Above the Law

I get the sense that the working definition that most in the church have for a term like legalism works itself out as resentment of nit-pickers in the church. What’s the opposite to this? Just let stuff slide? Not really, this is why I liked this story that Pete Rollins tells:

I think this brilliantly illustrates the challenge of the Christian relationship towards the law. As soon as we codify some new practice or prohibit some vice, it becomes as a law to us, and is law not much more than an outside limit of behaviour? For some the challenge is then to shrink these limits so the path of correct behaviour is narrower and narrower.

I think what this illustration demonstrates though is that the Christian life is about going beyond the law – without making that going-beyond into the new law.  How then to transcend legalism? There are lots of dangers in this, here are a couple that I see:

(1) It doesn’t sit well with me if we consider going beyond the standards of the law as some kind of optional extra. In this case, we are back to only the law really counting, since going beyond the law is optional. The legalist wants to enforce the going-beyond and the standard response is to fight back to the outer limits of the law without realizing that one can keep doing freely what the legalists might rather enforce.

(2) It is more dangerous to treat going beyond the law as a sort of surplus obedience. We don’t get to commodify and trade on this surplus obedience. By doing this, the Christian implies that there is added righteousness to be gained from going beyond the law. The deficit of your transgressions can be wiped away by the surplus obedience you created by going beyond the law. Ask your friendly neighbourhood Calvinist if you aren’t sure what’s wrong with that.

What is law to the Christian then? I submit that Rollins is saying that our law is, paradoxically, to go beyond the law. We are to go beyond the law without being able to accrue a surplus, without being able to boast, without being able to make our going-beyond into a new law, and without enforcing our going-beyond on others.

All this, in a curious, circuitous fashion gets us back to Jesus’ new commandment, to love one another. For is not love that which surpasses the law? The law cannot make us love, in fact if the law enforces a particular behaviour, in what way can we consider that behaviour the result of love? If the law required husbands to buy their wives flowers and chocolates on Valentines Day the gesture is emptied of its love. We can only love in the spaces not governed by the law.