Fewer now than in recent decades, perhaps, remember the bellicose Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy of Wisconsin, the notorious Communist hunter of the 1950s whose baseless charges threatened careers and reputations—until the U.S. Senate censured him and he drank himself to death. Because of him, a new word—McCarthyism—entered American political vocabulary, usually referring to negative accusations and labeling without attendant proof.
But McCarthyism isn’t just a secular political phenomenon. It is a religious one also.
Recently I conducted a weekend series of meetings at a church on the West Coast. The man at whose home I was privileged to stay spoke of how the pastor at a neighboring church had labeled him a “legalist” and a “perfectionist”—omitting, as is often the case, any precise clarity as to what these noxious but extremely vague epithets mean. Like the Communist label during the McCarthy era, such labels as the foregoing often have the effect of closing minds and stifling discussion, stigmatizing their targets with an aura intended to isolate and marginalize.
Labeling of this kind, of course, happens across the theological as well as the secular political spectrum, often poisoning and choking off meaningful discourse. The best solution in these circumstances is, first and foremost, to ask the accuser to define the label being used, and secondly, to provide proof that the accusation is correct. Clarity of this kind tends not only to better inform observers as to the issues being addressed, but also constrains the accuser to better explain—and perhaps better understand—the substance of the concern he or she is expressing.
So let’s take a closer look at the labels “legalist” and “perfectionist.” What in fact do they mean?
What is a legalist?
Like many other theological labels, the terms “legalist” and “legalism” aren’t found in the Bible. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the concept isn’t described there; the terms “Trinity” and “investigative judgment” aren’t in the Bible either, though the doctrines represented by these terms find strong support in the Sacred Pages. Similarly, while Scripture doesn’t use the terms “legalist” or “legalism,” it does address the spiritual mindset to which many—including Ellen White—have applied this terminology.
The Old Testament makes reference to the fallacious notion that rituals—even divinely-commanded ones—and other forms of surface piety are acceptable substitutes for heart-based obedience. Perhaps the first explicit mention of this notion is Samuel’s rebuke to Israel’s King Saul following the latter’s conquest of Amalek: “To obey is better than to sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (I Sam. 15:22). Following his sin with Bathsheba, David prayed: “For Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17). Solomon understood this principle when he later wrote, “To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3).
Other Old Testament passages are equally clear that a mere external compliance with religious rituals is in fact offensive to God without the internal heart-cleansing experienced through conversion (Isa. 1:11-18; Micah 6:6-8). Ellen White, in a description of pharisaic piety, speaks of how the danger of what she calls “legal religion” should have been learned by the Jews from the writings of the Old Testament prophets:
All their pretensions of piety, their human inventions and ceremonies, and even their boasted performance of the outward requirements of the law, could not avail to make them holy. They were not pure in heart or noble and Christlike in character.
A legal religion is insufficient to bring the soul into harmony with God. The hard, rigid orthodoxy of the Pharisees, destitute of contrition, tenderness, or love, was only a stumbling block to sinners. . . . The only true faith is that which “worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6) to purify the soul. It is as leaven that transforms the character.
All this the Jews should have learned from the teachings of the prophets. Centuries before, the cry of the soul for justification with God had found voice and answer in the words of the prophet Micah: “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? . . . He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. “Micah 6:6-8. (MB 53-54).
Elsewhere she is equally clear that “legal obedience” and “legal religion,” as she defines these terms, refer to mere surface piety and the effort to obey God in our own strength, apart from the experience of conversion:
God has given us the rule of conduct which every one of His servants must follow. It is obedience to His law, not merely a legal obedience, but an obedience which enters into the life and is exemplified in the character (DA 523).
He who is trying to reach heaven by his own works in keeping the law, is attempting an impossibility. There is no safety for one who has merely a legal religion, a form of godliness (DA 172).
The spirit of bondage is engendered by seeking to live in accordance with legal religion, through striving to fulfill the claims of the law in our own strength (6BC 1077).
Over 50 additional uses of the phrase “legal religion” can be found in the Ellen White CD-ROM. All gravitate in the direction of the above statements, defining legal religion (i.e. legalism) as attempting to obey the divine law in the absence of divine power.
In various circles of contemporary Adventism, tragically, the “legalist” epithet has been used to tar those upholding just about any standard of doctrine, worship, or lifestyle that happens to be unpopular. Church members opposed to raucous music in the worship service, a pastor refusing to permit a couple living together outside of marriage to serve in church office, a Conference president who fires a pastor for performing a gay wedding—all stand a good chance of inviting the application of this much-dreaded label. In many such cases, no matter how kind or long suffering the upholders of standards may be, simple faithfulness to the written counsel of God is mistaken for legalism.
Others denounce as legalism any theology that includes regeneration and sanctification within the process of salvation, insisting that believers are saved solely by the work of Christ for us and not at all by His work in us. Unfortunately, this definition of legalist and legalism would have to be applied to the apostle Paul himself, who explicitly cites regenerating and sanctifying righteousness as part of the means of salvation, not merely as its result:
God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth (II Thess. 2:13).
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost (Titus 3:5).
Others insist legalism is reflected in any approach to Christian living that includes proactive human effort in the struggle against sin. But again, such a definition runs afoul of some of the clearest statements of Scripture (e.g. Eph. 6:12; Heb. 11; 12:4; James 4:7).
Looking strictly at the teachings and use of language found in the inspired writings, we are constrained to define legalism and legal religion solely as the attempt by human beings in their own strength to obey God. Such surface piety has nothing to do with sanctification, human effort exerted in cooperation with divine grace in the struggle for holiness, or with the faithful application of inspired standards in the corporate life of the church. Those who speak of legalism in connection with any of the above constructs or practices do so without the support of Scripture or the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy.
As used in many contemporary Christian circles, including certain segments of contemporary Adventism, this label is even less helpful than the one considered above. Unlike the term “legalism” or the phrase “legal religion,” for which no positive reference can be found in the inspired writings, the words “perfect” and “perfection” are employed repeatedly and positively throughout both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White.
Efforts have been made at times to distinguish Biblical perfection from what some are pleased to call perfectionism. But only once does the word “perfectionism” appear in the writings of Ellen White (EW 101), and without any specific definition in context. The negative use of this term by Ellen White in this passage gives every evidence of referring, not to the belief that through God’s power men and women can stop sinning here on earth (a concept taught emphatically throughout both Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy writings), but rather, to the notion that the sanctified are in a position where the choice to sin has become impossible, and in which the affections and fleshly desires of such persons are therefore trustworthy. While not using the specific term “perfectionism,” Ellen White describes in another passage those who had come to such conclusions, and the destructive impact of their teachings:
While professing sanctification, they were transgressing the sacred law. They were corrupt at heart, and those in union with them were under a satanic delusion, obeying their carnal instincts instead of the word of God.
They held that those who are sanctified cannot sin. And this naturally led to the belief that the affections and desires of the sanctified were always right, and never in danger of leading them into sin. In harmony with these sophistries, they were practicing the worst sins under the garb of sanctification, and through their deceptive, mesmeric influence were gaining a strange power over some of their associates, who did not see the evil of these apparently beautiful but seductive theories (LS 83).
Such was the content and impact of the so-called “holy flesh” heresy, which later arose among Adventists in the state of Indiana (see 2SM 31-39).
But sadly, the way the “perfectionist” label is so often used in contemporary Adventism is quite different from what we see above. While this certainly isn’t true with every contemporary Adventist who warns of the perils of “perfectionism,” too many who fling this label about are describing, not the heresies depicted in the above Ellen White statements, but rather, the Biblical teaching that through conversion and sanctification it is possible for the Christian to cease to sin (e.g. Psalm 4:4; 34:14; 119:1-3; Isa. 1:16; Zeph. 3:13; Rom. 6:14; 8:4; I Cor. 15:34; II Cor. 7:1; 10:4-5; Eph. 5:27; I Thess. 4:23; I Peter 2:21-22; 4:1; II Peter 3:10-14; I John 1:7,9; 3:2-3,7; Jude 24; Rev. 3:21; 14:5).
While Ellen White clearly opposed theories of sanctification which led their adherents to believe themselves incapable of sin, and that thus their affections and fleshly desires were unable to mislead or misdirect them, she was equally clear—as is the Bible—that even though the Christian can never claim to have achieved sinless obedience (because God alone knows the heart; see I Kings 8:39), the choice to in fact live a sinless life through heaven’s power is available to all. Such statements as the following are among the strongest in this regard:
God’s ideal for His children is higher than the highest human thought can reach. ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ This command is a promise. The plan of salvation contemplates our complete recovery from the power of Satan. Christ always separates the contrite soul from sin. He came to destroy the works of the devil, and He has made provision that the Holy Spirit shall be imparted to every repentant soul, to keep him from sinning.
The tempter’s agency is not to be accounted an excuse for one wrong act. Satan is jubilant when he hears the followers of Christ making excuses for their deformity of character. It is these excuses that lead to sin. There is no excuse for sinning. A holy temper, a Christlike life, is accessible to every repenting, believing child of God (DA 311).
In our world, we are to remember the way in which Christ worked. He made the world. He made man. Then He came in person to the world to show its inhabitants how to live sinless lives (Ev 385).
Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” When you come into this position, the work of consecration will be better understood by you both. Your thoughts will be pure, chaste, and elevated, your actions pure and sinless (3T 83).
To everyone who surrenders fully to God is given the privilege of living without sin, in obedience to the law of heaven (RH Sept. 27, 1906).
But it is God’s purpose that man shall stand before Him upright and noble; and God will not be defeated by Satan. He sent His Son to this world to bear the death penalty of man’s transgression, and to show man how to live a sinless life (YI April 16, 1903).
Having taken humanity, He has an intense interest in human beings. He felt keenly the sinfulness, the shame, of sin. He is our Elder Brother. He came to prove that human beings can, through the power of God, live sinless lives (ST Aug. 9, 1905).
The Saviour is wounded afresh and put to open shame when His people pay no heed to His word. He came to this world and lived a sinless life, that in His power His people might also live lives of sinlessness (RH April 1, 1902).
In the day of judgment the course of the man who has retained the frailty and imperfection of humanity will not be vindicated. For him there will be no place in heaven. He could not enjoy the perfection of the saints in light. He who has not sufficient faith in Christ to believe that He can keep him from sinning, has not the faith that will give him an entrance into the kingdom of God (3SM 360).
Conclusion: Religious McCarthyism
Whether we like it or not, labels are unavoidable in the interaction between ideas in the human experience. The problem arises when labels are applied without definition. Especially is this a problem in the spiritual realm, where grace and civility command an imperative far stronger than in other settings where competing agendas strive for the mastery. When we speak of legalism, liberalism, conservatism, perfectionism, or any other thought system or lifestyle rationale—be it good or bad—it is essential that we explain what we mean when using these words. To use these or other markers as a method of marginalizing ideas or their advocates without saying why, or shutting down conversation without giving precise Biblical reasons, can rightly be termed religious McCarthyism.