Christian Legalism: Let's remember that some things are just cultural preferences--they're not moral imperatives for all time. Let's work at winning the lost, not at trying to recreate an era past.

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?