I have previously commented that we have a surprising problem with gospel freedom. More often than not, it isn’t what the Bible says that seems to cause us problems but more what it doesn’t say. We are prone to seeing our way of doing things as a good way (which it might well be). But what we consider a good way soon becomes the best way (which, still, it could be). Only, the best way quickly gets called the right way which, soon enough, becomes the only way that, in turn, becomes synonymous with a biblical mandate (at least, in our minds).
There is, sadly, a new form of this legalism on the rise. I say new legalism to distinguish it from the old form that we all claim to hate. The old legalism largely said keep away. Don’t do certain things and all will be well. It insisted on no cinema, no theatre, no drinking, no long hair and these sorts of things. As long as you are keeping away from A, B and C your righteousness is effectively in the bag. And most modern folks look at that and say, no thanks.
But the new legalism doesn’t say ‘keep away.’ The new legalism says do more and more and the doing becomes the new law. Like with the old legalism, it takes a biblical principle and pushes it too far.
Old legalism took good biblical principles of holiness and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (which is right and proper) and pressed them into all sorts of areas of life. The biblical command not to be drunk turned into a rule to never drink, the biblical principles surrounding modesty came with definite views on just what items of clothes could possibly be considered modest and a host of things like these. Right biblical ideas over-applied and over-reaching so that wider principles became rules and clear commands got extended well beyond the command itself. Again, most of us see these things clearly enough now.
But the new legalism takes a different set of principles and over-applies them. The new buzzwords are things like ‘missional living’, ‘community’ and ‘doing life together.’ Now all those things are rightly rooted in biblical principles. The Lord clearly commands us to be hospitable and welcome one another as Christ welcomed us. We are to spend time together and bear one another’s burdens (and all the other ‘one another’ things that demand we actually spend time together). The principles in which these things are rooted are thoroughly biblical. But the problem comes when those principles are pressed into rules that the bible simply doesn’t demand. It becomes a problem when we insist our ‘rules’ – good, or even best, as they may be for our specific context – are pressed into every context.
There aren’t many people, for example, who would go on record as saying it is legitimate not to live on an estate or in a particular community in order to reach it. Now, that may be good – it may even be best – but we err if we start going so far as to say the Lord won’t work when we don’t or it is wrong not to do so. Where does the Bible actually say that? Does the Bible say, anywhere, that it is wrong to drive in and try to be a presence in a community without living there? I think there are lots of advantages and benefits to living in and among the people you are trying to reach. But the moment you begin saying you must, we are insisting on a vision that the Lord nowhere does.
Others push hard for the ‘open door’ model of ministry. By that, I mean the view that people can come into your home whenever they like at whatever time they like. Again, that may be good. In some contexts, that may be best. But where does the Bible actually demand that? As good an approach as that may be, I just don’t see the bit of the Bible where Jesus says unless you welcome people into your house in your pyjamas at all hours of the night, you just aren’t cut out to be in ministry. We can be in danger of turning what is good, maybe even best for certain contexts, into a rule that the Lord never insists upon.
Others still push for an all out commitment to the church approach. In some places, that manifests at the insistence somebody comes to every meeting, without fail, and to miss it is evidence of faulty priorities regardless of the reasons why. But in other places, it’s less meetings and more the all encompassing manner of discipleship. Unless you drop everything to come to the church barbecue, or watch films with others, and you ever do anything on your own, or only with your immediate nuclear family, your priorities are askew.
That’s not to say those things aren’t good, helpful and valuable nor that we might not want to encourage our people into them. But the moment we begin insisting on them as though they are biblically mandated we have turned what could be good and helpful into a new form of legalism. We make them an acid test of faith that the Lord just doesn’t.
It’s very rare for the legalist to say these are extra-biblical. Their things are always rooted in scripture. If pushed on it, they wouldn’t say these things determine your salvation. But although they insist with their mouths that they are not salvation issues, the tutting at your absence or the refusal to give you any responsibility if you appear (on their view) to be less than one hundred per cent faithful to their additional rules belies what they say. Anything less than total adherence is deemed either an issue of loyalty to the church (which is a proxy for disloyalty to Christ) or evidence of one in whom the Spirit is not truly working, for such people want to obey Christ’s commands (which happen to line up entirely with the legalists application of all biblical principles to everybody else’s lives).
But given these things are rooted in scriptural principles, how do we recognise legalistic over-reach and distinguish it from legitimate application of scripture? Here are some questions to ask:
- Could all believers, in all contexts, across all time reasonably be expected to do this or not? If not, it is likely a legalistic demand.
- Am I being encouraged to do this or am I being told I must do this to be faithful to Christ? If the latter, does scripture plainly ask the same thing or not? If not, this is likely legalism.
- If there is no clear biblical mandate for what I am being asked, am I being given any option not to do this thing? If not, it is likely legalism.
- Am I being encouraged to do this thing out of guilt? If guilt is the driving force, this is potentially legalism.
- To what does the person asking us to do this thing appeal to as the basis of our doing it: the Bible, the leadership, the vision, or something else? If it isn’t the Bible, this is probably legalism.
- Is there any grace given to people in different circumstances over this thing or is everybody, regardless of circumstance, expected to do this to the same degree? If the latter, this may well be legalistic.