I’m With Stupid (Unfortunately He’s my Brother)
Updated: May 28
“I’m a Christian, but not like them…”
How often do we hear people say something similar then reference a particular church group or group that has a particular political pet issue. It’s a very conventional response to distance oneself from groups which society at large has deemed intolerant (Think “Cancel Culture.) Within the church we often mimic that sentiment by stating we are against legalism or we don’t want to be considered Pharisees.
Let's start by defining terms. The word legalism does not occur in either the Old or New Testaments and is actually a part of Chinese Philosophy first credited to Han Fei Zi. Related to Christian Theology Wikipedia describes legalism this way:
Legalism is a usually pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God's grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.
Pharisees were a group of religious leaders in New Testament times who added to the already established Levitical law. Religion was something that put, and kept, them on a societal pedestal. They were proud- so proud in fact that most missed out on the gift of the Messiah who was right before their eyes. They were rule-keeping unbelievers. Wikipedia adds these details:
Because of the New Testament's frequent depictions of Pharisees as self-righteous rule-followers has come into semi-common usage in English to describe a hypocritical and arrogant person who places the letter of the law above its spirit. Jews today who subscribe to Pharisaic Judaism typically find this insulting and some consider the use of the word to be anti-Semitic.
Looking at these two definitions is it possible for a Gospel centered believer to be either a true legalist or Pharisee? I don’t believe so. (My guess is Jesus would probably instead call out the Social Justice Warriors as modern day Pharisees.) A follower of Jesus can error on the side of grace or error on the side of truth, but a person who believes salvation is a gift of God through grace, not works (Ephesians 2:8&9) could not, by definition, be either one. A legalist believes salvation comes through works. A Pharisee is one who looking for a future Messiah.
So assuming we use the terms Pharisee or legalist in their broader, more modern sense the terms are simply watered down to mean anyone who seems to be more spiritually uptight than I am. It is a shifting sentiment that does not have a set standard except for the statement makers themselves. For example, if I want to see an “R” rated movie, the Christian who doesn't is a "legalist." If I am offended that the small group is going out for a drink, then I would be considered the legalist. We tread lightly because, to be honest, we are each working out our own salvation differently and part of giving grace is letting some abstain loudly.
Some within the church are called Pharisees for boldly speaking up for morality (sanctity of life, traditional marriage, etc.) in the public square which they believe is part of their service to God and country. Just as righteous Israelite kings like David and Josiah made a positive impact on the land while they ruled, these believers desire to use their political power and voices to limit what they see as the moral downfall of the country by impacting legislation.
So as we can see, it’s all a matter of perspective. Some who focus on rules can truly be self-righteous, others are simply serving God and working out their salvation. Some who look down on others they deem intolerant have their own issues of pride. I would assert there is even an unspoken class system of the “tolerants” and “intolerants” within the church. If one gets tagged in a photo with a friend who pickets abortion clinics, to many it's like admitting, "I'm With Stupid. Yes, I have friends who are extremist Christians- but I'm the good kind.”
It is more popular to take up such causes as Human Trafficking and Care for God's Earth, but passion about stopping same-sex marriage automatically triggers bitter name-calling. One thing we often miss in pointing fingers is that if we have faith in Jesus Christ we are One, We are united. What if the pastor who has no problem going to a bar would respect the pastor who yells from the street corner, “Repent Obama!”? What if the Christian student with homosexual friends would invite over his friend who heads a Marriage Amendment student group? There is much we can learn from one another.
Like it or not if we are followers of Christ we are all under the unpopular “extremist” label. According to recent army training documents Evangelical Christians and Catholics are extremists groups. Jesus accepts and loves all, and yet His declaration of being the only way to God (John 14:6) was anything but tolerant.