The term “legalism” isn’t in the Bible, so it is off to a bad start as a scriptural discussion. And, yes, I know “Trinity” isn’t in there either. It is kind of ironic that someone could get in trouble for something that isn’t in the Bible to start with, and in trouble for something that says we’re in trouble for adding to the Bible. Nevertheless, “legalism” is a term we’re forced to discuss and deal with today.
Modern society relegates moral and religious concerns to matters private and personal. They’re nobodies’ business. You have the utter independence of the individual, offering freedom from all moral restraint or bounds. On the other hand, legalism becomes the suppression of the individual to majority or authority rule. The authority imposes standards which might elevate appearances to greater importance. Someone might look the part without really meaning it. Is there a scriptural place to regulate the lives of individuals by outward authority or law?
The laws themselves, as long as they’re scriptural, are not the problem. Having less of them won’t solve insincerity. We’re a nation of laws. God is a God of law. He provides standards by which to follow Him. Jesus said that if we love Him, we’ll keep His commandments. We can keep His commandments and not love Him, but we can’t love Him if we don’t. Reducing the commandments, the words, or the sayings to a manageable number, an amount we can keep, doesn’t make the living more about love. The one falling short of obeying the commandments loves less.
Paul saw Galatians, who professed justification by grace alone, moving from the “faith alone” column to the “plus works” one. This wasn’t the church having rules or standards. These individuals weren’t shaking apostate Judaism. They were still earning their salvation no matter what Jesus had done. As a result, Christ was made “of no effect unto” them (Gal 5:4). This mindset propagated by false teachers also effected already saved, truly converted believers. They, who had “begun in the Spirit” “by the hearing of faith,” were influenced to “perfect” themselves “by the flesh” (Gal 3:2-3). God accepts the fulfillment of Scriptural standards produced by the Spirit through the life of the believer. The reduction of standards does not vindicate the acts of obedience any more than the addition of them. The key for acceptable obedience isn’t the minimization of the rules but the grace by which they are accomplished.
The modern obsession with lessening restrictions, reflected in evangelicalism today, doesn’t reveal God’s grace or His glory. It manifests rebellious hearts and corrupt consciences. God’s grace is a dynamic force of God that secures our working for Him. Grace looks to obey the precepts and principles of Scripture.
Often evangelicals flash the term “legalism” to make room for a questionable behavior or habit. I started part one of this two part series when a popular evangelical blog author attempted to defend a post about a popular television show (Lost) with another one against legalism. The author said one of the forms of legalism is the pharisaism of adding to scripture. Adding to the Bible is pharisaical and Pharisees are legalists. However, legalism of the Galatian variety isn’t adding to God’s Word. Actual scripture does just fine for Galatian legalism.
The evangelical charge of either legalism or adding to Scripture relates to the lasciviousness of evangelicalism today. I want to use one obvious issue as an example—women wearing pants. Why avoid it? I agree that the Bible doesn’t prohibit women from wearing pants. Case closed, right? Wrong. Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibits women from wearing the male garment. Pants are the male garment. So I’m coming from the Bible on this one. And a woman wearing the male garment is an abomination to God, so this is a moral issue. God is displeased by disobeying the prohibition.
Now this is where some say Christians have liberty because we have here one of these “doubtful disputations” of Romans 14:1. We are not to reject someone in doubtful disputations. Deuteronomy 22:5 hasn’t been doubtful until just recently when society decided they would overturn the symbols of God’s design of the two genders. And if we’re going to still keep obeying Deuteronomy 22:5, we’ve got replace the male symbol, the male garment. I get no answers, total silence, or a joke, from every person I ask to name the male symbol or garment that has replaced pants. Evangelicals and fundamentalists don’t want women to be prohibited from wearing pants, so they say that grace, God’s grace, permits their pant wearing. And since it is God’s grace that gives permission, it must be legalism now that prohibits. This circuitous line of reasoning makes “the commandment of God of none effect” (Mt 15:6), another kind of pharisaism.
I read with interest some of the arguments of the “lovers of grace” for justifying the night time soap opera. Here is one from one of the contributors there, Frank Turk:
Now, before stuff gets a little out of control, there is nothing that happened in the course of the 6 seasons of LOST which is anywhere near as gritty and frankly carnal as what happened to Er, Tamar, Onan, and Judah and his son Perez.
Frank argues that the content of biblical narratives justifies watching some sex scenes on television. His argument says that if it’s OK to read the Bible, and it is, then it’s also OK to watch something equal to or less sinful. I’m not going to provide opposition to this justification in this post, but I wanted you aware of what they’re saying. Phil Johnson adds this:
But it’s not really necessary to portray Rob and Laura Petrie sleeping in separate beds in order to preserve the purity of the viewing audience, and it’s not inherently sinful to be exposed to a story in which someone commits adultery–or even worse.
I think Phil is staying a little purposefully ambiguous, but he’s creating space for watching acts of adultery committed on television. It’s along the same lines of the Frank argument above. And overall, those who question this line of reasoning, they say, are “legalists.” And Phil would add that this kind of “legalism,” the type that questions this type of viewership based upon moral grounds, is more dangerous than emergent or emerging types of license. And this is coming from those who claim to be conservative evangelicals.
Was Job a tad legalistic when he followed that whole “covenant with his eyes” standard (Job 31:1)? I guess Job was just trying to rack up merit points. Either that, or he thought that having the right thought life would help him please God. And He did love God. We’re commanded by Paul, “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2a). But how can we follow that requisite for presenting our bodies a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1b)? Well, it’s by being transformed “by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2b). And how are our minds renewed? They are renewed by what we fill them with. Garbage in, garbage out. Clean in, clean out. Christian leaders shouldn’t be encouraging their listeners to belly-up to the garbage trough. What do you think?
Now I say that these boy-who-cried-wolf type of accusations of “legalism” destroy. They encourage lasciviousness and license. They sear and suave the conscience. They encourage false worship. They impede holy living. They excuse sin.
In the last week someone wrote that these “legalists” require lists of rules for their adherents in order to compensate for personal insecurities. And then as a way of reaching unattainable spiritual heights, made impossible by the sheer magnitude of the regulations, the followers obtain special relics to overcome their spiritual shortfalls. Mark Farnham says these fundamentalist relics were objects associated with fundamentalist saints, like the signature of a well-known preacher or the car of John R. Rice or Jack Hyles’ ring. Interesting theory. I wonder if a heavy collection of C. H. Spurgeon memorabilia would count as spiritual relics as well. Or perhaps treks to the meccas of Together for the Gospel in Louisville or Shepherd’s Conference in Southern California might result in some pure spirituality that someone might otherwise be missing.
Following Farnham’s line of reasoning, I see evangelicals and fundamentalists also reaching for an abounding grace formerly unreachable without the relic of the worship team, the contemporary chorus, the goatee beard, the powerpoint screen medium, and the casual polo shirt. Some mixture of these ingredients effuse Christians with a grace elixir capable of bringing them to a different spiritual dimension. Grace is available to those hungry enough to release the ball and chain of an old version of Scripture, a stifling shirt and tie, and a constraining television standard. Nothing says grace quite like your best Sunday t-shirt and a Jars of Clay logo on the bottom of your skateboard.
From the very beginning, men have taken liberty both with what God has said and with His grace. In Genesis 3 Satan made a way for Eve to justify eating the forbidden fruit. God’s grace is great. It is wonderful. It is mankind’s only basis for salvation. And yet what? Men who even call themselves Christians turn “the grace of God into lasciviousness” (Jude 1:3). They use their liberty as “an occasion to the flesh” (Galatians 5:13).
Knowing the potential abuse of the grace of God, Paul immediately after so beautifully describing salvation by grace alone in Romans 1-5, starts Romans 6 by asking, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” And his answer in v. 2 is the strongest in the Greek language, translated in the KJV, “God forbid.” Then asking, “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” God’s grace isn’t license to sin. So Romans 6:1-2 provides evidence that grace will be perverted in this way, used as a reason for behavior that dishonors God. It signals a need for awareness of potential corruption or cheapening of grace.
1 Peter 2:16 says:
As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.
Here is another place that confronts the use of liberty as license. The context is obedience to government, but the principle is axiomatic. Those to whom Peter is speaking are free. They’ve been redeemed. He doesn’t want them, however, to use that freedom as a covering for evil. The cloak is a veil or a mask, and the mask is covering wickedness. In other words, Christian freedom is never to be used to cover license. Just because we have liberty in Christ doesn’t mean that we get to just do what we want. Someone truly righteous will conform to God’s Word because it says your freedom should be used as a bondslave of God.
Criticism of Adherence to God’s Word
One indication of licentiousness is criticism of a more strict adherence to God’s Word. You see this type of behavior described in 2 Peter 2 and it will often take on the nature of ridicule (2 Pet 3:3). A common, modern criticism coming from the more licentious is one of “legalism.” They label anyone a “legalist” who has stronger standards of holiness and righteousness than what they have. This strategy may have been around longer, but what marked the official beginning in my memory is the publication of the book “The Grace Awakening,” by Charles Swindoll. As Christianity has looked and behaved more and more like the world, new defenses are crafted to justify that kind of living. What drew my attention toward writing this post was a recent essay by Phil Johnson, the executive director of Grace to You. I want to diagnose his piece as a basis for assessing a type of defense of license.
Johnson chooses to paint separatists with this carpet roll sized brush:
[W]e have attracted more than our fair share of very vocal legalists who are convinced that the person with the weakest conscience (or the Bible college with the strictest rules) should get to define holiness for everyone—rather than letting Scripture define it for us. They believe it is their prerogative to dictate to everyone else what’s acceptable and what’s not, rather than following the principles of Romans 14 with regard to matters that aren’t altogether clear. Those people surface at every opportunity, and they seem to love making a fuss. Sometimes it’s fairly humorous (as in the “Chiquita” kerfuffle a few years ago).
I can assure that what Johnson writes here isn’t true. With a meanness in the spirit of a fundamentalism that Johnson decries, he slanders well-meaning and godly-seeming folks. I was involved in the “Chiquita kerfuffle” that Johnson mentions in this paragraph. He used a picture on his blog of a girl, who was wearing biker shorts. He has used a few other pictures with women with full thigh. What was “fairly humorous” to Johnson was his own ridiculing of the men who protested very lightly. It only got a little rougher for Johnson after he mocked those who said anything. I wrote this comment:
I’m wondering what I’m supposed to do when I get to the woman in the hotpants standing on the pyromaniacs logo. She seems to be pyro of a different kind.
And Johnson answered immediately with this:
For all the fundamentalist lurkers whose minds are in the gutter, the girl in the picture is wearing shorts, not a miniskirt or hotpants. The dog is the one in the miniskirt.
This is the kind of “legalism” that Johnson had to face, which he describes in this latest post. To that, he jumps to the idea that we, the legalists, have our minds in the gutter.
Here is how Johnson confronts this “legalism”:
But another kind of legalism is the legalism of the Pharisees. It’s the tendency to reduce every believer’s duty to a list of rules. This is the kind of legalism that often seems to surface in our comment-threads. At its root is a belief that holiness is achieved by legal means—by following a list of “standards.” This type of legalism doesn’t necessarily destroy the doctrine of justification like the legalism of the Judaizers. But it does destroy the doctrine of sanctification, and it is certainly appropriate to call it what it is: legalism—i.e., a sinful misapplication of law; an attempt to make law do work that only grace can do. Like the Judaizers’ brand of legalism, it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.
I’ve read some of these comment threads to which Johnson refers, including the one, of course, that he makes his prime example. Really he tells a blatant lie. Perhaps he thinks he has liberty to tell such a lie. I think it is possible for a kind of legalism to destroy the right view of sanctification, but Johnson doesn’t know at all that the ones he is criticizing hold to such a view of sanctification as he represents. That doesn’t seem to matter to him.
Look at the last sentence Johnson writes—”it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.” What? Scripture doesn’t place anyone under a yoke of bondage. Scripture can’t do that to anyone. Scriptural standards, even Scriptural lists of rules, don’t place anyone under bondage. They could, but God’s law is good. It is good if it is used lawfully. That should be the concern, whether it is used lawfully or not. And immodest dress is bad. Telling someone about that doesn’t put someone under some kind of legalistic bondage. God’s grace tends toward modesty. Informing a conscience with a scriptural standard of modesty will help someone’s conscience. That’s all good too and all helpful toward biblical sanctification.
Left Wing Legalism: Making God’s Word of None Effect
Johnson assumes that separatists, whom he calls “fundamentalists,” recognize only a kind of legalism that applies to salvation, the type of Galatians 1:6-9, adding to the gospel, what he calls the legalism of the Judaizers. He says, however, that these same separatists miss another kind of legalism, that of the Pharisees. He uses Galatians 5:1 as a text to expose this type of legalism, that he asserts that these separatists, “fundamentalists,” are guilty of, for which “fundamentalists” are “notorious,” and what has essentially destroyed fundamentalism. Be sure that this is a simplistic, very selective criticism of the troubles of fundamentalism.
Galatians 5:1 does not give any hint at a kind of legalism that adds to the commandments of God. Johnson twists the verse for his own licentious purposes. The “yoke of bondage” with which the Judaizers of Galatia would entangle men was the actual law (5:3-4), and circumcision specifically (5:2, 6, 11). Circumcision wasn’t a problem. Keeping the law wasn’t wrong for believers. It was making righteousness, whether justification or sanctification, based on human merit. All righteousness comes by grace through faith, even after salvation. However, it is still righteousness that comes by grace through faith. Nothing is said about adding anything to the law in Galatians 5. Johnson reads that into the text in order to criticize people with higher standards of holiness than he has.
It is true that Pharisees were guilty of adding to the law. Johnson mentions that. And it is possible for fundamentalists and evangelicals both to add to God’s Word. Mark 7 is a good passage in this, because Jesus there reveals two types of Pharisaical behavior. The first is the type to which Johnson refers, the adding kind, which is in vv. 7-8. However, he doesn’t talk about another kind of Pharisaicalness, taking away from what God said, which is in vv. 9-13. Jesus sums it up in v. 13: “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.” Making the word of God of none effect is the Pharisee behavior of the evangelicals.
You can call reducing the law to a group of rules that you can keep on your own its own brand of Pharisaism, a left-wing kind of legalism. We are sanctified through the truth and God’s Word is truth. Jesus was sanctified by everything the Father told Him to do. In the same way, we are sanctified. If we reduce scripture to something less than scripture, like Johnson chooses to do, that will destroy sanctification.
The Grace of God
Salvation is by grace through faith alone. No amount of works will bring justification to anyone. In the sanctification of believers, it is God who works in them both to will and do of His good pleasure. God works all things together for good. God conforms to the image of His Son. But God is working. The grace of God will look like God. The grace of God teaches us to deny worldly lust, not expose ourselves to it and relish in it.
What upset Johnson enough for him to write what he did was the reaction to a certain blog post by one of his partners. That essay was discussing Lost, a television series that his teammate professed to have watched start to finish. A few criticized a publication that might encourage others to watch such a television show. That’s what bothered Johnson enough to write a “legalism” column. Does the grace of God teach us to watch Lost? That’s a question. And I think it’s worth thinking about. I understand that the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not watch Lost,” but there might be enough Scripture to guide us as to what kind of watching would honor God. A criticism of Lost is what Johnson thinks is the greatest kind of destruction of sanctification in human existence (according to his essay).
We don’t stop watching television to be saved. We don’t wear modest clothing to be saved. We don’t abstain from alcohol to be saved. We don’t communicate in a pure and righteous manner to be saved. But if we’re saved, we will want to live according to God’s Word, to conform to His will.
More to come on this subject.
The internet is new. Just look at Al Gore. Social networking sites (SNS) are even newer. In this era of modernity with the explosion of the information age, there is more to come. C. H. Spurgeon faced new kinds of entertainment at the end of the nineteenth century. He had words of warning based on scriptural principles for issues not found in the Bible. These require the development of spiritual discernment. God didn’t give church leadership a mandate to bury its head in the sand. We should give guidance in new areas of potential danger to the church.
A common opposition to biblical application to cultural issues is argument by moral equivalence. I’ve heard a couple different types even this month. One goes like this: “You can get in trouble with any kind of communication device. You can sin on the phone or on the internet too. SNS are no different. You could get hit crossing the street. Are you going to stop doing that too?” How did you know? I’m putting my finishing touches on my no street-crossing post, the father of all safety-patrol. I’m kidding, but I do believe there is a biblical answer to this. It’s 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” We have admonition against presumptuousness about sin. Certain places are of greater temptation than others. Some have worse associations.
Another moral equivalent has been the “SNS isn’t that much different than writing on a blog and you do that” argument. I could waste time here. I could violate scripture. I could cause damage to a church. I could get puffed up with pride over readership. I say “yes” to all of those. I could do any four of those “couldas.” So I should look at blogging with scrutiny as well. I do. I’m not going to write about it, but I do. However, as I have, I see them as very different activities. My blog posting doesn’t parallel with the activities of facebook.
The responses I’ve read and heard in this SNS discussion remind me of the major differences in the approach to liberties. What I am often reading from evangelicals and even fundamentalists are several unscriptural and indefensible perspectives of liberties. They’ll deny it, but I’ll also explain how it is that they do take on these three at least.
1. We have liberty to sin.
They say, “Do not say that.” I say, “You don’t say it, but you do it.” How? Some commands in Scripture require a secondary premise. Let me provide a syllogism.
Major or First Premise: The woman who wears the male article is an abomination to God.
Minor or Second Premise: Pants are the male article.
Conclusion: The woman who wears pants is an abomination to God.
I’ve found that Christians today won’t even agree on the major premise, even though Deuteronomy 22:5 says: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.” “That which pertaineth unto a man” is the male article. I often ask men, what is the male article. Most don’t want to answer it. They know it’s pants, so instead of replying to it, they say: “the cape,” “the derby,” etc. They take a position of mockery akin to those who scorn the coming of Christ in 2 Peter 3. Without pants, there is no male garment any longer, and people know it. And they don’t care. It isn’t an abomination to them, only to God, so it doesn’t matter.
I recognize that I’ve chosen a more controversial example, but this isn’t a liberty issue. We don’t have liberty just because there’s a controversy. We don’t have liberty just because men have muddled up this issue. This is how Christians have practiced for centuries. Since the onslaught of feminism and unisex, men have changed the practice in favor of one more acceptable to pagan society. We have liberty in non-moral issues, and things that are an abomination to God are moral. It’s a sin to violate God’s instruction. There are many other examples.
2. We have the right to cause someone to stumble, to be a bad testimony, to offend another person’s conscience, to conform to the world, or to profane worship.
They say, “I do not say that.” I say, “You do too.” How? Evangelicals and now many fundamentalists turn 1 Corinthians 6-10 and Romans 14 on their head. Those passages don’t emphasize demanding rights. They emphasize limiting liberties for the sake of weaker brothers, of unsaved people, and for the greater glory of God. And yet the evangelicals and fundamentalists now see this as a basis for many unscriptural activities.
3. I don’t practice personally unpopular biblical application.
They say, “I do not say that.” I say, “You do too.” How? Evangelicals and many fundamentalists say something like what Nathan Busenitz wrote over at Pulpit Fellowship:
[T]he Bible tells us “not to exceed what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). We cannot add to the Scripture without subtracting from its effectiveness in our lives. If we elevate personal preference and man-made tradition to the level of God’s Word (Mark 7:6-15), we risk entangling people in the bondage of legalism and diverting them from the true issues of sanctification (Romans 14:17).
It sounds good. They say we don’t want to exceed what is written. And yet Phil Johnson recently wrote what he believed determined what foul language was:
Culture determines this. It’s quite true that the standard may be different from culture to culture and generation to generation. But both history and literature prove that it’s not nearly as fluid or as nebulous as postmodern language-theorists suggest.
You read it. If you want to know what cuss words are or what smutty speech is, culture determines this. Really? I agree with Phil wholeheartedly. To make application, you have to do that with truth not found in the Bible. Certain words, based upon the culture, we can conclude, “Yes, that’s foul language.”
We can also determine by the culture what is worldly dress, what is pagan music, and all sorts of other important application of Scripture. We do it the same way. Here’s what happens. Busenitz and Johnson (and me) don’t like the profanity in the pulpit. That’s wrong. So there, it’s OK to “exceed what is written” in Scripture. They throw that verse around at what they want to throw it at. But when it comes to these other cultural issues, they are blind in their application. What you will see them do is make statements like this monumental and mocking strawman that Johnson threw out for areas that he does not prefer to make application:
Yeah, but no one here (except maybe Kent Brandenburg) has ever seriously suggested that 1950′s style is the standard to pursue, either. What I have consistently argued for is clarity, biblical language (as opposed to some subculture’s hip patois), sound doctrine, and boldness in our proclamation of the truth-claims of Scripture that aren’t currently fashionable.
It’s weird how that keeps getting morphed into 1950s-style haircuts and poodle skirts in the thinking of some of the very same people who are so keen to keep up with postmodern fashions. I’ve said nothing whatsoever about dress codes, hair styles, or ’50s fashions in corporate worship or music. Let’s not pretend this post is about that.
What do you think of those arguments? See what evangelicals and fundamentalists do? They pick and choose the kind of applications they want to make and then veto the others. In this case, he talks about 1950′s style (who would make that argument?) or “poodle skirts” as a way to frame what is what Zephaniah 1:8 calls “strange apparel.” Evangelicals and fundamentalists commonly protect their popularity by making these areas of application matters of “liberty,” and the ones that they don’t like, they say they can be determined by the culture. You can see it yourself.
Have you looked at and compared the crowds that gather for a blue-state candidate or a red-state candidate? I’m not talking about race and ethnicity. Remove that from your thoughts and this discussion. I’m only referring to how they appear in dress and decorum. To make it more simple—notice the difference in the look of a Hillary crowd versus a Huckabee crowd (this is not an endorsement for either of these candidates or world views). By observation it is obvious that these two groups have different standards. Culture shock if they attended the other’s rally. Does this matter? Do the differences mean anything?
We can go further with this comparison. Look at this earlier female golfing attire (and here), early female tennis player (and here), early female cyclists, and then early female swimmers. Have the standards of dress changed? Are we better now? These men were watching a baseball game. Why have things become more casual all around? Is there an underlying philosophical reason? Are we better off with the new standard?
Standard fare today on standards is that they are nasty ole additions to Scripture. I ask myself, “Why didn’t the godly people, who loved the Word of God, not recognize that the standards they implemented weren’t actually biblical?” Corollary: “Were they that much spiritual dunces?” Also, “How could there have been such a widespread conspiracy to get especially young people to do things, i.e. keep standards, that were so detrimental to their lives?” I contend that the standard bearers’ spiritual and biblical elevators did go all the way to the top. They did have a clue.
We have a regular attack on standards today not just in evangelicalism (typical), but also in professing fundamentalism (here, here, here, and here). Are they trying to help us? Have we really been duped by modern day Pharisees? Is the world a more godly place with their new found influence? Or are they actually contemporary Mr. Worldly-Wises who can’t say “no” to their worldly lusts?
“Standard” isn’t an English word found in the English translation of Scripture, so to argue a proposition that standards are good and necessary and that obliterating them decays a Christian culture, we should define the term. The free dictionary online says that a standard is: “a. A degree or level of requirement, excellence, or attainment. b. A requirement of moral conduct. Often used in the plural.”
When we talk about standards, we are talking about institutional application of biblical principles and commands. The two Scriptural institutions are the family and the church, but today there are schools you can add to that. Families have standards—”call if you’ll be late,” “put back what you got out,” “elbows off the table,” “answer when spoken to,” and “you’ll wear a tie on Sunday.” Churches have standards—”no faithful attendance; no choir,” “no tie; no usher,” “no evangelism; no teaching,” “alcohol; no membership,” “divorce; no deacon,” “no haircut; no leadership,” and “movie theater; no leadership.”
Defenders of Christian culture or personal holiness have taken these standards from direct statements or applications from principles. For instance, you might recognize that “divorce; no deacon” comes from 1 Timothy 3. Many evangelicals will argue against that. “No haircut, no leadership” comes from 1 Corinthians 11. No one with whom I fellowship uses standards as a means of justification or sanctification (Romans 3:20; Galatians 5:1-4). We have many explanations for standards that are found in 1 Corinthians 6-10 in Paul’s discussion on the proper use of liberties. We are to flee idolatry and flee fornication. Do we apply these with track shoes? We aren’t to get close to sin, thinking that we will stand and not fall. Romans 13 and 14 give more principles. This is how these verses have been applied or obeyed for centuries.
The Attack on Standards
Evangelicals and fundamentalists combat these standards by many different means. Sometimes they use Scripture. Jeroboam used Scripture to support erecting his idols at Dan and Bethel. Who did he quote? He cited Aaron when Aaron defended his building of the golden calf. Normally, they will attack personally and speculate motives. They say that you are trying to sanctify by works. They claim that you want to impress people out of pride. They say that you are working at conforming everybody into something that you’re comfortable with. They say that it is legalism and not grace. Most often today, they say that you are just making these standards up without biblical support.
Recently, over at a bastion of post-standard fundamentalism, SharperIron, Stephen Davis, an associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Lansdale, PA (home of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the National Leadership Conferences) wrote:
Yet in my opinion and observation, Fundamentalism’s commitment to the authority of Scripture often attaches itself to interpretations and positions on issues to which scriptural authority cannot be legitimately attached. . . . [O]ne finds great diversity due in part to the level of certainty that is accorded to the application of Scripture to issues that are far removed from the fundamentals of the faith. These applications on a host of issues from standards to music to Bible versions to eschatological distinctives have helped create a fractured Fundamentalism.
That is the common criticism for personal and cultural separation based on standards. A lot of what Davis wrote, I agree with, and especially this:
I will not allow a movement to define me and to choose my battles. The Word stands above every movement and every culture in every time and in all places. To that sacred and timeless Word and to its Author we must yield and give our allegiance.
This is why I don’t consider myself to be a fundamentalist. However, I will defend fundamentalism when it is attacked for upholding standards of personal holiness. Places like Calvary in Lansdale still practice mixed swimming, which includes men and women stripping down to something sometimes less modest than underwear. In my experience with the Lansdale type cross-section of professing Christianity, I have found that they consider a standard against mixed swimming to be one of these “illegitimate applications of Scripture.” One of the detriments of being a fundamentalist is the initial concept that certain teachings of Scripture are already relegated to something less than a fundamental. In this case, mixed nudity doesn’t count as a violation of a fundamental, so it should be ignored as a matter of separation. And most of the traditional brand of fundamentalists (the Bob Jones, Detroit, Maranatha, Northland, Central axis) do ignore this. That’s why I like Davis’ last quote (read it again to see if you like it). We’ll do just what Scripture says and not worry about whether traditional fundamentalists will agree with us (they won’t).
I’m sure many of these men don’t like that I am saying that they are supporting nudity or maybe better ‘Christian nudist retreats.’ If they don’t support it, then why don’t they separate over it? Are they really uncertain as to whether it is wrong? Maybe not. I do believe it is interesting that these fundamentalists will regularly coddle up to men like C. J. Mahaney of Together for the Gospel, when his church this year is putting on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Last year they put on Godspell. The latter is of the same type of show as the blasphemous Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, which had opened on broadway a year earlier. Perhaps they could rename their fellowship, Together for the Godspell.
When fundamentalist Dave Doran got together with them last year, he reported:
In many respects, it was one of the most spiritually beneficial conferences I’ve attended the message by John Piper alone was worth the time and cost of the conference.
John Piper doesn’t have trouble with the standards of the pastor of Mars Hill church in the Seattle, WA area, Mark Driscoll. This mixture could make things confusing couldn’t it? Isn’t this the reason why we separate ecclesiastically (churches separate) over issues of personal holiness? The evangelicals and fundamentalists don’t have these standards of personal holiness over which they will separate, and so they have an incredible lack of discernment. This causes many to stumble.
The most common text I hear quoted as a Scriptural refutation of standards is Mark 7:7:
Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
Believers have not historically relied on this verse in contradiction to standards of personal holiness. God expects us to apply Scripture to our life and standards are the way. As a means of seeing how that believers have applied Scripture to life, and not considered legalistic, take a look at William Gouge’s Of Domestical Duties (1622). Gouge has a several page section in which he shows that a biblical practice would be a mother nursing her infant children. Most evangelicals and many fundamentalists would call this legalism.
As a result of these kinds of attacks on standards, churches lose their Christian culture, looking, acting, and sounding like the world. The churches of today look more and more like the blue crowd compared to the red crowd they once did. Some may say that this either doesn’t matter or it’s actually good. What do they do with Zephaniah 1:8?
And it shall come to pass in the day of the LORD’S sacrifice, that I will punish the princes, and the king’s children, and all such as are clothed with strange apparel.
Dressing in “strange apparel” was to dress like the world. God would punish those of His people who wore worldly clothes. He expected them to be distinct. Distinctiveness was holiness. This verse alone is a proof text for standards. This is also the historic position on this verse (and here). God expects believers to have personal standards of holiness. Zephaniah 1:8 doesn’t explain what “strange apparel” was. They were to know. They obviously did know. They were going to be punished for something that they knew and were supposed to practice. God hasn’t changed on this, even if we have.
The Relationship to 2 Timothy 3:2
I’ve been relating the cultural decay to the last days. One last expression of the times of apostacy is that men shall be “lovers of pleasure.” Men want their way. They want their creature comforts. On the other hand, Jesus said that His way was self-denial. The rich young man in Matthew 19 said he wanted eternal life, but he couldn’t give up his things. Jesus described His way in Luke 9:58:
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
Those following Christ shouldn’t expect to have anywhere to lay their heads. That’s not what people want to hear today. And because people want what they want, churches market themselves to pleasure-loving people. It’s no wonder that they don’t like standards and scramble to find verses to avoid them. They even present a kind of Christian hedonism (these articles are against it). The evangelical, John Piper, has popularized a form of Christian hedonism, and he states the first point in his book, Desiring God (p. 23):
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience; it is good, not sinful. 2. We should never try to resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
He starts with man’s longing to be happy. What verse teaches this? Um. (Crickets.) Mark 7:7 anyone? This idea in particular satisfies man’s fleshly desire to gratify himself. As a result of these kinds of philosophies, evangelicalism is full of worldliness.
Low standards or high standards can result from legalism. Grace doesn’t contradict man’s happiness, but it centers on the pleasure of God. It doesn’t make provision for the flesh. It won’t always deliver us if we walk near the edge of the moral cliff. Grace will build a fence there. It won’t make it easier for the flesh. It teaches us to deny ungodliness and lust. Standards graciously apply Scripture. They protect the distinct, holy culture of the Christian.