Beware of Backdoor Legalism

Last week, during an apparent display of debauchery at the Grammy’s (I don’t usually watch award shows. It’s just not my thing. Other folks feel that way about NFL football, which I love). This caused award-winning singer, Natalie Grant to walk out. She was, from all accounts, not self-righteous or judgmental about it, but just posted a simple explanation about it on her Facebook page.

Of course, this action provoked conversation online, on Twitter and in blogs. Perhaps the most prominent reaction is Laura Turner, who clearly disagreed, writing in her blog for Religion News: “But reading about her decision to leave early and then publicize that decision sounded to me just like the self-righteousness of those people who couldn’t hear a swear word without their faith being threatened.” Now I respect Turner’s instincts here and I have those same ones myself. Christians have, at times, developed an isolationist bent, a sort of fundamentalism that rejects any thoughtful engagement with the world. This inward inpulse has often put us on the same side as the Pharisees who couldn’t entertain a Savior who hung out with the very people he came to save: the sinners, the needy, the sick.

But there’s something in Turner’s blogs and in the comments of other evangelicals that gives me pause. I wonder if we’ve traded a grace-sucking isolationism for a worldly sophistication that has almost no filter for good and bad. I wonder, at what point, would evangelicals who mocked Natalie Grant, at what point would they have walked out? Is there any kind of display that would offend their sensibilities, that would cause them to feel in their heart that they could not sit and watch another minute? We might say no. We might say, “well, Jesus endured the depravity of sinners to win them.” And we’d be right about Jesus, up until the point that he called out sinners for, you know, their sin. I imagine if a Christian told an adulterous woman to “go and sin no more” the progressive blogs would consider Jesus a tightly wound fundamentalist who didn’t understand grace. But this is what Jesus did. And notice Jesus’ interaction with Zacheus, the cheating tax collector who was despised by society for his sin. Yes, Jesus resisted the hyper-spirituality of the religious leaders, yes Jesus was willing to be called a glutton and drunkard for his interaction with sinners. But here’s the difference, I think, in what Jesus did and what some evangelicals want to claim Jesus did and use for cover. Zacheus came away from Jesus repentant. He gave away all that he had stolen. In other words, there was no ambiguity, after his time with Jesus, about the depths of his sin. Jesus dinner with the tax collecting cheat wasn’t just hanging out and ignoring injustice. It was a confrontation between light and darkness. Grace only enters the soul that needs it. And so if there is no recognition of sin, there is no need for a Savior.

So getting back to the Grammys, we can disagree on what kind of displays merit walking out on. We can disagree on what kind of displays we will endure for the sake of gospel witness. But let’s not tag Natalie Grant with a kind of unenlightened Christianity that makes those who might not have walked out a bit more hip and enlightened. Let’s apply the spirit of 1 Corinthians 8 and not flaunt our liberated hubris in the face of a deeply convicted sister in the Lord. Let’s remember that Phariseeism isn’t constrained to one side of our internecine debates about culture. There is a high-minded pride in some precincts of evangelicalism that is as vicious as anything the fundamentalists bring. Legalists are the last to know they are the ones in the wrong.

And in fact, what Natalie did may have been courageous for a number of reasons. For one thing, you can protest and withdraw from certain activities without being judgmental. I’m guessing even the most enlightened, permissive hipster evangelical would have a line over which he or she would not cross. You wouldn’t have to dig too far to find a display that would provoke them to walk out in protest. It’s just that they hold their line to be more sacrosanct than Natalie Grant’s line. Second, you can protest a display of debauchery out of love for neighbor and society. To truly love your neighbor is to want the best possible environment for their flourishing. It could be that it saddens Natalie Grant to see beauty and art reduced to sexual deviancy. Maybe by walking out, she’s fighting for the community she loves to embrace a more healthy, wholesome moral center. Third, there is something to keeping oneself, “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Even as we carry the gospel into the darkest places, where evil lurks, we must also have certain places we just cannot go for the sake of moral purity. For instance, I remember the story of an evangelist who intentionally put tracts in between the pages of pornographic magazines. His selling point was that this was how people reading those would find Jesus. But the threat of viewing the images in those magazines and shipwrecking his faith was more serious than his call to evangelize the lost and fulfill the Great Commission. In fact, you might say that his insisting on putting tracts in pornographic magazines belies a lack of faith, as if the rules have to be broken in order to obey Jesus. Better to trust the sovereign God of the universe to reach those people than to compromise your morality.

The bottom line: Legalism is a threat and Christians should avoid it’s ugly tendencies. But there is a backdoor Pharaseeism that’s just as pervasive, only it hides behind a veil of cheap grace. Let’s beware this too.


Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He previously served five years as Senior Pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church. He is a contributor to Leadership Journal, Homelife,, Stand Firm,” and a variety of other evangelical publications. He has written several books, including his latest, Activist Faith.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

10 thoughts on “Beware of Backdoor Legalism

  1. This is well put, Dan. Moderation is always more difficult than one extreme or the other because it calls for judgment. It is so much easier to be reactionary, one way or the other.

  2. I think you are misreading Turner if you think that what she was doing was mocking Grant.

    What I believe Turner was doing was reflecting on how our own actions are received through social media when we react to culture. I think it was fine for Grant to leave (although many Christians stayed and Grant is not exactly new to the secular music world so she probably had an idea of what was going to be going on at the Grammy's). I agree there is definitely a line that we all have where we would, or should, walk out of something. But what we put on social media says something. It is the speaking about leaving that I think was the mistake. What benefit to Christ's mission is it to speak about leaving the Grammy's?

    The Evangelical part of the church has an strange and often unhealthy relationship to culture. And I think that both Turner and Grant's response didn't do enough around that part. Grant was there to get a secular award (she hoped) for her music. So she (and most others) want recognition. But we don't think much about the way we are tainted by that interaction with culture. Personally I think a bit of taint from the culture that surrounded the Grammy's is worth the interaction. But that is me.

    (by the way your sign in system doesn't like non-standard urls. It wouldn't post this until I removed as my website.)

    • Adam, I stopped reading the rest of your comment when you misrepresented Dan as "mocking" Grant. He never said that nor implied that. Rather, Dan identified with and respected Turner's instincts to a great extent. He only used the word "mock" in a later paragraph, and not in correlation with Turner.

  3. I know it became cliche in the 90's, but let's ask: What would Jesus have done? Would he have set through the ceremony, unable to speak and minister the gospel? I don't think so. I don't think he would have been there.

    We're in a weird place culturally, which is affecting how the Church views the world as well. Culturally, we've accepted the idea that if I disagree w/ you, I hate you, and to love you means to accept all that you do. Jesus did neither of these things . . . and we are called to be like him. Called out, Separate in identity and actions, not isolated, but identifiably different than the culture around us. How else can we be salt and light?

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  5. I appreciate this a great deal, Dan. At the end of the day, Natalie had to do what she had to do–and I can't presume to know what was on her mind. If the show was causing her enough trouble that staying would have been a bad decision for her, then I'm glad she left. I suppose I just wonder what she expected from the Grammys (they aren't family-friendly entertainment) and, if she had to go, then I wish she wouldn't have publicized her decision to leave.

    But thanks for engaging graciously even in disagreement.

    • Thank you Laura! I appreciate the dialogue on this issue. These are tough things to think through–not always black and white.

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