Confusing Legalism and Justice

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Yesterday World Vision made a statement that they would now hire married gay men and lesbian women. Made complete sense to me. Even if I didn’t approve of sanctioning their marriages in a church, I can’t see why I wouldn’t welcome a LGBTQ person who would help in the Kingdom work my organisation was doing. Our policy at the Bible Society, for example, is that you have to support our mission statement and have to be in good standing at a church… doesn’t matter which one. We don’t try to keep people out who have different perspectives because honestly that would make our work far less effective.

The Anger

But apparently a lot of American evangelicals aren’t like me on this point. They’ve announced that they sadly have to cancel their child sponsorship. Yes, they often phrase it as that they have to. World Vision has forced them to stop helping children in need, at least in this way (I acknowledge many will sponsor with another organisation instead, eventually, after complaining for a while and a lot of needless hassle for everyone involved).

Seeing these kind of tweets was probably the angriest I have been at other Christians. It isn’t too often that you’ll catch me swearing on here or really anywhere else, but how fucked up do you have to be to prioritize keeping gay people from having jobs over keeping children alive? These are the kinds of things that are leading people to flee American Evangelicalism in droves. Sometimes they flee to other Christian groups, sometimes they just assume that Jesus really is the angry bigot as they were taught.

Saying Farewell

This section is a bit of an aside in response to those quick to dismiss World Vision and anybody who supports them. Yes, there are some times in Scripture where people had to cut ties and stop thinking of the other group as Christians. Even if we declare them enemies and even if rightfully so, it is still our duty to love them anyway. That’s the important caveat. But what kind of things do bring us to a point where cutting ties with other Christians is the most loving move for all involved?

Blatant, deliberate immorality is on that list (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5). But we have to approach this one humbly. We may see some things as obviously immoral but not all Christians agree. This is the scenario World Vision found itself in. Its staff are comprised of a variety of different denominations, some of which approve same-sex marriage. In sticking with their usual policy, they allowed the local churches to set lifestyle goals for their staff. World Vision did not want to make themselves more judgemental than the churches who support them. I applaud them for being humble about this, leaving the theological debates to the theologians so they can focus on the amazing work that they do.

Sometimes the Bible just isn’t as clear as we might think it is or think it should be, gay rights being a prime example in our generation much like slavery or civil rights or women’s rights were in other times. Many simply take the approach of condemning everyone who disagrees as obviously just hating God (on both sides, not just the conservatives as in this case). But when you actually stop to get to know the people on the other side, you realise that they just honestly disagree with you. And we should talk about those differences together as family. There are some who just don’t care about the ethic of Jesus – loving other people – and so we can’t really call them followers of Jesus, but they’re in the minority.

What else do we see in Scripture as reasons to split? One is when people add to the Gospel to make it a list of requirements: ethical, ritual, communal, national, etc (pretty much all of Galatians). Another is when people have already divided with you – not much else you can do but acknowledge their division (Titus 3:10-11; 3 John 9-10). Another is denial of Christ (1 John 2:18-23; 2 John 7-11).

My frustration largely comes when people misuse the first reason and apply to the wrong contexts while blatantly disobeying the other three themselves. In a response to the World Vision decision, one of the authors at The Gospel Coalition directly claimed that if marriage is not between a man and a woman then we have abandoned the Gospel. I’m sorry, but I do not believe that condemning gay people is part of the life-giving Gospel, clearly not such a central piece that removing it voids the whole thing. It also makes pretty clear that you’re not a real Christian if you do think gay people can help children in need. Perhaps more subtly but I’d also argue that it denies Christ in the flesh; by prioritizing the legalization of their own morality, they are blatantly ignoring (if not denying) pretty much everything that Jesus taught and lived.

Justice and Legalism

After I calmed down a little this morning, I had a thought that gave them a little more credit and helped frame what is going on. A big underlying problem is that American Evangelicalism has confused legalism with justice. They’ll rant against legalism, usually meaning Catholics or stricter evangelicals of the past. We’re so glad we’re better than them, they say (Luke 18:11). Then they’ll call their legalism the holy justice ordained by God himself, in part because they already think God’s whole goal is to punish the bad guys and reward the good guys.

But I’m convinced justice isn’t about punishing people who you think are wrong. It isn’t about drawing lines in the sand over issues rarely if ever addressed by Scripture to make sure your group are the true Christians and every other group are evil. It isn’t about saying farewell to everyone you disagree with you. Actually, I think it necessarily includes the exact opposite: seeking to work together through our diversity. Isn’t that the kind of thing that 1 Corinthians 12 is talking about? I’m convinced that justice = forgiveness, justice = love, justice = grace, justice = unity in diversity.

The misuse of reasons for division comes back to a lot of that confusion between justice and legalism, I think. They have become convinced that their list of rules and doctrines are all tied up in the Gospel and that they are mandatory parts of true Christianity. I’m not saying I’ve never fallen into that trap myself, but this is wrong and we need to be on watch against it instead of applauding it. You cannot eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – declaring judgement over others – and claim to be advancing the Kingdom of God that reverses this action and its effects. If the Gospel is grace, it can’t also be legalism.

You are welcome to encourage heteronormativity in your church. You’re welcome to kick them out of your church, even – I wouldn’t consider it a particularly loving action but your church is your business. But to blatantly write off another mostly-conservative Christian organisation as heathens because they let the local church do its job and deprive thousands of children in the process? There’s no way you can pretend that looks anything like Jesus.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.