People tend to think that everything in the Bible is either black or white, right or wrong.
I heard a lady say “I won’t ever go to that church –and neither should you– because they actually believe that some things –like what movies you watch and what music you listen to– are not sins! They don’t even believe drinking alcohol is a sin. I’ll never set foot in that church, because they won’t stand up against sin.”
I wanted to say “You mean the church doesn’t subscribe to legalism? Sign me up!”
But I didn’t.
I had to chuckle and roll my eyes as I listened to her vehement –and yet entirely unbiblical– defence of her legalistic position. The Bible, of course, was clear, according to her, that all those things –and many more things– were absolutely wrong.
Here’s the problem: she couldn’t back her position with scripture.
This is a prime example of the legalism that I was exposed to as a child. Arbitrary rules like how high your shirt collar had to be –above your collarbone– was rampant in the church that we attended when I was in junior high and high school.
The main reason we attended was that the church wasn’t hostile toward homeschooling, but it was a huge trade off, and, in hindsight, I’m not sure if it was worth it.
Legalism is everywhere in our churches today, it seems. I hardly ever listen to believers talk –either in real life or online– without some sort of “additional rules for living” being pushed on other people, usually rules that focus on outward behavior and not heart-issues.
Let’s look at the Bible and see who else in scripture had extra rules on top of scripture Oh, wait, you mean the pharisees? About those who say the outside is more important than the inside? What did Jesus have to say about them? Nothing too flattering, huh?
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you tithe mint and dill and cumin,
and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate,
but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
You blind Pharisee!
First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful,
but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.
So you also outwardly appear righteous to others,
but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Additional rules outside of those specifically in scripture are sometimes necessary. I’m not legalistic for expecting my children to finish school and chores before they use media, for example, but if I start imposing that rule on other adults and families, if I say it’s a sin issue if other families don’t do it my way, that’s legalism.
If I say it’s a part of your salvation, now I’ve crossed into false doctrine and teaching another gospel altogether.
Legalism is when someone says you’re in sin unless you abide by their list of rules which they claim are biblical, but they can’t find actual, literal, clear verses to back up their position.
Here’s just a few examples that others have tried to push on me:
- All women must stay home and should not work.
- Women should only wear dresses
- Any and all alcohol is sinful, even cough medicine and fermented foods
- Married women must keep having babies; stopping is a sin
- Sending your children to public or private school is a sin
- Godly people will always have daily devotions
- Godly husbands and wives pray together daily.
- A godly woman’s house will always be immaculate; a messy house is a sin
First of all, not all those rules are bad ideas. Some of them are actually wise choices. But, the issue is much deeper than that. The issue is making rules where the Bible doesn’t clearly make them.
The problem is saying “the Bible says” when the Bible does not say something,
How dare we, as measly little humans, attempt to add to the words and intent of God himself?
That’s dangerous water.
Don’t do it!
Don’t add to His words.
He has strong words for those who attempt to add to His words. These warnings are given in both the Old and New Testament.
You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it,
that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
Do not add to His words or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book:
if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book,
I think legalism comes from good intent.
People want to make sure they’re doing right in God’s eyes, doing good enough. (This ignores God’s grace which I’ll address in a coming post; we are never good enough and, therefore, need God’s grace).
In an effort to know what we should and shouldn’t do, they look for the black-and-white in scripture.
But, that’s the problem.
While there are many, many things that are black-and-white in the Bible –and honestly we should be focusing on these because undoubtedly we’ve got a lot of work to do in those actual biblical areas– there are many things that are simply not black-and-white in scripture.
There is a wide gray area between the black and white.
These gray areas fall into your Christian stewardship.
Would it be nice if God gave us absolute dos and don’ts for every possible choice?
But the fact is, He didn’t.
If He did –if there was an absolute sin issue for every choice– why would there be a command to pray for wisdom? There wouldn’t. There would only be commands to not sin.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God,
who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
If everything was either godly or a sin why would Paul tell us to not judge in certain areas? Such as eating vegetarian or celebrating certain holidays –all things not addressed as sins in scripture?
One person believes he may eat anything,
while the weak person eats only vegetables.
Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains,
and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats,
for God has welcomed him.
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?
It is before his own master that he stands or falls.
I remember thinking this way in high school: I remember going out my front door for a walk and fearing that if I made the wrong choice –should I turn left or right?– that I would no longer be in the will of God and I would be sinning.
If you don’t understand the concept of stewardship, then every choice in this life seems like a horrible mistake just waiting to happen.
We live in fear of upsetting or disappointing God.
The things is, that’s not how God works.
He’s not a cruel God who makes us guess about what He wants.
His instructions are clearly written in scripture.
Anything not written in scripture –in our case, anything not written in the New Testament as a command (because we live in the Age of Grace)– is amoral. That means it’s not a sin issue: neither good or bad.
If you need wisdom on a non-sin issue you can pray about it like James says.
There’s no reason to pray about a sin issue –about whether or not you should do it– because scripture is already clear that you shouldn’t.
God’s will for our lives is not some mystical plan that we have to try to find and walk a tightrope so we don’t accidentally fall out of it.
God’s will for us is simple:
Grow in knowledge of God.
Everything else is your stewardship.
God’s will is not complicated and unknowable like some people think.
Unless it is clearly and absolutely written in the Bible as a command to New Testament gentile believers, it doesn’t apply.
Legalism comes when we try to add to what is actually there, when we try to make unclear passages clearer by adding to them or when we say that Old Testament law is a command to gentiles today when scripture clearly teaches that the Old Testament law has passed away and is over.
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.
And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Just what the Bible says.
No twisting scripture or jumping through hoops.
Don’t read between the lines.
Don’t assume God meant something He didn’t say.
Use logical, plain historical grammatical approach to scripture. (See this link for a better explanation of literal grammatical historical interpretation.)
Don’t let your personal opinions of what you think or feel should be right and wrong get in the way of what scripture actually teaches.
Take the verses about not adding to the Bible very seriously, and, if you can’t solidly back it up without any hoop-jumping, it’s not Bible truth.
Above all don’t trust your feelings about scripture. Our feelings will deceive us.
He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool:
but whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered.
Use your mind which is guided by the Holy Spirit if you’re His child.
Be renewed in the spirit of your minds.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that by testing you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Pray for wisdom when you need it, especially when dealing with confusing passages. Trust you mind which is focused on Christ above your fleeting feelings.