The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism
and the Precipitation of the Missional Movement
Part Six: When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: Operating Systems of Legalism or License Instead of Liberty
Overview of Part Six
In Part Five we looked at five different ways of processing information – all of which have a unique realm of application to imperatives and principles and paradoxes in Scripture. I gave some initial analysis to show how those five epistemologies hold values that can keep us on track with liberty and freedom in Christ, or veer us off toward legalism (being rule-bound where Scripture isn’t) or license (being without bounds where Scripture is). In Part Six, we’ll conclude that exploration of legalism, license, and liberty.
Some Core Characteristics of Legalism, License, and Liberty
Systems for individual Christian living, and for living life together as Christians, really do sort themselves out into three basic approaches: legalism, license, and liberty. They’re “operational systems” because they capsulize our strategies, structures, and methods for the ways we operate in our everyday interactions. Here’s some of what those look like.
LEGALISM. In legalism, the individual Christian relies on external sources for how to be right and do right. These sources include authority figures and codes of behavior. The overall thinking in legalism is black-and-white. Thus, what are biblically considered to be “wisdom decisions” (where there is no specific command on what we are required to do) are collapsed into moral requirements or become dictated decisions of leaders.
We’re led to believe that we must follow these in order to stay in right alignment with the (supposed) authority structure ordained by God. (For instance, it is a true moral imperative spelled out in the New Testament that Christians should marry Christians. However, the spouse you choose is your own wisdom decision, not a pastor’s realm to dictate to you.)
Even if one’s motivation is righteous in wanting to please God and do “what’s right,” in legalism the only empowerment to follow the rules and the rulers typically comes from fear – fear of failure, fear of disappointing our leaders or God, fear of punishment. We should instead be relying on the Holy Spirit. Yet, the Holy Spirit does not empower followers of Christ to carry out the Law by means of the flesh; they are antagonistic to each other (Galatians 3:23-26; Romans 5-6-7).
When groups of legalists get together, they form communities of coercion through compliance. They are in bondage to rules and regulations (which runs on guilt if we do wrong), and they are in bondage to rulers and regulators (which runs on fear of those in power). And OF COURSE there are huge problems with sin in congregations of legalism, because, just as Scripture calls it in Romans 7:14-25, the Law stirs up sin – but the Law empowers nothing in terms of Christlike transformation. Legalism is impotent to instigate, empower, or sustain heart-level change. Sadly, many disciples think legalism is spiritual when in fact, it disconnects us from responsiveness to God, and plugs us into those who rule over us.
LICENSE. In license, the individual Christian follows whatever he/she thinks best, regardless of what the Bible may say. Too often, this can end up being just his/her fleshly desires. There are no internal or external restraints – at least, none are acknowledged or accepted. He or she is leading a life of hedonism, gratifying self under the guise of relying on God’s grace.
When I say “gratifying self,” that doesn’t mean it’s all such overt sin and immorality. License can also manifest in amorality. I remember my first college sociology course, studying anomie, which can be described as a state of being with no guidelines or social norms. That’s similar to the term antinomian, which literally means “against law.” And what passes as “following options and inspiration” may all sound good, as with the slogan of the Bohemians in the movie Moulin Rouge: “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love.” But, underneath, self-idolatry always leads from brokenness to even greater brokenness, and both individuals and communities are harmed thereby.
I’ve been in a church where key leaders functioned with no rules other than their own whims. It’s like they were addicted to their own ideas, and that made it turn out to be utter chaos for everyone! Nothing was ordered or predictable. Ultimately, that made it an unsafe, unhealthy place to try to be a disciple who follows Jesus. Instead, parishioners were jerked around by the latest, greatest, short-term scheme of the pastor. Eventually, it imploded, and a lot of people were harmed in the process. Have you ever had to endure that kind of chaotic, out-of-bounds church or ministry? If so, how did it affect your faith, your growth, and your relationships?
Licentious behavior takes advantage of God’s grace, and acts as if Christ is nothing and the Holy Spirit is absent. It becomes like the Old Testament days of the Judges where “everyone did right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25) or even “followed a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2). Whether the overall tone of license is immorality or amorality – still, the world (culture), the flesh, and the Devil all are default authorities in the life of a reputed Christian who is not following the disciplined life of a disciple of Christ.
When groups of licentious people dominate a society, that society is said to be in a “state of decadence.” These are communities of coercion and control through (ironically) lack of self-control. They are in bondage to themselves (which runs on lack of guilt, shame, or fear) and what they produce together is typically chaos. Even if there isn’t such overt hedonism in a church community, it can still run on a no-rules basis and perhaps eventually implode by succumbing to corrosion by chaos from the inside out.
LIBERTY. In biblical liberty, there is the paradox of both freedom and responsibility. The individual Christian is free to discern and decide what to do – self-determination – even if he or she willfully chooses to do wrong. I know there are a lot of people who don’t like that reality. I don’t … wouldn’t it just all be easier if we all conformed to righteousness? But – we’re saints yet sinners. We’re image-bearers yet broken. And the truth is – all Christians are believer-priests; there is no intermediary between us and God, and this includes any authoritarian leader who tries to dictate what we must do. We must decide for ourselves what we will do with the grace that has been gifted to us in Christ, and stand accountable.
And yet, it isn’t just all about us. True liberty must go beyond the concept of individual “soul competency,” which, in the extreme, can quickly degenerate into self-indulgent individualism and antinomianism. Instead, we need to see that freedom in Christ also includes being motivated by the Spirit and God’s Word to do what is best for the Body of Christ – not merely what might be desirable for one’s self – and yet not give in to mere conformity seemingly for the sake of supposed “unity.”
We truly are interconnected. There truly are ripple effects of consequences to others from actions we may think are done alone. This is one thing about “human systems” that the culture of the postmodern world seems to get, whereas the conventional modernist evangelical church … not so much. Too often, we treat the Body of Christ (both local and universal) as a congregating of otherwise isolated individuals who have a common interest, rather than an interconnected community of people with a common purpose to “live our faith and share our life.”
So, true liberty recognizes those connections between our self with God and one another. Together, we as disciples are the Body of Christ. Each individually and all together we are “in Christ Jesus,” a prominent term that, with a few variations, is used over 130 times in the New Testament, according to 19th-century preacher/teacher A.T. Pierson. (This is a small book I read almost 40 years ago as a young Christian in college, and it had a significant impact on my thinking.)
Liberty relies on internal empowerment through the Holy Spirit’s enlivening of truth in us to learn and do what is morally and ethically right, and also to make decisions that are wise. In a freedom-oriented church, there is external equipping by others, through teaching, insights, and the role-modeling of a life well lived. There is discovering one’s unique design, including spiritual giftedness, and developing those contributions so that Church and Kingdom can flourish.
Liberty in Christ is characterized by exercising discernment, responsible decision-making, and living with the consequences and connections of one’s decisions. In liberty, we do not enter or exit relationships lightly. In a phrase, Living in Christian liberty means striving for biblical balance and for maturity, individually and together. Neither balance or maturity or community are available through the rule-bound systems of legalism or the out-of-bounds systems of license. Disciples who live in liberty are bond-slaves to Christ and walk in alignment with the Holy Spirit’s leading (Galatians 5; 1 Peter 2:16) and along the way of Jesus with one another.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? Now we really are getting down to the nitty-gritty. I’ve tried to show how these operating systems directly affect our discipleship systems. I’ve looked mostly at how they affect us as individuals. And, without directly saying so, I’ve tried to show how they can shift our identity into idolatry – whether through legalism or license – and suggested some implications for how they impact others through us.
If legalism and license can do that to us as individuals, imagine how they could affect us as interconnected communities! Think of how they could sink any of the six post-Evangelicalism streams from connecting into a missional movement … or how they could corrode a liberty-oriented movement from the inside out through implanting destructive recombinant DNA into the spiritual core of the would-be collaboration, and multiplying it as a toxic movement.
This is serious stuff because the results of these often-invisible but irreconcilable differences could be disastrous! And to those potentially poisonous possibilities we’ll continue this series in Part Seven.
Thoughts on the Missional Movement – Series Links:
- Part 1 – Making Taxonomies in the Midst of Transformation
- Part 2 – Six Streams in the “Missional Movement”
- Part 3 – Principles of Paradox, and Magnetic Attractions and Repulsions in the Making of a “Missional Movement”
- Part 4 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: The Way We Process Information and What We Value Create “Irreconcilable Differences”
- Part 5 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: “Irreconcilable Differences” on Operating Systems for Discipleship
- Part 6 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: Operating Systems of Legalism or License Instead of Liberty
- Part 7 – The Big Picture of Features and Frameworks in Our Discipleship Systems – Approaches to Discipleship Access
- Part 8 – The Big Picture of Features and Frameworks in Our Discipleship Systems – Approaches to Discipleship Activities
- Part 9 – How These Frameworks Play Out in Our Overall Attitudes, Styles of Interaction, and Community Connections