Has COVID exposed our problem with legalism?

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I remember a conversation with someone who came from a fairly strict church background about when it was permissible to not say grace. They explained how church leaders in the past had gone to great lengths to talk about the size of the meal. It was a bit like the gymnastics the government went through about Cornish pasties and scotch eggs. And yes, essentially if your meal was  not substantial, you did not need to say grace.

We can recognise the obvious and ridiculous legalism there. But I wonder whether COVID has not exposed a deeper level of legalism among us.  Now the legalism can work both ways. It is possible to be obsessed with what we have to do in terms of COVID safety so that we claim to be obeying the law to “love your neighbour” but are drawing up our risk assessments in order to answer the scribe’s self-justifying question “and who is my neighbour?” Legalism turns to judgementalism when we roll our eyes and make whispered comments out of the side of our mouths about the recklessness of those who open.

On the other hand, I’ve observed and participated in discussions where the legalism has flowed the other way.  First of all, some of the discussions about what counts as a gathering seem to have strayed into pursuing philosophical definitions to see if the criteria has been met rather than taking time to look at what God’s Word and consider our very purpose for meeting. It is worth remembering that Paul had to tell the Corinthian Church that their gatherings were doing no good, in fact they were positively harmful.[1] The reason for this was not because of the form, structure or venue of the meeting but because of the heart condition of the church members and their failure to grasp the purpose for gathering. 

Let’s be careful not to make our debates about church gathering in lockdown the theological equivalent of “what counts as a substantial meal.”

At times we have run the risk of losing sight of grace in our dealings with one another. First of all, conversations have been graceless at times. Brothers and sisters in Christ have been quick to accuse.  This has included where people who have opened have been accused of failing to love their neighbour. This failed to recognise that there are many people in our communities who desperately need a physical meeting point because they cannot access care and fellowship through social media.

It has also included the way that some have seemed happy to let the impression circulate that those who have kept to online meetings are somehow timid and compromised. Often those making the accusations seem to have little interest in what is happening in those churches still constrined from gathering.  At Bearwood, we were able to and chose to open though the vast majority of the congregation still had not felt able to come out to a meeting at the point I left. However, I know churches where it simply was not possible to reopen or the leaders chose not to having looked at all factors. I may have made a different decision to them, even in their context but I still was able to see why they made their decision. More importantly, I know how faithful they have been in evangelism, discipleship and pastoral care.

And there is the further worry. When I’ve attempted to respond to those throwing out the charge of compromise and unfaithfulness, I’ve found too many times that they have just completely ignored an attempt to describe the Gospel ministry going on. There has been a dismissiveness and a lack of interest.  Now, in these cases, we are not talking about people who should be at polar opposites about what the Gospel is. So, why the disinterest? Why the lack of grace because we don’t seem interested in talking about the grace of the Gospel?

One of the things that our response to COVID has hopefully shown all of us is how easily any of us can be drawn into legalism. The best antidote for legalism is the grace of the Gospel. So, let’s seek to rediscover this grace and put it front and centre of our mission.


[1] 1 Corinthians 11:17