LEGALISM | JULY 26, 2005
I recently chatted with a friend who shared a story about a relative who was not allowed inside a church because he was wearing shorts. The Gestapo deacon at the door announced, "This is the house of God and we don't allow that attire in here." Not only was the deacon displaying a bad theology (the church building is not the house of God, where God resides), but also bad behavior. Chalk it up to another victim of legalism. The sad part of the story is that this kind of constant behavior turned the victim off to the faith community altogether and he has gone searching elsewhere for acceptance.
I am reminded of the example of Jesus Christ, who was charged with being a friend to sinners by His association with the wrong crowd. Luke 5:29-30 recounts the accusation when it says, "And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?'" If Jesus were to pull such a stunt today, I suppose the accusation would be that he attended a crack-infested rave party. Jesus doesn't just stretch our faith, He crashes in and sets up a whole new paradigm.
The scriptures weave a message of grace throughout its pages. Christ modeled grace while maintaining perfect obedience to the Father. My need to grow in grace is immense. I am challenged to extend grace each day. All of us have our circle of people who take withdrawals out of our grace bank. For some it may be those who we deem as "looser" in their Christian walk that need our grace. For others, grace may need to be extended to those who appear legalistic. One thing is for sure: no church is immune to the challenge that grace brings to relationships.
I am struck by scriptures that reinforce the grace principle:
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 "Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
1 Peter 4:8 "Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins."
1 Thessalonians 5:14 "And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men."
As I listened to my friend share his story about his relative who was rejected for wearing shorts, I was reminded of details in such stories that we rarely consider. There is always a larger picture, more to the story. There are living and breathing people involved in these incidents. We cannot possibly know all there is to know about a person. The deacon who behaved in a legalistic manner may have believed he was doing the right thing and standing up for God's holiness. Patience would teach us not to write such a person off. As we discover other details we learn that the shorts-wearing individual was in fact on his own spiritual journey dealing with issues unknown to the deacon. Had a little understanding been inserted (as well as the proper theology on where God resides) the deacon may have found an opportunity to minister to an individual who needed to be valued for being in God's image, instead of an opportunity for legalism.
I have to admit that when I first heard the story of this Springfield church and the shorts-wearing incident, I laughed out loud. The ridiculous contortions we Christians go to in defending our extra-biblical convictions can be very absurd. Then I am reminded that living and breathing people, people whom we don't fully know, people who are on their own spiritual journey, are injured and marred. People who may never communicate their hurt, but nonetheless are hurting to the point of giving up. My heart then wavers between sorrow and anger: sorrow for the hurt, anger against the grace-killing behavior. Jesus was able to balance these same emotions without disruption to His relationship with His Father.
There are everyday incidents where we are given the opportunity to learn the balance. Take, for instance, when we meet a person who adamantly holds that the King James Version is the only God-ordained version of the Bible and the purest version we can use today - that anything less is compromise. Take, for instance, a Christian who involves her/himself in activities you deem as unbecoming for a Christian. There are not specific verses that address the conduct, but nonetheless you have a strong conviction that conflicts with that of another believer. Take, for instance, your children who are involved with other Christian families who don't see eye-to-eye with you on issues. I have witnessed Christians dividing themselves over Y2K, homeschooling, movie watching and a host of other issues. As a pastor, I am ashamed to see such behavior in the Christian community and find myself wanting to disassociate with the legalists like an evil stepsister we want to hide in the basement. Do we fellowship just with those who agree with us on every issue? Do we allow our children to fellowship with other children whose families disagree on some issues? Do we make our convictions known every time we see a difference? Can you feel the tension grace introduces?
Legalism will constantly shorten our list for relationships while grace constantly expands our circle. I would hasten to add that, as parents, there are instances where Janet and I limited the activities and relationships of our children. Such decisions were based primarily on the proclivities of each of our children and their spiritual maturity to handle certain situations. However, we do not exclude our children from others based solely on the fact that we find areas of disagreement with other families. Let's face it. There is not one family we completely agree with on everything.
I felt a great responsibility to train my children in the areas of personal holiness and grace. How they treat their friends now will be a good indicator as to how they will treat their friends as adults. Proverbs 6:16 says, "There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil, A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers." The bookends of this passage speak to pride and the strife it causes. A quick read of Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10 reveals principles that provide balance as we seek to be personally pure and grace-filled.
Consider that there are living and breathing people involved in the crossfire of legalism. A person is defined by much more than their position on a topic or behavior in a particular area. Is it possible that a person can love God and have a heart for Him just as much as we do and disagree with us on some secondary issues? We can choose to spread our personal evaluations of individuals or choose to value them through grace. Ephesians 4:29 says, "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear." Undiscerning tolerance is much different than grace. Many think that to love is to condone. I know from the loving grace of my wife that her love does not OK all my sin. She still is committed and expresses her love in spite of the fact that I disappoint her. Should our standard in the body of Christ be any less? Even those who traffic in easily definable, biblically plain sinful areas deserve our loving acceptance.
The next time you feel the tension of grace, consider that you are dealing with real people who struggle just like you do. Have you noticed how we like to choose which "sins" we nit-pick while we gloss over our own sins like gossip or lust or unforgiveness? In many cases, the standard by which we use to exclude, if used against us, would mean we could not associate with anyone in the body. If people really knew our thoughts, our behavior, our real attitudes, our problems, and they used the exclusionary standard, who would be our friend? I suddenly realize, as I take an honest look at myself, that I have a group of friends who love me in spite of my problems, not because of the absence of problems. Legalism kills transparency and creates a false sense of security that everyone has reached some artificial standard to be accepted. Remember the account from Christ about a beam and splinter? Grace has a wood magnet for our own eyes.
-- Kevin Short, Senior Pastor