Sunday, June 6, 2010

How (not) to use words.

One of the things I've been impressed with since studying at Erskine Seminary, is the desire of my professors to be Christian Scholars. Not only that they are scholars who are Christians, and not only that there scholarship is focused on Christian issues, but the way that they strive to do all of their scholarship in a Christian way. That is, they seek to represent their opponents fairly. They make honest efforts not to exaggerate claims. They undertake scholarship as a means to sanctification, not a means to publication.

Even in 'regular life,' that is, outside the world of academia, I've noticed the easy tendency to not represent others fairly when we disagree with their position. Even in the church this happens as we discuss the differences between various theological positions. Two words stand out to me which are commonly misused.

The first is the word "legalism." We all know legalism is a bad thing, and we are quick to pin the label on those we disagree with. But do we really know what it means? Technically, the word "legalism" means the belief that people are saved by keeping the law (of Moses). I don't believe I've ever met a Christian of any stripe who believes this. However, we often throw the word around in an informal way to describe anyone who we believe puts too much emphasis on obedience rather than grace and mercy. But I can tell you, I've been preaching through Ephesians, and Paul puts an awful lot of emphasis on living a holy life. Does this make Paul a legalist? Me genoito!! Paul believes firmly that salvation is by grace, but that the life of faith also leads to a life of obedience.

I propose that we take more care in using the label 'legalist.' Let's honestly appraise the full position of those with whom we may disagree, then give them the benefit of the doubt if we are uncertain. A zeal for holy living should not automatically be equated with legalism.

The second word is related, though opposite, "antinomiansim." This slightly less common word refers to those who believe that all forms of law have been abdicated by Christ, and that there is no expected ethic for those saved by grace. Those this careful definition is rarely used. More commonly, the word is thrown around in an imprecise, pejorative sense, as a label for those who emphasize our freedom in Christ. Again, in my experience, I don't believe I have ever met a true antinomian, who believes that the grace of Christ really can lead to any conceivable life. I have, however, met people who believe it is ok to drink beer. And more often than not, it is these people, who get labeled, by those whose convictions differ.

Again, I propose that we exercise more care, and more importantly, more Christian love in the way we discuss those with whom we may disagree. What scripture are they attempting to explain, understand, or apply, that we have not thought about as carefully? I believe that if we speak more carefully, it will not only help to demonstrate Christian unity, but also open our eyes to areas of sanctification and growth that we have hitherto be blinded to.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Jeff, this was a great post. A little legalnomian, but otherwise fantastic.

A few comments...

1. Loved this line: They undertake scholarship as a means to sanctification, not a means to publication.

2. I am teaching Galatians in an adult Sunday School class right now, and was just thinking about this issue concerning our use of the word "legalism."

3. One point for discussion, however. Isn't legalism often something that is caught rather than taught? Isn't it something that tends to work its way into the psyche even when our doctrinal statements state otherwise? Don't some very large denominations hide behind such statements, claiming to oh so gingerly walk the fine line, when in reality they are indulging all kinds of legalistic behavior? I've even understood that the Pharisees of Jesus's day might have been in this situation (you were with me when I learned that from Dr Cravens).