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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Defining a Theological Swear Word - Legalism

Roaming the web recently, as I am wont to do, I ran across an article by one Marshall Beeber in which he attacks certain trends in the Messianic Movement and passionately advocates a return to older paradigms, which he deems to be the God-honoring old paths from which we never should have strayed. I could spend a few days working on reponses to the red herrings Mr. Beeber evokes in his comments, but for today I want to concentrate on one: his frequent evocation of the term "legalistic" or "legalism." This is what I term a "theolgical swear word," by which I mean an alarmist term, seldom if ever defined, which is used for effect. The effect is usually to label a position or person or group of persons in such a manner as to warn others away.

"Legalism" is one of the more common terms being used in this fashion by certain persons in the Messianic Jewish Movement and in the Jewish Missions Movement. I think it is past time the term was defined, and its misuse exposed.

In his article, "Dismantling Legalism In the Messianic Jewish Movement Today, found on-line 7/14/06 at http://www.messianic-literary.com/dismantle.htm, Mr. Beeber says the following:

The greatest threat to the Messianic Jewish (Hebrew Christian) Movement in the 21st Century is the de-spiritualization of it's ranks by legalism in the form of mandatory Torah observance. I believe the reason why the "gospel of grace" was overtaken by "Torah observant legalism", is due to a spirit of unbiblical compromise and conformation to a false spirit of religiosity among Messianic Jewish leaders. To make the situation worse, grace oriented Messianic Jewish (Hebrew Christians) leaders have themselves been polarized by various secondary issues. To reverse the stemming tide of legalism before the entire movement is lost, we must put aside our differences and work together for the common goal of the gospel.

. . . . Let me take some time to explain why legalism in the form of strict Torah Observance has successfully overtaken the correct doctrine of Grace and how Grace oriented Messianic Judaism can regain the hearts and minds of believers.

. . . Today almost all dissenting teachers have been ostracized from much of the movement. Those that remain but disagree have learned a certain "politically correct" posture to take regarding legalism and have therefore been neutralized. Both the UMJC and MJA are now supportive of [this view]. . . . It looks like the battle against legalism is being lost! But the legalist leaders have not yet faced the repercussion of their folly , nor the full opposition of their Grace oriented Messianic Jewish and supportive Christian brethren. . . .


The preceding are excerpts from Mr. Beeber's article. I invite you to read the original as well as these excerpts and note how many times he uses the term "legalist" or "legalism" without defining either, and the strongly perjorative and polemical manner in which he uses the terms. This is what I mean by theological swearing.

How shall we respond to this? Well, many ways. There are a number of red herrings, half-truths and mischaracterizations in this document. But for today, let’s settle for just one—a better definition of “legalism.’

I like the one given by Charles Caldwell Ryrie, a well-known Christian theologian of a camp [Dispensationalism] with which Marshall Beeber is usually in full agreement:

Legalism may be defined as a fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self. The code is whatever objective standard is applicable to the time; the motive is to exalt self and gain merit rather than to glorify God because of what He has done, and the power is the flesh, not the Holy Spirit. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that having to do something is not legalism, but the wrong attitude is ----- Israelites had to bring their sacrifices, otherwise they would have suffered certain penalties. It was the attitude toward doing what they had to do that determined whether or not their action was legalistic ------ Having to conform to a law is not of itself legalism (Charles Ryrie, "The Grace of God" 1963: 117-118).


“Legalism” is a word commonly thrown around by people seeking to either avoid or discredit Torah observance. It is not usually defined, and is most often used as a accusatory term stigmatizing others while, in fact, exalting oneself as more faithful than they to the core of New Covenant truth. I believe that Ryrie’s approach is most helpful in clarifying the entire issue.

To put it in my own words, “Legalism is an attitude which seeks to leverage God through human performance, often serving as a basis for claiming or feeling oneself superior to others.”

Saying that God requires certain kinds of conduct from us, including Torah commandment-keeping is not legalism. It is
covenant-obedience in the context of seeking to honor God. It only becomes legalism when it leads to feeling proud, superior, or entitled, when it is used as an occasion for dominating others, and when it obscures the fact that confidence with God is, was and always will be grounded on His grace and mercy, not our own achievement.

In our time, a sizeable group of Messianic Jews are advocating and attempting a return to Torah observance. They do not require others to accept their views, nor do they claim spiritually superior status because these views are theirs. We just happen to think that the commandments of God retain a mandatory character. Even if we are wrong in this, which I doubt, the word is out courtesy of Dr. Ryrie: Such views do not make us legalists. While some no doubt misuse the terms "legalism" and "legalists" without polemical intent, I believe it is time the careless and self-serving polemical misuse of this theological swear word was exposed and retired, and that the right use of the term became the norm.

What do you think?

At 7/17/2006 5:38 AM, Anonymous menachem said...

“Legalism is an attitude which seeks to leverage God through human performance, often serving as a basis for claiming or feeling oneself superior to others.”<<<<<<

Stuart:

Thank you for taking this issue on and addressing it so succintly.

It is clear that one can do this in a variety of ways. One can do this by going the the motions of Torah observance. OR one can go through the motions of living freely by grace, worshiping spontaneously "in the spirit".

I would maintain that it is more difficult to become this way if one is doing the former. This is because if one is studying Torah on a daily basis in order to practice Judaism one is constantly being oriented as to who one is and who Hashem is. Can we really say that this is true of any other model which is currently being practiced in our movement today ?

Marty

 
At 7/17/2006 8:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Legalism is an attitude which seeks to leverage God through human performance, often serving as a basis for claiming or feeling oneself superior to others.”<<<<<<

"Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, "This Man receives sinners and eats with them."

So you would describe the Pharisees and scribes in Yeshua's day as legalists, right?

 
At 7/17/2006 8:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean."

Thank you Stuart for identifying legalism in the Messianic movement.

"Legalism is an attitude which seeks to leverage God through human performance, often serving as a basis for claiming or feeling oneself superior to others.”<<<<<<

 
At 7/17/2006 9:23 AM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

To the person who said, ":So you would describe the Pharisees and scribes in Yeshua's day as legalists, right?" I respond, emphatically "No."

In fact, it might be a good rule of thumb to focus more on oneself in these matters. Since we cannot accurately judge the hearts and attitudes of others, we cannot accurately ascertain if these attitudes are "legalistic." Better to constantly examine our own hearts and repeatedly ask, "Lord, is it I?"

 
At 7/17/2006 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you don't give any consideration to the parables following the Pharisee's comments here or what Yeshua said about them in other passages?

 
At 7/17/2006 3:07 PM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

If you have been able to read my writings and yet draw the conclusion that I " don't give any consideration to the parables following the Pharisee's comments here or what Yeshua said about them in other passages," then nothing I would say in response to your comment would make any difference. I won't waste my time or yours trying to pesuade you otherwise. Have a nice day and try thinking better thoughts of me.

 
At 7/17/2006 3:36 PM, Anonymous RR said...

I agree that Ryrie's definition is surprisingly helpful. Yours is even better, and the idea of "legalism" as a theological swear word is most insightful. We could cite further examples, but this makes me question whether the term "legalism" is useful at all. Since it's liable to be abused unless clearly defined, and since it doesn't appear directly in Scripture, why use it? Perhaps the best response is to challenge any use of the term at all, and ask the writer to get to the real issue.

 
At 7/17/2006 4:26 PM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

Dear R.R.,

Thank you for your comment and commendation of my definition of the term. I agree with you that the term is not used in Scripture, as well as your suggestions that we "challenge any use of the term at all, and ask the writer [or speaker] to get to the real issue."

Sadly, I am pessimistic about our chances of winning the day with such a worthwhile reform because such theological swearing delivers such social and psychological satisfactions to those who practice it and countenance the practice.

But we can at least attempt to establish boundaries along the lines you suggest. Thank you.

 
At 7/17/2006 6:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Legalism is an attitude which seeks to leverage God through human performance, often serving as a basis for claiming or feeling oneself superior to others.”<<<<<<

Made that one up all by yourself I see since there is no scriptural basis.

 
At 7/17/2006 7:46 PM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

To the person who said: "Made that one up all by yourself I see since there is no scriptural basis." I am amazed at your comment. Why the bilious response? To me it sounds like you are rising to the outraged defense of those who polemically use the terms "legalist" or "legalism." I didn't realize that I was touching such a beloved sacred cow!

You are free to consider me "unscriptural," if that makes you feel better. But it is amazing that you so label one whose views ground my definition, Dr. Charles Caldwell Ryrie. editor of the Ryrie Study Bible, who for for many years served as professor of systematic theology and dean of doctoral studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, a school that prides itself on fidelity to the Bible.

Like I said, "amazing." And also very instructive.

 
At 7/18/2006 10:23 AM, Anonymous Menachem said...

I am pessimistic about our chances of winning the day with such a worthwhile reform because such theological swearing delivers such social and psychological satisfactions to those who practice it and countenance the practice<<<<<

One thinks of CS Lewis's Screwtape's "toast" in which namecalling professional theologians are blended for the tempter's enjoyment into a bottle of "Vintage Pharisee".

Outside of the unfortunate title of the wine, which of course has antisemitic connotations, this is a useful cautionary tale for all concerned. Mr Lewis being a known philosemite and having been married to a converted Jew can be forgiven the lapse.

Of course for the Jews amongst us we need to examine our tongues especially carefully since it is once again the time of the summer fasts.

 
At 7/19/2006 6:28 AM, Blogger Shanah said...

Rabbi,

What are your thoughts on Beeber's technique of placing the concepts of Torah observance and the Ruach haKodesh at odds with one another? Isn't one of the joys of being a believer in Yeshua the fact that the two-- adherence to Torah and living a life in the Ruach-- are intertwined? Also, what are your views regarding the moves of the Spirit (as defined Biblically in Acts, not "Charismatically" i.e.; through the Toronto Experience) in relation to the Torah observant Messianic community?

 
At 7/19/2006 8:16 AM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

Dear Shanah,

I don't believe this is Mr. Beeber's "technique" so much as his assumption, and that of many others. In part this is one legacy of supersessionism which, in viewing the Older Covenant as totally defunct, rather than Renewed in the Newer Covenant, also overdraws a discontinuity between the Law and the Spirit. There are many passages and theological data which demonstrate that this discontinuity is overdrawn, as. for example, Romans 8:4: "so that the just requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us who do not run our lives according to what our old nature wants but according to what the Spirit wants." Also, it is clear from Ezekiel 36-37 that the renewal of the Jewish people in the latter days will involve a return to Torah covenant faithfulness through the renewal of the Spirit--this is incontrovertible. The very nature of the Newer Covenant, according to Jeremiah 31 is that Hashem says " 'I will make with the house of Isra'el after those days'," says ADONAI: 'I will put my Torah within them and write it on their hearts; I will be their God, and they will be my people.'" Here again, there is no abandonment of Torah but a renewed relationship with it.

As far as "moves of the Spirit," etc, that too big an issue to address right here. I am working on another posting that addresses this in part. Meanwhile see the following postings among others:

http://rabbenu.blogspot.com/2005/03/letter-about-charismatic-influx-and.html

http://rabbenu.blogspot.com/2006/06/shavuot-blessing.html

http://rabbenu.blogspot.com/2005/08/what-has-changed-in-role-of-torah-now.html

 
At 7/20/2006 10:57 AM, Blogger Shanah said...

Rabbi,

Thank you for your thoughtful response and direction to associated posts-- I look forward to reading them!

I am glad you mentioned Ezekiel 36-37; I find it exciting to think that the return to the land is a process that has yet to be completed. As one Orthodox commentator put it, the new Spirit is the last thing to be put into the people of Israel who have repossessed the land. Do you feel this renewed Spiritual relationship with Torah will result in the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash and restoration of animal sacrifices before Yeshua's return? I don't mean to dive off on a tangent here, I mean specifically to focus on the relationship between a Spirit-filled life in Yeshua and the concept of animal sacrifice in the Temple.

Kol Tuv!

 
At 7/20/2006 9:40 PM, Blogger rdlb said...

“Legalism is an attitude which seeks to leverage God through human performance, often serving as a basis for claiming or feeling oneself superior to others.”

Your description of "legalism" is portrayed in Luke 18:10-14 quite well by Jesus.
10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
KJV

 
At 7/21/2006 12:12 AM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

Dear RDLB,

Great illustration. Just one point often missed. First of all, the reason the Pharisee is chosen is because he is assumed to be the paragon of spiritual rectitude in his conduct. Some forget that his conduct [fasting twice a week, giving tithes of all he possesssed] is commendable. What discomended him was solely his legalism--that is, his self-congratualtory attitude. It is not the keeping the Law is bad; bad attitudes about keeping the Law are bad.

Again, fine illustration. I will use it often!

Stuart

 
At 7/24/2006 11:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not the keeping the Law is bad; bad attitudes about keeping the Law are bad.

Please explain how you can keep the Law and have a bad attitude?

 
At 7/25/2006 7:00 AM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

As for keeping the Law and having a bad attitude, this takes place when, for example, we take pride in our obedience to the detriment of proper humility with God and people. The Parable of "The Pharisee and the Publican" is an example of this.

Yeshua [and the Talmud as well!] criticized people who do everything to be seen by others; "for they make their t'fillin broad and their tzitziyot long, they love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and they love being greeted deferentially in the marketplaces and being called `Rabbi.'"

He also spoke to this issue when he said "Now when you fast, don't go around looking miserable, like the hypocrites. They make sour faces so that people will know they are fasting. Yes! I tell you, they have their reward already! "

In addition to this kind of self-congratulatory law-keeping, the Bible proscribes oppressing others through "laying a trip on them," even in the name of standards we believe to be right for ourselves.

I trust this helps explain matters better.

 
At 10/22/2006 5:01 PM, Blogger Dana said...

I have a question... Do you believe that Gentile believers should observe Jewish holy days/celebrations such as Sukkot, Chanukah, and the like?

 
At 10/22/2006 6:54 PM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

Dana,

It is not really my business to tell Gentile believers what to do. I will say that the Jewish Holy Days memorialize God's saving events in our history, and that we are covenantally obligated to honor them. This is not true for the people from the Nations, as I understand things.

I may send a birthday card to your mother, but this does not mean that our relationship is exactly the same as yours with her, nor does it mean that my obligation to do so is the same as yours.

Blessings.

 
At 3/23/2009 7:40 AM, Blogger John said...

Very well said, Stuart.

"Legalism" in the Messianic Jewish movement is often a code phrase for "Judaizing" for obvious reasons.

 

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