Legalism, fear, and ignorance: these three words represent tendencies and orientations that none of us would like to own up to, much less that Christians would want to admit to. Sadly, however, the members of this trio are all too frequently cited by outsiders as reasons that Christians are phoney and that the Christian church is bankrupt. What is more, my experience is that these three tendencies and orientations are often found together, so that where one is present, the others are likely there also.
Addressing these three opponents to right Christian living and to the full and persuasive presentation of Christianity is an essential “first-step” to a program dedicated to promoting a high level of satisfaction for Christians, relative to their beliefs, and consequently for Christian beliefs to appear more legitimate, and even compelling, to those outside of Christianity.
Legalism fills the void when we have not developed the necessary, productive skills to navigate the complexities of living in our world. In other words poor assumptions, like the “requirements” of the Christian life being clear and the “process” for living it being obvious, lend themselves to creating a law-based system of behaviours and norms based upon those perceived requirements and processes. Yet instead of addressing situations or events that require decisions, the main goal of legalism is to keep us safe by identifying who is “like us” or “in our tribe” and what behaviours or ideas are acceptable or match our community’s. So legalism appeases fear, and fear drives legalism.
Fear—and precisely an unconscious but deep-seated worry that Christians must out-argue opponents and that “good Christians” always defend Christianity (and do it successfully)—can become the guiding disposition that blocks our ability to cultivate the positive dispositions that allow us to engage well with God, others, and especially with ourselves. Only a posture of openness and vulnerability allows us to adapt to the requirements of opposing dispositions (such humility and confidence, love and truth, trust and suspicion, etc.). Yet this is impossible when fear reigns, especially when we are unconscious of it. In this way, fear is linked to ignorance and ignorance can perpetuate fear.
Ignorance exists if Christians have not developed the habit of accumulating knowledge relevant to both Christian faith and human life. Indeed, where Christians believe that they already have all of the resources needed to live life well and understand the Bible correctly, ignorance can be self-perpetuating because we “settle” for our opinions (and those of our church or our pastor). This can become a system of minimal information that never challenges us but merely affirms what we already hold to be the case. Where ignorance is based upon biblical understandings, it automatically includes the further misunderstanding that salvation is more important than—or superior to—creation.
Together legalism, fear, and ignorance create a monoculture where Christians become “boundary-focused,” carefully policing who comes into the fold (and where and how long they stay), and where Christians are unable authentically to connect with outsiders (and instead simply engage in “cross-talk” and dispute).
So what can be done about these three opponents?
First, we recognize that legalism, fear-based living, and ignorance are enemies to a Christian way of being—they prevent Christian maturity and so undermine the potential for Christians to live abundantly (or “to flourish”).
Second, we recognize that legalism, fear-based living, and ignorance in the church are the natural result of some rather common poor assumptions and misunderstandings. This means that unless we have taken active steps to work against them, I must acknowledge that they are almost certainly present, to some degree, in my life!