“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.