Given the increasingly common criticisms lobbed at orthodox Christianity in America these days, you’d think our culture was opposed to legalism; but don’t you believe it. A few years ago, while he was still the senior pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Tullian Tchividjian made a trenchant observation in an essay titled “Church, We Have a Problem”:
The one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). . . . Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. . . . We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license.
The world wants us all to be legalists, and on the whole, it doesn’t really care which kind. Put another way, the world wants us to be conformists. Some times and cultures favor “keep the rules” conformists, while others favor “break the rules” conformists, but what really matters either way aren’t the obvious rules being kept or broken. What matters is the deeper set of rules you aren’t allowed to question.
This is important to recognize when we talk about our individualistic culture. Yes, it’s individualistic in that it values the desires of the individual above the well-being of the group (hence no-fault divorce laws, to name just one example). It’s quick to praise self-expression and denounce “conformity”—though the conformity it actually denounces is any effort to conform to the standards of previous generations, which are now hopelessly passé. If you look a little more closely, however, you’ll notice that non-conformists run in packs. It’s great to be an individual and chart your own course as long as you’re an individual just like everyone else. Be “different” in one of the approved ways, and you’re golden. If you’re actually different from the world, though, you’ll be attacked—as, among other things, a conformist. And no, no one will see the irony.
Obviously, the world isn’t monolithic. It has factions—different groups that want different things and approve of different things. They’re rather like political parties. But just like our political parties, they only fight each other when there’s no common enemy. Introduce a threat to the system and the existing power structure, and they band together to defeat it. We see an example of this in the gospels. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians hated each other, but they teamed up willingly to kill Jesus because they hated him even more. As long as you’re in the system and belong to an accepted group, you might get flak from other groups, but you’ll be okay.
The key question from the world’s perspective is simple: are you a part of the system? Do you follow its rules and honor its priorities? If so, you might think you’re the one calling the shots, but the world is running your life. No matter how free you believe yourself to be, you’re under its management. For example, you might believe in working hard and living frugally, or you might live one paycheck behind and borrow from everyone in sight. Superficially, the difference between these two approaches to money is considerable, but both give their allegiance to the system where it matters most. Spenders and savers honor money in different ways, but they agree on its importance. That’s what the world really cares about.
(Excerpted, edited, from “Under New Management”)
Photo from Popular Science Monthly, vol. 53. Public domain.