bits from bob....

Legalism and Mediocrity

by Bob Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

The ultimate result of legalism is mediocrity-the desire to do only the minimum, a lack of motivation to go beyond that which is required.

Perhaps you have seen this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

In the church, legalism is a great temptation. First, legalism is a temptation for those who have a high regard for Scripture and want to do exactly what the Bible says. A focus on what the Bible says may fail to move to the second, essential question of what the Bible means and how the Bible is to be applied. Second, legalism is a temptation because once things begin to be done in a certain way, the inertia of fear and doubt sustains the tradition and works against change. Third, legalism is a temptation because it provides an easy control mechanism. It is easy to say "No" when the response is seemingly based on Scripture rather than on personal preferences.

Let me illustrate how legalism often takes hold. A new project is begun. Those involved use their insights and gifts to brainstorm, organize, and begin the work. Some process similar to this is the genesis of most church projects-new songs and slides in worship, new outreach projects, new small group structures. If the projects have their desired effect, the result is that more people begin to show up. New people, people with ideas, people who want to be involved, people with ideas that are challenging and different, ideas that require changing things. Those who were in on the ground floor feel ownership and are threatened by the new ideas and suggested changes. Turf issues surface, legalism rears its ugly head. When I want to maintain control, when I want to say "no" to new ideas, I find obscure biblical support for my hesitation. The shift is subtle: it is no longer "we have never done it that way before." It is rather, "God has never done it that way before." Now we have legitimate authority for our obstinacy. This transition to legalism is easy because most of us are legalists at heart-creature of habit who prefer sameness to change.

The Bible says that legalism leads to death. "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). But long before death comes mediocrity, satisfaction with the status quo, lack of motivation. No need for imagination-we are doing it the only way it can be done. No need for creativity-any change would be unbiblical.

Paul faced a similar problem when he wrote to the Galatian churches. The Judaizing teachers were presenting a "too hard" gospel, requiring things that went beyond the gospel. Legalism tends to do this-to make Christianity harder than it really is. On the other hand, Paul also warns the Galatians against a "too soft" gospel which replaces biblical liberty with license. Paul's addresses a spectrum of attitudes that run from the extreme of legalism, through the middle ground of liberty, to the opposite extreme of license. Paul solution is to affirm the truth of God's word, and to confidently reject the fear-based demands of legalism and the freedom-demanding tendency toward license.

Leaving behind the paralysis of spiritual mediocrity and fear requires a corrected emphasis. The emphasis is not on the written word, but on the living word. Later Paul writes, "For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5). Legalistic fear is overcome in belonging to Jesus and walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:24-25). This is the liberty of the Gospel.

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Last updated January 26, 2011