This post was previously published in March of this year. After several months of writing this post, I am still learning the same lesson I have reflected on below. Even if you are not a Christian, I hope you consider other people’s tastes and convictions when it comes to art and culture as we seek to enjoy this world together.
Legalism. The sin many Christians desire to avoid any association. No one wants to be remembered as the self-righteous taskmaster who rigidly binds his actions and attitudes—and usually those of others—to a set of absolute values and standards often based on a perverse interpretation of Scripture. Indeed, some of Christ’s main critics were legalists as were many false teachers in the early church. Christ and Paul address their stiff adherence to standards and their motives for these standards. They did not want to adopt a strict lifestyle because they wanted to please God; rather, they only wanted to compare themselves to other people, puffing up their outward spirituality when in reality they were as dead as tombs.
A couple of months ago, I have heard and read many sermons and articles about legalism and the dangers it imposes on the Christian faith. Interestingly, some of these sermons and articles also caution against license, the polar extreme of legalism. Both hinder the Christian walk as the former restricts our freedom in Christ to a set of rules more narrow than the Scriptures while the latter allows for unchecked freedoms to the point of being broader than the Scriptures. Many Christians swing to one side of the other on certain issues out of their response to these issues. Perhaps they grew up in a home dominated by alcohol abuse and gambling, so they refuse to allow liquor and playing cards in their homes and deem such activities as sinful. Others have been told wearing certain articles of clothing (pants on women comes to mind in the circles I grew up in) is sinful, so they dress rather distastefully when they find their new freedom.
Thus, I have been meditating on the subject of legalism, searching for its meaning and implications on the state of the church and even my own personal life. Recently, I have been reading Philip Ryken’s commentary on Galatians, and a clarification on my own personal issues with legalism became clearer. As a person who loves and studies art, my problem is not with legalism–my problem is with license.
I have grown up in conservative Christian circles and have seen legalism leveled at music, film, and literature. During middle school and high school, I heard many a sermon about the evils of rock and all contemporary Christian music, the dangers of movie theaters, and the sinfulness of reading books like the Harry Potter series. They told me avoid these things because they avoided these things. It made them more spiritual not to participate in them, I guess.
Yet, not all of these people have selfish motivations for their strict lifestyles. Many have sought with the same attention to thought and prayer as I have, and my own responsibility to love those who did not necessarily conclude the same things I did about art. For instance, many conservative Christians place personal boundaries on art based on their spiritual convictions to avoid falling into sin. Our freedom from sin to Christ to participate in cultural products he has redeemed for his sake also includes a new sensitivity to certain areas of culture, which some Christians believe might cause them to stumble. Thus, they place boundaries on cultural products, art included, to prevent the wounding of their conscience. I, then, show love to them by respectfully acknowledging their conclusions and restricting my participation in those activities that they find will hinder their walk.
The trouble occurs, however, when some extend their boundaries on other people. A pastor friend of mine compared this image to fence building, and analogy I will now adapt. For instance, I have built fences around my convictions, personal fences that I know I cannot cross because I know I will not enjoy it or will hinder my walk with Christ. I do not place fences around areas that I know that I am free to enjoy or participate in without compromising my walk with Christ. However, if I tell my neighbor to build his fences where I have built fences, then I have crossed into legalism.
Conversely, if I do not set up fences in certain areas of conviction and encourage my neighbor to abandon caution and do the same, then I have committed license. I mainly struggle with this issue. While I have sought the Lord’s wisdom and conviction in choosing which standards to adopt and have thrown off this rather burdensome yoke of unscriptural standards of life and art and have now embraced a life true Christian freedom, I often swing too far in the opposite direction of the legalistic standards I have been forced to adopt for most of my life, and I ignore the fact that sensitivity to certain cultural products still exist even within those who embrace Christian liberty.
For example, I remember my friend cautioning me after I recommended Pan’s Labyrinth to someone. She told me, “I don’t know, Stephen, I think that movie’s rather violent. I don’t think I could recommend it to a Christian.” At first, I was confused. Of course it was violent; it was a war film. Upon reflection, I realized her wisdom and my error. I had committed license, offering my convictions without thinking about others who do not share my convictions. While many people with conservative convictions only possess them to compare themselves to other men, a good number of them have those convictions because they truly want to please God. Therefore, I must exercise love and restrain the proclamation of my own liberty in conviction to those who do not hold these same standards.
Therefore, license can be just as binding and burdensome as legalism. Both ignore love of God and neighbor and the freedoms we have in Christ to participate or not participate in cultural products that he has redeemed for us to enjoy or avoid for his sake. Christ has called us to a life in which his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Paul also reminds of the wonderful new freedom we have in Christ through his grace and love. No set amount of rules or works can lead us to a closer relationship with him and with our neighbor apart from his matchless grace. Yet, this new freedom can become a new type of burden and bondage if Christians do not hold convictions for God’s or for their neighbor’s sake. Like Michael Horton encourages in his article, we need to ask the Lord for wisdom to demonstrate our Christian liberty in such a way that illustrates the love of our God and our neighbor.