Going Outside The Lines: A Musing On Legalism

Outside the Lines

We live in an age that encourages us to think outside the box. To color outside the lines. Within evangelical circles, those of us who insist on sticking to Scripture (whether in relation to hearing God’s voice, the content of worship services or women as pastors, just to name a few examples) invariably receive accusations of legalism. More liberal evangelicals eagerly label us as modern-day Pharisees, gleefully reminding us that the Lord reserved His harshest criticism for the Pharisees of the First Century.

Occasionally, we deserve such rebukes, I’ll admit.  Sometimes our zeal to remain within the boundaries of God’s Word can indeed lapse over into legalism,  such as rejecting all contemporary praise songs rather than evaluating individual songs on the basis of doctrinal content.  We must be humble enough to recognize instances when we elevate our preferences and traditions to the level of Scripture.

Think about my last sentence for a moment. Didn’t it get to the heart of Christ’s conflict with the Pharisees? Despite the popular idea that they rigidly adhered to the letter of the law, the Lord called them out for making their traditions equal to God’s Law.

Let’s look at just one instance of their legalism:

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” ~~Mark 7:9-13 (ESV)

The Pharisees had cleverly devised a system to avoid caring for aging parents by claiming that their resources were devoted to God. Undoubtedly they worded things very carefully, convincing their parents (or at least themselves) that their tradition superseded the commandment to honor their parents. Essentially, they colored outside the lines of Scripture in order to accommodate their own selfish goals.

Both theological conservatives and theological liberals color outside the lines when we replace God’s Word with our own traditions and preferences. The real modern-day Pharisees aren’t the ones who go back to Biblical principles, but rather the ones who want to think outside the box. After all, the Lord made the lines and the box, not us.

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