Legalism: IS, and ISN'T
Hearing two recent uses of the term legalism reminded me of the squishiness of legalism's definition. First, on a religious website, entitled "You Might Be A legalist If..." the list included, "If you speak of fruit inspecting" (Jesus said, "By their fruit you will know them" - Mt. 7:16). Second, someone asked me if the book Muscles and Shovel was legalistic (Muscle and Shovel has been a run-away brotherhood best seller - we have given out dozens, but some do not like it).
Used often, legalism is obviously used without having any standard definition. This article is written to explore some of the more common uses/misuses of legalism. Some of these definitions do describe attitudes and behaviors that ought to be avoided, but other attitudes and behaviors often condemned as legalistic are things we ought to do.
Legalism IS NOT
- Carefully seeking the correct and accurate meaning of scripture is not legalistic. Paul told us to do exactly that in II Timothy 2:15.
- Paying close attention to the correct and accurate meaning of scripture is not legalistic. Paul told us to do just that in I Timothy 4:16.
- Treating the correct and accurate meaning of scripture as the commands of God is not legalistic. I Corinthians 14:37 uses those words exactly.
- Using the correct and accurate meaning of scripture in sermons and Bible classes to correct and rebuke and encourage is not legalistic. Paul taught preachers to do that in II Timothy 4:2.
- Using the correct and accurate meaning of scripture to show those who oppose it where they are wrong is not legalistic. Paul taught that in Titus 1:9.
- In other words, many of the things that the New Testament plainly tells us to do are sometimes criticized as legalistic, but they are not.
- Reducing Christianity to mere law keeping is legalism. Frankly, however, having grown up in the Churches of Christ, I have never heard a sermon or Bible class in which anyone has ever said anything like "Just keep the commandments and don't worry about anything else." I have consistently heard people preach and teach, "Obey from your heart the pattern of teaching" (Rom. 6:17). It is not legalism to joyously obey God.
- Attempting to trade good works for evil works is legalism. Some vainly try to balance the scales. This is sadly true of some who cannot forgive themselves for past lives of sin (see I Cor. 6:6:9-11, I Pet. 4:3). They mistakenly believe that they have to keep making up for what they once messed up. It is not legalism to joyously obey God.
- Creating religious laws where there are no laws in scripture is legalism. We must be cautious. According to the present religious mind set, there are not such things as religious laws. But if we add to what God has commanded (Rev. 22:18-19), we have crossed the line. It is not legalism to joyously obey God.
- Doing what we do only because that is what we have always done is legalism, and is also traditionalism. Our reasons must flow from deeper wells. We should "stand fast, and hold the traditions which (we) have been taught, whether by word, or (apostolic) epistle" (II Thess. 2:15, 3:6).
I enjoy the though exercises brought about by the use of terms like legalism, legalistic, and legalist. It is important to search our thoughts and motives. It is important that we not get fooled by the misuse of terms.
"Quiet and Peaceful Lives" (II)
Describing a purpose for government and a purpose for public prayer, Paul also described a goal for our lives. This article is written to explain this goal for our lives, and to explain how we ought to follow this goal.
I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them.Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.This is good and pleases God our Savior" (I Tim. 2:1-3).
What Do These Words Mean?
Four words outline God's hope for our lives: (i) peaceful, (ii) quiet, (iii) godly, and (iv) dignified.
- Peaceful describes a life free fromdisturbance, without needless commotion or disturbances, and a lifestyle that is tranquil.
- Quiet speaks of a steady inner-calmness.
- Godly calls us to be spiritually minded and to follow divine priorities.
- Dignified describes a morally-elevated life of gravity, piety, and reverence.
More than just describing a hope for our lives, these words outline a uniquely Christian way of life. Instead of floundering from drama, to distress, to disaster, Christians seek a port in the storm and "an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Heb. 6:19). We should seek outward stillness and inner serenity.
The Government's Role And Prayers For Government
"The Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes" (Dan. 4:17). In other words, there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Rom. 13:1). But like all other God-ordained institutions, God has a specific purpose for governments. They are to preserve public order so we can pursue inner peace. "The prayers of Christians for the government bring down from heaven peace and order in a state" (Matthew Henry).
This passage is an excellent example of a prayer being answered with a "No." Written in about 60 A.D., I Timothy came on the cusp of great persecutions. Government did not fulfill its role and Christians did not inherit this blessing. Was there anything else to do?
Beyond Government And Prayer
More than a few have observed that, if we are to pray that government will conduct itself so that we can lead "quiet and peaceful lives," then we ought also seek quiet and peace for ourselves. Floundering from drama, to distress, to disaster, as many do, is not conducive to "godliness and dignity." Instead of being helpless victims, as if in an incontrollable storm, we should act in ways that promote our own stillness and serenity.
What can we do?
Christian people tend to collect strays. Believing that we can help and sincerely wanting to help, we often collect companions that desperately need lots and lots and lots of help. But some companions are not worth having (I Cor. 15:33) and those who need too much help might demand more than our lives can stand. We should choose close relationships with those who will add peace to our lives.
We should select a peaceful and properly paced lifestyle. Some life choices allow more time for Christianity than others. If we are always saying, "I can do it, I can do it, I can do it," we probably can't.
Philippians 4:4-8 lists other deliberate choices that promote quite, peace, godliness, and dignity:
Rejoice in the Lord...Let your reasonableness be known to everyone...do not be anxious about anything,but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.Andthe peace of God,which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds...whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Three important words accompany the suggestions above - choose, select, and choices. All three words imply that we are able to effect the quality of our own life with our own decisions. We can improve the quality of our life, and we should.
The Prosperity Gospel, Radical Grace,
Unconditional Love, and Conditional Blessings
A funny thing happened on the way to 2016. Mainstream Evangelicals have declared holy war on the doctrines of Radical Grace and the Prosperity Gospel. You might not think that this matters to you, but it does. You might even be interested in what this is all about.
- Mainstream Evangelicals are the great big Protestant middle and represent the majority of our Baptist friends, along with our friends in most other traditional Protestant denominations.
- The Prosperity Gospel, also known as the gospel of health and wealth, and represented by media preachers like Joel Osteen and the aptly named Creflo Dollar, is the belief that material blessings (i.e., $$$$) are the will of God for the faithful, even to the extent that faithfulness to God is reflected in health and wealth.
- The Radical Grace movement, led by Joseph Prince, is the hyper extension of the Protestant doctrine of Faith Only and asserts that there is NOTHING that we need to do, not repentance, not godly living, and not anything else, about past, present or future sins because grace erases all.
Why does this matter to you? With a pinch of Norman Vincent Peale's and Robert Schuller's Positivity/Possibility Gospel added for smiles, the Prosperity Gospel and Radical Grace have combined to make the biggest noise in American religion. Chances are that, just a little bit, the noise has entered your head. That's another way of saying that these religious influences are even infecting the Churches of Christ.
Deep in the fantasy imagination of many members of the Churches of Christ is the belief that we are the only ones who experience internal tensions. Our Progressives love to say that there is something unique in our DNA that inexorably leads us to doctrinal rock and roll. Protestant groups are idealized as never being at odds.
Evangelical airwaves – KSBJ out of Houston is an example – are crackling with the sound of war. Shots have been fired with the publication of books and articles like The Prosperity Gospel Exposed, Jospeh Prince: False Grace and the Risk of Millions Falling Away, and The Poverty of the Prosperity Gospel (all written by Evangelical authors). These authors are doing the religious talk-radio circuit and circling the wagons against Radical Grace and the Prosperity Gospel.
Evangelicals have taken exception to the to the ideas that:
- Material blessings are more important than spiritual blessings (the Prosperity Gospel), and that
- Godly living, spiritual discipline and spiritual growth are unimportant (Radical Grace).
So what proposition is mainstream Protestantism pushing against the toxic mix of Radical Grace and the Prosperity Gospel?
- Quote: “God’s love is unconditional, but God’s blessings are conditional.”
- Explanation: just as a parent will love their child even if the child has a fender bender in the family car, God loves people even if they sin. But just as a parent takes car keys and will not return them until the child demonstrates responsibility, God blesses only those who obey Him and who remain faithful. Christianity, in other words, begins with an active response and must continue with an active response. Interestingly, this is exactly the argument that our brethren have made all along, that all of God’s blessings are conditional.
Book, Chapter, and Verse
From the Beginning, all of God’s gifts are conditional. Adam and Eve began well but ended worse because they did not respect the conditionality of the garden of Eden. Great Old Testament heroes like Noah, Abraham, and Moses were blessed because they responded actively to God's conditions of building an Ark and journeying to the Land of promise. Similarly, Old Testament goats like Saul came tumbling down because he stubbornly rejected God's conditions.
The same principle - all of God's gifts are conditional - is woven into New Testament salvation. Jesus is "the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb. 5:9). "Man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (Jas. 2:24). "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).
"Quiet and Peaceful Lives"
Combining a purpose for government with a purpose for prayer, Paul penned these words in I Timothy 2:1-3:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers,intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority,that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godlinessand holiness.This is good, and pleasesGod.
These lessons about prayer and government are particularly relevant at a time when our nation is experiencing some of the worst civil unrest seen since the 1960s. What should Christians do? This passage explains.
With its heading, the New International Version identifies this passages as giving "Instructions On Worship." Echoing I Corinthians 14, especially Vv:24-25, Paul reiterates that women should practice quietness (V:11) while men should word public prayers (V:8). While structuring congregational worship, Paul also teaches us about an important topic for prayer during our worship services.
"First Of All"
"Relating not to primacy of time but to primacy of importance, " the words "I urge first of all" indicate that public prayer ought to take center stage in our worship just as private prayer ought to take center stage in our lives. Christian people should be praying people just as Christian worship should be times of public prayer.
Supplications, Prayers, Intercessions, And Giving Of Thanks
Bible writers often use strings of synonyms to emphasize lessons. This is the case here. "Supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks" are not different kinds of prayers. Instead, the words describe different kinds of things done in all prayers.
- Supplications describes a "heart-feltpetition, arising out of deep personal need (sense of lack, want)."
- Prayers is literally "an exchanges of wishes."
- Intercessions is a technical term describing a petition that is presented to one in authority that is in line with the will of the one who is an authority.
- Giving of thanks reminds us that our prayers are not only include requests toward the future, but are also to include expressions of gratitude for blessings already received (see Phil. 4:6).
"For All...For Kings...For All"
Paul included "kings and all those in authority" on the list of those for whom we ought to pray. In his day, that list would have included Roman emperors (who were often antagonistic to Christianity), regional governors and other bureaucrats (who were often ham-handed and heartless), tax collectors (who got into pocketbooks) and Roman soldiers (who were notoriously harsh and cruel).
Written somewhere between 60 and 65 AD, increasing imperial persecution was part of the background of I Timothy 2:1-3. Still, Paul urged Christians to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (My. 5:44). The application to our day is that Republican Christians should pray for Democrat presidents, Democrat Christians should pray for Republican governors, and Christians of every political persuasion should pray for government officials of all kinds, all the way down to the level of the street cops whose politics are obscured behind their badge.
"Quiet And Peaceful Lives"
Paul recognizes that upheavals in national life can upset proper concentration on spiritual life. Because of this, he explains why we should pray for governments officials: "that we may live peaceful and quiet lives." Instead of existing solely for great and grand purposes, God has installed governments to provide Christians with the kind of lives that allow them to serve Him. Many have seen in these words a subtle reminder that Christians ought also to conduct themselves in ways that bring quiet and peace to their own lives.
"Prayer should occupy a central place in the church's service of worship." Proper conduct of government should occupy a central place in prayer. For this we should pray, that our leaders will conduct their offices in the kinds of ways that result in a tranquil social order that facilitates Christian work and Christian worship.
The Financial Affairs Of Congregations:
"Providing Honorable Things...In The Sight Of Men"
Giving us with "all things thatpertainto life and godliness" (II Pet. 1:3), God has also given us knowledge about propriety and transparency in the financial affairs of congregations. Entrusted with benevolence funds, Paul was acutely aware of problems that can arise if sloppy management leads to questions or accusations. How did the Apostle answer questions before they were asked? He proactively "provided honorable things...in the sight of men" (II Cor. 8:21). This article will review this interesting passage and suggest applications.
"A Lavish Gift...Administered By Us"
Most church members give little consideration to church financial management - until there is a problem. Accounting is thought to be a lesser and perhaps even a sub-spiritual effort - kind of like washing the dishes instead of cooking a fine meal. All that changes when questions or accusations arise about congregational spending. Then comes the chorus of "shouldas," "oughtas" and "whydidn'tchas?"
Knowing of the human tendency to first ignore the details of financial management, but then to complain in chorus, Paul acted proactively. He had been entrusted with "a lavish gift," the "rich generosity" of Greek Christians who had learned of famine and want among Jewish Christians (I Cor. 8). How did he conduct himself?
Paul's responsibility was to (i) receive the contribution, (ii) in the absence of dependable systems of mail, banking, or wire transfer, to physically carry the money, and finally to (iii) deliver the money to the congregations of those in need. To these three responsibilities Paul added a fourth, to (iv) "administer" the money. Taken from the Greek word diakonoumenē, to "administer" the funds, Paul had the task of managing and caring for the funds.
Those who have been entrusted with the care of funds are often the targets of complaints and criticisms. Paul understood this and worked to prevent this. He explained his concern - "We want to avoid any criticism" (I Cor. 8:20). Then Paul explained his plan - he was going to "take great care to provide honorable things...in the sight of men" (II Cor. 8:21).
Paul recognized the dangers associated with handling money. He worked diligently to remain free from any suspicion the he either mismanaged the money or took some for his personal use. Taking extra precautions to avoid dangerous scandal, the Apostle practiced the highest of ethics and the greatest of care.
Application to Today
James Burton Coffman, a famed commentator of the Churches of Christ, made this common-sense observation about "providing honorable things...in the sight of men":
There is no area of human behavior more likely to give occasion of slander than that of handling public funds; and Paul's precautions were not merely wise; they are also an apostolic precedent that should be observed by the churches of all times and places. The wise, prudent and business-like handling of a congregation's financial affairs is without exception prerequisite to any general confidence of a congregation in its leadership.
What did Paul do so well that we ought to follow his precedent? He refused to handle the money by himself. Another "brother was chosen by the churches to accompany us with the offering" (II Cor. 8:19) based on his "praise by all the churches" (II Cor. 8:18). Titus was also involved (II Cor. 8:16+). familiar with the biblical principal that "Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses" (II Cor. 13:1), Paul surrounded himself with trusted others who could vouch for each other's propriety and transparency.
Propriety and transparency ought to be our watchwords when it comes to the finances of congregations and ministries. When it comes to receiving and disbursing contributions, we should go above and beyond in following accepted methods of accounting, explaining, and publicly reporting. Nine times out of ten it does not matter. But if we do not regularly practice propriety and transparency, when the chorus of complaints eventually comes, we will wish that we had.