I have called this ‘Legalism, License, Lodges, and LGBT’ because the former two are the main subject matter of this article and the latter are current examples of how these apply in the world today.
In 2010 I wrote an article that I ended with these words: ‘I have been involved in pastoring for over three decades, and in that time I have seen the problems that license and hyper-grace can produce, yet
nothing compares to the ubiquitous ravages of legalism that I have observed in the Body of Christ’.
I haven’t changed my opinion in this regard over the last 10 years. So, although I will reflect on ‘license’, the focus of this article is more on ‘legalism’
What is Legalism?
In its narrowest sense, legalism describes the attempt to put works above the gospel of grace.
Christian Legalists attempt to earn God’s favour by observing what they understand to be the Law of God.
In its broader sense, however, legalism is the practice of judging one’s self and others against a narrow understanding of biblical prescripts. This approach to Christian life invariably results in judgementalism, censure, and separation.
A short while ago I had a lively interaction with a friend and fellow Christian concerning Freemasonry (The “Lodges” in my title is because Masons meet in what they call lodges). Then, just a few days after that another friend and I discussed the question of ‘Can a gay person be a Christian?’ In the first of these interactions, my interlocutor ended his comments on the possibility of a Mason being accepted as a member of the local church with the words: “[a church member] who continues to practice Free Masonry is committing idolatry and should be challenged in my opinion and booted out of our church if he continues to be part of Free Masonry”. So let me start by responding to this and then move on later to the question of homosexuality and the church.
My view is that the practice of Free Masonry violates several important biblical doctrines. It invokes God by names that do not pertain to the God of the bible (therefore idolatrous); their secret oaths contradict Jesus’ teachings; their way of salvation is not exclusively through Jesus alone, and so on.
I would certainly advise any Christian committed to the Masonry pseudo-religion to leave it.
I would also point out that in practising Masonry he is compromising or even contradicting key biblical doctrines. The point at issue though is would I deny that he is born again of the Holy Spirit and thus disqualified from being a member of the church either universal or local?
The New Birth is a metaphysical/spiritual gift of God giving new life to a human spirit.
It is conditional only on repentance from the sin of rebellion against God, firm belief in the deity of the Lord Jesus and his exclusive role as saviour, and a sincere request to the Holy Spirit that he breathe life into the very core of the person’s existence.
Nothing more is required for a person to be born again. Baptism expresses obedience and the reality of new life in Christ but is not a prerequisite for salvation. Confession of a few or many ‘sins’ is not required but only the confession and renunciation of rebellion against God. Just to make clear what I mean by ‘rebellion against God’ I understand this as the core sin of trusting in anything other than God for eternal life.
Would I automatically judge that a man practising Free Masonry is not born again? No, I most certainly would not. However, could he, if indeed born again, be a formal member of a local church? The answer is obviously ‘no’ if the membership requirements of that church specifically excluded any practising Masons. Most churches, in fact, all that I know of personally, do not specify Masonry as a disqualifier. Rather, they simply require that a member accepts their doctrines and practices.
The constitution of the local church to which I belong states that a person may be accepted into membership if he professes repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, seeks to lead a consistent Christian life and has expressed a desire to become a member of the church.
The point that may be debated is the ‘seeks to lead a consistent Christian life’ bit. This would require a discussion with the individual concerned to seek to understand how he views the practice of Masonry and why he does not see it as contradicting or compromising his Christian beliefs. This would reveal the conflicts between a consistent Christian life and the practice of Free Masonry. This might mean that he forego membership status in the church.
As a matter of interest, in 1993 The Southern Baptist Convention in the USA investigated Free Masonry and identified eight tenets and teachings of Freemasonry that were not compatible with Christianity. A later report ended by noting that, ‘while many Christians and leaders have been and are Masons, several points of the lodge’s teachings are non-biblical and non-Christian.’ It also stated that ‘while Freemasonry encourages and supports charitable activities, it contains both multireligious and inclusivist teachings that are not Christian in its religious instruction.’ The final recommendation was that the issue is left to the conscience of the believer. In 1985 The Methodist Church (UK) issued a condemnatory report on masonry, but no prohibition exists within that denomination. However, in the USA the Assemblies of God, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians have all taken a negative position on Masons being church members.
SIDE NOTE: Now, dear reader, if you are getting a little agitated about now. If you find yourself muttering, “But, but what about…” then please reserve judgement until you have read what I say a little further on under the heading of ‘However’.
My second recent discussion was about whether a practising homosexual could be regarded as born again. This applies to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people by and large (Hence my article title).
Once again, my position is that biblically approved sexual preferences do not constitute criteria for salvation.
Church membership, as in the previous example, is another matter. The issue here is the willingness to seek to live a consistent Christian life in a particular local church. As in all things in a bible-believing church, the criteria for this is laid out in scripture. I do not believe that a person who continues to indulge in homosexual relationships should be accepted into local church membership.
They should be accepted as people of worth and value and treated with dignity and consideration but denied membership and all that goes with that. They, as would all people, be welcome to attend the worship services and perhaps even the fellowship groups but they would be prohibited from ministering in any way. However, would I automatically judge that a practising homosexual is not born again? No, I would not. That judgment call is entirely and only God’s prerogative.
A Jesus-centered approach
The key question to ask is as always,
‘what did Jesus reveal of the nature and character of the Godhead concerning this?’
He did not address the issue of secret societies, although there were several in his day, and nor did he directly address the question of homosexuality. However, John Chapter 8 records the story of a woman caught in the act of committing adultery and dragged before Jesus. He turned the tables neatly on her accusers and when they had slunk off he said to her: “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” This both captures the heart of God towards such people and sets a precedent for us in the church of Dignity and Personal Worth, Compassion, Discussion, Instruction and a Call to Change.
Some Other Examples
I have written so far only on two issues that regularly face the church. However, others are even more common.
A man abuses his wife – the same principles must surely apply. A person repeatedly cheats or steals – the same principles must surely apply. A spouse commits adultery, does not repent and makes little effort to prevent repeat occurrences – the same principles must apply.
However, there are more common misdemeanours in the church of our day. For instance, what should we do about the person who repeatedly sows fear in others lives by circulating rumours, myths and conspiracy theories? What about the people who act as religious policemen regularly taking others to task and judging them for what they perceive to be ‘unbiblical’ ideas or behaviours? Well, I believe that the same principles outlined in this article should apply to them as well.
I mentioned that there were ‘howevers’ to what I have set out so far, and here they.
Firstly, Jesus is our prime interpreter of the bible but he honoured and authenticated all of scripture. Therefore, we cannot ignore what the scripture as a whole says about the issues before us. For instance, the Law of the Old Testament strongly condemned both idolatry (this has a bearing on Free Masonry) and homosexuality (Exodus 20:3-5 Leviticus 18:22 etc.). Paul also dealt with these and other prohibitions, some of which I will refer to further on.
Secondly, we need to be careful to differentiate between ‘saved’ and ‘church member’. They have a bearing on each other but, as I have already pointed out, the conditions for being ‘born again’ are articulated in the bible. On the other hand, leaders who understand the bible in various ways establish the conditions of church membership.
Thirdly, we need to apply what we understand as a Jesus-centred understanding of scripture to the full range of ‘sins’ and not just the few we choose as our focus. For instance in 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11 Paul lumps together all of the following: sexual immorality, idolatry, male prostitution, homosexual offences, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander, and swindle.
So, what applies to one applies to some extent to all.
This highlights the need for careful evaluation, counsel, and grace together with compassionate confrontation and bible-honouring remedial action. (Other applicable passages are Galatians 5:16-21 and Ephesians 5:5-7).
Paul makes a sharp distinction between people who claim to be fellow Christians and those who do not claim to be born again (1 Corinthians 5:11).
It is not our responsibility to judge the unsaved, but we are required to set boundaries on what we accept for ourselves and fellow believers.
In this respect, grace describes what we extend to one another within these boundaries while licence describes what we allow beyond those boundaries.
During my decades of church leadership, I was constantly seeking to embrace both grace and righteousness. It is a very challenging task that involves bringing into dynamic balance more than just the factors I have mentioned in this short article. However, and this my final ‘however’,
I will always favour mercy over judgment just as I consistently rely on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ to primarily determine my understanding of the entire bible.
What Angered Jesus
The Lord Jesus was sometimes frustrated with his disciples but he reserved his anger for one class of people only – the Pharisees. These men were typical examples of legalism and their constant rule-keeping and judging of others made him nearly apoplectic – just read Matthew 23:13-36 if you are in any doubt about this.
The Conclusion of the Matter
If a person has genuinely been born again of the Spirit, then no life condition can annul this.
‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39)
However, when it comes to local church membership the matter is more complex. A local Christian community has the right and indeed the duty to determine criteria for membership and accountability. But, and it is a big but, the overriding principle must always be biblical Christocentricity (Jesus-centredness). For instance, Jesus told his detractors to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice .’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13) He was quoting from Hosea 6:6, which reads, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offering.’
My friend ended his statement on Free Masonry with, “Do you agree or not? It seems crystal clear to me. I don’t believe this is a grey area”. So what do you think dear reader?
I confess that I reacted badly to my friend’s comments. It was not because I did not agree with much of what he said, but because the spectre of legalism loomed so large over our conversation. I have seen, first hand, how all and any forms of legalism hurt the church, destroy relationships, and leave many bitter and offended.
License, expressed as turning a blind eye to unbiblical and un-Christlike behaviours, does harm to Christians and the church, but nothing like the carnage that legalism leaves in its wake.
‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14)