The Most Popular Legalism Today: Left-Winged
I don’t think many of you would be impressed with my disgust with a diet of caterpillars if you knew my preference was eating cockroaches. I don’t believe that “to each his own” or even “let’s agree to disagree” would come to mind. More like, “No way!”
Maybe you might be impressed by my disgust with the religion of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. Jesus asked him about God’s commandments and he said he had kept those since he was a little kid. The Pharisees had taken the law and turned it into something that could be performed by human ability alone; a totally natural compliance to the law. They morphed the law into a group of activities by which they earned their own salvation. All of this was in the flesh; completely natural; completely carnal.
Charges of Legalism
Separatists like ourselves often get charged by evangelicals and now fundamentalists as a performance oriented group that does what we do as a means of keeping in good favor with God by our own works. Are they right? In certain cases, they might be. It’s always possible that we are doing right in the flesh. The key to their diagnoses, however, is how “strict” we are or “must be.”
Many evangelicals and fundamentalists are sure that we have moved into our standards minus the Spirit just choreographing the Christian life, everything being merely a performance. After all, “that’s how it was to them when they were a fundamentalist.” They were performing and failing. It’s true; they were legalists. But was it because of the standards? Or was it because they had turned the keeping of these standards as a means of racking up merit points with God? When I look at many of the standards of those they consider to be “right-wing,” I don’t see a problem with them. Are people legalists just because they have a high standard? Are the standards themselves the problem?
If the standards mean you are a legalist, then Paul had a problem. He had a standard of not taking money from the people to whom he preached (1 Corinthians 9), because he believed it would be a testimony conflict for his preaching. It was lawful for him to take money from his audience. He demonstrates this by quoting the Old Testament. So his standard wasn’t even taught anywhere in Scripture and yet he kept it. It wasn’t the only standard that he took on as part of his strategy for not offending the lost or causing a brother to stumble. And he was obviously instructing the Corinthians to have the same type of standards. He commanded them to imitate him (1 Corinthians 11:1).
The number of liberties we have (or how much grace we have) isn’t growing. We have exactly the number of liberties and grace that Scripture says that we are to have. We have liberties where Scripture doesn’t teach us either to do something or not to do something. We don’t have liberty to sin (Romans 6:1). We don’t have liberty to disobey our pastor on a non-scriptural issue (Hebrews 13:17). We don’t have liberty to cause disunity in a church (Ephesians 4:1-5). We don’t have liberty to be a stumbling block or a bad testimony even if it is a non-scriptural issue (1 Corinthians 8, 10). We don’t have liberty to make provision for the flesh (Romans 13:14). You see, Scripture teaches something in all of those areas. The Bible does restrict our liberties even in non-Scriptural issues. We get the exact amount of liberty that God wants us to have.
The Left Wing Legalist
An evangelical or fundamentalist will often talk about the multiplication of rules as being what characterizes the legalist, referring to the practice of the Pharisees in their Talmudic traditions. That’s not all they did though. They did add extra-scriptural regulations as an application of some Old Testament commandments, but they also would practice a kind of minimilization or reductionism as a means of keeping the stack of laws they already multiplied. Since they couldn’t please God in the laws that were actual laws of God, they reduced the laws to a number they could keep. They spent hours and hours arguing among themselves about the greatest of the commandments. Whether they tried to keep all of their traditions in the flesh or minimalized all of those into a few that they could keep in the flesh, what they were doing was all flesh. Legalism is flesh, whether right wing or left wing.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists have standards. Those have recently become more apparent in their responses to the extreme worldliness of the emergent church. Minimizing standards doesn’t result in more grace. It very well could result in more sin. Some of the standards kept by strong personal separatists are an application of Paul’s command to “flee fornication” or Peter’s command to “abstain from fleshly lusts.” God hasn’t given us grace to sin. The grace of God teaches us to deny ourselves of fleshly lusts (Titus 2:11-12). Grace gives us the ability to keep the standards and by keeping them we experience the grace of God’s holiness. When we sin because we weren’t careful about our associations or attractions, that doesn’t represent more grace for us.
Here is how right wing legalism becomes left wing: Keep Scriptural standards in the flesh failure turn Scriptural standards into human standards that can be kept in the flesh failure reduce the number of standards to a number that can be kept in the flesh failure–reduce the standards even further so that they can be kept in the flesh failure. Now we are to left wing legalism. What does all legalism have in common? Standards, whether Scriptural or unScriptural, are kept in the flesh. They become something of a mere performance, and they miss the heart, faith in the Lord.
Roman Catholicism is a classic example. As then is Anglicanism. Anglicanism started when King Henry the Eighth disobeyed the Pope in divorcing his wife. He reduced Catholicism by one standard—we won’t obey the pope, but now we will obey the chief bishop of the Church of England. We don’t become less legalistic by reducing the standards. Most evangelicals that I read are obsessed with standards, something I don’t find with the separatists with whom I primarily fellowship.
There are testimonies of former right wing legalists all over the internet. I have found that they consistently use very little Scripture to justify their jump from the right-wing. Their response to becoming a right wing legalist is becoming a left wing legalist. They haven’t stopped being a legalist. They practiced flesh before and they’re still practing flesh today, even more so. They weren’t impressive to God and they still aren’t impressive to God. The problem never was with legalism. They still practice it. They think that because they have moved left-wing that they aren’t a legalist any more. They practice legalism and they do in a classic and most Pharisaaical way. They would say that they left that problem behind, but they haven’t. However, what do they list as their issues?
Some evangelicals claim that certain preachers and churches have attempted to shrink their liberties. They want more liberty and because they do, these preachers and churches are now “legalists.” Some churches might be legalistic, but it isn’t because they have standards. A common example is the “pants issue.” If a leader is taking away liberties by requiring skirts and dresses of the ladies of a church, then most of the Christians for the last four hundred years were dupes of legalism. They considered this designed gender distinction to be genuine Scriptural dress code, just like many conservatives today believe the Bible teaches complementarianism when it comes to gender roles. Is someone legalist because they forbid a lady preacher in the pulpit? Of course not. Do you see that the standard itself is not legalism? It is the heart and attitude of the person who makes keeping the standard legalistic. Nothing is wrong with women wearing dresses. It is based upon Biblical teaching. Because someone thinks women should wear skirts and dresses doesn’t make him a legalist. Because a Christian thinks that men ought to be the head of their homes doesn’t make him a legalist either. Just because a right wing legalist doesn’t like a standard and so leaves his church doesn’t mean that now he isn’t a legalist. He isn’t experiencing more grace because he doesn’t hold to that standard any longer. We don’t get grace by either keeping or not keeping a standard. We experience the grace of God as a Christian by faith. A person keeping less standards doesn’t necessarily have more faith. His problem could be that he doesn’t have enough. He doesn’t like the awkward feeling he gets in dressing different than the world, but rather than taking responsibility for his fear, he charges his church and leaders with legalism.
Stay Tuned for Part Two