Monday, June 2, 2008

The Problem of Legalism - Part 3

by Bruce Mills

Due to a busy schedule, I have failed to get part 3 of this series on legalism posted, but it’s finally here. I hope that things will settle down enough now that I can get back to being a little more consistent about posting articles for your reading pleasure (or irritation). As I stated before, this series is based on an article by Truman Dollar, originally published back in the 1960’s.

The Victims of Legalism

Although there is a sense in which all believers are victimized by legalism, some special groups seem particularly vulnerable.

Pastors’ children often suffer from legalism. Church members expect them to act right, but what is right? Frequently that means that they are to keep a set of rules that will not offend the “weakest” brother or sister in the church.

The truth is, the rules are often kept by pastors’ children in order not to embarrass the pastor-father. Frequently the children have no personal convictions about the rules. Their motives are wrong in keeping them. In effect the child is told, “Yours is not to question why; yours is but to do or die.” That approach wrongs the child and denies the Christian faith. Consequently, pastors’ and missionaries’ children often become rebellious. As soon as they leave home they reject the system because the Christian faith has never been internalized.

The truth is, pastors’ kids should live correctly because they have been saved and are directed by the Holy Spirit. They, too, must be allowed to make errors. They must be encouraged to live by godly principles and allowed to make personal choices.

Christian schools and colleges have also been victimized by legalism. It is generally believed that high moral behavior, as well as Christian philosophy, must be the product of a Christian school education. In fact, some would say that the survival of the Christian school movement depends upon evidence that the school has affected the child morally.

This moral result is so important to the image and financing of Christian schools that many schools believe they cannot leave a child’s behavior to chance. If necessary, they must force their students to behave nicely because bad behavior reflects on the whole system of Christian education. It is considered too risky to let students exercise their Christian responsibility to obey God. After all, they might do wrong.

In many cases, fear causes school administrators to resort to stringent rules. There are rules about everything: dress, hair length, language, permissible and impermissible after-school activities, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Now, I strongly believe that a Christian institution is both within its rights and wise to have scriptural and reasonable rules for conduct and appearance. But rules without reason do not motivate students to right behavior, and they do not teach them how to make right moral decisions. It is tragic that many students who have not been taught how to make moral decisions for themselves reject the rules as soon as they are out from under the threat of expulsion or bad grades.

Churches are also victimized by legalism. Church leaders will tell members, “Do not give the church a bad name,” and certainly, all believers must be concerned about the reputation of the local church. However, little or nothing is said about obeying Scripture because it is right and pleasing to God. The goal too often is to protect the church and its reputation rather than to glorify God.

There is a basic flaw in the logic. It is presumed that under a system of law, it doesn’t really matter why you do right. Well, it does matter. Morally correct behavior because of fear of the system will end when the system has no more control. Right behavior as a result of voluntary decisions based on a knowledge of Scripture and a response to the Holy Spirit will continue. This type of behavior builds the individual in the image of Christ.

The Attraction of Legalism

If legalism is so disastrous to personal Christianity, why does it have such a hold on some churches and Christian schools? There are some logical and fairly obvious reasons.

Rule-keeping is easily measured. It is mistakenly believed that an individual’s faith can be quantified. It is presumed that by simply looking at one’s hair, dress, music preference, and so forth, you can always tell what is going on inside. The problem is that such an approach often leads to great surprise, particularly on the part of parents in dealing with their children. The child may look great on the outside, but be ungodly on the inside. It is the child’s heart that really counts. We must major on the inner man.

Legalism eliminates agonizing decisions. To practice your faith, you must learn God’s principles and apply them daily to life’s changing circumstances. This is often painful and stretches your faith, but it is the only Christianity with substance. Ask Daniel how he made it in Babylon. He will tell you how he applied his faith. His faith was internal, and when the test came, he voluntarily made decisions about his lifestyle. He rested in the strength of his personal convictions.

Christian leaders often confuse conformity with spirituality. Conformity is a social pressure and may well have nothing to do with Christianity. Many cults, such as the fundamentalist Mormon sect, which recently made the national news because of their polygamous beliefs and marriage of under aged girls, get their people to conform, but they are not Christian.

Legalism, it should be noted, is the easy way out for insecure Christian leaders. It makes them feel safe, but it is harmful to believers.

It seems clear that the essential difference between legalism and freedom in Christ is the believer’s responsibility for choice. This does not mean freedom to indulge the flesh, ignore your brother’s needs, or ignore the law. Christian liberty is the freedom to choose to do right without a system of rules or an ever-present authority forcing you to do right. Galatians 5:13 states, For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

I am concerned that some believers, even some evangelical Christians, have let their basic belief in total depravity keep them from understanding the moral victory we have in Christ. Some, like the scribes, believe we must hedge Christians in with layers of rules or they will chase wildly after sin. We must recognize that this system of legalism denies the power and victory of the Christian faith. We have totally ignored the practical aspects of both Romans and Galatians (Gal. 2:4, 5:1).

The Response to Legalism

What should our response be to legalism? If rules are not a sure-fire shortcut to spirituality, and ignore the inner man, what can we do? If young people are often driven to rebellion and deprived of responsibility to make right choices by lengthy lists of unreasonable rules, what constructive approach should we take?

First, we need to teach that God makes it clear that some things are wrong, absolutely wrong: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, strife, jealousy, anger, drunkenness, and so forth (Gal. 5:19-21). We must explain and condemn these without hesitancy.

Second, there are some things which are “gray areas” about which Christians disagree. We must admit that. It’s okay to have differences of opinion. But we must remember that license is not an alternative to legalism. In reaction to legalism, we must not flaunt our freedom. We must voluntarily restrict our liberties out of love for others (Rom. 14:3-4).

Third, we must teach the principles of Scripture. They are vital. God wants us to honor Him, dress modestly, and improve the inner man (1 Peter 3:1-4). We must teach people that they are responsible to God personally in these matters. We must teach them about the power of the Holy Spirit and how to use His indwelling strength to achieve victory over sin.

Finally, we must be honest with each other and with young people. We must say, “Rules don’t make you spiritual.” We should admit that rules are based on personal preferences and can sometimes be helpful because they promote safety or enable us to function more easily in our culture. We may even use them in the future, but we will not make keeping them a gauge of spirituality.

We need to challenge young people with honesty and the truth and do it openly. Let’s not be afraid of our critics. This will take great courage and wisdom, but it needs to be done.

Why can’t Christian school administrators say, “The length, style, and color of your hair has nothing to do with your relationship to God, but we would like you to dress modestly because it helps the image of our school. Even the unsaved world associates certain types of dress and hair styles with rebellious attitudes, and we don’t want to promote that image.”

Why can’t we say, “Your mind is important to your spiritual growth, so don’t expose it to filth.”

Why can’t we say, “Music is a gift of God. Study it to learn about its nobility and purpose,” rather than providing a list of unacceptable music and a sledge hammer?

I’ll tell you why. We are afraid that the system of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people will not really work, and they will embarrass us and our church or educational institution. We are afraid, so we make all the decisions for people by reducing the Christian life to a set of rules. We really believe they will never choose to do right. Well, the truth is that some will choose to do right—if there is any reality in what we profess to believe. If men and women cannot be taught to voluntarily restrain their liberty, the system has failed and Christianity is powerless.

We need to develop honesty and courage when we deal with legalism. We need to give God’s Holy Spirit time to work in the heart of His children, and the result will be that it will amaze us to learn how believers respond to honesty—and compassion.

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