Legalism is one of those things we dislike in other people but generally like if we get to set the parameters. And what’s really wrong with it? we wonder. (When it’s our legalism, anyway. We know what’s wrong with everyone else’s legalism.) It just means that some things are right and others are wrong, right?
That’s fine in math.
As much as many of us say we hate math, we like the aspect of it that 2+2=4 and 2+5≠8. And it’s always that way. (Yes, I know that it’s usually at this point that some egghead objects that, “Well, not always. When talking of theoretical numbers … “ Um, dude, I wasn’t talking about theoretical numbers, nor was I talking about 2+2 in the context of a larger calculation. Left alone, 2+2=4, OK?)
Anyway, we want life to be like that. In this context, we would like morality to be like that. I know of a church, a good, strong, Bible-teaching church in most ways, that asks everyone who becomes a member to sign a “no-alcohol” pledge. I wonder if that includes Nyquil?
And there’s the rub. See, it’s not just that Nyquil helps some people (not me, it keeps me awake!), it’s that the Apostle Paul encouraged Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach. Why? Maybe as a sedative, maybe as just a sort of bi-carb. I know people who find that a small glass of wine helps them to relax their muscles and sleep better at night—possibly because of the antioxidants.
But see, we also know the danger of alcoholism. Pick up a newspaper (remember those? If not, ask your grandparents, they still have one delivered right to the front door!) and read through it. There was probably a wreck near your house last night and alcohol was the presumed cause. Someone had too much and thought they could drive just fine.
So it seems easier to say, “Let’s just ban all alcohol.” And honestly, if I never had another alcoholic beverage between now and death, I probably won’t be missing out on much of anything. (The same could be said of soft drinks, cheese, and TV, but let’s stick to alcohol for at least one more paragraph.)
If Jim Smith decides that he is going to swear off alcohol, I have no problem with that. Maybe he’s doing it for medical reasons, or because he wants to be an example to his kids or maybe it was some good friend of his who caused that alcohol-laced crash we read about two paragraphs back. Maybe Jim just feels like the alcohol was coming between him and God in some way. When Jim tells me, then, that he’s giving up alcohol and why, I’ll probably say something like, “Good for you!”
The problem is when human nature kicks in, as it so often does, and Jim starts telling me and everyone else around that we have to give up alcohol. His reason(s) for giving it up might be spectacular. However, there’s not a Bible verse that says, “Thou shalt not drink alcohol!” and to pretend that there is, or that this man-made wisdom one has discovered should be canonized, is when we abandon wisdom for legalism.
Of course, alcohol is not the only place where legalism creeps in, often under the guise of serving God. I know of another church which will not allow a person to become a member who has ever gone through a divorce. I don’t like divorce, either, and could spend another whole blog arguing whether the Bible permits it in some circumstances or not, but what I want to address here is one particular bugaboo.
Joe Public married Janie Abernathy one day. Three years later, Joe and Janie divorced. For this blog, we’ll say the reason they divorced was because Janie tended to burn the toast and Joe often left his clothes on the floor. In other words, their sacred vows were discarded in favor of convenience. Two years after the divorce, Joe married Susy Applecart. The new Mister and Mrs. Public started attending First Church—maybe because it was where they got married—and then they decided to give their lives to Christ. Both come forward and are immersed one Sunday, praise the Lord!
This church I know of (which I introduced two paragraphs back, for those who don’t remember), would not let Joe become a member because of his past divorce. I understand their championship of marriage, but do you realize what they are doing? They are holding against Joe a sin God does not hold against him! Was it a good thing that Joe divorced Janie? No. There may continue to be repercussions, especially if he and Janie had kids, but having repented, his sins are now taken as far away as the east is from the west. How dare a church say, “But we don’t forgive you!”
Through all this, I still say I understand the appeal of legalism. It would be easier to just say, “No alcohol, no gambling, no divorce, no whatever!” But, amazingly, God gave us brains and trusts us to use them! Sure, alcohol can be a problem but used properly it can be a help. Gambling can become a problem and—it could be argued—is a waste of money about 99.9% of the time, but maybe God didn’t prohibit it because he knew that serving him is going to require us to take some risks.
Maybe it’s why he tells us, through Paul, to “take every thought captive.” Every day, every moment, every thought, has great potential. Maybe some of these things aren’t sinful in and of themselves, but—at this moment in time—they could cloud or derail that potential.