The Pendulum Swing: Legalism to Liberalism and Back

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Legalism and liberalism are both roads that lead to hell. And I truly believe it.

This may be a pretty bold statement but let me tell you why I feel compelled to make it. At the root of both legalism and liberalism is the belief that Scripture alone is not enough; it lacks the authority as the Word of God. Legalism says Scripture is not enough, so it seeks to add to the Word. It imposes on Scripture additional rules and limitations because salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is not enough; there needs to be more. Liberalism, on the other hand, says Scripture is too much, so it seeks to detract or take away from the Word. It softens the commands of Scripture and refuses to accept all of Scripture because salvation through faith in Jesus Christ seems too harsh, too limited.

What is interesting is that these two extremes feed off of one another, almost in a parasitic-type of way. Or, like I put it often to my husband, they hit against each other like a pendulum swing. Legalism reacts to liberalism and liberalism reacts to legalism. And the more they hit at each other the further away they go from each other and from the authority of Scripture.

As Christians I think it is our goal to stay in, what a seminary professor of mine used to call it, the center of truth. The center of truth affirms that Scripture is the Word of God and submits to the authority of Scripture. I think this is where most of us Christians reside. We want to be good exegetes of Scripture (drawing ones ideas from the text) instead of eisegetes of Scripture (reading ones ideas into the text).

Hermeneutic of reaction

Now going back to legalism and liberalism, these two camps have been around for a looooong time – centuries in fact. But I have been observing for some time that young “evangelicals” are being pulled into either of these two currents as if it is some new thing. What I want to caution evangelicals my age and younger, then, is not to get persuaded into a hermeneutic of reaction, interpreting Scripture through a reactionary lens of the tradition you grew up in or the one you dislike.

One popular example of this is Rachel Held Evans. In her book, One Year of Biblical Womanhood, she talks about the legalist tradition she grew up in, noting primarily the limitations it placed on women. The rest of her book is dedicated to reacting against legalism. But in her reacting she leaves behind core Scriptural, gospel truths, such as salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone. She writes, “I … am no longer convinced that everyone different from me goes to hell.” What happened to John 14:6 here? This is just one example of many in her book where she reacts so hard against legalism that she engages in a pendulum swing and goes to the other extreme. She trades one hermeneutic for another. She grew up in a tradition that added to Scripture; now she takes away or softens Scripture. In both cases the authority of Scripture is on trial.

Another example is that of a preacher I heard one time in church. He had witnessed many families destroyed by the abuse of alcohol, so he preached a sermon that forbade any drinking of alcohol and made it as primary an issue as salvation. He made a rule out of his reacting against those who abuse alcohol and imposed it on Scripture. Now salvation in Jesus was no longer enough, you also had to maintain an alcohol-free life to be truly saved.

I have heard some say, “Well I would rather err on the side of legalism than liberalism.” But my answer is, “I would rather not err on either side!” If you don’t think legalism is such a bad thing, then just read about all the encounters Jesus had with Pharisees and what he had to say about them adding to the Law. That might change your mind.

Remember my bold statement at the beginning? Look at Revelation 22:18-19. It says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” Basically both who add and who take away from Scripture will be left out of the new kingdom, also called the new Jerusalem.

My proposition is this: Let’s make it our aim to be in the center of tension of truth and to come under the submission of Scripture even if there is tension, even if we aren’t sure of a proper interpretation, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable. Sure, we will react to legalism and liberalism. (I’m doing it even now!) The difference is whether we are reacting out of a belief that Scripture is the Word of God and I am going to submit to it, or out of a belief that Scripture is too soft or too harsh and I, because I live in the 21st century, know better.

This is the first post of what I hope several that will take us even deeper. I would like to talk about: what are signs or red flags of legalism and liberalism; how do we stay in the center of truth; what are some interpretive guidelines to use when reading Scripture; how reactionary language can or cannot be helpful; etc.

So what are your thoughts or questions? Have you encountered either of these two currents?

Let me just say that it is natural for us to veer a little to the left or right of the center of truth in our interpretations of Scripture. There are primary issues and then there are secondary issues found in Scripture to which we can disagree but still be gospel-centered believers. But our belief of Scripture will determine whether we are pointed to the gospel which says salvation is in Jesus Christ alone or whether we are pointed away from this gospel and, sadly, to hell.

3 thoughts on “The Pendulum Swing: Legalism to Liberalism and Back

  1. Sheb V says:

    Kristen, so good! One of my professors in undergrad commented how Fundamentalism and Liberalism were both birthed out of the Enlightenment. I’ve definitely witnessed what you’re describing in my social circles: people in who grow up in very conservative or fundamentalist households who then go off to college or seminary, learn a couple things, become skeptical, cynical, and eagerly embrace liberalism more as a way of sticking it to their upbringing, and just like to throw stones at evangelicalism.

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