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LEGALISM AND THE CHURCH
By Rev. David Justin Lynch
Philippians, Galatians and Romans have Paul concerned about the Judaizers, those who believed that Gentiles, that is, non-Jews, who wanted to follow Jesus should be required to observe the Jewish law. The Judaism of Paul’s time looked to the Old Testament with its 613 very detailed commandments that controlled many aspects of daily life as defining how one appears in God’s sight. The message was that to make things right with God, one has to obey all those laws. Paul opposed this approach, known as legalism. It is the act of putting the Law of Moses above the gospel by establishing requirements for salvation beyond faith (trust) in Jesus Christ and reducing the broad, inclusive, and general precepts of the Bible to narrow and rigid moral codes. Paul sees this as making salvation dependent on “works”, that is, what one does or does not do, rather than God’s grace, that is, God’s love and mercy.
Despite Paul’s message to the contrary, many Christian churches seem to follow an approach similar to that of the the Judaizers. Despite the attempts of Jesus, and later, Paul, to liberate humanity from written law and replace it with laws written on our hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah foretold, the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law has 1,752 code sections and fills six books. In addition to canons, national and local churches, Roman and otherwise, promulgate detailed regulations concerning the sacraments, how they are to be performed and who can receive them under what circumstances. The fundamental questions to be asked are: 1. Are all these rules absolutely necessary; 2. Who should make the rules; and 3. How should rules be enforced?
1. Necessity of Rules
While every organization needs some operating rules, those rules ought to be few in number and dictated by practicalities. Rather than detailed codes, a better approach might be to articulate general principles which can then be adapted to the practicalities of local situations.
One of the principles of equity that secular courts use is, “when the reason for a rule ceases to exist, so should the rule.” For example, the Roman Church, and other Christian bodies, are opposed to premarital sex. This opposition arose from Jewish purity codes and the Old Testament concept that a woman is property rather than a person, belonging to her father and then her husband, and the very practical reasons of high infant mortality and that pregnancy outside marriage generated social and economic problems.
One might expect that this prohibition might go away when Jesus obliterated the Purity Codes and when Paul replaced the law with faith in Jesus as how one is justified before God, but that did not happen. Nor did it go away when secular law no longer considered women as the property of men or when welfare program arose to support single mothers. It still didn’t go away when modern medicine lowered the child mortality rate and condoms were invented in the early 20th Century, and not even when birth control pills made the scene in the 1960s.
The Roman (and other) churches stuck to their rules despite changed circumstances. In Rome, the issue came to prominence during the reign of Pope Pius XI in the 1930s after the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference came out in favor of birth control. Pope Pius XI’s decree, “Castii Conubii” was a reaction to it. It was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI in “Humana Vitae” despite the commission Pope Paul VI engaged to advise him almost unanimously agreeing that the Roman church’s teaching should be changed. Why? To save the dignity of the papacy. To admit an earlier error would supposedly diminish its authority, and would, in the opinion of the commission’s minority, that the Anglicans were right. As a practical matter, “Humana Vitae” was not well received by the faithful, particularly in the United States, where statistical research established that Roman Catholics use contraception in almost the same proportion as other religious groups. It is no secret that “Humana Vitae” was instrumental in driving large numbers of people out of the Roman Church to Old Catholic, Anglican, and even protestant groups.
2. Who Makes the Rules
There are three basic paradigms of church governance, also called “polity”: Monarchal, Conciliar, and Congregational.
The Roman Catholic Church is Monarchial. The Pope has the power to decide everything, though he sometimes delegates authority to others.
Old Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans are Conciliar. Each group of Old Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans are autocephalous, meaning it is jurisdictionally independent of others of he same designation. Each individual jurisdiction makes its own rules by means of a council, in which bishops, other clergy, and in many cases, laity, participate. Some protestants have assemblies that follow the same principle, in particular, Lutherans and Methodists. However, most protestants follow a Congregational model, where each congregation makes its own rules, with the clergy serving at the pleasure of the laity.
Each system has its pluses and minuses. The Monarchal model, and to a great extent, the Conciliar model, is more likely to promote uniformity in teaching and practice, promoting certainty, which provides fulfills the emotional needs many people have for predictability. Its downside is that it necessarily assumes the Pope is the ultimate expert, even in areas in which he is not knowledgeable, and can act unilaterally to impose his will on the entire Roman church even if there is wide disagreement with his decisions. It also has no mechanism in place to remove a Pope who is corrupt or who becomes mentally incompetent to carry out his duties. The Conciliar model has the added advantage of hearing a wide variety of voices in the rule-making process and involving a greater participation of the group as a whole in exercising power. The downside of both these approaches is that rules, no matter who makes them, often create inflexibility to adapt rules to individual situations. The Congregational model is highly adaptable to local conditions Its the downside is lack of uniformity and disunity with other congregations.
The best idea may be to follow the principle of Subsidiarity. That is, decision-making should begin with the local or smallest institutional authority first at the local level and be referred to a regional, national, or world body only when it becomes clear that the local congregation cannot satisfactorily address the issue. This approach respects the dignity of the local community while at the same time allows for involvement of the wider community of churches where advantageous for their common good. It also provides an avenue for the redress of injustices and unsatisfactory behavior that the local church has proven itself unable to resolve.
3. How Should Rules Be Interpreted/Enforced?
Many conservative Christians argue for a “strict” interpretation of rules. For example, conservative Roman Catholics say that, absent an annulment, a divorced-and-remarried person cannot receive the Eucharist, circumstances notwithstanding. Although Pope Francis, in his teaching, “Amoris Laetitia”, indicated the possibility that under some conditions,such a person could receive, the actual teaching of the Roman Church remains. Such an approach, whether or not done in practice, flies in the face of the compassion one would expect in a Christian community. For many, the Ten Commandments (as well as canon law) is something the be rigidly enforced and the Beatitudes simply a gentle suggestion.
My approach is that the Beatitudes lay out how the church should teach and practice the Ten Commandments as well as interpret its canons.
“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Also helpful to me in that regard is the treatise on love found in I Corinthians 13:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing.” “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Those who interpret any rule of the church should first consider that the overall goal of the church is the salvation of souls. As discussed extensively elsewhere, salvation occurs not by following rules, but through the grace of God- it is not something we earn. Thus, the law is to be understood and applied to the spiritual benefit of the people, and never to their detriment.
Second, the sense of the faithful is important. This has two sides, custom and reception. The way that a rule is actually applied by the faithful over time is the best indicator of its meaning. When the community accepts a new rule and abides by it, the rule is confirmed by the people’s actions in conformity with it. When the community does not recognize or receive the rule in practice, then the rule is without effect.
Third is the principle of epikeia, a derivation of the Greek word for justice. In other words, “what is fair” under the circumstances. When epikeia is applied, the intention of a law in a given instance is recognized as a higher norm of moral reasoning and interpretation than the letter of the law. The intention of a law in a given instance is recognized as a higher norm of moral reasoning and interpretation than the letter of the law.
Finally, remember that the revelation of God is ongoing, and that God is not static, but dynamic. The Church should always be asking itself whether particular rules are necessary to salvation – our ultimate relationship with God – or a hindrance to it, and be ready to change to facilitate that relationship. But one thing never changes: “Love one another as I have loved you.”