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Legalism

March 18, 2009

One of my recent posts has been found by some to be a bit controversial which was not what I had intended at all for it to be.  The post was simply my thoughts regarding the church we visited and their policy regarding alcohol.  In the post I was questioning my hesitancy to attend a church that forces its members to abstain from alcohol.  I wanted to make sure that my hesitancy was about the legalism and not just the fact that if we attended there that I would never be able to have a glass of wine again.  After a lot of thought, discussion and prayer, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the problem that I am having is with the legalism.

Legalism is just not a healthy practice for a church.

Wikipedia defines legalism as “an over-emphasis on law or codes of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit.”

Reformation Theology defines it as “as any attempt to rely on self-effort to either attain or maintain our justification before God.”

Legalism focuses on one of the many results (symptoms) of a heart condition while ignoring other symptoms (gossip, slander, an angry spirit, a rebellious spirit, etc that cause far more damage with in the church), as well as ignoring the cause (our sinful nature) of the symptoms.

Legalism takes something that is part of our freedom and turns it into chains that shackle and bind us, preventing us to find our freedom in Christ.

Legalism offers false security, but allowing people to think that if they are good enough, then they win God’s approval.

Legalism detracts from the controlling and yet liberating force (the Holy Spirit) that God offers us.

Legalism says that we can’t trust God to help us find a healthy balance of things; therefore a good Christian must avoid anything that could ever possibly be bad.  This avoidance includes, but is not limited to, alcohol, TV, the Internet, movies, music and so much more!

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are some people who should never ever ever touch a glass of alcohol.  And as mature believes we should not only respect that, but also avoid alcohol when we are in their presence.  But this goes for any other potential vice.  When I was a teenager, I had a friend from youth group who was suffering from a pretty bad case of media addiction; therefore when we hung out we never watched TV or went to movies, nor did we have youth events where TV or movies were watched.  Was that because the whole group had a problem with it?  No.  Was the whole youth group to never watch TV because their friend was watching way too much?  No.  But we respected his struggle and strove to help him.  Eventually with Christ’s help and our support, he found a balance and was able to know the difference between healthy media and unhealthy media.

I have some serious concerns about a church that forbids things that are not forbidden by the Bible.  I have no problem whatsoever with a church teaching about the dangers of alcohol, media, over-eating, etc.  In fact, I encourage it.  My husband and I would tell the kids that it was better to be safe (and avoid something that could become harmful in their lives) than to be sorry (and allow something to push them away from God).  But we never ever set down laws for them that were not in the Bible.

If the teens asked us about alcohol, we would tell them that legal, of age, drinking of an occasional alcoholic beverage was fine, but that underage drinking was not only dangerous, but illegal and sinful and that drunkenness was also sinful.  And we backed it all up with Bible verses that were used in context.

If the teens asked us about sex, we would tell them that married sex is awesome, but pre-marital sex is a sin.  When they would ask us how far is too far, we didn’t set down physical lines for them (that are not found in the Bible), but scriptural ones (that are found in the Bible).  Occasionally a parent would take issue with this and want us to tell their kids that simply holding hands was too far, but since that isn’t Biblical we would not do that.

It was not my husband’s job as youth pastor to make up “thou shalt not”s that aren’t in the Bible.  But it was my husband’s job to deal with the heart condition of the teens in our group.  And that is why those teens are still turning to us for advice even though we are no longer in their church.

Some people need to maintain a strict behavioral code for themselves.  For example, the recovering alcoholic needs to forbid himself from ever consuming alcohol.  The sex addict may need to forbid himself from unlimited access to the Internet.  But it is not up to the church to place those rules on people.  It is up to the church to show its parishioners how to grow into mature believers who can find the proper balance for themselves as individuals in Christ.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 8:31 pm

    I read your last post — the one with the “controversy” ; ) and didn’t comment because I saw how things were going. lol. However, I agree wholeheartedly with you in this post! Legalism, in my opinion, is one of the largest strongholds the Church faces today.

    When you wrote: “Some people need to maintain a strict behavioral code for themselves. For example, the recovering alcoholic needs to forbid himself from ever consuming alcohol. The sex addict may need to forbid himself from unlimited access to the Internet. But it is not up to the church to place those rules on people. It is up to the church to show its parishioners how to grow into mature believers who can find the proper balance for themselves as individuals in Christ…” I could not have agreed more!!

    It is the Church’s job to grow believers up in the Word not make decisions that affect each person differently. That is where things get lost on me.

    Signing a paper to join a church that says “No, I won’t drink or dance” is too extreme for me. Do I drink? No. But when we have people in leadership who focus solely on what is “restricted” you start to find yourself caught up in a legalistic system. At least, that is my opinion.

    : )

  2. screamofcontinuousness permalink
    March 25, 2009 3:01 pm

    very good post.

  3. March 25, 2009 3:15 pm

    Thank you!

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