Why legalism misrepresents the Bible

By Giles Fraser
27 Jan 2007

The relationship between Christian theology and law is disputed and complex. Jesus railed against the lawyers for not understanding, and Paul contrasted a faith based on grace with one rooted in law. It would take volumes to discuss it, but even the most unbiased observer should see that the law is not an unambiguously good thing in the Christian tradition.

The point of Jesus’ aphorism about “straining out gnats but swallowing camels”, Elaine Storkey said recently, was to show that while the law is not unimportant, there is a strange and harmful human tendency to become obsessed with trivial inconsequential detail - while great issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness are ignored. Such obsessions distort truth and misrepresent God's reality in the world.

I would want to go further. I think a legalistic mindset has been deeply corrosive to Christian theology, and particularly to how we read the Bible. It has twisted a book of diverse genres, through which a loving God guides, nudges, inspires, and cajoles human beings towards a greater love for each other and a greater appreciation of the divine.

When someone put in those nasty verse numbers, the lawyers started to feel it was their book — a set of regulations. Chapter and verse started sounding like paragraph 1, subsection 3 of a legal contract. That was the point at which some Christians began to reject the idea that the Bible could be read in various ways, and, worse still, that it might contain contradictions or poetry. Such things would undermine its status as the ultimate legal document.

We may be entering a new age of Christian legalism, as an organisation of conservative evangelical lawyers has begun the task of interpreting the scriptures for the rest of us and pursuing its theological vision through the courts. It is spearheading resistance to the anti-discrimination legislation now passing through Parliament. Like many, I want to cry out: “Not in my name.”

“All Christians believe, must believe . . .” is how the barrister Mark Mullins confidently began his theological disquisition about homosexual relationships on a recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme. I didn’t agree with a word that followed. But, for the likes of Mr Mullins, I am simply not a Christian. I imagine he believes that the sine qua non of Christianity is treating the Bible as a law book. I don’t. Unfortunately, Mr Mullins and his legal friends seem to think that the only real Christians are the ones who think like him.

I find the prospect of Christian lawyers pursuing their definition of Christian interests an unappealing one. As a parish priest, I can think of few things better designed to sabotage evangelism in this country than a high-profile campaign defending Christian values, led by smooth Christian lawyers. Perhaps their intentions are entirely honourable, but they need to be told what a sinister impression they give.

Adapted from a recent Thought for the Day broadcast, with acknowledgements to the BBC.

Giles Fraser vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham college Oxford. He writes for the Guardian newspaper

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