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Legalist!

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  • Legalist!

    by Dan Doriani


    Shortly after I preached one recent Sunday, I saw an earnest-looking man angling toward me. His brow showed that he was a friendly fellow with a serious question. He had bounced, he told me, from the Reformed tradition to the Holiness tradition and back again. Why, he asked, do Reformed churches love doctrine more than holiness and Holiness churches love holiness more than doctrine? Should we not love both equally? I had to admire both his perspective and his manner. What a blessed contrast to Christians who seem to think they can preserve the valid insights of their tradition by hurling labels at the other camp. And we know the labels in this case: the Reformed are charged with "dead orthodoxy" and Holiness devotees are "legalists."

    Since the charge of "legalism" is tossed around carelessly, we should define the terms and see who does and who does not deserve the label. Let me name four classes of legalists.

    1. Class one legalists believe that they can do something to earn God's favor and even obtain salvation. The rich young man who asked Jesus what he could do to inherit eternal life fits this category (Matt. 19:16-22, Luke 18:18-23). Many of the world's religions are legalistic in roughly this sense.

    2. Class two legalists require believers to submit to man-made commandments, as if they were God's law. Think of the Pharisees who attacked Jesus when he didn't follow their rules for the Sabbath, for washing hands, and for avoiding sinners (Matt. 12:1-14, 15:1-2, Luke 15:1-2).

    3. Class three legalists obey God and do good in order to retain God's favor. Here we think of disciples who believe God's daily favor depends on their daily performance. When something goes wrong, they are prone to ask, "What did I do to deserve this? Is God punishing me for something?"

    These three errors are different from each other, yet each is a form of legalism. Sadly, some hurl the "legalist" label at anyone eager to understand and obey God's law. Let us remember that Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15; see also Gen. 26:5, Exod. 20:6, Psalm 119, John 15:10).

    That said, there is probably one more kind of legalist. It is a borderline case. This person avoids the worst forms of legalism. Yet he so accentuates obedience to God's law that other ideas shrivel up. He thinks of Christian living as little more than obedience to God's law. He reasons, "God says we should tithe, so I tithe. The Bible says we must pray, so I pray. It says submit to leaders, witness, read Scripture, so I submit, witness, and read." We could call this person a Nike Christian. He hears a command and thinks I'll just do it. He reasons, "God has redeemed us at the cost of his Son's life. Now he demands my service in return. This is my duty."

    Class four legalists so dwell on God's law that they neglect other aspects of the Christian life—the love of others, the nurture of character, the pursuit of noble but optional projects, and more. They may forget why we obey God. They don't see that the law is more than a command, that it reflects God's very character. That is, we obey, in part, because obedience leads us toward to conformity to him. We don't kill because God gives life. We are faithful in marriage because he is faithful. We tell the truth because God always tells the truth. We are kind to the poor and the alien because God cares for the poor and the alien.

    If we return to the man I met a few weeks ago, we might answer him this way. There are Christians who have tried to love both doctrine and holiness in equal measure. In the history of the church, the Puritans and the early Pietists both hoped to live out that ideal. But given our fallenness, it's hard to get it right. Theologically minded believers can act as if right action will surely follow if we just get our ideas straight. And practically minded believers can avoid the great Christ-denying forms of legalism and yet hurt themselves by wandering into a lesser form of legalism (Nike Christianity). So by all means let us strive to love doctrine and holiness in equal measure. And let us love our Lord all the more, for he loves, forgives, and restores us when we miss that mark.

  • #2
    I wouldn't say the charge of legalism is thrown around carelessly as much as it's thrown around abusively. When someone doesn't like the higher standards of a particular church, they falsely accuse that church of legalism. But, the fault lays not with the church but with the self-righteousness or rebelliousness the accuser.

    For example, here's a woman complaining that her former church objects to boys wearing short shorts. She calls it legalism. Would it be legalism is the church objected to men coming to church shirtless? What's the difference? The only difference between short shorts and shirtless is that, presumably, shirtlessness falls below her standards of church dress. It has nothing to do with legalism. If a church insisted that all the men wore suits and long beards, it still wouldn't be legalism. It would just be their standard of appropriateness. Either accept it or move to another church, but don't complain about legalism.

    Legalism can't be simply defined as following man-made laws because we all follow man=made laws in good conscience, and it's impossible to live without man-made laws. Even on Gilligan's Island, the castaways lived by numerous necessary man-made laws, else they would be living as wild animals. Nor can legalism be defined as man-made laws designed to please God, because it's right for us to want to be live in ways pleasing to God (salvation by works is different issue).

    Legalism is when man-made laws subvert, contradict, or cause neglect of God's laws. The Pharisees were legalistic when they objected to hungry people picking food on the Sabbath because their law subverted the Sabbath. Jesus explained that the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath, because the Pharisees were subverting God's law. The Pharisees faulted Jesus for not washing his hands before a meal. Don't we all agree that it's a good idea to wash your hands? Jesus didn't accuse them of legalism or defend his failure to wash his hands, he accused them of being superficial and hypocritical, worrying about being clean on the outside while being dirty on the inside. Jesus was teaching them a lesson about neglecting God's laws.
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    • #3
      I tend to agree with William on this one. I've come to terms with legalist churches in the way William describes, and legalism is intertwined with judgmentalism. Someone doesn't like the way you act or the music you play and by legalist man-made rules you are judged as being out of step with God. I did what Cornelius said to do and left the church. Funny thing was, as a long-time visitor, I was treated properly, but as soon as I became an official member, I was under the looking glass to the point where the pastor went to my home to talk with me, I was at work, so he discussed his problems with me to my wife behind my back. That about did it. He was definitely legalist in some things, but not in salvation. His legalism stemmed from what I perceived as superstition. For example, I am a drummer, and he would not let me play music in the church because he didn't like the beat... said it was evil. Fact is, they played other music using the same beats. Bottom line was it all came down to a matter of taste and personalities. This is a bad thing for a pastor to do. I searched myself and have to say it... I found the fault was with the pastor, not myself. Then I've run into an LDS and Church of the Nazarene attendee who both were legalist about salvation. The Nazarenes are not unilateral on that position, though. In either case they were Arminian. Arminians tend to be the legalists, moreso than Calvinists since Arminians are works-based salvation anyway. I think William's breakdown of legalists is pretty accurate.

      If the victim of legalism does not leave the church, that's his fault, but that doesn't mean the church isn't legalist in the derogatory sense. Some churches like that one I was at have pastors who have used a bully pulpit instead of glorifying God and worshiping Him in Spirit and in truth. It depended on the Sunday. Arminian churches are legalist by nature because they are works-oriented toward salvation, in some cases toward keeping salvation, and because they are self-righteous, as in making room to boast of their "choice" to be saved and so on, which we cannot do: Ephesians 2:8-9.
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      • #4
        Some churches don't allow any musical instruments in church, not even a piano. It might be silly by the standards of many, but it's not legalism. It's that church trying to imitate what they think the first century church practiced, and what they think is most spiritually edifying. It doesn't interfere with you loving God and your neighbor. It doesn't mean they don't love God and their neighbor. They might think you're being legalistic for disapproving of their choice not to have drums in church.

        A pastor going to your wife behind your back to dig for dirt might be an act of impropriety, maybe even megalomania, but it isn't legalism.
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        • #5
          If the church is not going to have music at all and the reason is simply because they just want preaching and so forth and not for some so-called Biblical reason, I can understand that. If they are going to allow music, they shouldn't restrict what instruments are used because the Bible doesn't; and musicians are to play skillfully, according to the Bible. For all we know worship held during and after David's time may have included the music of his Psalms. Our church uses it to "prepare our hearts to be receptive to God's word."

          As for that pastor I mentioned, he was telling dirt rather than digging it up, according to my wife. It was about what I said at a retreat when the people from the church were beating themselves up for how they behave in services and even mentioned the idea of posting doormen to inhibit people from getting up and leaving. I admonished them for that idea, but spoke in a positive way about how we had a good church and I didn't understand the flagellation they were giving themselves. So for speaking well of the church in the midst of them tearing it down, the pastor thought I was wrong and accused me of capitalizing on the conversation. I went to one or two people who were there and they said, "I had something to say and simply said it, that's all." They saw no fault on my part. Their bashing of themselves was sounding legalistic to me, but it was long ago and I no longer remember the particulars.
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          • #6
            Originally posted by Stratcat View Post
            If the church is not going to have music at all and the reason is simply because they just want preaching and so forth and not for some so-called Biblical reason, I can understand that. If they are going to allow music, they shouldn't restrict what instruments are used because the Bible doesn't; and musicians are to play skillfully, according to the Bible. For all we know worship held during and after David's time may have included the music of his Psalms. Our church uses it to "prepare our hearts to be receptive to God's word."
            Let the Spirit of God burn into our bosom this word: "What ever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deut. 12:32).

            Gotquestions.org

            Every Bible-believing church body must be regulated by the authority of Scripture. If it does not, it has ceased to be a New Testament church. But within those churches that hold fast to God’s Word, there is a vast array of acceptable expressions of worship. Many congregations embrace a combination of both views. The extreme of either is displeasing to God. Extreme regulators can become pharisaical, creating rules out of principles and judging anyone who veers from those rules (Matthew 7:1). But extreme normatives can be guilty of walking on the edge of worldliness and justifying questionable activities by claiming they are being “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

            The regulative principle of worship maintains that Scripture gives specific guidelines for conducting corporate worship services and that churches must not add anything to those guidelines. For example, churches following the regulative principle in worship often do not use musical instruments, since there is no New Testament command or example that would warrant their use in the church. The normative principle is the idea that anything not expressly forbidden by Scripture can be used in corporate worship. One of the foundational differences is that the former considers the Bible’s instructions as a strict code of conduct while the latter sees them as principles to follow. Both hold to the truth of God’s Word, but they differ on whether or not it clearly establishes an unalterable blueprint for corporate worship.
            The Regulative Principle of Worship

            God bless,
            William
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            • #7
              Yes, plus in Deuteronomy, worship of the Lord Jesus Christ by name obviously had not been able to happen yet. In the NT, we add that we worship in the name of Jesus Christ, that we worship Jesus, and that it is on the Lord's Day, Sunday, to celebrate His resurrection, instead of on the Sabbath Day (Saturday). I believe it is incorrect to say that Sunday is the Sabbath Day, but is the Lord's Day. The Sabbath Day has always been and always will be Saturday, unless someone shows me differently in the Bible. There will be great music in Heaven to worship God so why not here on earth? It will be loud. Prayer and preaching certainly go together with worship in church, preaching from the Bible. The Jews and Jesus taught in the synagogues, as did the apostles. When we see what the early churches did and what goes on in Heaven to worship God, we just need to make sure it is all for His glory, not ours. We are even to make a joyful noise! Clapping, "Amens" and so forth would go in that category. Do we have a joyful, doctrinally correct church or a somber, perhaps doctrinally incorrect church should be at least two main questions to ask when estimating a church as to being a church home. I'm open to other things to look for as well.
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              • #8
                I quoted Gotquestions.org, however, I do not agree with them, "The extreme of either is displeasing to God," that is, if they mean the Regulatory process is an extreme. The Puritan/Presbyterian wing of the Reformation accomplished a purity in worship not seen since the apostolic church. This purity was attained by making the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments the only infallible standard and authority in determining worship ordinances. Any ordinances solely based on church tradition or man's authority were discarded. However, this purity attained by our spiritual forefathers has, with the passage of time, been cast aside. Pragmatism, tradition and human opinion are exalted in determining how God's people are to worship Him. The attitude among many in church leadership positions is to give the people what they want, rather than to submit to God's divine revelation.

                I think studying the differences between Regulative and Normative principles are fruitful. And also it is important to understand our "preferences," when these preferences are made into rules then we risk legalism.

                As for me personally, I do not view worship in a church as an event. I left former congregations during my search for a church that just seemed to be lacking any engagement by worshipers. They were the seeker friendly come in your shorts and flip flop types, and while sipping coffee were entertained by a band. The Orthodox Presbyterians adhere to the Regulative Principle. Some are stricter than others, only singing psalms with no instruments etc. I don't have a problem with psalm singing only churches, but I can't stand jungle drums and a worship team that drowns out the voices of the congregation. That's my preference.





                God bless,
                William
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                • #9
                  The Church of Christ, for example, has singing, but no instruments. They don't think other churches are guilty of sin for using instruments, they just don't think the early church used instruments, so they choose to do likewise. One Church of Christ member told me that when a church uses instruments, the music "takes over." I didn't ask for explanation. But, whatever their reasoning, it's not legalism.

                  The Pharisees were guilty of legalism when they objected to hungry Disciples picking food to eat on the Sabbath. As Jesus explained, they subverted the law of the Sabbath by reversing its purpose. And, even worse, they used their adherence to their interpretation of the law of the Sabbath as an excuse to neglect the full law of God, by following the law on the outside, but not on the inside. Their goal was to impress men, not to obey God.

                  When I see people complaining about legalism today, it's almost always because someone has a different (usually higher) standards from their own. That's not legalism. That's people feeling self-righteous about themselves while judging those holding the standards to which they object.

                  Yes, in the OT, instruments were used in worship. Revelation mentions the use of instruments in worship (but not in a church meeting). There is no biblical reason to exclude instruments from worship. I don't agree with the Church of Christ on this point, but they are not being legalistic and I won't judge them. Don't be angry. Wish them well and, as you did, go to the next church.

                  As for that pastor, he had no business coming over unless he thought you were home. And, I'm also not a fan of the increasingly popular activity of self-flagellation. I think it's false humility, as well as a cowardly effort to abdicate leadership.

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                  • #10
                    Yeah, it shows a lack of faith and I left after many years there. I was so enthusiastic, and certain of the church were degrading me. I now have a rule: If I can't go to church and concentrate on worshiping God without fear of false doctrine or being judged, I am in the wrong church. There are so many petty things people get uptight about and they miss the purpose for showing up.

                    We are to glorify God, not worry about music, clothing, how hungry we are, etc. The pastor should be available on a reasonably based schedule of time to see people who need to see him. The pastor must be a man... no "pastorettes". The Bible is to be the authority of doctrine. Music is important, especially the old hymns, IMO. It should not be tearjerker type music working strictly on emotions but should be putting sound doctrine to song. Instrumentals are fine, generally. My giving is between me and God, but is mainly according to NT doctrine. The pastor and leadership must be encouraging to all individuals, and not condescend to anyone. The purpose of exhortation is not to be limited for fear of people's feelings, same with reproving and rebuking, provided it can be backed up by proper use of the Bible. People should be encouraging to each other, not argumentative or condescending. A tall order? Shouldn't be. Sound doctrine at the top of the list, as we are to worship God in spirit and in truth.
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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Stratcat View Post
                      Yeah, it shows a lack of faith and I left after many years there. I was so enthusiastic, and certain of the church were degrading me. I now have a rule: If I can't go to church and concentrate on worshiping God without fear of false doctrine or being judged, I am in the wrong church. There are so many petty things people get uptight about and they miss the purpose for showing up.

                      We are to glorify God, not worry about music, clothing, how hungry we are, etc.
                      Why do these things bother you so much? I've never felt degraded in any church I've visited. I also have no wish to defy a particular church's traditions, customs, and standards. If they want me to be clean shaven, fine. If they want me to have a beard, fine. I've visited both churches, and call neither legalistic. Neither interferes with me worshiping God nor causes me to violate my conscience. All I require of a church is that they're serving God, in accordance to the Bible, the best they know how (which does exclude a number of churches). That's not to say I don't have preferences beyond my requirements...
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                      • #12
                        How do such rules worship God? It's tough enough encouraging people to go to church, let alone hassling them with a bunch of garbage rules that are man-made. Besides, our experiences may be different. You don't know what I've been through in detail, nor I you. I think following God's commands is enough. Yes, we are to obey the ordinances of man, but why should man make it so tough on himself? Why do you close your eyes or fall into such lock-step to such fallacies of man and let them get away with such nonsense?

                        I wore a suit to a wedding lately and got great compliments. I saw others in very casual attire, but did not judge them. Why should I? There was no dress code. If there was, I'd have obeyed it because it was a wedding. But church is for every believer, and open to non-believers, but what about the poor who can't afford good clothes? Do we keep them from going to the church because they aren't dressed to code? What would Jesus care if the poor only showed up in street clothes? Yet some fancy Dan church is all dressed up and the poor people can't keep up so they don't go, or if they did, wouldn't be allowed in... people full of themselves would stare. Try seeing who missionaries build churches with and tell them to dress up or watch what other behaviors they do that the Bible doesn't care about. "Judge not by the appearance but judge righteous judgment."
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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Stratcat View Post
                          How do such rules worship God? It's tough enough encouraging people to go to church, let alone hassling them with a bunch of garbage rules that are man-made. Besides, our experiences may be different. You don't know what I've been through in detail, nor I you. I think following God's commands is enough. Yes, we are to obey the ordinances of man, but why should man make it so tough on himself? Why do you close your eyes or fall into such lock-step to such fallacies of man and let them get away with such nonsense?

                          I wore a suit to a wedding lately and got great compliments. I saw others in very casual attire, but did not judge them. Why should I? There was no dress code. If there was, I'd have obeyed it because it was a wedding. But church is for every believer, and open to non-believers, but what about the poor who can't afford good clothes? Do we keep them from going to the church because they aren't dressed to code? What would Jesus care if the poor only showed up in street clothes? Yet some fancy Dan church is all dressed up and the poor people can't keep up so they don't go, or if they did, wouldn't be allowed in... people full of themselves would stare. Try seeing who missionaries build churches with and tell them to dress up or watch what other behaviors they do that the Bible doesn't care about. "Judge not by the appearance but judge righteous judgment."



                          You have as many rules as anyone else! You have more oppressive rules than others in that you demand that all churches conform to your standards, regardless of the segment of human diversity in which they serve. Poor black people dress up more for church than slovenly middle-class church-goers. Dressing up is one of the easiest and cheapest ways for the poor to feel like they have some dignity. Dress pants cost no more than blue jeans and tucking in a shirt is free. But, you have a rule against these poor people pictured above. You judge them by appearance and you degrade them as Fancy Dans.

                          And, really, you think it would be acceptable for people to show up for a wedding in blue jeans and T-shirts? There's no dress code, you say! Yes, there is a dress code, your oblivity not withstanding. Here's a couple who wanted a beautiful wedding day. They dressed in the fanciest dress and tux they've ever worn. They might have spent thousands on decorations, and you somehow think it would have been acceptable to mar the event by appearing like you just finished gardening. If you had shown up like that, you would have done fine to be ignored as uncouth. But, what would Jesus say? Let me quote Him: The [host] came in to look at the [wedding] guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the [host] said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.



                          Comment>

                          • #14
                            The quote of Jesus refers to afterlife, and may be figurative, meaning the "garments" represent our being cleansed of sin, as it was a parable. Further, as for the wedding, I did not say one way or another whether I approved of the "underdressed". Third, I am well aware of the "Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes" some wear. I do not condemn anyone for dressing up, I do condemn the idea that it should be required. You put way too much emphasis on this and I haven't heard any on worshipping God in spirit and in truth, that is, sound doctrine. Well-dressed folks attending churches teaching false doctrine is much worse than less dressed-up folks edified with the truth. Now hearing sound doctrine is required by God. There is way too little emphasis on it, and much of this leads to legalism or avoiding what we should follow, such as God's commandments. No legalism in following God's commandments. I stand by what I said about today's poor folks and what they have for church. If you want to wear a suit, go for it, but to require it is a form of legalism of post 1's #2.
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