Have you ever been in a situation where your view differed so drastically from the majority, or a leadership personality, that you felt as if you must be completely wrong? Perhaps, in that moment you felt the need to change a habit, mentality, or belief that has always been a part of your life, only to later realize upon further contemplation… you were only being pressured into uniformity by the narrow-mindedness of others.
Welcome to Social Legalism.
Within Christianity, Legalism describes a mindset that those who seek to follow Christ can only do so through an adherence to rules (or laws, hence “legalism”) imposed by the group of fellow Christians with whom they associate. Legalism is not confined to a certain sect within Christianity. You’ll find it in theologically conservative and theologically liberal groups who ostracize and demonize individuals who do/can not conform to their interpretation of the lifestyle a “believer” should display. I’ve come to realize, though, that this weapon of manipulation is common outside the Church as well. It’s no surprise that a practice within the Church that is far from the message of Jesus can also be found in the secular arena. Just as legalism within the Church naturally produces insincerity, Social legalism also leads to individual insincerity. Legalism ultimately delegitimizes the original message as its own hypocrisy is exposed.
It doesn’t matter what the issue is: Faith, Atheism, and anything in between can evolve into its own brand of social legalism. Social Legalism happens anytime an individual or group tries to impose a standard upon others that they themselves can not uphold. It inevitably turns to hypocrisy as the remedy, rather than admission of a broken system or belief.
As I’m typing this I keep thinking about folks who like to reminisce about the “good old days.” It’s often described as a time of better morality or a more simple era that is now lost. Except, when you look below the surface, you find that it was often worse than today’s societal moral standards. Other examples to this legalistic approach that results in a fake society would be the environmentalist movements, the “me too” movement, or the Socialist movements. While they all may have some good concepts, the leaders of those tend to be the most egregious transgressors of their own message… while trying to shame others who do not fit a lifestyle that they refuse to uphold.
So, bringing this back around as an application for followers of Christ…
A concept as foreign to Christianity as legalism should not be practiced by those seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus. At the end of a rebuke and condemnation of those who judged with their own brand of Social Legalism, Jesus stated:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” -Matthew 11:28-30
Does practicing your faith lighten your burden?
Jesus entered history and spoke to those who were involved in a restrictive and burdensome religion that had become so complicated and intertwined with politics and society that the only way to appear devout or socially acceptable was to fake it. The leaders were those who were better than most at faking it. Does this sound familiar?
Do you feel like a weight has been lifted, or do you feel increasingly constricted by a system that shuffles you into as many programs and projects as possible in order to sustain itself? Do you spend your time feeling burdened for yourself and your desire to conform, rather than conforming to Christ and feeling a burden to help others?
If you feel this way, rather than the way Jesus described, then maybe it’s time to rethink this complicated belief-based organizational entity we’ve formed. Maybe Jesus meant what he said, and following him is much simpler than what we’ve made it.