glance, Christian legalism appears to provide
believers with well defined peramiters to avoid sin.
However, when scrutinized
under the light of Scripture,
it becomes a matter of simply replacing one kind of
bondage for another.
| The tendency of Baptists
to invite legalistic thinking into their churches is a historical fact.
Its influence has caused some congregations to thrive numerically while
choking others slowly out of existence. Those churches where it is
universally accepted exert a kind of control on their memberships that
is obvious and pronounced. Yet, other churches (including Baptist
fellowships and associations) face its presence in their midst and attempt
to deal with it while even others fold as a result. Regardless of
how it impacts the size of the church membership roll, it is still an issue
that elicits serious consideration.
What is it?
Should Bible believing Baptists
embrace or purge it from their midsts?
The opposite of legalism
is lawlessness. However, born-again believers are not delivered into
that. Therefore, Christian freedom does not mean that we are free
to do whatever we want. The Bible does state that "...where the Spirit
of the Lord is, there is liberty (2nd Corinthians 3:17)," but there is
no place in Scripture where spiritual freedom provides us with a license
to sin. Furthermore, a Baptist can be conservative without being
legalistic--a contradiction to a legalist but a reality to those who refuse
to be beguiled.
In Christian theology, legalism
is a pejorative term referring either to the imposition of excessive religious
rules of behavior (also known as letterism). It masquerades as spiritual
truth in our time just as it did when Jesus so greviously rebuked the Pharisees
(Matthew 23:13-29) for their extra-Biblical rules of righteousness which
they used to measure "spirituality," while scorning those who did not meet
Christian legalism is much
the same. It appears in the form of a long list of all those things
that "true" believers are not to do. While correctly determining
that the three sources of temptation are the world, the flesh, and the
Devil, it goes on to define, in no uncertain terms, the many supposed external
forms of sin that come as a result. Sins of the world might include
going to a movie theater or listening to an unacceptable form of music.
Sins of the flesh might also include eating pork or wearing jewelry.
Sins of the Devil? There is not enough room to list all of the supposed
sins accredited to his influence that go beyond those clearly delinated
in the Scriptures. In fact, when placed under the light of Biblical
truth, those whose convictions fall under this category struggle to discern
the difference between what is truly sin and what are simply preferences
that they have misconceived as sin while expecty others to comply.
Christian legalism has four
very desctructive outcomes.
We tend to ignore the more subtle "Christian sins" (e.g. having a critical
spirit, gossip, arrogance, etc.) while any spirit of love for other believers
disipates when they do not measure up to our standards. Thus, the
charge of hypocricy becomes a valid one. No, you don't go to movie
theaters but your obvious need to criticize those who do is definitely
2. Pride: By living
up to all of the "standards" that are either self-imposed or enforced by
those with whom we fellowship, we begin to exhibit a superior attitude
while being falsely convinced that we are truly humble--the result of self-beguilement.
We constantly assess other believers according to the rules and are quick
to look down on others on the basis of any negative assessment.
Our desire to have people tow the line and conform to these standards is
never recognized for what it really is--a way to exert power over others.
Admitting that legalism fosters spiritual abuse is impossible for those
who embrace and promote it.
Legalism never produces gracious
and expansive souls, growing richer in compassion and wisdom as the years
go by. Those who experience moral failure, mental breakdown,
various ongoing temptations, emotional depression, etc., find little help
should they seek it from a legalist. Being told to diagnose
all such miseries of the soul as one's failure to check off one of the
sins on the "legalistic list" actually trivializes the many principles
taught in Scripture, which God included in His Word to enable believers
to overcome the deepest distresses of the soul.
Finally, legalism sends out
a message to the lost world that the Gospel is false.
How can it be that those
who embrace legalism had once bowed the knee to God in shame with the realization
that their sins had sent the Son of God to the old rugged cross?
That deep sense of the need for a Saviour resulted in the salvation of
their souls. However, having become infatuated with externalism,
being self-beguiled, filled with spiritual pride, being judgemental, and
exerting control over others is virtually ignored. Where are the
internal changes that truly identify us with Christ? How effective
is legalism when seeking to assist others with their spiritual growth?
How soon we forget that it was the Pharisees who continually got in Jesus'
way when he presented those Biblical truths that went beyond the externals
and addressed the need of all men to recognize the decietfulness of their
own hearts. Legalism tells the lost world that the Gospel only changes
men on the outside; that salvation does not truly change the heart.
If it did, then why such critical spirits? Why such arrogance?
Why such intollerence?
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
let us be so careful that we do not misrepresent the message of the Gospel
nor the real truth of our own sin natures.
God is still working on all
| "...for the LORD seeth
not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD
looketh on the heart." ~ 1Samuel 16:7b