Christian Legalism Part 2: Good vs. Evil or Wise vs. Unwise?

Christian Legalism Part 2 Good vs. Evil or Wise vs Unwise

Last week I wrote a post against Christian legalism. I said that too often, especially on the internet, we create extra “rules” about what it means to be a Christian.

Lots of great feedback on the post, but in reading some of the comments I realized I need to explain this a little more, because some were missing my main point (perhaps because I could have made it better?). In that post, I was trying to argue that too often we take things that are negotiables, and try to make them sound like they’re non-negotiables. Should Christians wear tattoos, drink a glass of wine, put their kids in daycare, let kids go to public schools, wear bathing suits or listen to secular music? I argued that we really shouldn’t become legalistic about these things.

Some people were saying, though, that as we know Christ, we do become holier, and so saying that these things don’t matter is wrong. I completely agree with the doctrine of sanctification (that the Holy Spirit makes us more Christ-like once we are Christians). I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Christians should be able to do absolutely anything because of grace.

What I wanted to do was to contrast things that are part of our moral code with things that are part of our cultural code. I was talking about cultural things; some people thought that implied that I didn’t think there was a moral code. I absolutely do; I just don’t think it’s the same thing as our cultural code. So let’s look into that a bit more today to get a fuller picture of what kind of legalism we need to steer clear of–and what rules we need to definitely obey. Here are a few key points:

1. Many of the prescriptions in the Bible were based on the culture at the time

Both the Old Testament and New Testament are filled with two basic different kinds of laws: Cultural edicts and Moral edicts (the Old Testament also had civil edicts, like how the temple was to be built and how ceremonies were to be performed, but let’s just stick with these two for a moment). The moral edicts are obvious: The 10 commandments encapsulates them perfectly. When the New Testament talks about “The Law”, it tends to be referring to these moral codes. They’re repeated over and over again in the New Testament; for instance, in Galatians 5:19-21, Paul writes this:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

These are moral laws, and they didn’t go extinct when Jesus came to give us a “new covenant”. They define what it is to love God.

However, the Old Testament also has some cultural laws, like Leviticus 19:19:

Keep my decrees. “‘Do not mate different kinds of animals. “‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. “‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”

We don’t need to follow these laws to the letter anymore, but we do need to figure out the reason for them. And the reason was to demonstrate God’s absolute holiness. Most of God’s cultural and civic laws in the Old Testament were visual representations and object lessons about who God was. And God is pure and holy, just as we should aim to be pure and holy. The application of this verse today does not mean you can’t plant basil plants near your tomatoes to ward off bugs, or you can’t wear a cotton/poly blend; it means that there can be no excuse for sin because God is holy.

There are similar edicts in the New Testament. For instance, Paul talks about how slaves should act. That doesn’t mean Paul condoned slavery; it means that in their culture, this is how you should glorify Jesus. Paul said you shouldn’t wear braided hair. That didn’t mean that Paul had something against Laura Ingalls; it meant that at the time, braids equated with temple prostitution, and women should try to not look like street walkers. That’s the REASON behind the edict. The reason is still relevant; the cultural expression of it is not.

2. Not Every Bible Story is an Example We are to Follow

The Bible is the story of how God speaks to and works in very imperfect people. It is not a story of people who have all their stuff together.

With the exception of Ruth and Boaz, I can’t think of a single marriage in the Old Testament that we would want to emulate. And yet I don’t know how many times I have heard people say, “Rebecca and Isaac are a beautiful example of courtship. We should do that, too!”

Rebecca and Isaac had a horrible example of a marriage. The only thing we know about their married life is that they were both far too emotionally invested in one of their sons, and they weren’t a unit. They were each closer to one son than they were to each other. Rebecca encouraged her son to manipulate his father. That’s not an intimate marriage.

David was a polygamist who was a terrible father. He allowed his kids to run rampant and never punished them; and he allowed his daughter to be raped with no consequences.

Esther and the king is not a love story, and Mordechai is not a hero. Mordechai sold his niece to a harem. There’s a word for that, but I won’t print it here.

Esther herself was chosen to be the new queen after spending a night with the king. I don’t think we should whitewash what must have been done during that night.

But here’s the thing: just because these Bible characters were flawed does not mean that our faith is flawed. On the contrary: God worked through these circumstances. Through Esther God saved His people.

There is no need to see these Bible characters as perfect, because how people behave does not reflect on God. God is God. And yet by twisting ourselves into knots trying to make these stories look Disney-worthy, we forget that the interplay between God and culture has always been messy. No culture has ever lived out God’s edicts perfectly, even those cultures from biblical times. And that’s why the point is not to create the perfect culture; the point is to honour God within the culture that we are.

We don’t need to bring back the Old Testament times, or the 1800s, or the 1950s. We don’t need to bring them back in terms of dress, or language, or family style, or anything. We just need to worship God authentically today.

Some religions do treat Scripture as if the prophets of old could not have done anything wrong, and thus we must emulate everything they did. The problem with seeing prophets like this is that you get stuck in the past. If you must emulate what they did, then you must perpetuate the culture. We’re not supposed to perpetuate the culture; we’re supposed to worship God.

3. There is a Difference Between Good vs. Evil and Wise vs. Unwise

All of this leads me to my main point, which is this:

When we’re talking about universal moral laws, we’re talking about good vs. evil. When we’re talking primarily about cultural expressions of Christianity, we’re talking wise vs. unwise.

There is no doubt that sex outside of marriage is wrong. There is no doubt that lying is wrong. There is no doubt that greed is wrong. But drinking a glass of wine (not drunkenness; just having a glass of wine)? That one is a cultural choice. And that falls under the category of wise vs. unwise.

It is fine for people to have disagreements about what is wise vs. what is unwise. As Christians, we are to wrestle with the cultural expression of our own salvation, and that means that we will have to make choices about what we will or won’t do.

But let’s not elevate cultural expressions to moral laws. It would have been culturally wrong to wear a modern bathing suit in 1890; in most places in North America today it would not be. The culture has changed. So the question is: how do we honour God in the culture we are in, not how do we bring our culture back to some previous ideal (which was likely never that ideal in the first place).

4. If You Can’t Name the Reason, You’re Likely Being Legalistic

A final point: God didn’t just say “Thou shalt not do X” for His own pleasure, to see us squirm. He made His laws to be intrinsically consistent and to fit with Truth–because He is Truth. This, by the way, is something that distinguishes Christianity from Islam or other religions. In Christianity, God limits Himself. He cannot lie, and He cannot change. What He says, then, must be consistent. In Islam, God can do whatever he wants and he isn’t limited. That means that God is ultimately not as knowable–and the world isn’t as knowable either, because his creation doesn’t need to be as consistent and doesn’t need to make sense. But that’s the subject of another post.

Therefore, if God orders something, there is a reason behind it. And we do far better if we articulate that reason than if we just say, “Because God said so.” For instance, when I argue why we should wait for marriage for sex, my primary argument is not “because the Bible says so”. I explain why this edict makes sense–because all of God’s edicts do.

If you cannot name the reason behind something, but are simply pulling out Bible verses, then it could be that you are relying on a cultural interpretation rather than the Spirit behind it. And so that’s the litmus test that I use: if my main reason for saying something is a rule is “because God says so”, I likely haven’t studied Scripture or prayed enough about it. If it is important, God will also reveal the reason.

So that’s a wrap up to what I said last week. I know many will disagree, but I worry about the tendency I see in online communities to try to recreate the 1880s, down to how women dress, how we court, what we eat, or what we listen to. This is not the 1880s; this is the 2010s. And people today desperately need to know Jesus. They need to know The Truth, which is timeless, not the cultural expressions, which are not. Are we prepared to give up our cherished culture, or would we rather stay where it’s safe, where there are rules that show us that we’re “in”, and where we can feel secure?

Comments

  1. Yes!
    The big one in my circles at the moment is modesty for girls. I know people who think they should be wearing skirts. My kids all like to climb trees. I don’t see how a girl up a tree in a skirt can be modest!! So then we’d have to impose restrictions on what they can do, but I don’t see anything Biblical to tell me girls shouldn’t climb trees. And so the legalism starts. (My girls wear shorts all summer and jeans all winter – we talk about why we are modest, they don’t wear short shorts, and this time of year they do most of their schoolwork up the tree!)

  2. I agree, Sheila. I believe we all must decide what modesty looks like for us, what the best way is to try and keep our children sexually pure before marriage, how we best glorify the Lord in what we listen to and see, etc. and then hold those convictions for ourselves without condemning others who don’t hold to our convictions. It is good and important to have convictions in our standards of behavior, but we must always remember they don’t save us and they may not be the best for others.
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  3. What a breath of fresh air and a good dose of truth mixed with more truth. Your articles had my 15 year old saying YES…..that says more than I could…..not a girl trying to get around the truth but just needing clear what is truth…so much gets muddled in the rules. Thank you

  4. I’ve been reading through Rachel Held Evans’ “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” and she makes many if the points you do here! Check it out if you haven’t already read it :). One of her main points is that legalisms DO pick and choose which verses to uphold and which ones not to—for instance, we all know adultery is wrong, but the commandment to stone an adulteress is considered no longer culturally acceptable. Jesus demonstrated to the Pharisees the spirit behind that law, and told the adulteress to “go and sin no more.” Thanks for a great post!
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    • Yes, I think that’s what people who espouse “rules” don’t understand. They still are picking and choosing. And that’s why the Spirit of the law is what really matters.

  5. Hello Sheila,

    This is Kasey (I am a male not female by the way)

    I like the way you really broke down the characters of the old testament (Issac, Ruth, David…). What a great insight.
    Truly the culture has changed and we should play wisely and give a reasonable reason for right and wrong, good and bad, pleasant or unpleasant to God. However, I would like to be more specific and I have a question just for better understanding. what about the way women dress today, seeking to be sexy, even in the church, having their mini skirts, shorts, extreme tights, transparent clothing, that exposes their body to men. I would say it is wrong, and there is a good reason behind it (just like marriage as you said), for it attracts men, it tempts, it seduces (isn’t this the definition of the word sexy?), it arouses thoughts (jesus said if you just imagine…you have sinned), but some men as I found specially in the church tend to be silent, pretending nothing…. it makes one uncomfortable. Some objections i have heard is that, “avoid looking at it, it doesn’t matter how you dress but your reason behind”. But this is not about reason she does, it is about the consequence and its definition. in this act are enabling men to be patient till the right of marriage or are we urging. Aren’t Christians following the world just almost in everything. Aren’t we suppose to have some moral limits, for the culture will keep on changing and it is not changing for the better. look our sexy style is now combined with sex sex sex (before marriage), and how the hip pop industry is becoming more explicit, i guess you heard about the new “Anna Montena” nudity performance track, Miley Cirus. And one thing I noticed, is that, when we practice something that is morally wrong it then becomes “normal” over time just like fornication today. Please tell me what you think about this. Thank you!

    • Hi Kasey!

      Great question.

      I guess what I’d say is this: in the Bible, women are told to be modest (which didn’t just, or even primarily, apply to clothing but to attitude). We are to watch what we dress in that we don’t want to be equated with the world’s emphasis on sex. I absolutely agree with that.

      My problem is with how it is interpreted. I know many groups that feel that this must mean that all women must wear long skirts (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with long skirts; I have a few. But I also wear jeans). I also know some groups who say that this means that women can’t cut their hair.

      Most of us would likely agree that these standards are too stringent, but then where is the standard?

      That’s why I think it’s important that EVERYONE wrestle with what modesty should look like in their own lives. That reason–that we don’t want to look like a seductress, and we want to stand apart from the world–is timeless. The HOW it is done is what is up for debate. And I do believe that too many people are putting their “hows” onto other women. I have a problem with mini-skirts and super high heels in church as well, just as I have a problem with revealing bathing suits. But I still think that this is up to the woman to wrestle through, and for her close community to talk to her about. I just don’t think setting up absolute rules, when we all live in slightly different cultures, is a good thing.

      • You are right, right interpretation is crucial, should not be exaggerated. And I think that we really have to be honest about ourselves, what we’re seeking, and what is the actual meaning to others of what we do. But I love to say, dear friend, brother or sister, Pray! and be open to receive God’s will and insight in whatever we follow. since we are in relationship with Him, He will not be silent. And this comes down to what you said “I still think that this is up to the woman to wrestle through, and for her close community to talk to her about.”.

        May the Lord bless you Always!

    • I understand your concern, and neither women nor men should wear revealing clothes to church. The thing is though, lets not assume that everybody in church is already a Christian. Perhaps it is their first time there, or they are being dragged there by a family member for years now. Perhaps those people who do not dress appropriately simply don’t know better yet. Do we really want to do a clothing check at the door and scare away who desperately needs to hear a message about a God who loves them, regardless of how they look.
      Perhaps it is a young person who has grown up in the church and is struggling through finding their place in society and the world. While we want them to eventually understand about modesty, do we really want to scare them away with demands on how much of the leg must be covered, how low the cleavage may not be or that the clothes are to tight.
      While God works on their hearts, allow him to work on yours too and give you strength. After all even if we all wear super modest clothes at church, the minute we step outside you’ll have to deal with seeing women dressed more revealingly.

      • Yes, A., I’d agree with this, too. And this is often my concern–let’s make our churches safe places for people to come. Sort of like the Mary Magdalene story. The Pharisees wanted to get rid of her–Jesus welcomed her.

      • Thanks! Mr or Mrs A!
        No! The clothing check will make me laugh (by the way, my friend who was born again went to a church like that and was warned on clothing check stand, however, it is a great neighborhood church, and the next Sunday she got her clothing together and now serves there). But I believe there should be a good clothing (not too revealing), not because we are christian (that is what we have to take out as a reasons, but what is morally right, not causing anyone to lust or sin over you which the world ignores and encourage the opposite)
        You know what, I wonder how could we ever find solution for this? Should the church be responsible in educating about modesty? to some degree in youth activities, women, singles events etc But more lays into the hands of parents and we the grown ups. And we MUST be very careful not to be legalistic like church “clothing check” , it is a delicate matter with whosoever we are dealing with, whether lost souls, our young kids and etc. But God is always in control.

  6. Charlotte says:

    I absolutely agree! There are many things that get ingrained in us growing up that we take as a mark of whether someone “belongs” to the religion or not. If they don’t follow that (possibly made up) edict then we determine they must not be a follower of X religion. I think a great example is how European Christians don’t wear makeup–at all. It is something they avoid as a cultural marker which shows they are Christian. But I don’t know of any other groups of Christians that avoid makeup–because there is nothing biblically based which teaches women need to. It’s a cultural construct created by the group that many probably take as something you must do or you are not Christian–just as tattoos or piercings, etc. may be taken in the Americas.

    • Mennonite and Amish Christians don’t believe in makeup. I know they base a lot of their ideas about women’s appearance on Scripture, but a lot of it is also their group’s culture.

    • Just to clarify any confusion, not wearing make-up is not a sign of European Christianity. Perhaps some churches/denominations follow this “norm” but it is not all. I am German and though I have been in the US for over a decade now I can assure you that Christian women in (most) Christian churches there have the freedom to wear make-up if they choose. Overall though the culture there isn’t as obsessed with the perfect hair and make-up like I have encountered here. So again a cultural effect perhaps more than a moral one. And especially in a continent as diverse as Europe what is culturally acceptable in one church/country may not be in another one.

  7. Thank you for tackling a “tough” subject (in terms of kickback and opinions offered)! I grew up in an environment that tended toward legalism… and it is a hard way of thinking to break when it was ingrained into you that most things could be defined as “right vs. wrong”… after being taught that if you did certain things you certainly couldn’t be a Christian. Ugh…

    I think the legalism has always been (even in Bible times – look at the Pharisees) a way of measuring and being able to say “I’m good enough” or even “I’m better than…” Easier to just plop a rule down than to really look at our hearts – changing outward behavior can be easier than changing our hearts!! And although it makes no sense when you really think about it – but it may seem easier to try and earn God’s love through the rules than to just accept that Jesus’ sacrifice for us was enough to pay the penalty for sin!!. We don’t like to think that our sins are “as bad” as what someone else might do… facing the reality of all sin being unacceptable to God is tough for humans to grasp, so we make up rules to look better than the next guy.

    Now raising my own kids and thinking through some of those rules in light of avoiding legalism – I’m finding that it takes way more effort, thought, and prayer to discern what the Spirit is telling me/us than to just put a rule out there “just because”!!

    Modesty seems to be such a hard one to work through… teaching young women to consider how what they wear affects the young men they are with – not asking them to “dress like the 1800s” – but to consider the struggle they create for a boy when they wear yoga pants, low cut shirts, really short skirts/shorts or skimpy swimsuits! I remember a conversation I had with a friend when our kids were in junior high – mine a boy, hers a girl. I said this, “Would you want the boys to see your daughter running around in her underwear outside?” Of course, the horrified answer was “Absolutely not!” My response was this: “So why is it ok for them to watch her (and let’s face it – touch her while in the pool playing around) in a swimsuit that covers less than her underwear does while they are at a pool party?” Suddenly it clicked for the mom of the girl… my thoughts on leaning toward a more modest swimsuit felt and sounded like legalism to her until I explained my heart and the reasons behind why I was suggesting that. Just an example of one topic that is SO tough as we navigate our kids through the teenage years!! I have girls, too – and want them to feel good about how they look and what they wear – but also want to teach them to be respectful of the boys/men in their lives and not cause undue temptation and thus become a stumbling block!

    Wow – got long, sorry! I appreciate your candor, honesty and straight-forwardness with us! Thank you!!
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    • What a great analogy, I guess I will borrow that: “Let’s face it – touch her while in the pool playing around.”

    • Charlotte says:

      I agree with everything you’ve said but I would like to comment on how you approach your girls with modesty. I obviously don’t know you or your girls or how you teach it, but while I was growing up my mother would say much the same to me–watch what I dressed to help the men with temptation. I have a very independent (and prideful) personality and it would annoy me–why should I be bothered about the temptations of men? If they are tempted to sin it isn’t my fault–all men are responsible for their own sins, so why should I have to change my behavior for them? If they can’t control themselves it isn’t my problem. As I’ve gotten older I understand it more now, but I think if my mother had presented modesty as something that was for me rather than for men I wouldn’t have rebelled against it so much. Hopefully your girls are happy to dress modestly, but when people tell me they struggle getting their girls to dress modestly I always advise teaching it in such a way to show that modesty is really for the girls. It benefits boys and men, but it’s for ourselves. It is to show humility before God and to show respect for the great gift God has given us of our bodies. I think it is a good and more effective lesson for the, shall we say, more difficult girls among us :)

      • Yes, Charlotte, I think that’s a good point. Too often we present the idea that girls are the gatekeepers of boys’ modesty, and that’s not a good thing to put on the girls. I think it’s about loving ourselves, treating ourselves with respect, and then treating those around us with respect. That will impact how we dress around the boys. But to say that we are responsible for boys sinning (not that I’m implying that any commenter said that; only that it is often phrased that way) does do a disservice to both genders.

        • Meredith says:

          Thank you, Charlotte and Sheila! I hate the idea that girls and women are responsible for keeping boys and men from sinning. This blaming attitude reminds me of the comments sometimes made in muslim cultures that women entice men to sin by showing an ankle or their hair or mouth. I think it is a common, yet usually unspoken, thought in Christian circles. I want my girls to be modest (not just dress modestly) because they respect themselves and want others to treat them with respect and they are not chasing after the attention of others.

      • Wow, You have nailed well, Charlotte, though i had something like that in mind, but it is more assured to me in better understanding that it is mostly the girls who benefit greatly in reverence to God, humility, respect over herself which in turn reaches to others. You actually tramped the wrong perception and interpretation of scripture of what i have been hearing that “God doesn’t look on the exterior but the heart”, and the exterior is up to you to do whatever you wish.
        Great thought!

  8. I think many of the disagreements that come up in the christian community are directly related to how we interpret the Bible (obviously!).

    I for one believe that if God called the men of the Old Testament godly, men of faith, fathers of our faith we can’t be so quick to write them off as bad men, horrible fathers, etc. Yes, at times they had sin in their lives and faults. But when God calls a man a man after God’s own heart, or the Father of our Faith, or a righteous man…I’m really not one to argue with God. I think the reason we have so few men in today’s churches is for this reason. If God gives us the story of a whole man’s life, highs and lows, and call him righteous I think we are doing a great disservice to judge men differently than God judges them. God’s nature has not changed. Therefore I think we would be wise not to overrule God on such matters.

    I agree on much of the base of the article, in fact I think my argument above is in even in more agreement with the main thrust of your argument then your own segment on “bible characters.” amanhiswifethebible.wordpress.com

    • Hi there,

      I never meant to imply that they weren’t righteous. I only meant to say that their marriages were not ones that we were to emulate, and that the stories aren’t as pristine as we often like to think. I do believe that they loved God, and that they did their best to obey Him. But that still doesn’t mean that we should pattern our parenting after David, or our marriages after Isaac. Neither David’s parenting nor Isaac’s marriage were ever presented in good lights, even if the men themselves had other aspects of their lives that were praised. I hope that makes sense!

      • Awesome post, Sheila! I really enjoyed reading it.
        I love what you said about Biblical characters. Now that I have kids I do understand the need for keeping some of those stores PG for when we tell them the stories. In my own life I went from that phase of seeing them all as these super holy people to reading the stories myself in the Bible and being really appalled by their behavior. I know that this can be confusing to others too, especially when they hear people say we need to act more Biblically. For example my husband didn’t grow up going to church, and is still hearing some of the stories for the first time. A few months ago we were watching that mini-series on the Bible. When we got to the part where Sarah offered her maid to Abraham, my husband turned to me shocked and just asked “He didn’t? Did he?” Imagine his surprise that a man he has heard about in so many sermons was so willing to hop into bed with a young thing.
        See, what I’m learning is that it ins’t wrong to question their behavior. I’m learning that the Bible tells us stories about real people with real sins. And I’m learning that God can use anyone despite their mistakes. I’m learning about grace. And that it isn’t our actions that make us holy to God but our faith. Our actions will cause consequences, the sinful actions will bring about pain. It is our faith in God, even when we have really messed up, and the fact that Jesus died for us that makes us saints. It is not out of our own strength, but simply out of His.
        Also, I’ve been reminded a lot lately that when we sit down and read these stores in a half hour and see their whole development from beginning to end, we forget that these people struggled through this for years. It may be easy for me to judge them, but they were living it. What amazes me about these men and women in the Bible is that they did not even have the benefit of completed scripture. After all Moses didn’t write the story of Abraham, Sarah and her maid until they were all long dead.

        • Love this paragraph:

          See, what I’m learning is that it ins’t wrong to question their behavior. I’m learning that the Bible tells us stories about real people with real sins. And I’m learning that God can use anyone despite their mistakes. I’m learning about grace. And that it isn’t our actions that make us holy to God but our faith. Our actions will cause consequences, the sinful actions will bring about pain. It is our faith in God, even when we have really messed up, and the fact that Jesus died for us that makes us saints. It is not out of our own strength, but simply out of His.

          Exactly!

      • Regarding the Old Testament characters and their marriages, I think the point that Sheila was making is that their marriages were not in line with New Testament teaching on the subject. Fair enough – they only had a limited revelation of God’s mind and will. We have the whole word of God. With the benefit of specific teaching in the New Testament on marriage, we have the priviliged position of being able to know what a God-glorifying marriage looks like. This New Testament picture is very clearly at odds with the marriages of many of the patriarchs.
        Polygamy, surrogacy (eg.Abraham & Hagar), the keeping of concubines and the status of wives as property are four glaring examples that spring immediately to mind. If a Christian man tried any of that today, it would be quite right for him to be disciplined by his local church and his behaviour resoundingly condemned. As was the man in 1 Corinithians 5 who was in a sexual relationship with his father’s wife.

        The quality we are told to emulate is their faith. Hebrews 11.

  9. Excellent article!

    Among other things, all these added rules do not keep us from sin. Paul put it this way:

    If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. [Colossians 2:20-23 ESV]

    We think sin management makes us more holy, but Paul says it has a false appearance of wisdom and is a self-made religion. In truth, it is of NO VALUE in helping us deal with our fleshly urges.

    Many years ago I was on the path to being a raging legalist. I judged and condemned so many things, and so many people. I realise now I did a good deal of harm, and helped no one. It felt good, in a self righteous, self important way, but it had nothing to do with the God I said I was doing it for!
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  10. I really appreciate this post. As I was growing up, my family was heavily influenced by Mennonite ideas of what women should wear — in dress, and in lots of other matters, we were always the most conservative family in our church. My mom and dad worked hard to pass on a strong faith to us kids, but there were lots of times when it seemed that dressing right and avoiding being around people who didn’t hold to our standards was the most important thing. For instance, when my sister stopped wearing a head covering, things were rocky for a while — even though at the time she was working in a mission school.

    This post is timely for me because lately I have been questioning the standards I grew up with. Now that I have a little girl of my own, I want to teach her how to be godly, but I don’t want to overemphasize the outward appearance. Still, by considering doing some of the things I was always taught were worldly, I feel like I’m letting my family down — even though I really don’t think it’s Biblical to insist on not wearing jewelry or makeup, or on covering one’s head at all times.

    (By the way, thanks for saying that we as Christians don’t have to time warp back to the ’50s to be godly. As a history buff, I’m really annoyed when people act as if some period in the past was somehow the golden era when everyone was happy and holy. There never was such a time, and I like your emphasis on being holy within our own culture, not trying to escape from it into some other time.)

    • Love this! My family were a bit similar – perhaps not as extreme but certainly elevating the past as a golden era. Hence my siblings and I looked like we had walked through a time warp… Ugh! I have found a great deal of peace in digging in the scriptures for myself and forming my own convictions on these sorts of subjects. You can’t live on the strength of someone else’s convictions! Especially as it is the Lord we will give an account to, not our families or anyone else.
      If it’s helpful, I’ve studied up the passages on the head covering and I’ve come to the conclusion that in all of these passages, the subject being dealt with is conduct in the local church. The head covering is a symbol of God’s order being upheld in the church, and each time the apostle cites the order of Creation as the reason for it. So I cover my head for church services. As far as I can see, headship in marriage is a different subject again and the head covering is not mentioned in connection with it.
      Also – just need to vent on a pet peeve of mine – what is with the Mennonite bonnets!?! A head can be quite as well covered with a baseball cap, scarf, sunhat or whatever that doesn’t make you look like a complete fruitcake to everyone else! :-p

      • The Mennonites place a very high premium on church standards, which for them means looking like everyone else in their congregation. Mennonite folks can look at other plain folks and tell you which congregation they are from just by the cut of their head coverings and dresses. The men in the church get together and decide on acceptable attire for their church families, down to little details like whether little girls’ ankle socks can have lace. As far as I can tell, the Mennonite covering evokes, for Mennonites, their European Anabaptist heritage. It is also distinctive, so that everyone can tell by looking at a plain woman that she belongs to a Mennonite church; the covering marks your group identity like nothing else.

  11. I often see people try to equate moral and cultural laws — both from those who want to enforce both and from those who believe that since we don’t follow every cultural law, we can forgo the moral ones in the Bible too. There is a difference, and God has not changed who He is morally throughout time.

    I like the idea of wrestling with these concepts yourself. Legalism and lenience often come from people who don’t seriously consider the reasons behind their own beliefs and whether they align with God’s will. The word picture to me is Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32) before going to meet his estranged brother. We need to know who we are and whose we are and make our decisions from there. Great article, Sheila!

    Oh, and I’d like to nominate Priscilla and Aquila for a good biblical marriage award, even though we don’t know as much about them as I’d like.
    J (Hot, Holy & Humorous) recently posted…What’s the Foundation for Your Views on Sex?My Profile

  12. Hello Sheila,

    Glad you followed up last week’s “touchy” topic. You definitely made what you we’re trying to say a lot more clear. But, I would like to say this. As Christians we are suppose to be “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5) indicating that we are to be the ones, once added to “the earth equation or the the world equation” bring a significant change to it. (so much more I want to say on that but not now).

    It appears that most of us understand that “if God said Do Not X” and we understand the reason for it then we shall not do X. But, the case you were making is for the cultural code – wise decision vs. an unwise decision. To that I say this. Modern culture says it’s ok for Christians to drink a glass of wine, or a Christian women, comfortable with her body to be more revealing with her clothes, or Christians to get tattoos. But, then those who are not Christians/Sinners looking at all this and not seeing no distinction between what Christians are doing and what sinners are doing can get a really skewed picture. (Romans 14:16)

    From my understanding, there are two wonderful things of being a Christian. 1. Your life become DRASTICALLY better and 2. You have the authority to bring someone into Christianity by leading them to Jesus. Which leads me to my main point since were talking about cultural code – wise vs. unwise:

    Is it more wise to be follow modern culture, sort of “fit in” but lose some of your salt or light to non-Christians making your ability to witness to a sinner somewhat ineffective or more wise to hold to a high standard against some of the modern cultural practices and have a distinction sinners can see? I harbor on this Shelia, because we all know God judges the heart (I Samuel 16:7) but God is not the one who needs Jesus, men (generic) do. And since, the Bible teaches people judge by outward appearances (I Samuel 16:7) it just makes sense to me for Christians to be more careful with things that can be perceived wrong. This probably explains why the Bible says ‘he who wins souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30).

    Just think for a moment. In a long bygone culture, there was no christian television, widespread christian newspapers, the internet to deliver Jesus and his demonic destroying power and wonderful love and the world was better off then than it is now.

    Why: My personal opinion: We are trying to hard to fit in culturally as Christians.

    Again, very very good post.

    Grace and Peace
    M.D Henderson
    Christian Married Men Brotherhood
    M.D Henderson recently posted…5 Mistakes of Christian ParentsMy Profile

    • Hi MDHenderson! I really appreciate that you’ve thought carefully about this topic. I want you to know, I’m not contradicting you or even questioning you. I just want to share my experience, because it provides another perspective.
      I’m not a Christian, so I have some idea how non-Christians perceive Christians. I personally give exactly zero “credit” for these cultural markers. I am frankly not impressed by a lack of tattoos or abstention from drinking or dressing modestly or what-have-you. I don’t have tattoos, I don’t drink, I dress modestly. It’s not that big a deal. It’s not actually hard to do. It has nothing to do (for me, anyway) with religion. They’re cultural choices I make for myself. Anybody can simply not walk into a tattoo parlor and avoid getting stabbed by a needle with ink in it. I mean, that’s not an indication of being Christian. It’s an indication of choosing not to get a tattoo. Let’s not conflate the two. (Now, if there was some rule all us non-Christians followed that said we HAD to get tattoos, that’d be another story.)
      As for how to win souls, these cultural markers are not perceived (by this particular non-Christian at least!) as a testament to faith. Beliefs and good works are. I LOVE when I’ve known someone for a long time, get to really know them, and THEN find out they’re a Christian. It makes me feel that their faith is real because it’s for them. It’s authentic. It’s between that person and God. In those cases, I can be 100% confident that they are not just putting on a show for us non-Christians to notice them. If any Christian were to manage to get me into the fold, it’s this kind of Christian.

  13. Annonymous says:

    “if my main reason for saying something is a rule is “because God says so”, I likely haven’t studied Scripture or prayed enough about it. If it is important, God will also reveal the reason.” I found this phrase a bit disturbing. Who says God “will” reveal the reason? Do we have the mental ability to understand all things God orders or forbids? Where does faith fit in? I’m all for understanding the whys when they are revealed, but to say that just “because God says so” isn’t enough sounds, sorry, blasphemous. God’s will and word is enough reason, whether I understand why or not. We as parents sometimes give our children commands for which there are excellent reasons, but no explanations, for the simple reason the children have no way of understanding them. Some of God’s commandments are followed by a reason “Be holy because I am holy”. Others are not, and we may have to wait for heaven to know the whys.

  14. Not read comments, so I might be repeating someone… By and large, I agree with your thoughts here. I have a few follow up questions…

    1. How do we know which laws are moral and which are cultural? How do you decide when a ‘commandment’ goes into one or the other? (I know what I think, but you just said taht some laws are moral and some are cultural, but didn’t explain how you figure out when one commandment is one and a different commandment is another. Very important b/c it would be very easy to declare that head coverings are moral and homosexuality is cultural, or vice versa depending on how you would make the division).

    2. Can you name the reason for everything that God declares? Job never got a reason from God for why the bad things happened to him. One’s answer to #1 will decide some of this, also. And if we can’t think up a good reason for something, does that mean we shouldn’t have to obey? A great many of the consequences of free sex weren’t realized until 20 or so years after free sex became a thing in the USA; we didn’t know about HIV and AIDS in the 60s. Was that a good reason to not follow those commandments? My Little Man doesn’t always understand why he shouldn’t run out into the street or why I come down so hard on him when he does, but that isn’t a reason for him to not obey.

    I suspect we will come down on the same side of a great many issues. But these are questions we must be able to answer and answer coherently. Can you tell I’m married to a philosopher? :D
    Mama Rachael recently posted…Quite the weekMy Profile

  15. Lindsay says:

    I just want to say thank you Sheila for sharing your perspective and thoughts. You have made a big impact on my life and in my marriage and inspired me to grow closer to Jesus when legalism had drawn me further from Him for so long.

  16. After reading the last comment from Mama Rachel I thought I’d mention this as well. I do love this post by and large. Very good points! I do however take a bit of an issue on the moral law/cultural law business. If you take a (long, tedious!) read through Leviticus & Deuteronomy there is no distinction. The ‘moral’ is next to the ‘cultural’ all mixed up with specific instructions to priests. My conclusion? It’s all one. All of these laws together make up the Mosaic Law – the Old Covenant which was fulfilled and finished in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
    Where does that leave us? Romans 15:4, Romans 3:20
    These things are recorded for our learning – so that we can insight into the character of God and what he expected from His people, and also for non-Christians to highlight our sin and need for a Saviour.
    So, there are some specifics that are repeated in New Testament instruction to Christians, and we should most definitely follow these. But the law is not the standard for Christian behaviour. Matthew 5,6. Christians will actually be held to a higher standard of inward holiness rather than outward conformity!

    And only one more tiny issue… I think you’re a little bit harsh on poor Esther and Mordecai! They really wouldn’t have had a lot of choices to make, living as they were essentially in cultural captivity and exile from their homeland, stuck in the service of a whimiscal and cruel despot. I think is a marvellous story of God’s preservation of His people and ability to use what must have been a truly appalling situation for a pair of Godly Jews to find themselves in!

  17. I agree, by and large, with this post, but I’d like to echo others on two points:
    1) The “‘because God says so’ isn’t enough” statement. God didn’t give Adam and Eve a reason to not eat the fruit, only a consequence (“You will surely die”). The reason was much more complicated and long-term than that. I can think of several other examples where God told people to do things without an explanation.
    2) The Esther remarks. I find no indication that Mordecai had any choice about Esther’s departure to the harem, or that any money changed hands. And I think the Bible strongly implies that Esther, too, was totally powerless in the situation– she was essentially kidnapped, raped, and forced to marry a tyrant. I think both of them demonstrate integrity and Godliness in the midst of dark, desperate days.

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