One of Jesus’ chief criticisms of the Pharisees was that they elevated their own traditions and teachings above the commandments of God. Unfortunately, that very same problem often occurs among Christians today. While traditions and teachings are important and can frequently offer stability and wisdom, they must be put aside when they become more important to us that the actual commands of scripture, including loving God, loving the saints, loving the church as a whole, and making disciples. When this happens, autoimmune disease is prevalent in the Body of Christ.
Bible Verse Memorization?
One example I encountered recently involved the principle that memorizing Bible verses was not just a good thing, but an actual way of making spiritual comparisons between people. In a discussion one man disagreed with another and, insulting the second man’s spiritual credentials, asked “How many Bible verses have you memorized?” It was a point wholly unrelated to the question at hand, and was both wrong-headed and wrong-hearted.
It is wrong-headed because the mere number of Bible verses someone has memorized doesn’t tell you much about their spiritual life, sincerity, the quality of argument they’re making, etc. Knowing Bible verses isn’t enough, as James 1:22 reminds us: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” One gets the idea that Satan has memorized quite a number of Bible verses himself! It was wrong-hearted because it was clearly done from a sense of spiritual pride to denigrate a Christian brother, and ran afoul of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 regarding out attitudes towards our brothers: “And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
“Apostate Church” = Spousal Abuse?
Another example I sometimes encounter is more of a direct form of abuse than elevating a tradition, but I believe it is often passed down as a sort of traditional attitude in some families and churches. Bashing the “apostate church” [a church that has abandoned God or sound theology and practice] is practically a sport for some people, who often speak as if there is only one church (theirs, of course) still interested in following Jesus in their state. According to the apostate church bashers, almost all the churches in the state, country, or world have completely abandoned God and are being led by wolves in sheep’s clothing. This is usually taken to be self-evident, such that no evidence for the claim is offered.
My concern with this attitude is that it can border on spousal abuse. Don’t forget in scripture the church is compared to the “bride of Christ” (Ephesians 5 uses similar language). I’d think twice before insulting any man’s bride, but definitely even more so if that man were Jesus! Also, remember that Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades [hell] will not overcome it.” Jesus ultimately expected his church to be successful, so why are some Christians always down on the church? Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I see problems within the church. I’ve even recognized apostasy within my own denomination, and I do not hesitate to call it for what it is. But my attitude in doing so is one of love and care for the church; I want it to grow, making disciples and following Christ. I have no use for puffing myself up by putting other churches (or the church as a whole) down. As 1 Peter 2:17 says “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” This includes not speaking derogatorily of the church – especially in front of unbelievers!
Finally, we come to the biggie, probably the worst barrier to grace and understanding the Gospel…
The term “legalism” is a bit of a catch-all for a number of different problems or attitudes. It can look different in different churches, since it often as much about attitude as it is about a doctrine.
These two aspects, attitude and doctrine, are the two main categories of legalism. Legalistic doctrines are those that officially make salvation a matter of works. For example, Islam has five main requirements: reciting their creed “There is no God but Allah…”, giving a specified amount to the poor, praying five times a day, traveling to Mecca, and fasting during Ramadan. Many actual cults are like this as well.
The more insidious form of legalism is that of legalistic attitudes, which makes people “jump through hoops” before they are accepted by a church, and make members of the church hold to certain behavioral codes that are not biblical. Often the official doctrine of the church will be that salvation is available by grace, but the attitude and practice of the church treats anyone as sinning who doesn’t follow the code. Examples can include very strict dress codes for women, a “correct” translation of the Bible being used (all others being “incorrect” or illegitimate), men with long hair are not permitted, people with tattoos aren’t permitted, no alcohol consumption, no smoking, the subjection and utter obedience of women, etc. (This list is neither exhaustive nor do these all necessarily apply in a legalistic church; they are merely examples!) In short, in legalistic churches there is a very large list of “do’s” and “don’ts” to be observed, which are treated practically as if they were the gospel message itself. The attitude becomes, “we’ll accept you, as long as you dress the way we want you to, say the right code words [religious babble, really], perform the right rituals, and agree with us on every single point.”
This legalistic attitude and way of treating people is really just “performance-based acceptance.” Performance-based acceptance doesn’t make salvation a matter of works (or, at least, would not claim such), but it does make belonging to the Body of Christ here on Earth a matter of works. It’s almost as if yes, you can be adopted by God as His son or daughter, but the other kids won’t accept you and treat you as part of the family – their brother or sister – unless you play by their rules, and they’ll be sure to let you know when your adopted father is disappointed with you.
The problem here isn’t about whether or not things like smoking, tattoos, long hair for men, or pants for women are bad. The problem is again the elevation of the commands (often not even of God, but of man) above the inherent value of people, and the real issue is about controlling others and maintaining spiritual pride, instead of growing in humility and grace towards one another. Although such legalism is supposedly about being righteous, legalists more exemplify the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 3, where Paul says people are “holding to a form of godliness [or, religion], although they have denied its power.” Avoid such men as these.
The primary tools of the legalist are guilt, shame, peer-pressure and subtle (or not so subtle) psychological bullying. Guilt is something that we all must face as Christians, but once we accepted Christ our guilt was removed from us, and shame is just an infected version of guilt – a form of worldly sorrow. It is important to remember that because “There is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), it is Satan who accuses us (Zech 3:1, Rev. 12:9-10), not Jesus!
It’s important to remember that a failure to practice graceful living and to demonstrate grace toward others is as big of a heresy as denying salvation by grace, yet more subtle. Either one is devastating, but far more people are directly impacted by a lack of graceful living! A lack of graceful living flies in the face of the clear teachings of Jesus to love one another, and the beautiful passages from Paul about love, humility and interdependence. I will leave you with those uplifting passages today:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:1-8
For two more good blogs on the problem of legalism, see Legalistic Grace (exploring how even churches that teach grace fail to live it) and Six Reasons Legalism is a Challenge for the Church. If you have been abused by a legalistic environment, I highly recommend reading either Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew or Chuck Swindoll’s The Grace Awakening.