Legalism – Making Them Jump the Fence

“Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 3:17)

We like to reverse this and say “Where the Lord is, there is a crushing millstone of Law to hang around your neck.” We tend to think that if the doors are left open, sin will just waltz on through.

The church is called to be holy, a light to the world, and the moral behavior of its members is one of the ways it can do this. There is a difference, however, between moral principles and legalism. One helps in fostering life and fellowship.  The latter tears down and separates. The latter lifts one up at the expense of others.  The latter crushes the spirit under a weight of guilt. “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor. 3:6) Worst of all, legalism destroys unity with arbitrary rules of supposed holiness, separating the light into smaller and smaller candles, and content to enjoy the warm glow under the bushel.

Legalism takes good principles and attempts to stomp out sin by imposing additional regulations that are nowhere found in Scripture, and then pretends that fulfilling these regulations actually fulfills the full council of God. But often, they are just the external trappings, whitewashed tombs. They never reach the heart, and because of that, they have no real value to curbing the lusts of the flesh.

Christians should love the standard, and not be caught up in loving the external appearances of the standard.

Confusing the Externals

Here are some examples to show the difference:

1. Modesty in dress. The principle in Scripture is laid out in the following verses, mostly directed at women.

likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (1 Tim. 2:9,10)(ESV)

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (1 Pet. 3:3-4)(ESV)

And then there is the general thinking of not being conformed to this world, and not being a snare of lust for fellow brothers.

The person who loves the standard of Scripture will keep these things in her heart as she chooses a wardrobe, always dressing with discernment. This may mean different apparel for different occasions.  There probably won’t be hard and fast rules. If in doubt, they will ask older women of the congregation. (Titus 2:3-5, )The advice she receives will vary.

The legalist comes along and says:

  • Don’t wear pants at church.
  • Only wear shorts if they are below the knee.
  • No tank tops.

The list goes on.  And if you do these things, you will be modest in my eyes.

While these might be wise and prudent measures, they are no where found in Scripture. And what’s more, following all of these rules doesn’t even mean one is being modest. Pretending that that’s the case just distracts from the real point of the passages: to not be distracted from having internal beauty and to be clothed with good works

2. Forsaking the assembly.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24,25)(ESV)

The legalist steps in and says that if you miss any scheduled service of your local church, for any reason other than sickness or uncontrollable circumstances, you are violating this passage. On the flip side, if you do attend these services, you are just fine, and are healthy spiritually.

Even though there are no details given.  This is not referring to some special, definitive “assembly.”  Using it in this way also stretches the word “forsake” into realms that make no sense. If I miss dinner a few times per month, does that mean I am forsaking the practice of eating?

The verse is simply talking about getting together with other believers.  Legalizing around the principle (treating attendance at official church meeting times as a measure of spirituality) distracts from the principle. 100% attendance doesn’t really say anything about the heart.

Let’s take a typical church that has two Sunday services with Bible study, and then one meeting time midweek. That’s about four hours.  There are 168 hours in a week. Take out 56 hours to account for sleep, and all the assemblies make up only 3.6% of your time.

So if you are only assembling during the established church meeting times, what are you doing with the other 94% of your time? Maybe only assembling 3.6% of the time is “forsaking the assembling of yourselves together.”

The one who loves the standard will love meeting with other Christians, and yes, that probably includes the scheduled times of the local church. But it also includes so much more.

3. What goes into a man’s mouth.

There really is nothing new under the sun.  Despite much Scripture that says the contrary, people still decide to determine the level of someone’s faith and standing with God based on what they eat and drink.  The most obvious illustration are attitudes toward alcoholic beverages. It can also be seen when looking down on people who don’t partake of only “fair trade” goods or organic food, or don’t eat only “free-range” meat that hasn’t been sacrificed to the idols of American mass consumerism. These are the same quarrels.

Paul calls this worldly thinking, and the Scripture against it is numerous and clear.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” ( referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:20-23)(ESV)

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim. 4:4,5)(ESV)

it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. (Matt. 15:11)(ESV)

And there is the entirety of Romans 14.  It also deals with abstaining for the love of a brother, and that is important, but an entirely different issue.  Choosing to voluntarily abstain out of love is a far cry from looking on another in condemnation because they don’t abstain from what you abstain from.

Again, you can make an argument that abstaining from something might be wise and prudent.  But, based on Scripture, you cannot make it a hard and fast rule, nor a basis of fellowship or dis-fellowship. Who are you to judge another man’s servant?

Besides, it’s always possible to out legalize a legalist.  There are always ways to make up rules and pretend to look more righteous than others.  That’s part of why its such a danger to unity.

Oh, you don’t use a single loaf of homemade, made from scratch, unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper?  Tsk, tsk. If your mother asked you to pick up bread for dinner, would you come back with saltines? Is God less important than your own appetite?

See how easy that was?

The Moral Playground

Enforcing moral principles means putting a child into an elaborate, fenced in playground, with swings, slides, monkey-bars and tunnels. The only rule is to stay inside the fence.

The legalist puts a child into the same playground, and then tells them they can either sit on the bench or play on the slide.  And if they play on the slide, they can only go down feet first. And worse, they look at the other children doing other things in the playground, and then claim that they aren’t really playing in the same playground. It nullifies the grace of God.

The first encourages wisdom and responsibility. The second, besides eliminating joy, leaves no room for freedom. There is no real discernment of the principle.  As soon as the legalist isn’t there, the child is probably going to run and jump the fence the first chance they get, trying to find a “better” playground.

A good rule of thumb: when looking at yourself and the planks in your own eye, have exacting, uncompromising standards.  When looking at the specks in other people’s eyes, grace should reign.

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:4)(ESV)

And don’t be what Paul calls a false brother and spy on the freedom of others. (Gal. 2:4)

What other examples of legalism have you come across?  What is the true principle behind them? How can we learn to love the standard and see that love in others?

What’s that?  You don’t read at least seven chapters of the Bible every single day?  You must not really believe the words of Psalm 119.

Just a Series of Chemical Reactions

Two Oregon churches were vandalized, with “Praise the FSM” painted on their property. FSM stands for “flying spaghetti monster,” a popular internet meme for some atheists. The Friendly Atheist decided to raise some money for the clean-up to help out the churches.

The clip below is from Fox and Friends with both Pastor John Bluebaugh and Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist discussing the situation and its aftermath.

The real motivation for this action is revealed as Hemant squeezes in the last word in the segment.

“You don’t need Jesus to be good.  It’s possible to be good without God and I think the people on my website chipping in show that.”

Yes, people can do good things without Jesus.  However, they need to steal ethics from some other realm in order to make that claim. It’s like a man with no taste buds trying to pass himself off as a food critic.  He can shovel down the food just like everyone else, but when asked if that bite of that steak tasted good, he has to lean over to his brother, who happens to have taste buds, to get the answer.

Or perhaps he takes a poll, determining what the majority of people think of steak. But then what if the people polled are mostly vegans? Or maybe his brother has a head cold that changes his opinion?

While helping others is always commendable, modern atheists are completely nonsensical when trying to articulate why it is so.  Why is a group of skin-bags full of blood and muscle giving money to another group of skin-bags full of blood and muscle good or bad? It was, after all, just a series of chemical reactions. Why should I care about it more than the chemical reactions that lead a hunk of meat to sit on a couch and watch lights come out of a television?

One more thought: we know the ends don’t always justify the means. But do the means ever justify the ends?

Thrones of David and Living Stones

Jesus sits on the throne of David, as the King of kings. But we modern Christians forget that there is more than one throne.

David writes in Psalm 122:

Jerusalem— built as a city
that is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
There thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David. (Psalm 122:3-5)(ESV)

Who sits on these other thrones?

Who is the Greatest?

In the gospel of Luke, in the context of the last supper, the disciples begin arguing over who will be regarded as the greatest. Who is going to be chief viceroy in the Messiah’s new kingdom?

Jesus responds by talking about the rulers of the Gentiles, and how the disciples should not be like them. He concludes with:

And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:29,30)

Matthew records a similar exchange in chapter 19, but including the word “twelve” before “thrones”, giving greater significance to the apostles. This flows into Revelation 21:14, where the apostles are seen as the foundations of the New Jerusalem, the capital city of the new heavens and new earth. Thrones.  Foundations. Living stones, with one cornerstone: Christ.

What’s remarkable is what Jesus does not say during these exchanges. He does not rebuke them saying that his kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. He does not roll his eyes and say “You are thinking too much like first century Jews. The kingdom is purely in the heavenly realm, and is about personal salvation. There aren’t really any rulers in the sense you are thinking about. Read more Plato.”

What does he say? He tells them to be better rulers than the Gentile rulers. To be the greatest ruler in the new kingdom, one would need to be a servant instead. Put another way, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

But there are more living stones than just the apostles. (1 Pet. 2:5)

More than Just Twelve Thrones

This promise of authority in the new kingdom is not just for the Twelve. 1 Corinthians is packed full of similar language.

Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are your’s; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are your’s; And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s. (1 Cor. 3:21-23)

Paul rebukes the Corinthians for taking fellow believers to pagan courts. Why does he say this practice is wrong?

Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? (1 Cor. 6:2-4)(ESV)

Since Christ has been resurrected and enthroned, things have changed, and the old order has been turned upside down. The church should be acting as if this is true, instead of pretending it isn’t. When the Corinthians brought a fellow brother before a pagan judge, they were pretending that Christ was still in the grave, and that he wasn’t really King of kings and Lord of lords. Because if they really believed that Christ is King, they would know that they should be able to handle such trivial matters themselves.

Why?

Because they will help judge the world, and with it, those very same pagan judges.

By going to pagan judges to settle church or “kingdom” matters, they were acting like the Israelites of old, reversing the conquest of the land. Or plundering the temple to pay off foreign kings.

Fellow Heirs

I have explained elsewhere that the promise of Abraham was really for the inheritance of the world, and that through Christ, as the new Israel, we are the recipients of the same promise. The twelve tribes of Israel have now been expanded to include all of the nations of the earth, and the promised land expanded to mean the entire world.

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5)

“And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” (Rom. 8:17)

“…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom. 8:37)

You have a throne and crown waiting for you.  You are a fellow heir of the King of kings. You are part of his body.  What he possesses, you possess. You have a throne of David waiting for you.

And are you going to be timid? Are you going to act as if you are never going to wear your crown? Are you going to despise your inheritance?

Tasty Sampler 6/17

1. Calling mere cohabitation what it really is, and bringing back the word concubine.

In the past 40 years, it seems, concubinage has come to light again under a different name. Like ancient concubinage, contemporary cohabitation is a deliberately ambiguous relationship. The partners make no promises and have no legal obligations to one another.

2. Divine or God-directed Evolution? This posits that the church at large will eventually accept some form of evolution, and most already have, and that this is a good thing. The author compares it to birth control and flat earth beliefs, but that’s like comparing the roots of one tree to a single branch of another.  This ignores the inherent culture of death that is permeated when evolution is the overarching foundation story of a culture. There is a reason why this doctrine has been a bloody battleground.  The formal acceptance by the church at large would be a travesty.

What this says to me is that in another generation or two this issue of evolution will become an non-issue to American evangelicals. It is already a non-issue to Catholic believers and Protestants outside of America. Current controversies often disappear in time.

3. Hugh Hefner will die alone.

Hugh Hefner is a perverted old man who used his position and power within the industry of pornography to secure sexual conquests. At present, he’s at the end of his life. Those people at his parties aren’t his friends. Those women around him keeping the king warm in the cold of his twilight could care less. They’re only there because of his money and power.

4. Tips for writers of detective fiction. 24 fun and interesting facts about reality from someone with actual experience.

When a bullet from a Colt’s .45, or any firearm of approximately the same size and power, hits you, even if not in a fatal spot, it usually knocks you over. It is quite upsetting at any reasonable range.

5. Book expert from A Meal with Jesus. Tim Challies adds some of his own thoughts at the end about hospitality.

One of the wisest things Aileen and I did when we first got married was ensure that we had no television in the house. One of the most foolish things we did was introduce one as soon as she got pregnant. More foolish still was eating far too many meals in front of it.

6. Train wreck of math education. The key to a good understanding of math is to teach its history and its integration with other disciplines, and to not teach so much of it so fast.

Mathematics is, in a sense, a religious discipline.

But, then, most disciplines are.