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Every societal structure has rules that define acceptable and unacceptable behavior for its members. A business or school may have a dress code. Athletic contests are governed by rules. All government entities have regulations. Well-run families have household rules passed on verbally from parents to children. Most of all, God has rules for His people, which are given to us in the Bible. In Psalm 119, these rules are called by various names, such as “laws,” “statutes,” “precepts,” and “commandments.”

If rules are so commonplace and embrace all structures of society, why is the issue of law so often emotionally charged and divisive among Christians? Why do we get so uptight over household rules for the family of God? One reason is that we add our rules to God’s. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, we try to help God by adding manmade “do’s and don’ts” to His commands.

And yet, Jesus severely rebuked the Pharisees for teaching as doctrines (that is, as God’s authoritative law) the commandments of men (Mark 7:5–8). His reproof remains valid for us because we, too, are often tempted to elevate our manmade rules to the level of Scripture. When we do this, we are guilty of binding consciences where God has not spoken. We can call this practical legalism.

Where do these manmade rules come from? Many begin with what someone has called “fences.” A fence is a well-meaning restriction to help us avoid true sin. One night, alone in a hotel room, I flipped through the TV channels looking for some innocent entertainment. Obviously this was not a sin. However, I stopped at a movie that proved to be sexually stimulating. That program stimulated my sinful nature. As a result of that incident, I built a personal “fence.” I made a commitment to myself not to turn on the TV when I’m alone unless I have a specific program to watch.

I suspect most Christians have built fences of their own in various areas of life. Personal fences aren’t bad in and of themselves. They can help us avoid genuine sin. But they can lead us into legalism when we elevate them to the level of God’s law—that is, when we try to make our own personal restrictions apply to everyone else.

We find it difficult to believe a practice we consider as sin for ourselves is not sin for everyone else.

I believe, for example, that the Bible teaches temperance rather than abstinence in regard to alcoholic beverages. However, because of the widespread abuse of alcohol in our society, many of us have decided to practice abstinence. That is a fence we have built, and it is a perfectly legitimate one as long as we apply it only to ourselves. But when we judge other Christians who practice temperance instead of abstinence, we have elevated our personal convictions to the level of God’s law. We are practicing legalism.

The apostle Paul faced another issue of practical legalism in his day, which he called “disputes over doubtful things” (Rom. 14:1). There were apparently two issues—the eating of meat and the observance of certain special days (Rom. 14:2, 5). Paul’s response was twofold. First, we are to realize God has given us freedom to have different opinions on issues not addressed in the Scriptures. Second, we are not to judge or despise those whose opinions differ.

To refrain from judging others whose practices are different from ours is one of the more difficult things we have to do. We find it difficult to believe a practice we consider as sin for ourselves is not sin for everyone else. And yet Paul wrote, “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).

It is common today for people to wear casual clothing to church. But I grew up in an era when people wore their “Sunday best” to worship. As a result, for a long time I harbored a judgmental attitude toward those who came to church in casual clothes. I considered it a lack of reverence for God. I finally had to conclude, however, that the issue is not addressed in the Scriptures and I must allow others the freedom God allows them. Otherwise, I slip into legalism.

Some differences of opinion, such as those about clothing, tend to be generational. Others are geographical. I was raised in a church where teenage boys and girls were not allowed to swim together. However, it was perfectly acceptable for women to wear cosmetics. Later, as a young adult, I attended a church on the West Coast that was every bit as conservative as the one in which I grew up. Here, young people regularly went to the beach together as part of their youth activities. But women who wore cosmetics were considered “worldly.” I’m sure that, somewhere in the past, when the leaders of both churches imposed these restrictions, they felt they had good reasons for doing so. But they had, in effect, made their rules equal to God’s commands.

The solution to all the practical legalism of manmade rules is to develop and teach Bible-based convictions.

I suppose that the church leaders who decided it was a sin for teenage boys and girls to swim together were concerned about the danger of lustful looks. This is indeed a sin that Jesus specifically warned against in Matthew 5:27–28. However, the rule about swimming together did not address the far more dangerous practice of teenagers sitting alone in a parked car, kissing and caressing one another.

This points out another problem of manmade rules. In addition to binding our consciences in areas where God has not spoken, they often fail to address the real issue. Rules simply cannot cover every situation. Young men can find a dozen other places than the swimming pool to indulge their lustful looks, not to mention the parked-car problem. So instead of setting up a rule about swimming with the opposite sex, we need to help young people develop convictions from the Bible about sexual purity. We can point them to Scripture passages such as 2 Timothy 2:22—“Flee also youthful lusts”—and help them identify situations from which they need to flee. When we do this, we are helping them to identify and refrain from any situation in which their sexual lusts may be stimulated.

The solution to all the practical legalism of manmade rules is to develop and teach Bible-based convictions. If the Bible doesn’t forbid a practice, neither should we. At the same time, we should focus on what the Bible does teach. For example, the Bible stresses the importance of self-control. It teaches us that whether we eat or drink, we should do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). The person who drinks his glass of wine should do so to the glory of God, and the man who eats his steak should do it to the glory of God.

So whether it’s watching a television program, swimming with the opposite sex, or wearing cosmetics, we can always apply this Biblical rule: Can I do this to the glory of God? And then we have to accept the fact that, according to Paul in Romans 14, the answer to that question may be different for different people. That is the way we can avoid the practical legalism of manmade rules.

Pointing the Way

Chain of Fools

Keep Reading Bound by Men: The Tyranny of Legalism

From the August 2002 Issue
Aug 2002 Issue