Monday, May 12, 2008

The Problem of Legalism - Part 1

by Bruce Mills

A couple of years ago, my youngest son was going through a stage in which he was moussing his hair into a kind of “Mohawk” look. I personally thought it looked ridiculous, but I decided a long time ago that such matters were not a hill on which I wished to die in terms of my relationship with my son. I have no problem with telling him what I think about his hairstyle, but I figure that one day he will grow up and realize that the majority of the people in the world—particularly those who wish to hold a good job—don’t go through life looking like something out of a Japanese cartoon.

That same son also plays guitar as one of the musicians for the praise portion of our church’s worship service. One Sunday, as I was preparing to preach, he walked into the church auditorium with his hair moussed into a row of spikes down the middle of his head like the spikes down the back of a Stegosaurus dinosaur. I cringed inside, thinking how stupid it looked. I must admit that my personal pride was also at play in the situation, wondering what people in the congregation would think about an elder’s son wearing a hairstyle that was so out of place among the middle-class congregation which makes up our church.

No one said anything to me about him during the first service, but just as the second service was beginning, during the singing of the first song, I realized that I needed to see the head usher about a matter, so I quickly walked to the back of the church to speak with him. Suddenly I saw one of the older saints in our congregation approaching me with a look on his face that evidenced disgust and anger. He walked up to me and in a very angry tone, said, “I’m leaving this church right now, and do you want to know why? Because that young man up there on the platform is wearing spiked hair.” He obviously did not know that the “young man” was my son and I wasn’t about to tell him. I replied, “I understand your feeling, but don’t choose this as a hill to die on in regard to your spiritual walk.” The man answered, “I know it’s my own problem, but he’s rubbing it in my face.” Once again I exhorted him not to choose such a trivial matter as appearance as the basis of refusing to stay and join in worship. He stated, “I know it’s my own problem, but I just can’t stand looking at it while I’m trying to worship. I have to go out and pray about this.” He then left the auditorium.

Ten minutes later, with this matter still rolling through my thoughts, I stepped into the pulpit to preach. Fortunately, the Lord was gracious and the Holy Spirit overcame my own disturbed mental state and I was able to effectively deliver the message.

That afternoon, I sat down with my son and explained what happened to him. Before I could even explain my reasons to him as to why I wanted him to consider changing his hairstyle, he said, “Okay, I won’t wear it that way to church anymore.” I went on to explain that I would not consider this man a “weaker brother” in the classic sense of that term, but more of a modern day Pharisee who was looking on the outward appearance rather than the heart, as God does (1 Samuel 16:7). I felt that he should not wear his hair in that style while playing in church simply because it was a distraction for many. I’m sure there were more people who, like that man, looked on my son’s hair with disgust, and were thus distracted from worship. And there were probably some who were only mildly distracted in the sense of inwardly laughing at how ridiculous it looked, rather than focusing on the purpose for which they were present in church.

That is simply one encounter which I have had with legalism among Christians. I’m happy to report that the gentleman who was offended by my son’s hair still worships at our church, and my son’s hairstyle has changed—although he now has a small eyebrow piercing that I personally think looks ridiculous. Fortunately, it is mostly hidden by his hair, which now hangs down over his forehead. I'm sure that one day he get over the audacity of youthfulness.

But my fear is that how we approach the issue of legalism and how we teach our young people about how they should think about it, is confusing and misleading. And, in writing about this topic, I am afraid that I will be misunderstood. It is not my desire to persuade young people that it is okay to wear strange hairstyles, baggy pants, and get body piercings and tattoos. And I’m not saying that smoking cigarettes and drinking alcoholic beverages is no big deal for Christians.

This article does not reflect a personal rebellion on my part. Personally, I am a real stick-in-the-mud when it comes to these matters. My own lifestyle would hardly offend anyone. I am boring. So I’m not fighting against restraints on my personal liberty which I might feel because I’m an elder in the church. There is nothing that I desire to do that my position in the church prevents me from doing.

Rather, my purpose is to encourage people to examine a system of values which is harmful and does not work. We must focus on genuine Christianity, not man-made religion. It is important to teach people how to make moral decisions based on Scripture and then show them how the Holy Spirit can help them put biblical truth into practice in their daily lives.

Legalism Defined

Truman Dollar defined legalism as “the tendency to reduce Christianity to a set of rules rather than a personal relationship with Christ.” It gauges a man’s relationship to God in terms of adherence to man-made rules. It is always judgmental and always eliminates the need for moral decision-making, because decisions are made by a clearly delineated set of rules. The result is usually frustration and unhappiness, because those who are caught up in legalism are racked with guilt over their inability to keep those rules.

Legalism is also subtle and pervasive. None of us are ever completely able to overcome its influence in our lives. We continue to evaluate people on external issues such as skin color, ethnicity, dress, hairstyle, occupation, or education level, and ignore what they are on the inside. We all judge others by such externals and that is wrong.

Abiding by certain standards is not, in itself, legalism. Legalism is making those standards a gauge of one’s spiritual standing with God. Legalism says, “Keep the rules and you will be spiritual.” That isn’t spirituality; that is modern day Phariseeism.

God’s laws are absolute and unchanging. The physical laws by which sustain the universe do not change; they are absolute. So too, God’s moral laws do not change. It is always wrong to lie, steal, covet, and commit adultery.

But mankind has not been content to simply apply those standards. Instead, they have expounded upon them, interpreted them, and often twisted them. God’s absolutes are reinterpreted to include such matters as hairstyle and length, dancing, music styles, homeschooling vs. public education, and a host of other issues. And when we do that, we cheapen the Christian faith.

Please do not misunderstand. I do not object to parents or Christian schools having dress codes and prohibitions against certain activities. Rules function to control behavior for the common good of everyone in the home or school. It is not wrong to have rules. However, it is essential that people understand that compliance with such man-made rules and standards does not make one spiritual or improve his or her standing with God, but I'm afraid that many do often fall into such faulty thinking. When parents or Christian schools decide that focusing on externals is more important than focusing on the internal matter of the heart, they are doomed to create modern day Pharisees among the children who are entrusted to their care.

If you ask such individuals or school officials if they believe they are legalists, they will deny such with vociferous cries of denial and dismay that you would even think such might be the case. But if you ask the young people under their care what the essence of true spirituality is, you will often hear a recitation regarding obedience to the list of "do's" and don'ts" to which they have become accustomed.

Anytime rules are established which go beyond the clear imperatives of Scripture, we run the risk of developing a culture of legalism. And much of American evangelicalism has degenerated into such a culture.

So that's what I believe the problem is which we face with legalism. In the next post, I’ll look at how we have gotten to the place we are in evangelical Christianity, and why legalism fails to accomplish its intended purpose.

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