The Liberated Legalist

by Howard Wall

Howard Wall teaches English at a junior high school in Rockingham, North Carolina while working on his doctoral dissertation.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 28, 1983, pp. 848-849. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Paul cautions Christians against legalistic protests; he challenges us to repent of our rigid conceptions of truth and to turn to Christ and find in him both the pattern of life and the gospel of faith. Anyone who thinks he or she knows all things — whether in innocence or in arrogance — in fact does not know enough of God and his messiah.

Perhaps that is why the Scriptures often construe the ethics of the believing community by various codes of rules. Such codes ordered the moral life of each community in terms of specific, historical and relevant descriptions of God’s will. which in turn made obedience easier and covenantal blessings more immediate. It is interesting, for instance, that the New Testament book James describes law as the instrument of liberation, and provides the essential content for that "law of liberty" from the Old Testament "Code of Holiness" (2:8-11; cf. Lev. 19:12-18). To obey the whole law is to obey each part -- a commitment to obedience which ensures the salvation of the community at the end of time (2:12-13). Of course, James was concerned with orthopraxy far more than with eschatological reasons; while obedience to the law leads to God’s approval, it also liberates those who are impoverished and promotes the well-being of the community as a whole.

It is clear from the history of Israel and the church, however, that certain dangers lurk behind a rule-based ethos, always ready to destroy faith and to pervert Christian notions of freedom and justice. In such a system, human authorities replace the Divine, thus reversing the direction of a truly biblical ethic, which always begins with God, who makes a moral claim on his people in the light of his transcendent reign. In such a reversal, three things seems to occur: First, there is a tendency toward legalism, in which relationships with God and with one another are controlled by rules determined by self-interest rather than by grace. The atmosphere of a legalistic ethos is filled with criticism, conditional fellowship based on preformed judgments of right conduct and right doctrine, and communication rooted only in having common ground. Such denial of those who differ is a denial of grace.

Second, one also finds that codes are often rigidified and made absolutely binding without being shaped and reshaped by a conversation between a living God and a living people. Codes are worshiped as godlike and are imposed in inhumane ways to exclude and to judge others. Such a reversal of the law which liberates is in fact a denial of history, blunting the living character of God and the dynamic, ongoing communication of his will to his people by his Spirit.

Finally, a rule-based ethic has led tragically to a religious triumphalism in which one’s status or spirituality within the church is measured by one’s conformity to the codes in effect. Rather than securing the community’s presence in society -- the unwritten intention of such forms of social control -- this attitude most often leads to a denial of forgiveness, without which there is no reconciliation; and without reconciliation there is no community (Matt. 18:15-22). The survival of the church as the people of God depends on its incarnation of a gracious, living and forgiving God.

The kind of ethic promoted here by Paul is one which stresses liberation from the law -- from those rules which prevent the maintenance of a loving community and for a freedom which accommodates differences between a people called to share in faith and life. This Pauline corrective is a participant in the larger "canonical conversation" between those who, like James, might advocate a definition of Christian freedom by the law, and those who, like Paul, bear witness to the dangers of that ethic and so advocate a freedom from the law. To be sure, Paul himself recognized the limitations of his own corrective, which during the course of his mission led some of his followers to reject any kind of law. They embraced a limitless, autonomous freedom, promoting an amorality which turned against the gospel and jeopardized the reputation of the church. Consequently, in Paul’s letters we find an apostle who was deeply concerned about the moral purity of the church both on theological grounds and for practical reasons. Yet Paul consistently calls his audience away from a legalistic reading of law and toward the Spirit whose law delivers life.

The implications of reading this canonical conversation between James and Paul as "Scripture" -- itself the "rule" for the church -- are enormous. In this age of moral relativity, when relationships seem to be so easily trivialized and the impoverishment of other people is so easily neglected, it seems necessary to hear the Word of God from James, who chastises us for not living by the rules of right conduct. However, in our cultural shift to the right we have become overly dependent on codes which promise us socioeconomic and even spiritual, wellbeing. We have become a country and a church of legalists in need of liberation from our laws, which often oppress and fail to redeem. Let me illustrate.

I teach at a Christian university. Many come to the school with various codes of right conduct and right doctrine, shaped by different subcultures and confessional traditions. Yet too often they are codes accepted and even championed by rote rather than by reflection. These students hold uncritically to the promises of well-being enshrined by their laws and come to distrust any who might disagree with them. Thus they enter into classrooms and share in dorm life, where they confront, perhaps for the first time, a plurality of codes. Often their response is one of condemnation: a form of legalism that excludes ideas as well as the people who suggest them. Professors and classmates who challenge them to think in new ways or who critique their preformed notions of truth are often dismissed as less than Christian. In fact, legalism tends to collapse the value of human beings along with the values they espouse. In reality, such denials prevent both learning (the mission of our university) and community (the context of personal and spiritual growth).

Paul cautions Christians against legalistic protests; he challenges us to repent of our rigid conceptions of truth and to turn to Christ and find in him both the pattern of life and the gospel of faith. Anyone who thinks he or she knows all things -- whether in innocence or in arrogance -- in fact does not know enough of God and his messiah. A Christian, liberal arts education demands the very humility which intellectual or religious legalism often rejects. A student is educated only when liberated from an ethic of "election" which excludes new ideas and new friendships. Education demands that preformed notions of right conduct and right doctrine be suspended so that the student can study and evaluate them at a distance, in the context of diverse possibilities, and take them up again only if they are tested and found to be true. Then and only then are students -- and all Christians -- truly enabled to know the truth and set free to be a thoughtful and an understanding people, able to shape and even to change our worlds with true ideas.

At every level of the church’s life, polarities can be found. We must learn to celebrate such diversity, and to use such polarities as the context for conversation which corrects our legalisms and informs us about the whole truth of the matter. The ecumenical movement fails when it attempts to unify our diversity; rather, it ought to foster and encourage the kind of conversation found within our common Bible. There is still a tendency on the religious left to dismiss the religious right as simplistic or individualistic, while the right distrusts the left for being too uninterested in more personal forms of piety. Confessional traditions still tend to appeal dogmatically and exclusively to their versions of the gospel while failing to learn from the insights of others. The church has its own self-correcting apparatus, even as the Scriptures do. We must have ears to hear one another so that together we might hear God’s Word to his whole church.