Myth: Conservatism is Legalistic — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback:Do You Know What Important Died This Month? – Bethany Baptist Church

  2. Hi Josh, Thanks for your take on this issue. It was an interesting read and gave me a lot to think about and some perspectives I hadn’t considered before. I have struggled with this since childhood and is part of the reason I walked away from church at age 18. I struggled with the “legalism” in the church I grew up in (Church of Christ) and the hypocrisy that I saw going on. There were many rules not found in the Bible (no instrumental music of any kind ever, no dancing of any kind ever, women must wear their hair long, no alcohol of any kind ever, the list is long…) The Churches of Christ are independent, so perhaps they all have their different rules depending on the particular congregation, but we went to many of the ones in the Twin Cities area and they were all the same. My issue was that everyone followed the rules, but there was very little love. People didn’t care for one another. People were left out. People (especially the kids) were not being discipled. There was no talk of doctrine (in fact, I had never even remember hearing the word “doctrine” until I came to Bethany when we moved to Iowa). Granted, part of this is my parents’ fault because it was their job to disciple me, but the concept of “making disciples” was foreign. How are they supposed to disciple children if they are not being discipled? Anywho…I saw a lot of rules to follow, but no love or heart change happening, especially on the part of the youth. I saw people “following the rules” of the church, but their personal lives were a mess. Mine included. I walked away because I knew in my heart that following rules wasn’t the point. But at the time, I didn’t know what the point was because it wasn’t being taught to me. I absolutely believe that Christians must set standards that are based on Biblical principles, but not explicitly stated in the Bible. I think there are examples of that in Paul’s letters to the various churches (such as women wearing head coverings when praying and prophesying). Some churches today believe all women for all time should wear head coverings. Other churches believe that Paul was mitigating a specific problem in a particular church at the time and giving an example of how to apply Biblical principles to specific situations in life, but not necessarily a rule that all women in every church for all of time to follow. My question is this: Is it OK to set a standard for ourselves based on Biblical principles taking into account our personal sin struggles, specific life situations, etc…but not impose that standard to other people? Is that the point when it becomes “Legalism?” When we start judging the hearts of others based on our own standards that aren’t specified in the Bible? My understanding, at least with some very specific contemporary churches– I can’t make a blanket statement about all of them–is that the some contemporary churches encourage individuals and families to set standards for their lives based on Biblical principles, and equip them with the tools to do so, but the leadership in the church doesn’t feel it’s their job to impose extra-Biblical rules on all members. Because what is sinful to one person may not be sinful to another. What is a temptation for one may not be for another. Are we causing divisions and schisms by imposing extra-Biblical rules on all people? Can you speak to that?

  3. Hi Tina! Thank you for your response. I apologize that it took me a while to get back to you. I usually only check these things once a week.

    Thank you for sharing some of your background. I fear that that story could be told many times. It’s my understanding that the Church of Christ is truly Legalistic because it adds a work (baptism) to salvation. So it makes perfect sense that this would carry over into daily life.

    I think you bring up an important point in noting that different biblical concepts will be lived out differently by different people. I like to make a distinction between the biblical principle and the application of that principle. The principles are universal. The applications may differ. However, some applications are truer to the principle than others. These are difficult issues. We all need discernment in applying them in our own lives and patience with others as they seek to apply them in theirs.

    This brings me to your main point. Is it wrong to impose our standards (we could say, our application of biblical principles) on other Christians? It might be helpful if you could define what you mean by “impose”. I believe in free will and individual soul liberty. I think that no person should be coerced into violating their conscience. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t seek to sharpen each other in our understanding of the biblical principles and how to best apply them. I don’t see this as imposition but as edification.

    Another factor is that God has created different jurisdictions with real but limited authority. So some standards can only be made by an individual before God. Others should be handled on a family level. Others must be made by local churches. Churches cannot (and should never try!) to run someone’s personal life. But church leaders do have a biblical responsibility to teach others how to conduct themselves in the formal church meetings (1 Tim. 3:15) and on how to apply all that God says to all of life (Acts 20:27).

    So, is it legalistic to impose extra-biblical standards on others? Well, I think it’s important to let the Bible define our terms. It’s worth noting that the Bible nowhere forbids us from creating extra-biblical standards or from teaching them with others. Those who condemn people for doing this are actually creating an extra-biblical standard and then teaching it to others. By their own standards, they would be a legalist. So, this measure of legalism is self-contradicting.

    What does the Bible say about legalism? I want to return to the book of Matthew. According to Jesus a legalist is someone who (1) follows the rules but doesn’t get the heart (Matt. 5:20-22, 27-28) like you were describing earlier, (2) finds loopholes to feel spiritual while indulging the flesh (Matt. 5:33-37), (3) nullifies scriptural commands with man-made commands (Mark 7:8-13), (4) imposes double standards (Matt. 23:4), (5) is motivated by self-glory (Matt. 23:5-12), (6) ignores important issues, e.g. disciple-making, worship, devotion (Matt. 23:23-24), or (7) only looks good on the outside (Matt. 23:27-28).

    You’ll notice that these are very difficult symptoms to diagnose, in ourselves and others. It mostly has to do with the heart. That’s why I think it’s very dangerous to start accusing our brothers and sisters of legalism. Legalism is not a set of actions. It’s a motive. And motives happen on the inside. I wrote this article, not to help us hunt down legalists in the church but to help us each look in the mirror of God’s Word and see where we might have a bit of Pharisee in us. I’m not trying to condemn other Christians or churches, but to help us all think biblically about God’s desire for our hearts and lives.

    Thank you for your interaction, Tina. God Bless!

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