in the image of God — even if they are those nasty fundies — I thought it would be interesting to see for myself whether my gentle challenges to one post would be welcomed. Nope. Naturally I was blasted just as much as if I’d come in there and said “Haw haw, UR all goin’ to Hell.” I even set a trap related to the “abstain from all appearance of evil” phrase from 1 Thess. 5:22 (KJV). It wasn’t that clever a trap, but folks fell for it. How did they know I was a legalist? He looks like one! But that’s a false interpretation of the verse. Burn him anyway!
I’m afraid said irony continues when we’re trying to identify legalism in stories or authors.
If we don’t care how the only non-legalist ever, Jesus Christ, defines the sin of legalism, then anytime we try to sic the accusation on others it may come right back around to bite us in the backsides. How does this occur? To explore more, let’s have a Where’s the Legalist? quiz.
It works like this: After each anecdote, consider which of the listed responses is legalistic.
Where’s the Legalist?1
Figure 1 (fiction):
A new novel by a professing Christian author includes a dystopian future in which sex-tourism and -slavery has overrun the world. A team of elite evangelical commandos, highly trained (and perhaps surgically altered) to resist the temptations of this sordid world, infiltrates the headquarters of the sex-slave operation. The story shows clearly that sexual perversion and slavery is reprehensible, yet with semi-detailed descriptions (seeming-positive descriptions quickly become negative for impact), and ends reflecting Gospel light.
Response A: “I cannot read a story like this, and no other Christian should. Being holy and Christlike always means we cannot be exposed to even some descriptions of sin like this.”
Response B: “I might not read a story like this, but other Christians might be able to.”
Response C: “Serious Christians must read this story if it’s well-written! We need to have more of these kinds of realistic stories around, which don’t shy from the world’s evils.”
Figure 2 (nonfiction):
A Christian pastor writes a web article in which he decries the constant encroachment of the homosexual agenda in society and government activism. Though the pastor’s entire repertoire makes it clear he also finds fault with Christians who do act as if homosexual desires are unforgiveable sins, in this article he critiques only the homosexual lobby.
Response A: “In context with other reminders, this is a helpful and Biblical contribution.”
Response B: “This pastor is legalistic. ‘Christians’ have spent years fighting gay advocates with religious law. We should only share the love of Christ, not condemnation and politics.”
Response C: “Good for this pastor. Down with all homosexuals. We must protect children.”
Figure 3 (fiction):
A new movie by a professing Christian director explores a world of demonic possession and exorcism. The story is visually impressive and capably acted and edited, though some critics charge that the film doesn’t extol the Biblically (and otherwise) documented power of the Name of Christ over Satan’s forces. In response the scriptwriter and director say this: “We’re not about theology. Our goal is only to tell a good story and make people notice.”
Response A: “It is dangerous to get involved with demons like this. I question their faith.”
Response B: “I agree. Preaching like this in a story would only be legalistic.”
Response C: “Is it ‘freedom’ to fear Jesus’s Name in a story in which He is needed most?”
Figure 4 (nonfiction):
A popular female pop star conducts a lascivious routine on national television, sparking outrage from civilian Christians in their various media and pastors from their pulpits.
Response A: “She is going to hell. Hide your children. Society is getting even worse.”
Response B: “Don’t judge her. Judging is evidence of legalism and doesn’t show that God loves her just as much as He loves us. We should only be praying for her and showing love.”
Response C: “We must judge ourselves first, then the world. But this was evidence of sin.”
Figure 5 (fiction/nonfiction):
A professing-Christian publisher publishes a book in which the author claims to have gone to Heaven. During her near-death experience, she says she saw children who hadn’t yet been born, and gives credence to Mormonism and the idea of the pre-existence of the soul. Defending the book to another author, the publisher says “You know our hearts” and “[It] is not a book of theology.” 2
Response A: “It’s not legalistic to question a Christian book.”
Response B: “No, this author shouldn’t question the publisher’s or the author’s heart and motives. This attitude betrays his legalistic heart and motives to disparage a work of God.”
Response C: “These books about Heaven are dangerous. ‘No eye has seen,’ and so on.”