Secular or religious, legalism occurs in unique forms in every culture. Religious legalism involves the belief that salvation or sanctification can be gained through personal good works. Secular legalists judge theirs or others’ conduct by their adherence to particular laws or standards. I was raised in the south. There is southern secular legalism. There is southern religious legalism. I now live in Seattle. And there is much legalism here. It surprised me – leaving southern, religious legalism, I simply did not expect the legalism I’d find in the Pacific Northwest. But it is alive and well in Seattle in particular. In the secular form, there is a strong belief in moral improvement. They may define morality a bit differently than in the south, yet their version of morality is still laudable. Environmental responsibility. Care for the poor. Racial reconciliation. And they are very good at judging others based on how well they adhere to those high standards. But the Pacific Northwest religious legalist is most interesting–and disturbing–of all.
We’re cutting edge. We’re cultural. We have cool music. But we are as legalistic as anyone anywhere. What really separates us in disturbing ways is that we preach against others’ legalisms, picking at the speck in their eyes, with complete ignorance of the beam in our own. Some people are legalists because they value legalism. They want to be moral, and they think they can be moral on their own if they are really diligent at it. That’s fair. Wrong, but fair. But when you, in theory, know from Scripture that you can’t be moral on your own and you can recognize the inept attempts of others to earn their righteousness on their own, and yet you miss it so clearly in your own life, it is the epitome of Matthew 7. And Christ warns against it in STRONG terms. Don’t do this!! Don’t diagnose the problems in others’ lives while missing the ones in your own. It doesn’t work. It’s destructive. Christ warns us against this for a very good reason.
The grand hallmark of all religious legalism is that the legalist never realizes that the greatest threat to his morality is WITHIN HIMSELF. So he (or she) warns against particular elements of culture or the negative influence of certain types of people. He/she (me) doesn’t recognize personal pride as the greater evil that destroys even the isolated one living within strict cultural boundaries. It’s why The Village is such a great commentary on religious legalism. No matter how hard they worked to cut themselves off from the world, they couldn’t protect themselves from the evil within themselves.
Run, friend. Run hard. Run fast. Away from the Christian leader/speaker/preacher who preaches harder against the culture without than the sin within. He or she is leading you astray, and the false sense of accomplishment you get as you “discern” the evils of society will distract you from the sin that will destroy you, the proud self-righteousness within that mocks the cross (because it makes you think you don’t need the cross as much as the next guy) and which God despises. Pride destroys. Despise it. Beware of it. Run from it. Diagnose why it invades your psyche. It reveals the worst theological belief system possible – the one that says my greatest enemy is the culture outside the walls of my safety zone. Because in that system, YOU don’t need Christ. THEY do. And that mentality will suck the life out of you. Your good choices won’t save your children. Your involvement in a certain ministry won’t gain you spiritual blessings. Your adherence to your church’s marriage class methods won’t guard your marriage. Your strict book reading guidelines won’t heal you, your spouse, your kids, or your relationships. Your morality won’t save you. Only Christ will. Get it straight. And be very wary of others whose attempts at morality apart from Christ alone distract you from abiding in Him.