Are you going to go see that great new movie, “Forty Shades of Yellow?” Is it fit for a Christian to see? How do you go about making a decision like this? At the risk of oversimplying a difficult topic, there are three ways a Christian can seek to deal with lifestyle issues like this. We can walk under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, be guided by the spirit of legalism or give ourselves to license. Which will it be?
- I am focusing here on issues often labeled disputable matters. No Christian needs to pray about whether to commit adultery or to engage in murder. These things are clearly spelled out in God’s word. However, there are many issues that are not as clearly defined. Paul took a lot of time in his writings to discuss these behaviors. He wrote about in 1 Corinthians 8-10 about “meat sacrificed to idols.” Can a Christian enjoy a steak that was formerly offered to an idol, then sold in the meat market? In Romans 14 and 15, Paul speaks of several issues regarding food and drink, the Jewish law, and such matters. While he doesn’t use these terms, Paul confronts both legalism and license and defines the Lordship of Christ as the standard preferable to either.
- I am using the terms legalism and license in non-technical ways. Legalism, in its most technical form, means the attempt to gain salvation through following the Jewish law. It is a denial of salvation by grace. License is a doctrine that Paul confronted in NT times – the idea that since we are saved by grace it doesn’t matter how much we sin. There were even cults in which sin was practiced in disgusting forms as an act of worship, “that grace might increase.” The more I sin, the more God forgives, and the more Christ is glorified. These are the points at the end of the continuum. I’m using neither term in that form.
In the Baptist debates, legalists don’t seek salvation through rules but are willing to impose extra-biblical rules universally. Though the Bible does not condemn it, they do. Though the Bible doesn’t mandate it, they will. They are adding their human rules to the Bible, or making their interpretations absolute when they are not. None in the Baptist world would go to where the Gnostic cults did in their licentiousness, but some do practice a form of “hyper-grace” that views any form of lifestyle standard as legalism and view morality as a dirty word. It is these more common, less extreme versions of legalism and license of which I speak.
This is a huge problem in our circles. I was horrified the other day when a pastor friend publicly recommended that anyone whose pastor did not conform to his view on a disputable issue should leave that church and find another church. This was not an issue on which scripture speaks absolutely, but a disputable issue. But he announced publicly that if people in other churches had pastors who did not agree with his view, they should separate from their churches, cause division, and leave – all on the basis of a disputable matter. For the sake of the church, for the sake of unity, we need to learn and apply these principles.
Romans 14:9-10 are among the least observed and most needed verses in modern Christianity. “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Jesus died not only to save us from our sins but to take his place as the rightful Lord of all. Jesus is my Lord and he is yours. I did not die for your sins and you didn’t die for mine. Jesus did. He earned the right to be my Lord, and yours. I have no right to play Lord and Master in your life and you have no right to assert that authority in mine. Yes, there is a place for brotherly (and sisterly) rebuke, accountability, and encouragement, but we have ONE Lord, Jesus. Jesus alone!
It is unthinkable, then, according to verse 10, for any of us to try to play Lord in areas in which the Bible is not clear. I have a Lord. You aren’t him. The Spirit of God is at work within me using God’s word to speak truth. I do not need you creating rules.
Paul says that the “weaker brothers” (the legalists with all the rules) tended to judge and condemn those stronger ones who had understood their freedom in Christ. The stronger brothers looked at the weaker ones as silly and disdained them. So, the rule-keepers judged and condemned those who felt free on disputable issues; those whose consciences left them free showed disdain for the rule keepers.
Paul was clear that they were BOTH in the wrong, in Romans 13:3-4. “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.”
In other words, make your decision under the Lordship of Christ. Let your brothers and sisters make their decisions under the Lordship of Christ. Stop judging and condemning those who feel free to do things you don’t feel free to do and stop disdaining as silly those who feel convicted on things you don’t feel convicted about. Jesus is Lord, not you. Follow your conscience under the Lordship of Christ and shut up! You are no one else’s Lord.
If we simply followed that principle, about 74.98% of conflict would go away. Much of what we fight about involves trying to impose my conscience on someone else regarding a disputable matter when Paul specifically tells us not to do so. He is able to perfectly balance the holiness of God and liberty we have in Christ. We tend to fail either in holiness or in liberty. Legalism perverts holiness; license perverts liberty. The Lordship of Christ balances these two perfectly.
Legalism is a perversion of holiness that replaces the Lordship of Christ with the authority of human rules. Christian obedience is redefined from following Christ and his word to following the rules set forth by the group. Do this. Don’t do that. The Lordship of Jesus Christ is only true as it is moderated by our lordship, our authority, our views. Don’t think for yourself; follow the rules.
Legalism is a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit and the Lordship of Christ. We don’t believe that the internal work of the Spirit is enough, so we impose our external rules to keep people in line. We interpose our words for God’s word, our rules for God’s Spirit and our authority for Christ’s Lordship.
This always has some negative effects. Legalism bears ugly fruit. First is arrogance. What could be more arrogant than to replace the lordship of Christ with your own list of rules – by definition that person is usurping the rightful place of the One who was nailed to the Cross. To set yourself up as Lord over other people is an unspeakable act of hubris.
Of course, the Bible does set up lines of authority. Parents lead their children. Husbands and wives. Governments have authority. Some deny the word’s clear teaching that God established human authority. But there is a difference between human authority and the Lordship of Christ. Human authority is always meant to be an act of service, leading someone to serve Christ. The righteous husband does not lead his home by imposing long lists of rules on everyone, imposing his own authority, but by seeking to bring his home and family under the Lordship of Christ.
Legalism also leads to inconsistency and hypocrisy. A grossly overweight preacher (no, not me!) was visiting in a home where the man of the house lit a cigarette. The preacher began to lambast him for smoking, not seeing the hypocritical inconsistency. Whenever humans set rules there will always be variations in our lists, inconsistencies, and hypocrisy in our application.
Joy is often absent where legalism abounds. Legalists rule by fear, by oppression, by ostracism. They enforce conformity and inhibit individuality. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Where the spirit of legalism rules, there is oppression.
But, most horribly, legalism always leads to hidden sin. In every legalistic community you know of, there will be deep, dark secrets. Human rules cannot cure sin, they can only force them underground. They can put a coat of paint on the tomb but they cannot bring to contents back to life. Jesus brings life when he is Lord. He works on the inside, even if sometimes the outside looks a little rough. Legalists keep the outside looking good – white shirts and ties. But the inside will have indescribable uncleanness. Things will look good on the outside, but scratch the surface and you will find hidden filth.
Legalism perverts the Lordship of Christ by exalting the group, the human rules.
Oh, but the pendulum has swung. In my youth the SBC was a strict, even legalistic-leaning denomination. “I don’t drink, smoke, cuss, or chew, and I don’t go with girls who do.” But we’ve been given a free pass and now we’ve gone far in the other direction. License has replaced legalism as the order of the day. The average Baptist now behaves pretty much like everyone else; just like the sinful world around us. We watch what they watch, say what they say, do what they do. When the pendulum swings away from legalism, it often swings all the way to license.
When the issue is what behavior is appropriate for Christians, people often act as if the only options available to them are legalism and license. They refuse to admit the middle ground occupied by those who practice the Lordship of Christ.
What is license (again, using our modified definitions)? It is the opposite of legalism. The legalist lives by human rules. The licentious refuse all rules and standards. Since we have been saved by grace, not by works, we are free to live as we please, do as we please. License is not only a rejection of legalism, but of all rules and standards. The Christian’s only standard of behavior is his will and whims.
License replaces the Lordship of Christ with the lordship of self, perverting our liberty in Christ. I decide what I want to do and how I want to live. It perverts the liberty of Christ. Christian liberty is not, “I get to do whatever I please.” It is, “I must live as I am convicted Christ wants me to live.” The licentious turn our liberty into an excuse to sin.
This is nothing new. Paul was fighting it in his day, and in Romans 6 asked, “Should we continue sinning so that grace might abound?” He answered forcefully, “God forbid.” Don’t even think about it! No one saved by God’s grace gives himself to sin. Why would you even think that way?
License also produces bitter fruit. Its harvest is unholiness. What could be more shameful than Christians, God’s chosen people, living just like the sinful world. It is as if Christ’s blood had no effect. When God’s people live as they please and adopt the standards of the world, it grieves the heart of God. We are not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Licentiousness is a gross perversion of all Christ died to do in us.
As different as these two perversions are, they share a common root – both set aside the Lordship of Christ. Legalists show arrogance by setting rules that take the place of Christ’s Lordship. The licentious arrogantly refuse all standards, substituting his own desires and will for the Lordship of Christ. We must yield to Christ, to God’s word, and to the absolute authority and control of our Savior.
Now, Back to Our Movie
So, should you go to see the movie? Each viewpoint answers the question differently.
Mr. Legalism has a set of rules. Maybe he says, “Good Christians don’t go to movies.” Or he tells us that it is okay as long as a movie is rated PG, or PG-13. Strange that a pagan movie rating system can be used as the arbiter of God’s will. Mr. Legalist gives you a clear answer on this question, based on his own opinions. Yes or No. Everyone must follow his rules.
Mr. Licentious says, “No problem.” He watches any garbage he wants. If it is funny, or entertaining, or exciting, it doesn’t matter whether it is right or wrong. If he likes it, that is all that matters. He proudly proclaims, “I am not a legalist,” so he watches what he wants.
Under the Lordship of Christ, only one question is asked. “What do you think, Lord?” Does it please Jesus or offend him? Does it draw me closer to him, or hinder my walk? The Christian answers that question by constantly immersing himself in the scriptures to gain the mind of Christ, and by being sensitive to his Spirit-empowered conscience.
He also allows other Christians to answer that question before God. Paul tells us in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 that Christians will have different answers to these questions. We are to follow our Spirit-empowered and Word-immersed conscience, and allow other believers to do the same, even if we arrive at different conclusions on disputable issues. We must not judge and condemn those who do what our consciences prohibit us from doing. We must not disdain as silly those who refuse to do that which we are convinced we are free in Christ to do.
There is another aspect of all this I’ve not dealt with. We must also be willing to limit our own freedom if our actions might cause a brother to fall into sin. Paul made it clear that he had great freedom in what he ate and drank, but if his consumption caused a brother to sin, he’d stop eating and drinking completely. No food or drink is worth causing a spiritual problem in someone else’s life. He is not just talking about offending the strict and the legalistic. He’s talking about actually causing someone to fall into sin.
There is a certain amount of futility in this. The sides on many of these issues are so firmly set that people just don’t hear anything but their own views. The more legalistic side only hears what it wants to hear. The more licentious side only hears what it wants to hear. Both sides believe God is with them.
Here are the facts as I see them, from 1 Corinthians 8-10, and especially Romans 14-15.
1. There are many lifestyle issues that are not dealt with absolutely in the Bible, but on which there is room for dispute…hence, “disputable issues.”
(Note: I’m not naming them, because I don’t want to prime the controversy pump!!)
2. Paul told us that there is room for Christians, as we grow in Christ, to hold differing opinions on these disputable issues.
- Some will tend to say, “NO NO” on these issues.
- Some will tend to say, “YES, It’s Okay” on these issues.
3. Each of these sides has a fleshly tendency.
- The NO NO side has a fleshly tendency to judge and condemn to Yes, It’s Okay side.
- The Yes, It’s Okay side has a fleshly tendency to disdain as silly the NO NO side.
4. Neither of those fleshly responses is okay. We must honor and respect the Lordship of Christ. Do what you believe is right and allow others to do what they believe is right under the Lordship of Christ as well. Do not judge the YES folks, do not disdain the NO folks.
5. Allow judgment to remain in the hands of Jesus!