Legalism

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TruthTalks: Legalism

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On the 23rd of March, Dr Christopher Peppler wrote THIS article on Legalism, License, Lodges, and LGBT.

Since then, there have been other issues pressing on his heart which he wrote about, but now it’s time to circle back and publish the podcast (audio) based on the post. Click on the play button below to listen or download and please be sure to share, like, subscribe, and get the word out in any way you can.

Until next time, admin

TruthTalks: Legalism Read More »

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Legalism, License, Lodges, and LGBT

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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.

Two Examples

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.

Free Masonry

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’.

Homosexuality

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.

However

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)

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TruthTalks: When opposites actually aren’t

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Could it be that Legalism and Licence or Free Will and Divine Determinism are not as different as they first appear?

This TruthTalk explores the fascinating idea that many apparent polar opposites are essentially similar when viewed from a different perspective.

If you would like to read the article this is derived from, you can find it HERE, otherwise Download or listen to it below:

 

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When opposites actually aren’t

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Sometimes things that appear to be poles apart are actually as close as two peas in a pod.

I am currently about halfway through Frank Viola’s latest book ‘Insurgence’, and what I have read so far has brought back to mind to two related issues.

Frank describes the two well-known polarities of Christian religious belief and practice – Legalism and Licence (which Frank calls Libertinism). He defines Legalism as ‘the human attempt to gain God’s favour by keeping rules, regulations, laws, and expectations’. He describes Libertinism as the polar opposite of Legalism and although he does not define it, he captures the essence of what he understands by the term with the words; ‘The gospel of libertinism teaches that because we are under grace, anything goes’. He then proposes a third ‘gospel’, the ‘true’ Gospel that stands between these two false gospels, which he calls the Gospel of the Kingdom, the good news that Jesus Christ is both Saviour and Lord.

There is of course nothing new in these classifications but one of the things that engaged me as I read was the question,

‘Are Legalism and Licence really on two opposite ends of a scale with the ‘true’ gospel in a middle position?’

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I have often observed how truth claims that seem to be polar opposites of each other are often so equally false that we should regard them as a cohabiting couple rather than enemies. For instance, Legalism is a rules-based religion and Licence is a rule-less religion, but they are both false reflections of true Christianity. Also, when we regard them as opposites, then we tend to relegate Truth to a form of compromise between the two. Yet Truth is not a mediation between two forms of error and nor is it a middle-ground hybrid of both; Truth stands opposed to error.

So here is another way to look at things like this. Imagine taking a rope, labelling one end Legalism and the other end Licence, and then looping it into a circle. The two ends of Legalism and Licence now join at one point and Truth is at the opposite position on the circle.

Figure 2:

opposites aren't

 

When we look at things from this perspective then it is easier to appreciate the essential similarity between the two errors and the stark separation of Truth from them both.

The other similar thought that I pondered as I read, is the contrast often drawn between the ‘solutions’ to the perceived opposite problems of Legalism and Licence.

Frank describes Legalism as ‘white-knuckle, performance-based Christianity’ and Libertinism as ‘anything goes’ Christianity. So, is the antidote to Legalism simply learning to loosen up on rules, and the antidote to Licence learning to apply some rules? The linear model (figure 1) tends to suggest this because in terms of this model a person can move from either end of the line towards the middle Truth position. However, moderation, in this sort of scenario, will not bring one closer to the truth because Truth is actually somewhere else on the circle (figure 2), not somewhere between the two errors of Legalism and Licence.  No, if we want to move from error to truth then we need to move to an entirely new position on the circle. Frank identifies Legalism as embracing the Lordship of Jesus Christ while rejecting Him as Saviour, and Libertinism as accepting Him as Saviour but not as Lord. This analysis leaves one feeling a little like a spiritual plank-walker trying to find the balance between these two positions. A step to the left and the plank tilts to Legalism and a step to the right tilts it to Licence. Perhaps the idea fits into the linear model, but it does not fit into the circular concept.

To move out of either Legalism or Libertinism the Christian needs to teleport to the other side of the circle and embrace something entirely different from either Legalism or Licence, something called The Truth.
Frank uses the words ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ to label what I have referred to as Truth and it would not surprise me if when I finish reading his book we might well be on the same ‘page’. However, my understanding is that Jesus Christ is The Truth, that He stands as the opposite to both Legalism and Licence (and in fact to all forms of religion), and that the antidote to both Legalism and Licence is to be ‘in Christ Jesus’. To me this means Jesus Christ manifesting His resurrected life in and through the believer, and the believer finding his or her worth and core identity in Christ. That said, a key issue is just how we are we supposed to give expression to being ‘in Christ’.

The legalist will attempt to find favour with God by working hard to obey whatever scripture or denominational teaching impose. The Libertine enjoys being ‘in Christ’ by relying on God’s grace to replace most, and sometimes all rules implied in the Bible.  Both approaches are essentially useless in that all they do is inch us along between the short gap on the circumference of the circle between Legalism and Licence. No, what we need is a radically new approach, a complete leap over to the other side of the circle to a new position in Christ Jesus.

Legalism regards Christians as slaves owned by a master. Libertinism regards Christians as masters and Jesus as a faithful slave-servant. Neither is a reflection of biblical truth and there can be no true merging of these two positions. My understanding of the biblical revelation is that we are sons and daughters who serve. We desire to project our heavenly Father’s life through a Spirit-empowered conformity to the image and likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our transformation is not the result of self-driven adherence to rules and nor is it a fatalistic belief that God will do everything for us, including sanctification. Rather, our life in Christ is an expression of a loving and dependent cooperation between The Triune God and Spirit-born obedient children. This spiritual ‘partnership’ is neither a form of works-based Legalism nor a self-indulgent Libertinism.

I do hope that what I have written here is helpful to you and not just a philosophical indulgence. I think it is a vitally important subject worth exploring in as many ways as possible and I have written about it before both here and here.

Perhaps I will comment again after I have finished reading Frank’s book, but in the meantime, I would love to interact with you on this, so please use the comments facility under this post.

 

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The different Gospel

In 1988 D.R.McConnell wrote a book critiquing the modern Faith Movement titled ‘A different Gospel’,  but there is another ‘different gospel’ that has been around far longer. Paul describes it as ‘really no gospel at all’ (Galatians 1:7) because the Gospel is good news whereas the ‘different gospel’ is not. This false gospel goes under various names but the one we are all most familiar with is… ‘Legalism’.

Legalism, possibly the most pervasive different gospel of all time, is defined most simply as the belief that we can, and should, do something to earn or merit salvation or divine approval. The formula of legalism is Faith + Something = Divine Acceptance. The ‘something’ usually consists of adherence to a specific set of doctrines, practices, good works, or religious observances.

Paul wrote Galatians, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, mainly to counter a certain form of legalism – the imposition of Judaic beliefs and practices on Christian believers. Some leaders and teachers of the time were insisting that for a Christian to be ‘kosher’ he or she had to become a Jew. Nowadays, we seldom encounter this exact form of legalism, yet the discussion around the recent ‘Return of the Judaizers’  article certainly proves that the perceived requirement that Christians observe the Saturday Sabbath and festivals of ancient Israel is still around in some circles.

However, I want to address a more subtle form of legalism that plagues the church communities of our land. Let me introduce it with a couple of questions.

Why do so many church leaders insist that their members give 10% of their total gross income to their local church? I have heard, and read, the arguments in favour of this Tithing practice and I find them all very ‘thin’ biblically. And most of those who advocate Tithing on the grounds of the Old Covenant don’t insist on Saturday Sabbath keeping on the same grounds. The scriptures encourage generous financial giving (2 Corinthians 8 & 9) but to demand a Judaic 10% is to add ‘something’ to the free grace of God (I feel another article coming on). The other day a young man even e-mailed me to ask how he could ensure that he was Tithing his time! And why do some churches make water baptism a membership requirement? I believe in baptism by immersion in water, but are people unacceptable to Jesus and His church if they are not suitably baptised? In my opinion, these are both forms of legalism.

Of course, the different gospel of legalism has infiltrated at a much deeper level than church policy.

At its core is the misconception that God deals with us on a works and rewards basis – we do what God requires and He then favours us.
Sure, the world system works this way, but not the Kingdom of God! We can do nothing to merit God’s favour; He loves and accepts us because of our relationship to Jesus Christ, not because we in any way earn His approval. It is called GRACE, not merit!

As born again children of God, as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we hold ourselves accountable to the highest biblical standards of life and witness. We do this because we love Jesus and because we appreciate the value of obedience to divine standards for ourselves, our families, the church, our nation, and the world in general. However, legalism goes beyond this, seeks to hold others accountable to the same personal standards, and judges, criticises, and ostracises anyone who falls short. Legalism makes little distinction between perceived sinful behaviours and the people concerned. When a legal-beagle spots a shortcoming in someone else he ‘speaks the truth’ as directly as possible with little or no regard to love and redemption. If the person does not immediately conform, then legalism applies the John 8:11 solution, but with a nasty twist. In effect, Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery “I do not condemn you; go now and leave your life of sin”, but legalism says “I do condemn you; go… now!”

Legalism is a different gospel that is no Gospel at all, and it is a blight on our churches!
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 I have observed in the Body of Christ.

 

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.