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Will The Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – Judging Culture

Christians often imbibe facile and unhelpful definitions of legalism. One of these is the idea that legalism is the act of judging the meaning cultural phenomena, or to put it another way, the act of judging the meaning of things in our world.

Christians live in the world, and therefore Christianity is to be lived out in the world. Christians live in a world that is full of meaning, because it was created by an intelligent Creator who invested it with His intended meanings, and because it has been fashioned and shaped by intelligent creatures who have fleshed out their understanding of its meaning.

Meaning is everywhere. Wedding ceremonies have meaning. Eating at a dinner table instead of eating a TV dinner in front of the box has meaning.  Meaning exists in churches with high arches, as it does in churches with flat ceilings lit with fluorescent-lights. The colors worn to funerals have meaning. The music played at Arlington National Cemetery has meaning. A mini-skirt has meaning, as do ties, earrings, sunglasses, tatoos, and lip-stick. Having a cell-phone has meaning, as do the paintings on your wall. Your choice of words has meaning, as does sculpture and painting. Economics has meaning, as does your choice of car.  Everywhere they turn, human beings give the raw materials of creation meaning, or discover that they already possess meaning. We are intelligent beings created in the image of an intelligent God, and it is in our nature to shape or interpret the meaning of  our environment, whether or not we are always conscious of those meanings.

Sometimes these meanings exist purely because they have come through use. In South Africa, there is a mini-language used by commuters who catch mini-bus taxis. It consists of holding up a certain number of fingers held in a certain direction that indicates your desired destination. Taxi-drivers and taxi-riders know the meaning of this ‘language’, a system of meaning that arose purely through use.

Sometimes these meanings exist through association. The ‘rainbow-flag’ is now associated with homosexuality. The living-dead look is associated with Gothic music. Whether the meaning created the association, or whether the association created the meaning is debated. What is clear is the practical result: the shoe fits, and the current meaning-by-association exists.

Sometimes these meanings exist because there is something intrinsic in the thing which dictates what it can or cannot (or ought not) signify. Darkness comes with some meanings inherently opposite to those of light. Loud sounds inherently communicate differently to soft sounds.

Whether people correctly perceive these meanings does not make them non-existent. If I am in an elevator and three Bulgarian men are mocking my clothing in Bulgarian, my blissful non-comprehension does not mean their conversation lacked meaning. Perception of meaning does not affect its existence. It is post-modernity to suggest that meaning is in the mind of the interpreter alone.

In a world full of meaning, it is up to the church to understand the meanings of things around them. Scriptural principles must be applied to life in the world. The only way this can be done is if the truth of life in the world is connected to the truth of Scripture. In other words, we need to know both the meaning of Scripture, and the meaning of the world. If we know only the meaning of Scripture, we lock it within its own covers. If we know only the meaning of the world, we may know the problems well, but we’ll lack solutions. We must know both Scripture and the world around us.

Is a mini-skirt a violation of 1 Timothy 2:9? Does Proverbs 18:24 affect the use of Facebook? Does James 1:19 speak to blogging? Does a church that builds an ugly building disobey Philippians 1:9-10? Do Christians who use shoddy music in worship fail to practice Philippians 4:8? Does Romans 12:2 speak to how we use the mall? Does wearing beach-ware to church violate Hebrews 12:28? These questions can only be answered if we examine the meanings of mini-skirts, Facebook, blogging, architecture, music, the mall, beach-ware,  and so forth.

It has become a kind of reflex action to accuse Christians who examine the meaning of modern cultural phenomena of legalism. This is particularly true of matters like music, entertainment, technology, ministry methods, dress and the like.  However, Christians and particularly Christian pastors who cannot discern the meaning and implications of the environment in which they live will fail to bring Scripture to life, in both senses of the term. Pastors must lead the way in scrutinising life. The excuse that “we didn’t know it meant that” will not exonerate us at the Bema seat.

It is easy to lampoon the fundamentalist pastors who forbade wire-rimmed glasses, beards, and bell-bottoms in their time. One forgets that, in some cases,  such men were trying to deal with the meanings of those things at that time, in that culture. When meaning is purely associative or conventional, it may change with time, meaning it is no longer hostile to the Christian message at a later time. This makes men of earlier times seem alarmist, just as faithful pastors who warn their congregants against current threats to healthy Christianity may seem so to future generations.

In an increasingly complex world, Christian living (and shepherding Christians to live like Christians) is an increasingly complex task. The amount of devices, technologies, media, and social sub-cultures seems to grow exponentially every few years. These are not without meaning. Conservative Christians argue that timeless Scripture has something to say to them; therefore, conservative Christians regard it is an obligation to learn what these things mean. If we love Scripture and love obedience, we should love to learn how to apply Scripture in our world.

Regardless of whether meaning is conventional, associative or intrinsic, it is there. For Scripture to be faithfully applied, we need to know the meaning of Scripture, and the meaning of the world around us. This is not legalism; this is wisdom.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

6 Responses to Will The Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – Judging Culture

  1. David, I wholly agree with your central argument. I'm not entirely clear on how you apply it. Perhaps you'll flesh that out at some point. I see some pitfalls in how it could be applied.

    One issue is that people who employ the same cultural forms don't always interpret them the same way. Though forms always carry meaning, that meaning is quite often more fluid and ambiguous than verbal language. That introduces real difficulties in imposing rules. The pastor's work in scrutinizing the meaning of wire-rimmed glasses isn't the same as prohibiting them.

    A second issue is that the relatively simple strategy of forbidding certain cultural forms (as if that eradicated the problem) short-circuits the more difficult but also more important obligation for a shepherd to understand and address his sheep's deeper issues of heart idolatry that may present themselves through participation in particular forms.

    So, I'm not sure if your article intends to address people who merely *examine* cultural phenomena, or also those who create rule systems driven by their conclusions. And I'm not sure whether you're consider flawed manifestations of the latter to be legalism. At the very least, I think we'd have to consider that shoddy pastoral work, but I'm not sure what definition of legalism would fail to encompass it.

  2. Ben,

    Thanks for the good points. Yes, I am not providing a lot of applications, because my focus is fairly narrow at this point: to challenge faulty usages of the term legalism. My aim is to address people who think that rendering a judgement on cultural phenomena always qualifies as legalism.

    Obviously, once we examine cultural phenomena, we must do something with our findings. We must render some form of judgment. Once the pastor has scrutinized the meaning of wire-rimmed glasses at his point in cultural history, he must know if any Scriptural principles or precepts apply. Put simply, if he needs to, he must take some actions –  teach, and in a word, shepherd.  I would not say that this has to correspond to arbitrarily inserting a rule system. Of course, this can be done. Most often, those who do this are not particularly interested in the meaning of thing in question, except for the meaning that 'this thing is taboo for our group'. However, if one is truly interested in meaning, one cannot remain inert after having discovered it.

    Forbidding or permitting do not exhaust all the options for our judgments. We may also render judgments such as unwise or inadvisable, somewhat dubious, permissible under certain circumstances, poor stewardship, edifying or not and so on.  It goes back to warrant, discussed previously in this series. The clearer the warrant, the more unambiguous the application. Humble shepherds will admit when the warrant is tenuous. The opposite error, a false humility, will mistake modern agnosticism over cultural meaning for intrinsic ambiguity, and make no effort to consult the judgments of the past or of those experts in that domain of knowledge. 

    Certainly, the aim is conformity to Christ from the heart. And parents and pastors know it easier to give a list than to explain the reasons behind it. So yes. We need to do a lot of explaining, because our world contains a lot more things that require a lot more explaining. And yes, the goal is to deal with desires and loves, not merely actions. But a shepherd who preaches only on idols of the heart and never makes clear applications ought not to be surprised if his people are oblivious to glaring contradictions between belief and practice. I have had enough experience both personally and in pastoring that a healthy diet of dealing both with where people's treasures are, as well as what that looks like on Tuesday at 2:15 pm is needed. 

    According to this definition, legalism is mandating certain applications with very little or no warrant. It would be mandating applications with little explanation of the meaning of Scripture or the meaning of the world. This would be certainly be flawed shepherding, because it would be fudging the truth. 

    As to the fact that people do not always interpret cultural forms that same way, I want to suggest an alternative to the idea that the problem is the fluidity and ambiguity of the forms. I suggest that we no longer live in a coherent culture which provides a common set of loves, tastes, sensibilities and judgments. Cultural judgments are difficult when you have no culture to help you with them. Hence the 'this is what it means to me' attitude. I could adopt a Bulgarian swear-word as a worship word for my English services. It may elicit smiles and warm feelings of devotion to God, when I insert my own meaning. That doesn't change its meaning. So while I agree that forms differ in their transparency of meaning, the bigger issue is that we are without a culture to provide us with a shared set of judgments. Those judgments still need to be made; it's just a lot harder than it's ever been to make them properly.

  3. David, Would you mind if I reprinted this article (hard-copy) for my church family? For our GREAT Lord's service, Nathan

    (Scott has my contact info.)

  4. David, by fluidity I mean that no one thinks wire-rimmed glasses inherently communicate today what they did when they were banned. (Ok, I wish that were true. I'm sure someone still does. But you get my point.) As culture changes, meanings change.

    And by ambiguity, I mean that wire-rimmed glasses probably still communicate something. But what they communicate has something to do with the personality and characteristics of the wearer, the context in which they're worn, the rest of the subject's outfit, and probably even what the wearer had in mind when he selected them. But that could all be different for the guy sitting in the adjacent seat.

    IOW, I suspect you might want to be cautious in conceding that meaning is often not fully objective, but I think we have to account for some fluidity and ambiguity, even as we want to defend against unqualified relativism.

  5. Ben,

    No quibbles there. I'm not sure anyone ever believed wire-rimmed glasses had intrinsic or inherent meaning – but as you say, probably someone does :).  And I do agree that what wire-rimmed glasses communicate today is very different from what they did when identified with the counterculture several decades ago. That was part of my point: meaning can be intrinsic, associative or conventional. Conventional and associative meanings are certainly fluid – though not impossible to parse at a given point in cultural history. 

    Actually, I'd be one of the first to concede that meaning is not fully objective. I fully embrace the idea that we are all perceiving subjects relating the world to ourselves, God and others.  What I object to is modernity's definition of objective and subjective (real vs imaginary, independently observable vs relative) and post-modernity's view that all reality is incapable of being known as it is.  I object to the idea that 'facts' are observable and therefore objective (or real), while value judgments on meaning are subjective (and therefore fanciful, relative and incapable of examination). 

    If we can make a value judgement correctly, then such a subjective parsing of meaning is in accord with God's reality – and as real as any perceived object. Scripture is full of value judgments, as well as instructions to make them, and to make them correctly. 

    I do not intend to oversimplify the task of parsing meaning, and discovering the value judgement. I don't claim that unanimous consensus will be reached. I do think too many contemporary Christians surrender to modern or post-modern epistemology before the conversation even begins.  

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