The new legalism doesn’t say ‘keep away.’ The new legalism says do more and more and the doing becomes the new law. Like with the old legalism, it takes a biblical principle and pushes it too far.
I have previously commented that we have a surprising problem with gospel freedom. More often than not, it isn’t what the Bible says that seems to cause us problems but more what it doesn’t say. We are prone to seeing our way of doing things as a good way (which it might well be). But what we consider a good way soon becomes the best way (which, still, it could be). Only, the best way quickly gets called the right way which, soon enough, becomes the only way that, in turn, becomes synonymous with a biblical mandate (at least, in our minds).
There is, sadly, a new form of this legalism on the rise. I say new legalism to distinguish it from the old form that we all claim to hate. The old legalism largely said keep away. Don’t do certain things and all will be well. It insisted on no cinema, no theatre, no drinking, no long hair and these sorts of things. As long as you are keeping away from A, B and C your righteousness is effectively in the bag. And most modern folks look at that and say, no thanks.
But the new legalism doesn’t say ‘keep away.’ The new legalism says do more and more and the doing becomes the new law. Like with the old legalism, it takes a biblical principle and pushes it too far.
Old legalism took good biblical principles of holiness and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (which is right and proper) and pressed them into all sorts of areas of life. The biblical command not to be drunk turned into a rule to never drink, the biblical principles surrounding modesty came with definite views on just what items of clothes could possibly be considered modest and a host of things like these. Right biblical ideas over-applied and over-reaching so that wider principles became rules and clear commands got extended well beyond the command itself. Again, most of us see these things clearly enough now.
But the new legalism takes a different set of principles and over-applies them. The new buzzwords are things like ‘missional living’, ‘community’ and ‘doing life together.’ Now all those things are rightly rooted in biblical principles. The Lord clearly commands us to be hospitable and welcome one another as Christ welcomed us. We are to spend time together and bear one another’s burdens (and all the other ‘one another’ things that demand we actually spend time together). The principles in which these things are rooted are thoroughly biblical. But the problem comes when those principles are pressed into rules that the bible simply doesn’t demand. It becomes a problem when we insist our ‘rules’ – good, or even best, as they may be for our specific context – are pressed into every context.