Legalism Kills

I count myself fortunate to have experienced many different modes of church. In my early life I was part of a fairly liberal church where, with the exception of church traditions such as the way you dress, and the type of music used, there wasn’t much legalism. In this environment, anything went. There wasn’t much said about the Bible’s stance on moral issues. These ideas were left completely to the individual to sort out. Of course with this, was a complete lack of biblical teaching on moral issues. Then later in life, I attended a strict, legalistic church where the pastor was in charge. From the pulpit we were indoctrinated with every form of church legalism known to man. We were told how to dress, what music to listen to, what moral decisions to make on just about every topic you can think of.

What struck me later in life is that neither of these experiences were very Biblical. On one hand, there was no moral compass. God was ok with whatever. So why even study the Bible to try to figure out what’s ok and not ok with God? On the other hand, in the legalistic culture we were told that all sorts of things were “sin”.Of course, if you try hard enough, you can justify any legalistic idea you want by using the Bible (out of context usually) to prove your point.

Obviously if you read the Bible, you know that God is not ok with an “anything goes” way of life. So I won’t bother to comment on that in this blog. Rather, let’s look for a moment at the legalistic church culture that I believe is killing Christians. (spiritually speaking)

Recently, I’ve run into so many legalistic Christians, that I’m quite frankly disturbed by it. We in church culture have become masters at using the Word of God to push moral agendas that suit our own moral issues, yet may not have much basis in scripture. Let’s take the issue of drinking for example. Ok, this may get me in a bit of trouble, but it’s an easy example to use.

Clearly the Bible has some things to say about drinking. Our favorite: Eph 5:18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Clearly that means that getting drunk is a sin right? And naturally we can assume that drinking altogether is a sin…right? Well that is the traditional thinking on the topic. But let’s examine that passage IN CONTEXT. Eph 5:15 Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. 19 Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hmm. Interesting. When read in context, it appears that the subject matter is NOT about drinking as a moral issue, but rather living a wise life and making wise choices so that we treat each other with love. We are to honor each other in obedience to the second commandment of Christ; to love each other. “Do not get drunk WHICH LEADS TO DEBAUCHERY.” Is “drunk” the issue or is “debauchery”? Does drunk = debauchery? I think in many cases, it can. For many, drunkenness leads to nothing but sin. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about right? We have names for them: “the happy drunk”, “the sad drunk”, “the angry drunk”, “the fighter drunk”, “the horny drunk”, “the idiot drunk”, “the crazy drunk”, “the stupid drunk”. Some of us, when we drink become stupid drunks. Yet others of us can drink to the point of moderate intoxication and remain completely morally grounded. Biblically, I don’t think the issue is getting drunk…it’s getting stupid and for many… sinful.

If you look at the Bible’s various comments on drinking, they seem to be more advice than command and they most often have to do with being sinful while drinking. Yet, on occasion in the Bible, drinking (even to excess or intoxication) doesn’t seem to be prohibited. Take the wedding at Cana for example. Christ’s first miracle was to turn water into wine. Some legalists have claimed that this was just grape juice and not alcohol. Oh come on. Seriously? Read it: John 2:1 On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

Why did they serve the best wine first back in those days? Because the people would get at least drunk (merry) enough to not be able to tell they were drinking cheap wine later in the evening. So did Jesus’ wine contain alcohol? You bet. But more interestingly, why didn’t Jesus refuse to make wine considering the people were “in sin” because they were drinking plenty of alcohol already? Maybe because it wasn’t sin?

Now chill out. It’s not like I’m promoting getting drunk, or even drinking for that matter. But I don’t believe the Bible treats the subject in the same legalistic manner as the church traditionally does. Getting drunk for many is just stupid. So if that’s you, don’t do it…k? If you’re an alcoholic, DON’T DRINK!!! If you’re around recovering alcoholics, consider them before you drink in front of them. But conversely, don’t tell me it’s a sin to drink if the Bible doesn’t say so!!! The same goes for many moral issues that the church seems to have a bee in their bonnet about. I’d love to get into some of them right now, but I’ll bet I’d get fired. So we’ll just do this slowly. I’ll save other issues for later on down the road.

My point today is that this sort of legalistic interpretation of scripture cause many to feel condemned. We often use our legalisms against the very people the scripture is designed to set free from guilt and shame. And sadly we heap all new forms of guilt and shame upon them. For years, as a pastor I did this with the issue of divorce and didn’t even know it! In my early days I was part of a church that taught it was a sin to get divorced.. and also remarried. In fact, if you were an ordained minister in this church, you would lose your credentials if you got divorced, regardless of why. In those days we loved to say “God hates divorce”. This phrase does not exist in scripture by the way, but let’s examine the concept nonetheless. Does God literally “hate” divorce? If He does, then clearly divorce is a sin right? Here’s an important question: who created a means of divorce in the Old Testament? Ooh…ouch.

How can we call something sin which God gave His approval of in certain situations? Of course if someone chooses to divorce for sinful reasons, we can call it sin, but is divorce by definition a sin? For years and years, I used to stand up in front of the church and celebrate those who were married for extended periods of time in my sermons depending on the subject matter. I didn’t even realize during all those years how I was making those who lived through a divorce feel. Well I’ll tell you how I made them feel…dirty and shamed. The subtext underneath the celebration of those who were married for a long time was “how sad for you that you couldn’t make it.” I may as well just have called them “dirty” for getting divorced. Obviously they didn’t have “what it takes” to stay married like the rest. After all “God hates divorce”, consequently, He isn’t too happy with you for getting one.

But as I get older, I am starting to see things differently. God hates it when people are unfaithful… to each other and to Himself. That much is clear from scripture. So when it comes to divorce, it is a sin or is “unfaithfulness” the real sin? It’s like drinking… is it the drinking or the debauchery that’s the real problem? With divorce, it’s not about the separation, but the unfaithfulness that led up to it. How about we start spending more time teaching people to be faithful rather than forcing them to stay together in abusive or unhealthy situations because of some sense of obligation to a law that doesn’t exist in scripture? Again, am I promoting divorce? If that’s what you think, then you are completely missing my point. I have been in the “anything goes” culture and it doesn’t work either. But can we really call drinking or divorce sins if God gives some measure of approval to them in scripture? What about the case where a spouse has an affair and leaves. Should this shame the faithful spouse forever? Should the faithful spouse never be allowed to experience the joy of remarriage?

What about those who are not alcoholics, and who don’t get drunk to the point of debauchery? Should we outlaw drinking? Should we say “one drink isn’t a sin, but 2 is”? Uh, who gets to make that law? Or, should we be teaching people to live as responsible [faithful] adults in every area of their lives? Shouldn’t we be teaching that we should make wise choices and avoid debauchery and sin? More importantly, do we have the right to stand in God’s place and impose a man-made law to ensure people act accordingly? Sorry, but I don’t think so. In fact, that might be the real sin… to stand in God’s place and write His law for Him. Ooh, ouch again.

Look, before you get your panties in a bunch, let me reiterate: Sin, bad. Debauchery, bad. Disobedience & rebellion, bad. God has some rules. See the 10 Commandments for a basic idea. But many of the rules we impose are not God’s. In fact, when you examine the scripture you just may find that some things aren’t as wrong as we once believed. Should we all go out now and get drunk and divorce our spouses if we don’t like them? Of course not! If that’s what you think I’m saying then you aren’t reading this, you’re filtering it through your own legalistic mindset. Getting drunk isn’t necessarily a good idea. And getting divorced for no reason is “unfaithfulness”…er…sin. But let’s not kill people with legalism. Every Sunday in the American church, people leave feeling condemned, unworthy and unclean. Rather than setting them free with the mercy of God, we run them off because they can’t measure up. How sad.

Do we tell them what sin is? Duh. Of course we do! Do I really even need to say that? But we tell them about “real” sin. Real sin is to not love the Lord our God with all our hearts. Real sin is to not love our neighbor as ourselves. These are the two great commandments of Jesus. Everything else is based on these two principles. Without love, we will commit many sins against God and each other. And yes, we can obey “laws” and have no love. But we will be pleasing to the legalists!!! Grr. What’s the point of that? I’d rather enjoy some of what this life has to offer and love God and my neighbor rather than feel a false sense of security because I don’t drink. But hey, if that’s your thing…have fun. Oh, but I doubt you will. Sarcasm intended. Is that a sin too?