Functional Legalism

Legalism is typically an easy sin for me to yield to. Being a person who has historically been concerned with what some people think of me I have found legalism to be functional, practical and easy to maintain, in a twisted kind of way of course. You see, in order to be a good legalist you need to be able to out-think other legalists. And if you can do that then you are typically well-thought of and/or respected by your peers for your spiritual practices.

In my past I have been unwittingly proud of my ability to make a longer list of “do’s and don’ts” than the average Christian. And many of my friends unwittingly equated my asceticism with spirituality. I carried the right bible, went to the right church, wore the right clothes, spoke the right words, sang the right songs, went to the right places and associated with the right people. And sadly to some, my arrogance was interpreted as “spirituality.” Being free from this proud thinking was difficult. It is difficult. I am a proud man. I do want people to think well of me. And in the world of Christianity it can be more about what you do than who you are.

As I began to branch out and make new friends who were not part of my ascetic world I found relationships difficult. I was socially awkward. My new friends in my new world would look at my quirks of spirituality and not be as impressed or inspired as my legalistic friends. They saw it for what it was: ignorance, immaturity, pride, Pharisaical standards, smoke and mirrors and, even worse, an insecure person posing as a spiritual person. I was a poser.

My new friends were more interested in other things; more humble, cross-centered things. Here’s a short list: For example, they were curious as to how I treated my wife…

  • Did I include her in the decisions we made?
  • Did I serve her by pitching-in to clean the home?
  • Was I leading her in rearing our children?
  • Was I aware of what she was doing or why she did what she did and what was going on in her life, the children’s lives?
  • Were we spending adequate time together?
  • Was God at the center of our life rather than the “ministry” or my “burden” or my vocation?
  • Was I living an authentic Christian life in the home and not just before those whom I desired a good opinion?
  • Was I regularly repenting of and confessing my sin?
  • Was I confessing my sin to my wife? …to my friends?
  • Did I ignore my sins toward her? Sins like neglect, harshness, impatience, not thinking the best, not walking her through various situations, not protecting her schedule, not actively planning our schedule, not leading the family in devotions, not having quiet times with her, not asking her opinion, not taking the time to ask her challenging questions, not surprising her with love, not taking a day off or an evening off, not having biblical fellowship, not pointing out the many evidences of grace in her life, not leading in encouragement, and much, much more.
  • Was I inviting the humble observations of my friends to help me change?
  • Was I reflecting the humility of Christ?
  • And there is more…much more…

Whew! Being a selfish, arrogant Pharisee, craving the opinion of others and living by a list was a heck of a lot easier. It was certainly safer. It left me in control. Being a Pharisee put my interest, my burden, my ministry, my hobby, my life first. It helped in bending people’s good opinion toward me.

It has taken me years to realize that loving God and neighbor the way Jesus meant in Matthew 22 is radically different than a list of rules. This new lifestyle has been difficult to say the least. It is challenging me every day, not with a list, but with a lifestyle that makes discernment, courage, intentionality, changing priorities, focusing on others a way of living.

Even though it is more work, the relationships are deeper, longer lasting, more meaningful and more rewarding. My wife is not just a sex object or slave for me and my children are not in the way. Life is full.

The rewards of serving are plentiful and immediate. It is the grandest way to live. I am truly free by being a slave to Christ rather than a slave to a code of ethics (lists). By the grace of God I don’t have to live by the list anymore.

By the grace of God I’m learning to live in the good of the gospel in my ordinary life.

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Slip, Slid’in Away

A sincere, caring Fundamentalist friend of mine came over to our home one night to ask me some questions about whether I was a true fundamentalist or not. His love for me was genuine and I felt his care. My friend kept asking me if I was a fundamentalist. And in turn I kept asking him to define the term for me. He did not, but responded with the same question as to whether I was a Fundamentalist or not. I asked him to define the term and around we went in a winsome, non-threatening kind of way. I’m still not sure why he never answered my question. I am a “fundamentalist”. The core “fundamental” doctrines of the Christian faith are near and dear to most all Fundamentalists and these fundamentals are most certainly near and dear to me.

In short, I believe in the fundamentals of the faith. This is what was documented at the beginning of the 20th Century by a group of men who were trying to bring clarity to a Christian religion that was becoming more and more fragmented by the inroads of liberalism. I believe in much of what those guys laid down. However, what I don’t believe in is the later externalizing of those beliefs to where the externals have, in some sense, displaced the fundamentals or at some level have become co-equal with these core doctrines. I would not equate dress codes with “salvation by grace alone”. I wouldn’t equate movie theater attendance with inerrancy of Scripture. Drinking alcohol is not co-equal and a reason to separate from someone like the perversion of the Gospel.  Modesty, social drinking, different bible translations and video viewing are secondary issues at best and all Christians should be aware of these preferences and responding to them in a biblical fashion. However, none of these issues meet the criteria of “fundamentals.”

I think it is good and in some ways necessary for Christians to relate more to their culture w/o compromising their “fundamental” beliefs. However, there can be a strong temptation to externalize our faith to the point that faith can morph into a set of propositions or standards to live by while drifting from the heart of the gospel. At my depraved, animating center is the heart of a legalist. I’m a very proud person who can be easily tempted to boast in what I do rather than what Christ did.

I think it is okay to choose certain Christian contemporary songs with cross-centered lyrics over a more antiquated genre of a bygone era. I enjoy the old stuff as it is cross-centered. And I love some of the contemporary music as well, when it is cross-centered. For me it is not as much style-driven as much as content driven.

From my dear friends perspective I went off into the big, bad world of liberalism. I was on the slippery slope and heading downhill pretty fast. What he could not see is that it was freeing. Christ was liberating me. My new life was a manageable lifestyle; not easier, but manageable, livable. It has been a life that makes more biblical sense to me than the life I lived. I don’t have to qualify, footnote, explain, seek to make sure the tassels of my robe are the right length and I don’t have to be concerned about the hedge around the hedge around the hedge of the law.

In this journey I began to learn more about idolatry of the heart, with a secondary emphasis on the externals. It sounds almost Christ-like. You know, like what Jesus said in Matthew 23 where they cleaned the outside, but the inside was full of corruption. Or like what John said in chapter two of his first epistle where he defined worldliness as being in the lusts and desires and not in some form of Gnosticism, the physical. Yes, this was a different way of thinking and living for me. Additionally, I found out that God was more concerned with my proud, self-righteous, legalistic heart more than the liquid I put in my body, the clothes I put on my body and the music I listened to.

It is ironic for me because in some ways it has been much harder to be free than to be the Pharisee I was. To serve my wife, my children and my world takes more energy and time (Read: to love God and neighbor). To repent more often, to confess my sin, to live in integrity, to be transparent with my sin, to recognize that I’m the biggest sinner I know has been a bigger challenge than isolating myself from my world. It was easier to erect a hedge about myself, cut myself off from my world and not engage my world or my heart.

Leaving Legalism

To leave any movement can be difficult going for sure. How do you do that? Where do you go? What is the first step? I’ve never left a movement before and knew nothing about the process. Needless to say, no one I knew had ever left the movement, since we were in the same boat, so they didn’t know what to do either. And if anyone left the movement it was an unwritten assumption that you didn’t speak with them anymore, so if someone was to leave you couldn’t ask them how it went because they were “marked” for their defection.

This is sort of humorous now because I was considered damaged goods while I was in the movement. Though my role was limited and I was miserable I still acted as though the opinion of the perceived “shakers and movers” of the movement mattered. What I had to do was repent of my sin that believed people’s opinion actually had controlling meaning to me (Read: Fear of Man). I was a proud, big-time people pleaser and I wanted people’s approval. I was not getting their approval and to tell them that I was leaving the movement would have been the worst thing I could have done as far as people-pleasing was concerned. There was already distance from me to them and if I left there would be double-distance. I would be totally “outside the camp.”

What did I choose? I chose to say nothing. Instead I went on a long, private journey. And to be honest I don’t think I could have articulated these things to my friends anyway. It would have been futile and frustrating. I didn’t understand what was going on in my heart and I definitely couldn’t articulate the complexity of it all to my friends. From their perspective it would be like trying to convince an American why you didn’t believe in America anymore AND you were going to become a Muslim. To leave the movement is illogical to them. I kept quiet. I didn’t understand it all and I knew they did not as well.

So off I went. I was heading out into uncharted waters of evangelicalism, with no idea where I was going, with no compass whatsoever, in the middle of the night so to speak and no one knew and no one seemed to care. (Read: self-pity) I was leaving; no one asked how I was doing, where I was going, what I was up to, how much I hurt and/or could they extend a hand to help. I was on my own and it was a lonely despairing time, a Pharisee adrift.

What I really didn’t put together is that I had been alone since 1988. It was actually 1992 when I left fundamentalism or at least embarked on an exodus. I suppose officially I didn’t leave fundamentalism until 1997 and some would say until 2003. Depending on your perspective I would have to agree with the latter because you can physically leave the movement in your mind, as I did in 1992, but it takes years to get the effect of it out of your system. And truthfully you never do. I’m a born legalist. It’s in my heart.

Once you get the fundamentalist movement out of your life you are still left with legalism, the essence of the bad part of fundamentalism in your heart. At the core of our being is a desire to merit righteousness so the truth of the matter is we’re all legalists in our hearts, though we don’t like to think that way. In short, I’m a self-righteous person.

Fundamentalism just has a way of exacerbating what is already abiding in the soul. Leaving Fundamentalism gets the unnecessary out of your life, but the residual effect of the fall is always lying dormant in the heart, which has nothing to do with Fundamentalism. I cut the shackles loose from my soul and now I only have to deal with my core corruption rather than the additional bondage of a man-made legalistic culture.

The good news is that now I’m in a context where fellow, self-acknowledged sinners are willing to come alongside another sinner to help him repent, grow and glorify God.

My Former Separatist’s Days

The “branch” of fundamentalism that I was part of was one of the more restrictive branches of the movement. I believed in the King James Bible, which was touted as published in 1611. I didn’t read the 1611 version because of the Old English. I had a translation of a translation, but that did not mitigate my zeal in boasting in the Authorized Version. For me this was a dividing line with other groups. There were several dividing lines. Here is a short list or relationship stoppers:

1. If you did not have the 1611 King James Version
2. If you were not Baptist
3. If you were not Independent Baptist to be more specific
4. If ladies wore pants as opposed to dresses or culottes
5. If you went to a movie theater
6. If you drank alcohol
7. If you hung out with people that did any of the taboos on this list
8. If you didn’t go to a church meeting twice on Sunday and once on Wed

There were other things on the list. I held them strictly and typically when I met anyone that I didn’t know I would begin a subtle process of question asking to figure out who they were, what they participated in and how they held to these standards. There were ways to figure it out. And if they did not hold to my views then they would be “X’ed” off my list so to speak and I didn’t interact with them. Bob Jones University was one of the groups that was off my list. They held what I thought was a “liberal” view of the bible because they didn’t have an absolute stance on the King James Bible. They were also in the arts, which was an unnecessary evil, from my immature perspective, and a precursor to the entertainment industry. Their thinking seemed to be that if the art was from 200 or more years ago, it had been “sanctified” so to speak and was okay. In their mind there was no hard line or even a dotted line to the entertainment industry of today. In my mind, it was a precursor.

I have gone from loving the movement to hating the movement to my current reflections that allow me to praise God that the gospel is being preached in the movement. I was very arrogant while I was in this movement and showed it through my separatist positions. I was more arrogant after I left the movement by being critical of the illogicalness of it all. 

God has been kind to show me both sin patterns in my heart and today I am glad that Christ is being preach in this movement and I will always fondly remember many old friends who truly do love God and serve him faithfully.

What is Worldly?

Here is a question for you: Where is worldliness? Is it in the world? Or is it somewhere else?

That is a huge question and how you answer it will determine your Christian worldview: how you view and practice life as a Christian.

I propose to you that worldliness is not primarily external, in the world itself. Once upon a time I thought it was so and the logical outworking of my belief was to draw lines between me and my culture, separation from my culture. Oddly enough I did not learn this from Jesus. Jesus embedded himself in his culture.

Should I draw lines? I think so. But where should I draw them? That is the question.

And the answer to that question has changed for me over the years. Where I used to draw a line between me and my culture I now draw the line between me and my heart. I have since relocated worldliness not so much in my culture as in my heart. I get this from my re-understanding of worldliness according to 1 John 2:15-16. John, the beloved Christian, seems to locate worldliness not in the world, but in the heart or as he defines worldliness, i.e. desires, lust and pride.

1Jn 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

1Jn 2:16 For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world.

Desires, lusts and pride are, in the Bible, synonyms for heart attitudes, the inside of a person. John tells us not to love the world nor the things in the world. And then he sets out to describe what is in the world. He does this by talking about pride, lusts and desires. For John, this is what is in the world. This is how worldliness is described and/or defined for him. John is not teaching me that I should draw a line primarily between me and where I go, what I wear, who I hang with, what I say, what I eat or drink and the like. And if I draw the line primarily based on external factors then I could unnecessarily alienate folks from me, which is unnecessary and, even worse, unbiblical and anti-Gospel: Christ came to/into/penetrated the world.

So how should I dress and where should I go and who should I associate myself?

Here are a couple of thoughts to think about:

#1—We are our brother’s keeper; the bible is clear. This is the point Paul was making in 1 Corinthians 8. If there is a weaker brother that is easily offended by things that are permissible, then the “mature” Christian should refrain from such things within reason. These weak Christians thought it was a sin to eat meat and Paul warned those Christians who knew that “external” meat eating was not a big deal and they should be careful not to flaunt their accurate biblical knowledge in front of them.

Therefore, I may draw a line between me and “meat eating” if it is a stumbling block for a weaker brother. I’m not drawing a line between me and meat eating because meat eating is a sin, it is not. I’m drawing a line because of my temptation to be proud (John’s descriptor of worldliness) and ignore my weaker brother and not love him in his weakness.

Major Caveat: be careful not to guard against everything that can possibly offend a weaker brother or sister. If you try that then you would probably never leave your house, turn on a TV, launch the Internet, go to a restaurant and most anything else because a legalistic Christian culture can be easily offended about most anything.

#2—Another area that would be “worldly” for many is to dress in such a way as to impress others or be esteemed by others. This is drawing your approval or acceptance from “men” rather than from God.

John says, in essence, worldliness is in the heart, not in my clothes (the external). I think it is better to be culturally relevant than to wear clothes from a bygone era. However, in the wearing of those clothes it is important they are “modest” in that they don’t tempt someone to sin (to be worldly, i.e. lust). For a woman that would mean to dress modestly so that you don’t reveal or semi-reveal body parts that can tempt someone to sin.

And I should not dress in such a way to draw attention to myself, which could be over-modest, i.e. wearing culottes in the ocean. The worldly temtpation here could be self-righteousness by NOT looking like my culture. Jesus was culturally relevant and modest.

I think these two points can help you “draw the lines” in reasonable places. You can be relevant and reach your culture without caving to the immodesty of our culture. However, I must guard my heart from the temptation of thinking that the external is sinful. It is my heart that must be guarded. It is my sinful lust, desires and pride that make me worldly not whether I drive cars like pagans or go to the same restaurant that pagans attend or whether my wife wears pants similar to what pagans wear.

This is what John was getting at in that worldliness is defined in the heart not in the culture primarily. When we examine our hearts and offer grace to our friends, we are beginning in a better place. We are attacking worldliness.

Christian, Worldly, Gnostic?

I was sitting with a friend a few years ago in a parking lot after lunch. We were chatting. He was telling me about a certain music style that was “worldly”. At that point I asked him to define worldly for me and he basically said it was the style that made it worldly. From this understanding of worldly I would say that he has an interpretation that worldliness begins with the external rather than internal therefore, he has determined that certain styles—as opposed to all styles—are worldly.

With this basic understanding you have to discriminate based on stylistic issues rather than some other criteria. It is true that we as Christians should discriminate, but the question is how do you discriminate and/or what is the criteria for discrimination? My friend could look at a person based on their style and determine if that person was “worldly” or not. Maybe you can. Personally, I think that is a dangerous approach and can get a bit tricky. I think that most people agree that Jesus looked like his culture. I don’t think he had that sparkling white robe that we have seen in some pictures and everybody else’s is off-white or earth tones. I think it would be hard to pick Jesus out of a crowd.

In some instances folks had to ask who Jesus was rather than easily identifying him. External observation is needful, but not always accurate. External observation can be somewhat of a “Gnostic approach” to assessment. The Gnostics believed, in part, that the world was bad and knowledge was good. They didn’t like the things of the earth and put a precedent on the internal, the “Gnosis” (knowledge). Therefore, they stayed away from the earthly because it would defile. This is similar to the fundamentalist in some respects. They determine what is bad and they stay away from it. In some cases they not only stay away from the bad, but they stay away from the person or thing that is “next” to the bad in order not to be contaminated by the bad through association with the one (or thing) that is next to the bad. This is second and third degree separation as it has been called.

It not only sets a Pharisaical hedge around the bad, but puts a hedge around the hedge and more. This creates a culture of folks who can be noted for their spirituality by the number of hedges they set-up. Thus you get into severe asceticism that at some point has to breakdown.

For example, you will have ladies that won’t wear pants around other Christians, but will wear them in other venues, like around the house or walking or in the gym, etc. Others won’t go to a movie theater, but will rent a video or watch a movie on TV. Still others would not dare drink wine, but are obese and/or gossips. Again, whenever you set-up a false paradigm there has to be inconsistencies somewhere, at some point. You cannot live in our world and have those kinds of anti-cultural customs. It doesn’t make sense.

What is sad about this is that we now have a Christian culture that is ripe for insecure people with a bent toward legalism (we all have that bent, btw) and it is a nice way to keep yourself away from things that make you uncomfortable. As a fundamentalist relative said to me three years ago, “I have no ‘lost’ friends.” How sad. Jesus had many lost friends.

Thanks be to God that he did not separate from me. He pursued me, loved me and in time saved me.

The Flaw in the Fundamentalist’s Fabric

The major flaw in the fabric of fundamentalism is the motive for what they do. For many fundamentalists their motive can be driven more by fear of man (peer pressure) than Scripture, or to be more precise, the gospel. Because there is such an emphasis on the external there is a strong temptation to judge one another based on external observations. I don’t think many would own up to this type of “external judging”, but it happens. I know pastors who will not go to a movie theater in Greenville because they don’t want to be seen in one by another Christian. This one pastor went to Charlotte to see “It’s a Beautiful Mind”. They really don’t care if they are seen by someone who doesn’t go to church, but not by a Christian. This is really odd. They (or he in this case) is more guarded about his activity in front of a Christian than a non-Christian. It seems the folks we should be presenting ourselves to are non-Christians and our “presentation” in front of Christians should not be a problem.

However, I understand that Paul had this same problem in 1 Corinthians 8 where there were new believers who thought it was a sin to eat meat. They had been taught all their lives that eating meat sacrificed to idols is a sin and you do not do it. When they became Christians they were seeing other Christians eat meat and they were “stumbling” over this in their hearts. Therefore, Paul told the Christians who were eating meat not to do it in front of the newer Christians because it would cause them to sin against their conscience. In this case Paul was concerned what other Christians thought. However, there are some differences between what Paul was dealing with and what we have to navigate through in fundamentalism.

For example, Paul was concerned about new converts to Christianity rather than converts who have been saved for many years. These new converts had an “excuse” so to speak in that they had not had the opportunity to “try out” this new religion and therefore were in a major learning curve in which their conscience was weak due to a bad religion. They were immature.

Similarly, these converts came out of a wrong religion where fundamentalists are supposedly in the right religion. Paul was teaching Christians how to deal with new Christians who did not know any better rather than teaching Christians how to deal with Christians who have been Christians most of their lives and in many cases are second and third generation Christians. This is a major difference between 1 Corinthians 8 and today.

The fundy, as they are affectionately called, has zeroed in on something that Paul is trying to combat and they have created a false dichotomy between the secular and the sacred to such a degree that some fundy pastors have to go out of town just to enjoy a movie in a theater. This is quite odd to me now even though there was a time when I embraced that kind of thinking and practice.