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Legalism is a common word in Adventist discourse. Whether certain evangelicals are calling Adventists legalists for talking about Sabbath or Adventists are calling each other legalists for various reasons, the word is a very common one in any discussion of Adventism. For that reason, we should address, what does it even mean?
What is interesting is that much of the time the word means different things to different people. Now please don’t read me wrong. I am not saying that there is no such thing as legalism. I am saying that we have to define it before we can discuss it.
I remember having a discussion about some issue a while back with someone. After much time I realized that we had different definitions of the core terms we were discussing. I believe this happens often in discussions about legalism.
So what do people mean when they say legalist or legalism? Well the first definition might come from Websters. Some people mean “Strict Adherence to a valid or invalid law.” A good example of this might be the 70 mile per hour speed limit. You are a legalist according to this definition if you say you must always fall under that 70 miles per hour. Some of us kind of fudge this by going 75 or 77 miles per hour. They are keeping the law, but strictly speaking are breaking the law.
Another example would be the people who say that you must keep the Sabbath from the very second the sun goes down on Friday till the sunset on Saturday. Some would say that is legalism. But according to this definition, it is legalism to condemn one for strictly keeping the Sabbath hours. Others would simply call this obedience.
Now I doubt many Christians would argue that strictly keeping a valid law is legalism. So the question at this point is not how strictly you keep it, but whether the law is valid or not. That brings us to our next variety of ways to define legalism.
Now the next way that some folks define legalism is to keep a law that is not valid. This seems to be a very common method of definition. The Evangelicals sometimes seem to use this argument. The Sabbath has been down away, so you are a legalist in keeping it.
Some Adventists use this against the folks who keep the feast days. The Adventist argues that it has been done away so you are a legalist if you keep it.
Sometimes it demonstrates itself in other ways. Like the folks who get accused of making up rules that you must follow. You are a legalist if you say make up rules about what you should or shouldn’t do on the Sabbath for example. Or whether Christians should wear certain things. Or whether they should or should not look at certain things on TV or at the movies. People are seen as legalist, according to this definition, if they do those things.
The key question is whether the law is valid. So the discussion centers around whether the law is valid if this is the definition of legalism that those who are having the discussion take.
Now the next definition is not about what you do or don’t do, but whether you attempt to hold others to your standards. So it is not in what you do, but in judging others by your standards. So you keep the Sabbath, this definition would call you a legalist to judge others by whether they keep the Sabbath or how they keep the Sabbath.
It is in the judging that makes it legalism in this definition. This does seem to be a common definition, but one wonders how one can suggest any behavioral improvement if any such suggestion is legalism?
The vast majority of Christians will judge folks by some law. Whether it is “love your neighbor as yourself” as our liberal friends would argue, or some other definition, we all believe that humanity should follow some rule or law. So really this makes all of Christianity legalists.
This is the definition used to keep or retain salvation through law-keeping. What is different about this definition is that it is about motive and not about practice. You may keep the law very strictly and precisely and not be doing it to gain or retain salvation.
Then again you may be keeping it very sloppily, but still believe that your salvation is tied into your sloppy keeping of that law. Then you are still a legalist according to this definition. Theoretically, it is possible therefore to be seen as “liberal” in practice and yet still be a legalist according to this definition.
In addition, it is not possible to really know who is or who is not a legalist according to this definition. I mean someone can look at you to see if you are strictly keeping a law, but one can’t know whether you are or are not keeping it to gain or retain salvation. So if someone calls you a legalist according to this definition, then you might want to ask them what number you are thinking because they obviously know how to read minds…
I didn’t write this to attempt to prove which is the valid or invalid definition of “legalism.” Words connect us to concepts. Discussing concepts is more important than battling over semantics. No, I wrote this to remind you that when we have our discussions that we often have very different meanings of core terms. It is important to understand what we mean by core terms before we can move on to understanding.
So, before you get in an argument with someone about whether you are or are not a legalist, it might be helpful to define what you mean and what the other means by the term.
but more than this, I think we Christians (especially Adventists) throw around that term with certainty. As with many issues, people “looketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
“We are certainly at the very end of time. We are seeing a converging of events that are unprecedented at this time. It all points to Jesus Christ returning in the next 5 to 10 years. Don’t you agree pastor?” The question came to me from an excited reader. The person sees Economic crisis added to earthquakes and other terrible events and the person is very sure this is the end.
And my answer, “It could be…It kind of looks like it to me…but I don’t know.” I don’t want to be glib about it. But after years of living through “signs of the end” like economic downturns including gas lines and misery indexes and Tsunamis and wars and crime and Y2K and all of these things, I begin to realize that perhaps gauging the end by crisis is not necessarily the right thing to do.
I guess, I don’t have a problem with anyone’s prediction that we are close to the end. But let us recognize that we don’t really know and could be wrong. I mean the Bible writer says that the writer was in the “last days.” (Hebrews 1:2)
So please come say it with me “I could be wrong.” That is not to say that I am wrong. Neither is it to say that you are right. But there is something truly liberating about realizing that one can be wrong. I guess if I am consistent then I could be wrong about the fact that I could be wrong, but we ain’t gonna think about that one right now…
At any rate, it is very difficult to have discussions with people who can’t be wrong. Often people who “can’t be wrong” are always attacking straw men. They are the hard core ideologues. Their ideology may be conservative, liberal, or even the lack thereof, but they know they are right and you are wrong.
Interestingly, it seems that a lot of discussions with Adventists go down that road. I don’t care if you are liberal, conservative, or even former. Many Adventists have this “I can’t be wrong” idea. I don’t know if it is from the “having the truth” or if it is from the “Sister White said.” But whatever it is, Adventists too often have a mindset where they “can’t be wrong.”
What is funny is when this mindset even carries over into things that they couldn’t know. I know someone who knows for certain that an herb will always heal you. Notwithstanding experience has proven that idea false, it is still something that one will fight you over. Then there are the ones who know for certain that various people are Jesuit infiltrators into the church. They can give you the names of infiltrators. I always wondered how can they so easily identify them if these infiltrators are so good at infiltrating?
Let us not forget the ones who are sure that the last great event in the world is a certain harbinger of the end time. A lot of them said that Y2K was going to be the end. Life went on past that non-event. I remember 1996 was supposed to be the end of the age. Using Ussher’s chronology 1996 was supposedly the 6 thousandth year of earth’s history. And time went on. All the way to the last “great recession” that was supposed to be the very end. What’s funny is some of the same folks predicted all of those events. And now they are still making predictions. Can we all just say it together….”I may believe it…but I Don’t Know.”
This I can’t be wrong mentality seeps into more discussions. In my interdenominational work, I have the opportunity to interact with people of many denominational groups. Some conversations are difficult to have. Whenever one has a conversation with one who can’t be wrong, then the conversation becomes more and more cumbersome.
I remember doing a presentation once on vegetarianism. The presentation was not condemning but informing. I presented the speech to a secular audience and had a very good but respectful disagreement and agreement. Some said, I made some good points but was missing some information that would be helpful. Some made some valid critiques of my information. The point was sharing of information.
While preparing for the presentation, an Adventist got wind of it and decided to let me have it. She told me I was a legalist teaching salvation by works and promoting unhealthy living (she alleged that I didn’t consider the need for protein). Please note that the presentation had nothing at all to do with salvation (which would probably cause some others to be mad at it), the Bible, or even how to eat. But one thing I learned early that some Adventists are hard to have discussions with about anything.
I know it ain’t just us. But I must admit that there seems to be a disproportionate number of Adventists who “know it all and can’t be wrong.”
I can remember at Vanderbilt as well having interesting discussions about theology where we shared our own positions recognizing that we can learn from each other. But conversation is difficult with people who can’t be wrong.
Some attack those with whom they disagree with a certainty from those who cannot be wrong. Perhaps we Adventists need to add a spiritual discipline to our Bible Study, Prayer, Fasting, Meditation. Let’s add a discipline of regularly saying “I could be wrong.” Let us say together “God knows….I think I am right…But I don’t know.” Ahh…wasn’t that liberating?
I was reading a blog post by one of my former classmates at Vanderbilt Divinity School on how pastors must deal with the ghosts of the past when attempting to lead a church today.
Much Adventist historiography paints the picture of a “glorious group of saints seeking desperately to be more Christlike while reading their Bibles to stay pure from the encroachment of culture in movies, music, and dress.”
There is a strong “us against the culture” orientation latent in much Adventist discourse. Even today when one goes to YouTube one can find various attacks on demonic culture from those with an Adventist background. Certainly we must recognize that the God against culture theme is embedded in even the New Testament. From Paul’s call to “Be not conformed to this world…” Romans 12:2. To his description of “Spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ephesians 6:12. They all point to God’s people facing a culture that is hostile to Christian values.
After accepting that culture must always be battled we often take the next step which is that in the past, we were much more effective at battling culture. We were more “peculiar” in the past. We were “more Adventist” in the past. We were more “recognizable” in the past. Some would quote Ellen White who speaks about a return to “primitive godliness.”
But today, in contrast, this mindset argues that we are unrecognizable to the world, according to the argument. We are less Adventist. We have chosen the demonic culture over against the spiritual values of our past. This mindset privileges the past with a godliness that is not here now.
Now I understand where this argument comes from. To be fair, it seems to me that the church seems to look more like the general public than it did when I grew up. The music is more like the general public as well as dress and the like.
I mean I remember arguments over whether to attend theater in my early years. I doubt that the theater is even a discussion today as most if not all go. To be honest, most of us have the theater coming into our homes through cables and even wirelessly into our computers. All piping movies that most Christians of all denominations would be ducking and hiding to see. But that ain’t my point. My point is that the mindset of “Spiritual us against the demonic culture” seems to have broken down.
It is a comforting call to go back to a time when we were allegedly more “Adventist.” I always wonder about calls to go back to the past though. Was the past really so great? Am I seeing only part of the past? Even my suggestion that Adventists look more like their non-Adventist neighbors might be conditioned by an orientation that privileges the past.
Look at race relations today and then look at the 50s, 60s, and lord help us the 1800s. Certainly we can’t say that the church of today is not better on this issue than in the past. I just give this as an example to say that we often ignore very important pieces when we glorify the past.
I don’t want to condemn those who long for the past. I really think it is a longing for “home” that is in all of us. In addition Adventists who were born in the Great Disappointment was supposed to usher in “home” have a very deep desire placed in our psyche for home. I want home. I want a place where all will be treated equally. I want a place where humanity seeks to become more and more like God rather than taking on attributes of the evil one. The more I define what I want…the more I realize that it is not in the past that we will find that, for it never existed. It is in the future of God’s coming Baselia.