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.