Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What About the Rules?

There is a tendency to define legalism by how many rules you have. I am forced to disagree with this. Legalism in its strictest sense is the belief we can be saved by our good works rather than faith in Christ (Titus 3:5,6; Romans 4:4,5, 11:6; Ephesians 2:8,9). Now this does not do away with the need to do what God commands (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11,12; James 2:20; Romans 12:1,2). But it does require we do it with a new attitude, from love for God rather than to earn something from Him (1 John 4:19; Romans 8:15; Galatians 5:13-15; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15). Therefore, the issue in legalism is not the number of rules, but the attitude you have toward those rules. We must remember we stand before God based on His grace (Romans 5:1,2; 2 Peter 1:9; Luke 7:36-50) and not be puffed up from self-righteousness (Proverbs 16:18; Philippians 3:12-16; Luke 16:15).

God is not interested in how many rules you have, but whether they are His rules (Deuteronomy 4:2; Matthew 15:7-9; Colossians 2:20-23). Nor are we allowed to ignore what God says because it is inconvenient or interferes with our lifestyle (Romans 6:12-14; John 14:21; James 1:21-25). But the bottom line is we are commanded to follow God's rules, no more and no less. Whether having more rules shows a legalistic attitude or a less worldly one must be determined by looking at the particular case.

There are commandments of God that are clear and repeated continuously throughout Scripture. There are other issues that are more debatable. One reason for issues being debatable is the question of what carries over from the Old Testament to the New. Needless to say, there is disagreement over what is clear or debatable, but the standard here is Scripture. Whatever is definitively and repeatedly commanded in Scripture is clear; whatever is not is debatable.

Scripture gives us instructions for dealing with the debatable. Do not judge or despise your brother (Romans 14:1-12; 1 Corinthians 8:1-6; James 4:11,12). Consider the weaker brother (Romans 14:13-23; 1 Corinthians 8:7-12); note, there is a difference between a weaker brother and a self-righteous multiplier of rules (Matthew 15:1-14; Luke 13:10-17; Colossians 2:16,17). Be concerned on how to reach those outside the faith (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). And be careful of overestimating your ability to stand up to temptation (1 Corinthians 10:12-22; 2 Timothy 2:22).

But I am convinced the most important instruction is the first one. This should not stop us from using appropriate correction in the clear areas that warrant it (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:15-20; Hebrews 12:12,13). But it should give us pause before sitting in self-righteous judgment on those with fewer rules than us. And give us even more pause before ridiculing and insulting those who have more rules. The Christian church throughout its history has had many kinds of (often contradictory) rules. Perhaps a sense of perspective and a reasonable sense of humor would help us in dealing with these.

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