LEGALISM <————- FREEDOM ————-> ANARCHY
It’s a spectrum. On the left hand side we see legalism, the concept that there must be a rule or law for everything we do. On the right hand side is anarchy, the concept of lawlessness or chaos. I believe it is in the middle, a perfect balance that we find true freedom. I believe the best example of moving from legalism to freedom is found in the new covenant Jesus came and set up between the law and grace. Jesus was constantly rebuking the religious leaders for trying to ensnare him with the rules. I think of the Pharisees like a piranha reporter at a presidential press conference, looking for that opportune moment to bait and catch.
It’s a tricky line to walk. You need rules in order to avert disorder, but you need grace and love to fulfill Christ’s call on us. The entire story of the Bible is going from legalism to freedom, while maintaining enough order as to not dip into anarchy. Jesus did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it in His personhood and salvation. A New Testament world means we now have the Holy Spirit with us to guide our decisions and Christ’s immediate forgiveness instead of the strict laws of the Old Testament – like how many steps one can take on the Sabbath and sacrifices to earn salvation.
Unfortunately, many of our churches have a habit of leaning towards legalism. I understand that rules and order have a necessary place, but sometimes I think our churches end up worshipping the tradition rather than God. Church-goers all too often see this adherence to tradition and rules as how to judge if they are in a good position with God. If I go to church this many times per month, tithe exactly this amount, recite this prayer five times, then I’m good with God…right? Sometimes without even realizing it our churches can end up promoting a doctrine that is completely opposite to a New Testament worldview. Knowing and believing in Christ leads to obedience, not the other way around. If you truly know Christ, you will be a changed person.
Christ not only came to bring us salvation, He came to bring us freedom. His message was simple and straight-forward: loving God and loving others. If our rules, laws, or traditions hinder us loving God or others, then we need to re-evaluate. At the same time we need to be weary of not moving beyond freedom to anarchy. Yes, we are the “land of the free”, but we are not without laws. The same goes for the church. Yes there are particular Old Testament laws that transcend time. These are the ageless moral laws like those in the 10 commandments, the hardware setups that don’t change just because we are under a new operating system. The fulfilled laws are fairly easy to recognize: eating requirements, clothing requirements, slavery regulations, etc. Atheists often pull these out to make it look like Christians don’t follow the Bible. They don’t understand the differences between eternal moral laws and situational sacrificial rules. Those rules are no longer necessary under a system of grace and once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross. We must also be weary of our own churches loosening grips on the eternal moral Old Testament laws. This leads to moral relativism, which is no better than the atheist worldview.
So how do we balance the line between freedom and anarchy (too much freedom) while keeping our legalism in check? I believe we do that by modeling Christ. Most people think Christ was all about love and acceptance. I believe the love part is true, but not necessarily the acceptance part. Jesus had no problem standing up to those considered the authority of his day and basically telling them how it was. It’s about the grace with salt found in Colossians 4:6. “Let your conversations always be filled with grace, seasoned with salt so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Too little salt and your messages are muddied, too much salt and it’s overbearing. It’s all about balance. If your rules and/or traditions are so tightly held, not an eternal moral truth, and interfering in your ability to love someone; then it probably needs to be reconsidered.
I’ll give a simple traditional example most of us can relate to. Your church uses bulletins each week with the same service layout printed for you to follow along. One week you walk in and there are no bulletins and the service is run all out of order! Can you still worship? If you cannot, have you actually been worshipping the tradition over the God? Do you role with it or do you complain? Perhaps you have valued comfort and order more than what you are there to be doing? How do you think Heaven is going to work? Is it going to follow your order and your rituals, or the Baptist way, or the Methodist way, or the Catholic? You see what I’m getting at? It must ALL be about God and love. Too much tradition destroys freedom to worship.
I pray the church learns to embrace the freedom that Christ brought us through His new covenant of grace. I pray that we will continue to recognize when legalism is suffocating our freedom of worship. I pray that we will also defend true freedom in Christ from the anarchy that moral relativism brings. Although we are imperfect beings walking this line from legalism to freedom to anarchy and back, I pray we will recognize that freedom is the middle ground we all need to be aiming for – and that only comes through the grace of Christ. We need to model that grace.