My father and mother became Christians in 1964. I was only 7 years old then. They began attending a bible-teaching Baptist church. My parents (both of whom are with the Lord now) were wonderful parents and godly Christians. But there were A LOT of rules growing up. Some of the rules were necessary. Some were just silly. Our church was a loving church, but a strict church. Again, lots of rules.
It was the 1960’s. Music was changing. The Beatles were playing “the Devil’s music.” My parents wanted to make sure that neither my brother nor I looked rebellious. So we would NOT be wearing our hair like the Beatles. While most of my friends in school had longer hair, I looked like I was ready to join the marines! My dad made sure of that. I get it. And since my parents were good parents, and I knew that they loved me, I got over it!
This example brings up a tricky point: What is the difference between a Christian who has godly habits and a Christian legalist who simply follows a list of rules?
TheFreeDictionary.com defines a legalist as someone with “overly strict or rigid adherence to the law or to a religious or moral code.“ For a legalist, a core part of who he is as a Christian is based on keeping the rules. For a Christian who is not a legalist, but who has indeed established godly habits in his life, a core part of who he is is based on his relationship with God. From this point on in the article, we will refer to such a person a “godlyhab.”
In my 36 years of pastoring, I have found four things that distinguish a legalist from a godlyhab:
- A legalists emphasizse the rules of the Bible. A godlyhab emphasizes the principles behind the rules. A legalist will tell a young lady to make sure her dress extends to her knees. A godlyhab will tell the young lady to dress modestly. A legalist will tell you you MUST go to church three times a week. A godlyhab will tell you to “not forsake the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is.”
- Legalists have several “nonbiblical” practices and/or restrictions. (When I use the word “nonbiblical” I mean things that aren’t specifically taught in the Bible. I am not referring to things that the Bible teaches against.) These practices are essential to them. They will tend to measure their spirituality largely based on how they observe these practices and/or restrictions. And they will tend to measure the spirituality of others based on how well they observe these practices or restrictions. For instance, for many legalists, drinking ANY alcohol is a sin even though Jesus Himself drank wine (for the record, I don’t drink alcohol at all, but that’s not my point!). A godlyhab will stress the importance of avoiding drunkenness. He will talk about moderation. Some legalists will insist on a Sunday evening church service, and they won’t take seriously any church that does not have a Sunday night service (even though in New Testament times Christians met together every day!) A godlyhab will emphasize the need to meet together regularly as Christians.
- A legalists will focus on the “rules” for Christianity. He will frequently substitute the word “standards” for the word “rules.” He knows that if he actually uses the word “rules” his legalism is exposed. While never wanting to disobey clear commands in the Bible, a godlyhab will focus on his relationship with Christ.
- Legalists disconnect from other Christians who don’t use their “rulebook.” And since their rulebook is so strict, they tend to separate from everyone except other people who think exactly like they do. A godlyhab is looking for unity in the body of Christ.
- A legalist will always worry about breaking the rules. A godlyhab will always worry about breaking his relationship with God.
I almost didn’t write this article. You see, rules mean structure. To be fair, “rules” are not much different than “godly disciplines.” And we all need those! I wish more people in my own church had a (ok, I’ll say it) RULE about attending church every Sunday. I wish they gave 10% of their earnings to the church. I wish they prayed every day and read their Bible every day. But if they are doing all of those things merely for the sake of keeping the rules, they are missing out on the best part of their walk with Christ—our actual relationship with Him!
If you are a legalist who is reading this article and you say, “Hey, I value my relationship with God just like you do. I have this set of rules because it helps me have a closer relationship with the Lord. Fair enough. But you should be careful about breaking fellowship with other Christians who don’t use your rule book!
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