Salt of the earth.
City set on a hill.
A peculiar people.
In the world, but not of it.
I wrote a post for Convergent yesterday talking about why I think legalism exists, and part of what I was thinking about the entire time was a concept that’s consistently bothered me over the last year. In an e-mail I received a long time ago, someone asked me why I had such a big problem with “the biblical doctrine of separation.” My initial response was that they’d missed the point, that it wasn’t separation at all that I was talking about– that I had a problem with Christian fundamentalism. Except, to this person, “fundamentalism,” which they proudly claimed, and “separation,” go hand in hand. To this person, and to a lot of the people I know, they’re really the same thing.
As I wrote about the “why” of legalism, I realized that there was an audience I was likely not going to be able to reach: fundamentalists. Because fundamentalists have an essentially ironclad reason for their legalism, and it comes down to the very definition of church: ἐκκλησία comes from καλέω and ἐκ, and means, literally, “called out.” Fundamentalist Christians take this incredibly seriously: if we’re the Church, we’re “called out.”
I have a book sitting on my shelf: Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church by Ernest Pickering. It’s a textbook for one of the Bible classes at my old fundamentalist college, and it lays out an argument for the necessity of separation. We must be separate, because if we’re not, we risk apostasy and corruption. We must keep our theology and our ideology pure, untainted by “wordliness” or “godless philosophies.” It’s the reason why Christian fundamentalism began, when the early leaders wrote and compiled The Fundamentals. They were worried about attacks on doctrine, about new and disturbing theologies that accommodated early post-modernism and higher criticism.
They would even go on to make the same exact argument I did yesterday: that God’s holiness demands his followers to have the same abhorrence to sin. That we must hate sin, and do whatever it takes to remove it.
Which is where legalism enters.
Every time, growing up, I heard a messaged preached on “sin,” it always, always included this reasoning. God hates sin, so we must hate sin. Except . . . I’ve never been able to really understand what “sin” is, not even when I was a fundamentalist doing my utmost to avoid it. I had this nebulous understanding that sin was “doing something God told us not to do”; but then “drinking alcohol” was a sin, and when the Bible includes “drink wine for your stomach’s sake,” that shit gets confusing.
And as I got older, and the pastor and the people in our church fell deeper into “separation,” more and more things became sin. Things that were obviously not in the Bible, and therefore could not be something God told us not to do– things like going to the movie theater or doing yoga.
Which is where “biblical principles” come in. The Bible might not explicitly condemn movie-theater-going, but we are supposed to “avoid the appearance of evil,” and some movies have all sorts of things in them that are clearly evil– how could anyone tell we were going to see Finding Nemo and not Saw? Better just to avoid the whole thing all together. Or what about dancing? The Bible has lots and lots and lots of dancing, but that wasn’t modern dancing. Modern dancing is always sexual, and doing sexual things in public is clearly not “avoiding the appearance of evil,” but embracing it. Or rock music– rock music comes from demon-summoning-African-tribal-music, and listening to it means that we’re not avoiding listening to the same “beats” that witches use to summon Satan from the depths of hell, therefore it’s sin.
If it wasn’t avoiding the appearance of evil, it was “becoming a stumbling block.” Don’t celebrate Christmas– it reminds some people of their secular/pagan days, before they were good and holy. Don’t listen to rock music– it could remind someone of when they used to do drugs. Don’t discuss philosophy– it could remind someone of when they were an atheist.
There’s no end to it. When you get into this mindset, there’s no place to stop, no place to draw a line, no way to have a healthy conversation about individual responsibility. And once you start thinking like this, it’s incredibly difficult not to get sucked deeper and deeper, and there’s no bottom. There’s always something else that can be avoided, another step you can take to become more holy, more consecrated, more set apart.
I think it’s because Christian fundamentalists have deeply misunderstood the meaning of holy. They’ve lost what it means for something to be sacred, and they’ve cheapened these glorious, beautiful things into a list.