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“Thus says the Lord,” declares the preacher. “You are a legalist,” comes the resounding response.

Did the pastor preach a sermon calling the believer to obey Jesus Christ? Did he counsel someone with a portion of the Word of God that calls for a change in behavior? There are times when the pastor must preach the “do not” language of Scripture even if he has to endure cries of “Legalism!”

The pastor must remember his responsibility to “ ‘shepherd the church of God which He [Christ] purchased with His own blood’ ” (Acts 20:28). The inspired Word of God says the pastor must “preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). A patient shepherd will be faithful to God’s call by doing his utmost to fatten the sheep with spiritual nourishment.

However, the pastor may patiently, diligently, and faithfully preach and teach the full counsel of God only to see it fall on deaf ears. For instance, I preach by exposition through books of the Bible. When I started preaching through Hosea, several people in the congregation were very uncomfortable with the application of the Word. I finally preached on “Biblical Repentance” from Hosea 12. A lady greeted me after the service and said: “I’ll be glad when you finish Hosea. I don’t like it. I like to hear the love of God.” The implication was that the love of God militates against God’s call to obedience and repentance. She interpreted God’s mandates in terms of legalism.

The cries of legalism come in the strangest forms. “The pastor of our church wants to take us back to the rules of Puritanism in the seventeenth century,” said one elder. The Puritans were reformers, not just rule-makers. They were not legalists for their pursuit of rigorous doctrinal purity in the church. They believed in the necessity to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Thus, they sought to glorify Him by preaching, teaching, and interpreting the Bible by “Scripture alone.” And they mused over the latest developments in science while they tasted the most recent run of home brew or the best sherry in the colony. As with the Puritans, the gross misconceptions of legalism will still caricature pastors who preach the full counsel of God and enjoy His goodness.

Disputes, conflicts, and arguments are natural to fallen man. Unbelievers do not have an objective standard for resolving disputes, so they make rules to maintain order. Christians have an objective standard—the Word of God. And the only way to maintain peace and harmony in the church is to obey God’s objective standard.

The only way to maintain peace and harmony in the church is to obey God’s objective standard.

The tragic truth is that pastors and elders too often busy themselves with making new rules to settle petty disputes. Pragmatism is the basis for these new rules. We must avoid that danger. We only need to be reminded of the Pharisees and Gnostics. We make rules for our children based on the Word of God so that our discipline is for disobedience. Doesn’t the same principle apply to the church? If we have the right rules, the Word of God, we will not have a capricious compromise watering down the authority that is the means to overcome legalism. We settle the conflicts of legalistic charges based on the truth of Scripture, not on the good intentions of men.

The pastor has an obligation to answer the cries of legalism with wisdom and prudence. Wisdom denotes the ability to discern right from wrong. Prudence refers to the exercise of a sound mind. It is, after all, one of the pastoral qualifications found in the Bible: “A bishop then must be . . . sober-minded” (1 Tim. 3:2). The New King James Version rightly brings out the necessity of a healthy mind for the work of a pastor. Without pastoral wisdom and prudence, the church will continue in a frenzy of petty legalistic conflicts.

Still, intelligent godly discernment and pastoral prudence are not enough in this day of individualism. The bombardment of information available via modern communications technology is enough to keep individual Christians thinking individualistically rather than collectively. And the huge doctrinal chasms created by various interpretative methods are sufficient to keep Christians under the spell of legalistic thinking. The solution is to make every church member aware of his or her responsibilities. Therefore, teach the “one-another commandments.” Every church member must learn to love one another, teach one another, admonish one another, be kind to one another, pray for one another, forgive one another, and bear one another’s burdens. There are about two dozen “one-another commandments” in the New Testament. If we teach what they mean and how to apply them in our daily lives, the cries of legalism will fall by the wayside.

The church is the only institution on the face of the earth with the means to resolve personal conflicts among its members. But it has become a program-responsive institution. When church members argue for liberty over legalism, the resolution to establish a program will not settle the conflict. Too often church programs are diversions that allegedly meet the needs of certain groups within the body of Christ. The solution is for the church to become a personal-relative institution. The shepherd must be intimately acquainted with the sheep. Likewise, the pastor must be intimately acquainted with every church member.

Does all this mean that we have to change? Yes, it does. It may mean the discovery (or the rediscovery) of the biblical truth that the church is a collective, interdependent ministry. Have we forgotten that the church is the covenant people of God? If so, rediscover what it means to be in communion with every member of the body of Christ.

Chain of Fools

Transforming Grace

Keep Reading Bound by Men: The Tyranny of Legalism

From the August 2002 Issue
Aug 2002 Issue