A Testy Conversation Regarding Legalism

Lately I’ve been participating in an online forum discussing a hyper-Pentecostal church in our town that is essentially a cult. One of the chains of conversation was about all the things (some of them ridiculous) that we of a Pentecostal ilk were forbidden to do when we were younger (for example: no makeup or jewelry for women, no movies, television, sporting events, skating, bowling, dancing…you get the idea). Posted below is some banter between an anonymous poster and myself. I got a little testy. But the points are hugely important…

Some anonymous person wrote:

I find it sad that many on this site, including Kenneth and Jason, feel the need to “bash” people that still believe in a holiness standard and are fully committed to trying to please God instead of pleasing our fleshly desires. If you don’t feel it is necessary and appropriate, then do what you will. But please don’t use this forum to tear down others that have convictions that I personally feel God smiles on because that sacrifice is made strictly and personally to HIM. Just because your “way” is liberal and without boundaries does not mean it is the “right” way. It is definately the “broader” and “easier” way, but please don’t cast stones on those of us that still believe that a holiness standard is necessary and very pleasing unto God. Just feel like the respect should be across the board and for all. Making fun of others convictions is not uplifting or edifying to participants of this forum.

To which I replied:

WOW! I’d love to sit down face to face with you and talk about this. There is SO much to be said about the subject, I don’t know where to begin, and I don’t have room on this forum to address it all.

First – I meant no personal offense to you.

Second – the use of humor toward things with which we disagree is actually something done in the Bible itself. Paul mocked the legalists of his day, who were insisting that Christian men had to be circumcised, by saying (and this in IN THE BIBLE, for heaven’s sake), that he wishes they’d just finish the job and castrate themselves.

Third – I am not “bashing” anyone. I am, however STRONGLY disagreeing with a theology that suggests God smiles on an artificial standard of holiness created NOT from the Word of God, nor from the historic faith of the Church, but rather from early 20th century mores and values which have endured in the Pentecostal and Fundamentalist subcultures of the United States.

Fourth – It isn’t a mater of simply you follow God your way and I’ll follow God my way. This is sloppy theology which, if applied to its logical extent, makes room for all kinds of silliness, heresy and indeed danger. Either there are absolutes and clear Biblical standards or there are not. In the book of Judges when Israel was at its lowest point, the condemnation of Scripture was that “every man did what was right in his own eyes”. When we jettison the standards that are mandated by God himself, we end up replacing them with standards of our own making (or more significantly, of our own culture’s making), and these things become things of bondage.

Fifth – It isn’t accurate to say that God smiles on any sacrifice made “strictly and personally to him”. There are some sacrifices that he abhors, no matter how good the intention. The sons of Korah were killed just for such a sacrifice.

Sixth – To suggest that my “way” is “broader” and “liberal” and “without boundaries” is to use non-biblical guidelines to determine what is broad and what is liberal. And its just silly to boot. You have no idea of my “way”, nor of the obedience of my life. I am a sinner, indeed. But I embrace the disciplines of the faith with sincerity and seriousness, not creating some list of rules made up two generations ago, but holding to a covenental list of rules given by God to his people, both in the Old Covenant and the New. The fact that I do not keep the particular manmade list of rules that you think reflect holiness has nothing to do with God’s own definition of what marks holiness of life.

Seventh and finally: you end by saying “please don’t cast stones on those of us that still believe that a holiness standard is necessary and very pleasing unto God”. Well, it seems we DO agree on two things, at least: (a) that there is such a thing as a “holiness standard” and (b) that such a standard is pleasing to God. Where we significantly disagree is in regard to what defines this standard. I suggest the Bible itself defines it, and it can be summarized in a few brief words: “He has shown thee, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of thee – but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.” The standard is not about drinking alcohol (Jesus did, and so did the disciples), not about dancing (typical Jewish culture – the Bible is replete with references to dancing, and not just in the context of some Pentecostal service), not about cards or movies or tobacco or anything else like that. It IS about loving “the Lord thy God with all they heart, with all thy strength, and with all thy mind”, and about “loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Legalism is an insidious disease that destroys true faith and corrupts the hearts of God’s children. I’m against it.

I would happily buy you lunch to talk about it more, if you’re interested. And I’m not condemning your personal values (I have LOTS of friends who don’t drink, smoke, chew or go with those who do) – what I am here condemning and making fun of is the notion that those prohibitions somehow make a person’s standing before God more secure.

Bishop Ken

To which she (for some reason I assume it’s a she) replied:

Two words come to mind here after reading your reply…”pearl” and “swine”. I will leave it at that. Good luck.

To which I replied:

Suits me. Would love to have had a serious and reasoned conversation with you, but it’s OK if you’d rather not. Thanks for the well-wishing. I wish you well too.

Published in: on December 13, 2008 at 12:29 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You should have told her how REAL CHRISTIANS don’t use the interweb.

  2. Ken,
    Since you turned me on to the amazing book by Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (which is very pertinent to this discussion), I want to suggest a book to you that goes along with this theme of legalism. The book is Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure by Gilkey Langdon. This is a sociological first-hand description of the social life of a mixed group of Americans and Brits who were placed in a concentration compound by the Japanese in China during WWII. One of the things that caught the author’s attention was the way that so many evangelical Christians would condemn to hell those who smoked or swore, yet, when it came time to wash the toilets or offer one’s service in the kitchen, these people were strangely missing. On the other hand, it was often the foul-mouthed worldly types who were most willing to pitch in without complaint. This caused a tremendous crisis of faith for this writer who was a Christian himself. It’s sad how Christianity has been defined by this narrow understanding of ethics. The author believes that this is the main reason why the church is not having the impact on the world that it could.


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