legalism vs. witness: moral claims in christian discipleship
It can be difficult to navigate the tension between the danger of legalism and raising the expectation of Christian discipleship to a high level.
There is no place for legalism in Christian discipleship. All of our kingdom-oriented action is enacted out of faithfulness and gratefulness on the basis of what has already been achieved in Christ. But of course none of this means there are no imperatives in Christian discipleship.
I know that personally I have been accused of pedalling legalism. As regular readers would be aware, I am passionate about and active in areas of social justice. At times I have offered prescriptions as to what I believe are just actions as we attempt to live in faithfulness to the gospel in the world. These prescriptions occasionally lead to accusations of legalism.
In saying this, I would wager that the same accusers often prescribe different standards of, say, sexual fidelity. Not that I am against fidelity (in fact I think it is quite revolutionary in our consumer culture!), but it does beg the question as to whether some would view such fidelity as a form of legalism.
Whose legalism? becomes a relevant question.
What, then, is legalism? It seems to me that legalism is often a label directed at any moral claims that confront our own sense of morality.
In Christ there is the promise of a new world and a new way of life, given as a gift, but requiring our resultant faithfulness, even unto death. However like Peter we know what we are meant to do yet we are in denial – “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”
None of this answers the question as to what legalism actually is – it merely challenges our reasons for employing the label. Perhaps, after all, there is a subtle but important difference between, on the one hand, bearing witness to the life we have found in Christ, the life that the gospel demands of us, and on the other hand legalism.
Whatever “side” of the Christian spectrum we hail from, perhaps we need to do some self-reflection next time the moral and practical demands of another person offend us. Is it legalism, or a faithful testimony that brings into focus our Peter-like denial?
And what is legalism anyway?