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.