To many if not most, “legalism” is a dirty word. Part of my own distaste, frankly, stems from the fact that I don’t like being told what to do, and I know that I’m not alone in this. Unfortunately, it’s also possible to drape that distaste with a bit of gospel bling. I’m no legalist–that’s for Pharisees! I’m a Christian, because I believe in grace! But too simplistic an opposition of law and grace, of legalism versus Christian freedom, can lead to some interesting twists.
Imagine this: in a flush of spiritual enthusiasm and supposed wisdom, some men in the early Corinthian church seem to have believed that the gospel gave them carte blanche in matters of sexual freedom. Here’s part of the passage in question:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Cor 6:12-13, NRSV)
This is the pastoral problem of confronting cultural values and practices that have not yet been transformed. Paul could simply lay down the law–but that would do nothing to correct the Corinthians’ distorted thinking. Notice the quotation marks in the text: not all translations have them (e.g., CEB, NASB), or may locate them differently (e.g., NIV). The general surmise, though, is that the Corinthians have adopted certain slogans, a kind of bumper-sticker theology that justifies their sexual behavior; the quotation marks show Paul tossing their slogans back at them in order to deconstruct them.
Whether Paul is directly quoting them or not, the Corinthians have probably taken something they’ve been taught and twisted it in self-serving ways. Reading between the lines, it appears that some have seized the idea that grace means a radical freedom in which they are free to indulge their bodily appetites. (More on that in a later post.)
Paul counters their slogans, but doesn’t argue directly with the statement that “All things are lawful.” Nor does he have any interest in imposing some new and improved Christian version of legalism (even though we, feeling the need of clearer boundaries, often impose them upon ourselves or others). With a backward glance at his Jewish heritage, Paul’s Christian teaching is that righteousness does not–indeed, cannot–come by the law. But that does not mean casting moral discipline to the wind.
It makes me think of Paul’s earlier comments about their spiritual immaturity, and the struggle that parents go through every day as their children grow. When children misbehave, we discipline them and teach them rules. But we don’t want to chase them around for the rest of our lives, laying prohibition upon prohibition. In the context of a loving relationship, we want them to begin internalizing the rules, to become self-disciplined and capable of making their own good decisions.
I doubt that there are many Christians today who would say that they are free to do as they please. But I suspect that we have an ambivalent relationship to moral rules. For us, as for the Corinthians, Paul has a larger vision. More on that in subsequent posts.