Beyond Cynicism 2

Andrew Byers, in his very fine new book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. One of the reasons cynicism develops is legalism, and the cynic, when abandoning legalism, often ends up with a cynical substitute, but before we get there, let’s talk about legalism.

I begin with this: I know it from experience. Legalism is not believing in the importance of law or rules or authorities; it is not rules themselves; legalism is not even following kosher laws. More often than not, this sort of definition of legalism — equating it with rules — comes from someone who has been told to do something they don’t want to do. (As a teenager telling her parents that a 10pm curfew is “legalism.”) Legalism is any practice or belief that is added to the gospel that compromises the sufficiency of Christ as Savior and jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance. Another dimension of legalism is zealotry, the uber-confidence that comes from showing one’s radical commitment to God by going beyond what the Bible says and finding new rules that express that zeal and then living by and holding others under the scrutiny of those new rules.

Many of us have either been there, or gotten very close, or are on the verge of camping among the legalists. But what Byers finds here is that many who experience legalism react, and what happens is that they become antinomian, that is, they become people who delight in their flaunted freedom out of cynicism.

What is legalism? What about the above definitions? What about zealotry? Do you see the overreaction to legalism in libertinism? Where do you think the Christian church is today in these matters? Too legalistic or too libertine?

Byers says some things wonderfully in this chp. Here is a selection: He knows a time when “Spiritual activity amounted to spirituality.”  “Legalism,” he says, “is the attempt to gain spiritual standing before God by keeping religious rules.” And such a “performance-based approach to religious life spawns religiosity, moralism, ritualism.”

Here’s a zinger worth putting on your dashboard: “When we think we are most spiritual before God may actually be when we are most offensive to God” (52). Sometimes this applies to our practices, our self-awareness, our theological articulations, or our church affiliations. It’s that feeling of “I know I’m right” that might mean we are least right!

So what happens?Legalism often runs into the wall of reality and we suddenly think we are not only miserable but we’ve failed to live in the Spirit and have somehow caved in on learning to live in freedom. So we take it — zealot like once again and out of cynicism — to full bore freedom. That is, we get drunk on a cynical form of liberty. We do what we want; we do what others don’t want us to do because we can and because we are free in Christ. It’s a cynical moral posture.

Byers points out: this is rebellion against something. The legalism was a life of uber-conformity, and libertinism is the life of uber-nonconformity. The Bible is against legalism but it is also for righteous obedience and holiness and zeal for God.

"Thanks Michael,It was N. T. Wright's 'The Day the Revolution Began' reconsidering the meaning of ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"The genealogy of Jesus recorded in Luke 3 contains many historical men, going all the ..."

Adam and the Blue Parakeet (RJS)
"Chris--Sorry to say that there is no cheaper way right now. If you are associated ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Brian--Thank you. Or should I say thank you for your thank you. (But don't thank ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Chuck

    I know of no better antidote to these extremes than a life that is led by the Spirit of God. It is His Spirit, free to work in us, that promotes freedom from both legalism and libertinism.

  • Dallas Willard sums it up best in The Divine Conspiracy, I believe. His exposition of the Sermon on the Mount reinforces the contrast between being religious and following Jesus.

    Legalism focuses on the externals as the means to establishing a reputation or an impression or some other outward, obvious manifestation of one’s standing or status with God. The fulcrum of legalism is one’s status, whether with God or others, namely, “If you want to have favor with God, then you must…” The trick to this is that unless God is whispering in your ear, the only way you know you have God’s favor is if one of His representatives tells you so, whether it is a trusted spiritual leader, a celebrity preacher, or the little old ladies who teach Sunday School.

    The contrast and antidote to legalism as I understand Willard to mean it is that we have a direct relationship to Jesus Christ and we center our lives, not on an ethic or outward rule, but rather an inward transformation of our character. Instead of defining our goodness by not murdering people or committing adultery or breaking our contracts, Jesus takes us to a new level. Sadly, for many, that new level is only a stricter standard or rule, we now beat ourselves up because we shouldn’t get angry, shouldn’t lust, shouldn’t take oaths.

    Rather than a tighter legalism, Jesus stresses a difference in kind, not degree. The aim of his sermon is to point us in the direction of BEING the kind of people who don’t get angry without cause because we recognize the value of others, that don’t treat women as sexual objects but as people whom we respect, that don’t treat their word as something to be ignored or taken lightly but instead can be trusted to mean exactly what they say instead of seeking to persuade or influence others to their will. Any religious system or teaching that seeks anything less than the transformation of the inward heart is at heart a legalistic system, no matter what its proponents claim.

  • A lot of good points. I think we find too much legalism, and too much libertinism, all around us, all the time, not only in denominations and churches but within single individuals. Lots of contradictions. The “sufficiency of Christ as Savior and …the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance,” hits the nail on the head. That’s the balance. In terms of “righteous obedience and holiness and zeal for God,” I’ve come to read that as Wesley did, “there is no holiness but social holiness.” It’s how we treat others, and how we obey the two greatest commandments.

  • Susan N.

    From my cumulative life experiences with legalism, I understand and define it to be an obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with right belief in a set of doctrines, which are derived from a person or group’s interpretation of the Bible. The rigid practice of such beliefs serves to accentuate the difference from outsiders and to solidify belonging among the “in” group.

    Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that the Christian Church today is comprised of denominations ranging from legalism to libertinism, and all shades in between? Though, I would expect that legalists do not count more libertine denominations as “true” Christians 😉 Either extreme is not too healthy, spiritually or holistically, as I see it.

    In my younger days, I can cop to swinging far to the other extreme post-fundamentalist-legalism. I don’t recommend that approach to other young Christians! When the recoil involves cynicism toward God, one has truly been defeated. “Cynicism is a sickness” — agreed: a heart-sickness. But God is in the business of mending that kind of broken heart. With people, when one is vulnerable, it is prudent to take care in discerning who to trust. Develop a tough skin, without hardening your heart (inward condition manifesting as cynicism?) is the balancing act.

    If, OTOH, in one’s zeal for God, love for neighbor (or even indifference) is viewed as “optional”, the mark has been missed, IMO.

  • @Scott you write, “Legalism is not believing in the importance of law or rules or authorities; it is not rules themselves; legalism is not even following kosher laws.”

    I just want to throw my public +1 out there for the clarification. I liken it to N.T. Wright’s comments here,

    “To begin with, building on the startling call to holiness we just noticed, we notice right across the early Christian writings the notion that those who follow Jesus are called to fulfil the Law – the Torah, the Jewish Law. Paul says it; James says it; Jesus himself says it. Now of course, as we all know, there are many senses in which Christians do not, and are not meant to, perform the Jewish Law….

    But the point, once again, is not that the Law is a convenient moral guide, ancient and venerable. It is that the Torah, like the Temple, is one of the points at which heaven and earth meet, so that, as the Rabbis taught, those who study and keep Torah are like those who worship in the Temple. And the early Christians are encouraging one another to live precisely as points of intersection, points of overlap, between heaven and earth. Again, this sounds fearsomely difficult, not to say downright impossible. But there is no getting around it.” – N.T. Wright

    So I think there is a need for the christian politic to move forward with this divine sense of “intersections” where heaven meets earth; and that, not in a form of legalism or libertinism. Rather, freedom.

  • John M.

    I hace certainly observed the rebound from legalism to libertarianism. The reality is that I have lived it… Now I struggle personally to overcome the “sickness” of cynicism that is being described.

    Regarding the state of the cnurch in the U.S., I think Steve in #3 nails our situation. As an institution, and many times as individuals we are schizophrenic and contradictory, practicing both Legalism and
    Libertarianism in different compartments of our thoughts, attitudes and actions.

  • Thanks for the great comtent, my first time on this site, and I really enjoy it! This site is great to explore the deeper areas of my fath!

  • Joe Canner

    In my experience, a practical definition of legalism is the requirement that you master those sins that I have mastered or those sins that I have never struggled with. In other words, legalism is a means of helping us to feel good about ourselves by setting standards that we can easily meet, regardless of whether others can meet them or (more to the point) whether they bear any resemblance to God’s standards.

    Another aspect of legalism has to do with how we approach salvation. It is insisting that someone change their behavior in order for God to accept them into His family, rather than insisting that they be willing to change and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in them. (This is mostly a lay-person restatement of Scot’s bolded definition in the 2nd par.)

  • MatthewS

    These words have the ring of truth and real-life experience.

    I grew up in a system that most would call legalistic, some say it has some cult-like tendencies. “Higher standards” was the never-ending tune. The strong, charismatic leader was the real source of truth.

    I believe part of what happened in that system was that people accepted the idea of being saved by grace but then felt they needed to take charge of their sanctification from there. There is a freedom and joy to living your life from a place of being accepted and loved by God, and loving him in return. There is fear and guilt, and eventually disillusionment, when you are driven by the need for ever-higher standards, more separation, more discipline.

    Exactly as Byers says, legalism tends to run into the wall of reality. It intrigues me that for some people, that never seems to happen. Some of the rest of us got to be crash-test dummies against that wall! And yes, the swing to uber-nonconformity can be a real temptation.

  • John Mc

    Legalism, when applied to others, is often nothing more than judgmentalism, and when applied to the self, is often the substitution of mechanical rule-compliance for an authentic relationship with God.

    I know this is tangental to the discussion but it occurred to me as I read the comments above about the application of Torah to Jews and Gentiles. I wonder if we miss the point of Torah when we ask whether Gentiles should be subject to it. We condemn adherence to Torah as legalism and we condemn Pharisees for their seemingly blind compliance. But the fact is the Torah was both an instrument of religious compliance and social cohesion, intended in some respect to speak to religious/spiritual/moral/ethical concerns and in other respects to building and maintaining social cohesion among the Jewish people, wholly unrelated to religious/spiritual concerns. We need to separate out these two kinds of prescriptives to better understand what the New Testament community was seeking to accomplish in its teachings about the New Israel and the notion of adoption into the people of Israel. It may also soften our judgment against Pharisees while at the same time offer a more complex understanding of how Jewish Scriptures should be construed and applied by Christians.

  • JohnM

    I think “the attempt to gain spiritual standing before God by keeping religious rules” suffices as a definition for legalism. From there, a few observations:

    a. I agree with SusanN (#4)about the range of denominations and either extreme being not too healthy.

    b. Though I’m inclined to think ours is a libertine generation, I also think the general tendency in every generation is to err in the direction of legalism in some form.

    c. In fact,consistent with the definition of legalism above it is entirely possible to be libertine and legalistic about it.

    d. We should use the terms legalism and libertinism sparingly. Too often “ism” is a label in lieu of an argument.

  • DRT

    Is it legalistic to mandate that someone has to “believe in Jesus” to be saved? I think so.

  • DRT

    Sorry, did not mean to post that.

  • Cynics by definition act as if they are omniscient. Since they “know for certain” all future contingencies are bleak, they despair. The only one who knows the future is God and He says hope is integral to Christian maturity.

    (From a recovering cynic)

  • I’m not sure that definition of legalism is complete. From my experience, it also includes a loss of individual autonomy, a feeling of ownership by an institution, a sense of performance to find self-worth, a psychology of wanting to belong, a fear of ambiguity which is really a lack of feeling loved. I’d also want a definition that can pre-date Jesus (since legalism pre-dates Jesus). I’d also want a definition that can include not just the Spirit in moral guidance, but Scripture, common sense, philosophy, art, and ethics. My legalistic experience meant a narrow epistemology of how things can be known and so arrive at mostly laws (the result of the epistemology) to feel a safe haven.

    I’ve found also that less mature Christians are more legalistic than more mature ones. For mature ones grow into love and discover the purpose of laws and tradition and harness their meaning. A legalist follows laws for their own sake to please someone else or to clear their consciences. In my college, I was told we had rules against listening to music with a drum beat so that we could put our head on our pillows with a clear conscience. But that worked against itself. For the music didn’t give me a bad conscience, but knowing I broke the rule (which they told us God ordained through the institution we were to obey) did give me a bad conscience.

    Byers assessment of going from legalism to freedom, carried along by cynicism is something I’ve seen from experience. But I’m unsure if it cynicism is always the right word. Or that it’s negative. When you find yourself in a dark cave, you are seeking to find the light… and being suspicious of any new corridor on the cave may be a self-preservation rather than a voice. I’ve seen cynicism set people free. I’ve also seen cynicism become a deeper reaction against pain (far more than legalism) to keep one at bay from future relationships (which equals more pain).

    I’ve also seen people take one form of legalism and exchange it for another. For example (and sorry to be explicit here)… I’ve watched a pattern of my independent fundamentalist baptist friends shrug off the “legalistic” trappings of “no drums in music” and “women cannot wear pants” and “alcohol is the devil’s drink” to embrace the legalism of the neo-reformed camps. In other words, the social sins were the “legalistic” parts. Yet for many, the same attitudes and psychology is there (as I listed in the first paragraph) because the legalistic criteria never changed… only updated. They claim to be “free” because they didn’t have to change their core beliefs or narrow epistemology about pleaseing God.

    I’ve never found walking toward Freedom to be that much of a help. Freedom is built on something else…. truth and love. Truth guides us, and love, among other things, gives us safety to be wrong so that we can find out what is right. Legalism tries to trump truth and love with it’s new set of definitions (promising peace and safety and stability), skewing both truth and love into objects difficult to recognize and hardly the brand that leads to the freedom Jesus promised. If you are not free, you don’t have the truth or love (to paraphrase Jesus).

    Sorry for the long comment. I spent many long years in legalistic abuse and it was like navigating a fog blindfolded to get out.

    The libertine comments will have to wait for another time. 🙂

  • Fred

    Dave Moore

    That’s abunch of crap. Sorry, just the cynic in me coming out. I loved the definition though. I may just memorize that one.

    Also a semi-recovering cynic.

  • At the ill-legalism web site, we found it somewhat difficult to define legalism, but we did come up with some tips to help recognize it since it reaches beyond rule keeping. Perhaps these are helpful to the discussion:

  • Rose Marie

    Justin made this comment: So I think there is a need for the christian politic to move forward with this divine sense of “intersections” where heaven meets earth; and that, not in a form of legalism or libertinism. Rather, freedom.
    While I agree that he makes perfect sense, doesn’t legalism followed by cynicism happen because we find it so difficult to conform to God’s holiness standard and at the same time feel free? We may want to do well but find it as difficult or more difficult than the Apostle Paul says it was for him. Somehow this usually doesn’t feel like freedom. Others may be able to describe how they feel free. For me it is just checking with my Lord and feeling remorse when I don’t do it and feeling okay when He doesn’t condemn by his Spirit. Sounds hokey. Can anyone else make it plainer? And the real kicker for me is that I have to continually check. Again not exactly freedom in the American or Western sense. I have had to give up my life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

  • alison

    I think there is often a mental health (or lack thereof) component involved with legalism, such as OCD or scrupulosity. I’ve never looked at legalism as a way to improve on what God has done, but the goal of a lot of churches is to make us doubt ourselves and, by doing that, they plant that seed that we have to live up to God’s expectations or He will “get us.” I don’t attend a church like that now, but still just listening to most sermons will almost push me over the edge.