What Liberals and Legalists Have in Common....
At first glance, it might seem that religious Christian liberals and legalists couldn't be further apart. Their moral positions and proclivity to hurl insults at one another might make it seem like they have absolutely NOTHING in common...
Oh, but in reality, they do!
You see they both share a passion for focusing on and reacting to culture more than to Christ Himself.
Now I realize I'm on dangerous ground here and am apt to make some enemies, but hear me out. In Christ's day, these two groups also existed. In a religious sense, there were Pharisees who added a hedge to the law of Moses to protect it from being broken. They were reacting to the prevalence of sin in their culture. Today, they would be religious legalists by definition, those who focus on works and add to the law to make sure nobody breaks it.
Also in Christ's time, among the Sadducees, there were many who were more interested in a politically-correct view of the Roman government and a Hellenistic, partying lifestyle, than they were with being true to Jewish scripture. They wanted to compromise theologically. The focus was so much on enjoying physical pleasure today, as Romans did, that the Sadducees even denied the biblical teaching of the resurrection.
As is the case today, both extremes focused on culture--one to react to it by rejecting it with rules and the other to comply and appease it. The sad truth is that, while they were religious, the focus was on the culture and how to respond to it versus a focus on the Word of God.
Today, our challenge is to exegete both scripture and culture. We should know what God's Word teaches and be able to explain it clearly. This requires an understanding of culture, but not an extreme reaction to it. We should be willing to become "all things to all men" in terms of communicating the gospel (I Cor. 9:22). Still Paul would never have us compromise or alter the teaching of scripture to comply with culture. On the other hand, he would aggressively fight to prevent creating new rules or spiritual "laws" to prevent us from sinning. He would preach the word in a relevant way (See Acts 17, all of Galatians, and 2 Tim. 4:2).
Instead of this however, today we seem to gravitate to the extremes....
I suppose I don't need to give examples of religious liberal tendencies to support gay marriage, sex outside of marriage, abortion on demand, socialism, or other social positions. The evidence of their compliance with culture over scripture is pretty obvious. On the other hand, the legalists' obsession with culture might need more explanation. It's the obsession with the sins of culture over the message of Christ that produces the excesses of the fundamentalist/legalistic Christian right.
Why do these legalistic groups add to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles? Why do they condemn someone who has a glass of wine at dinner, goes to a dance, doesn't comply with their strict dress code or, (perish the thought), loves drums in worship? Why would some even refer to anyone who uses a bible translation other than the KJV, as a "heretic?" In every case, these pharisaic additions are a reaction to culture--a desire to build a moral hedge around the teachings of scripture to avoid sin or corruption just as the Pharisees did 2,000 years ago. Sadly, many of these churches would reject Jesus were he to apply to be their pastor because he turned water into wine and issued a bill of divorce to Israel prior to his earthly ministry (See Jer. 3:8 and John 2:1-11). Their zealous attempts to keep people from sexual sin, drunkenness, and other moral failure has led to rules on top of rules--a reactionary cultural rebellion that sometimes supersedes the actual teaching of Christ himself.
As a recovering legalist myself, I can add that the most dangerous effect of this is the ability to hide sin. If we focus on externals we miss or often cover the internal sins of the heart (Matt. 23:23). This is why so many leaders in these movements ultimately fall in dramatic ways. Their hidden sins ultimately become known (Numbers 32:23), but the beating-up-on-culture approach allows this to some degree. Most of us know the names of famous preachers who have fallen, but what's less known is that many thousands of small churches have lost pastors who preached "fire and brimstone" about sin--especially sexual sin--only to get caught in an affair, etc. All of us sin...the problem with legalism is that it puts the focus on reacting to culture's immorality with rules instead of promoting a dynamic relationship with Christ!
As New Testament believers, our focus should be on the Word of God, not adding to it or taking away from it. Our focus should be on Christ and HIS law (I Cor. 9:21) not on culture--including all of its good and bad elements. When we forget this, not only to we swing to extremes, we even isolate ourselves from Jesus and his love for the lost and desire to see them repent and grow. We also may find ourselves getting really good at avoiding certain external sins of the flesh while falling prey to sins of the heart, part of the repeated sad history of legalism.
The truth is, there's a wide road of grace between the ditches of legalism or liberalism. There is freedom with responsibility and a deeper relationship with Jesus, the friend of sinners, who himself was without sin. Let's choose to focus on Christ over culture in our teaching, outreach, and obedient service.
To that end,