By Mike Atnip
“Daniel,” I told my 14-year-old son, “it is supposed to be very cold over the weekend. Fill the firewood in the back room up to the windows so we don’t run out when it is cold.”
Since Daniel was feeling cold and a bit sluggish, as boys do sometimes at chore time, he wasn’t exactly excited about my plan. But he eventually made his way to the wood pile and began his task. Not too long afterwards, I made a trip to the back room for some wood to fill the stove. Daniel was finishing up…or at least he thought so.
“Daniel, that’s not near enough wood, you need to fill it up.”
“But I filled it up to the window,” he replied.
I laughed. “That’s what you call legalism! Go fill it up right.”
Yes, he had stacked the wood up to the windows, in a neat stack one piece wide. He had to smile himself, I think. He returned to the woodpile and I went for the camera to record a perfect example of legalism.
Now, before you dump this paper in the trash, thinking I am about to call discipleship “legalism,” hang on a minute. Heartfelt obedience is not legalism. However, heartless obedience is legalism. Daniel obeyed my command to fill the wood to the windows…legally. But his heartless obedience missed the whole point. Legalism can be defined as “trying to get by with as little as is legally possible.” It’s like my aunt, who proclaimed that police do not stop people until they are going at least five miles per hour over the posted speed limit. She wanted to be legal, so she would set her cruise control at 59 miles per hour, in a 55 mile per hour speed zone. She was a legalist to the core, trying to get by with as much as she could and still be “legal.”
Well, legalism runs in the family, in fact the whole human family. I have been guilty of it too many times myself. For example, when we moved to Bolivia, South America, in January of 2000, we knew that it was illegal to import guns into Bolivia. We wanted to take a .22 rifle along to do some hunting, since we planned to live in the country and get some wild game for meat. But, we also knew that it was not illegal to import gun parts into Bolivia. So, we took the rifle apart, and I took some gun parts into Bolivia, and another family took some gun parts. Lo and behold, when we got into Bolivia, we found we had enough parts to make a whole gun!
Legal? Yes. Legalism? To the core! While we obeyed the laws of Bolivia, we missed the point and made ourselves into hardcore legalists.
So how does this fit into the story of Anabaptist history? Christianity was introduced to our pagan Swiss forefathers by dedicated missionaries who lived simple lives, unfettered by a love of money and fame. Those missionaries lived and taught a simple, faithful obedience to Jesus.
But remember how I said above that legalism runs in the human family? As time went on, legalism towards the teachings of Jesus began to infect the descendants of the original Christians in the Swiss territories. Instead of fully surrendering in Gelassenheit (yieldedness) to King Jesus, and obeying His teachings, people began to look for loopholes. As more people squeezed through the loopholes, the holes were made larger so they could be passed without any effort. Finally, the holes were turned into large gates through which everybody passed through without even realizing that they were never intended to be passageways.
For example, from Jesus’ teaching about nonresistance, people began to say that revenge was fine as long as it was done “justly.” You can kill someone in self-defense, as long as you love the person while you hacked his head off with a sword. From there, it was broadened into outright warfare, as long as you were doing it in the name of Jesus. By this means, you could join a crusade to take back the Holy Lands. In fact, you could even get an indulgence for all your sins if you joined these crusades!
Strange, isn’t it, how a little loophole becomes a gate to the broad way? But that is exactly what happened in the centuries after Beatus and Gallus preached to our Swiss forefathers. And it was this very spirit of legalism, a.k.a. compromise, which the Anabaptists stood up to.
P.S. Daniel did a good job filling up the firewood. He has filled the room previously, on several occasions, to the windows and even beyond. Like all boys and a lot of men, he just had a spell of legalism that day.