Friday, January 23, 2015

Rethinking Legalism and Entertainment

No one wants to be a legalist. That is why, I believe, many Christians are so hesitant to make dogmatic moral pronouncements in the area of entertainment. We are concerned that if we say, for example, “It is a sin to watch The Wolf of Wall Street,” we will be branded as legalists – the very people Jesus spent so much time berating. Never mind that The Wolf of Wall Street is arguably the most degrading, sexually explicit R-rated film ever produced and should probably have been rated NC-17. We are still hesitant to make such a definitive pronouncement. After all, the Bible never says that it is a sin to watch The Wolf of Wall Street.

I suggest, however, that we have misunderstood legalism. The true legalist is not the one who denounces raunchy films; the true legalist is the one who watches them.

The Definition of Legalism 

What is legalism? Many define legalists as those who denounce activities which are not explicitly denounced in Scripture. However, while legalists certainly do this, so do all Christians. The Bible never explicitly states that it is a sin to watch a raunchy film, but the Bible also never explicitly states that it is a sin to have an abortion, to own a slave, or to view internet pornography. Are all Christians who denounce abortion, slavery, and pornography therefore legalist? No.

What then is legalism? Jesus captured the essence of legalism when he described the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matt. 23:27). Legalism is the belief that righteousness consists in the external. Legalists have clean hands but filthy hearts.

Legalism and Entertainment 

Consider now how this understanding of legalism applies to the issue of entertainment. When asked why they believe it is not a sin to watch a raunchy film, I have noticed that Christians consistently appeal to some variation of the same basic claim: “It doesn’t affect me.” If understood literally, this claim is clearly false. If the film had absolutely no effect on the Christian, the Christian would not have watched it. If the film did not thrill, amuse, or entertain the Christian in any way whatsoever, he would not have wasted his time. The Christian would not have sat watching the film for the same reason he would not have sat staring at a blank wall.

However, this claim is not intended literally. The claim, “It doesn’t affect me,” is really intended to mean, “It doesn’t adversely affect the way I behave.” This claim is perhaps na├»ve, but more importantly, this claim reveals a fundamental and devastating misunderstandings of the Christian life. The argument, “It doesn’t adversely affect the way I behave; therefore, it isn’t wrong,” is based on the pervasive assumption that the Christian life consists in good behavior. This is legalism.

The popular slogan, “What Would Jesus Do?” fails to capture the goal of the Christian life, which is nothing short of total conformity to Christ (Rom. 8:29). Such conformity does indeed include our actions, but it also includes our affections. Not only are we to do what Jesus would do, we are to enjoy what Jesus would enjoy. As Paul explains, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Would Jesus find The Wolf of Wall Street entertaining, amusing, or thrilling? Absolutely not.

Thus the problem with such films is not what they will do to the Christian; the problem with such films is what they reveal about the Christian. The Christian who enjoys The Wolf of Wall Street will probably not become a womanizer or a rapist, but he is already a “whitewashed tomb.” His hands are clean, but his heart is not.

Responding to Objections 

When I have advanced this argument before, it has provoked vigorous objections. I will briefly address two of the most common. First, some object that it is necessary to watch such films in order to relate to the culture. I do not intend to be harsh or unkind here, but frankly, this suggestion is nonsense. Watching The Wolf of Wall Street will not make you a more effective minister of Jesus Christ any more than reading Playboy will. (See my previous post for a satirical response to this objection.)

Secondly, some object that it is not always clear which movies Jesus would enjoy. Notice, however, that I never claimed it was. I never claimed Christians could make a dogmatic pronouncement on every film. I freely admit that there is a substantial “grey area” in entertainment. However, the existence of grey is no argument against the existence of black. Christians can and should be dogmatic about some films.


I fear a great blindness has pervaded our churches. We pride ourselves in being “conservative.” In other words, we see ourselves as stalwart defenders of the true gospel, faithfully following in the footsteps of the saints who have gone before us. Surely it is obvious, however, that men like John Wesley and John Owen would be absolutely appalled by the entertainment to which we have grown so accustomed. It is no use appealing to differences in culture. Cultures may change, but Christ remains the same. The standard to which we are called to conform has not changed. We are to follow Christ in body and in mind, with our hands and with our hearts. He gave his life to destroy the evil forces which objectify, exploit, and degrade human beings; films such as The Wolf of Wall Street should provoke nothing in his followers but grief, disgust, and anger.