A year ago I wrote an article about rules and relationships which alluded to legalism. We are going to cover it in more depth this time. A great chapter in the Bible referring to this is Romans 14, where Paul described the quandary many early Christians faced concerning meat offered to idols.
At the outset let me say that it is important that we do not despise other Christians just because they have either stricter rules for themselves or less rules. Paul covers this in 14:3. Also it is wrong to condemn another believer because they do not measure up to your standard, unless your standard is God's standard. Be careful - just because you believe your standard is right, make sure it is in accordance with God's law of grace. There was a time when I thought the higher your standards, the better you were. I had a hard time coinciding that with Paul's discussion of Christian liberty. My views have changed. They are, I trust, more biblical and in line with what Paul was teaching.
So what are God's standards for New Testament Christians who have Christian liberty? No one should have a problem with the 10 Commandments being a good standard to start with. It was given in the Old Testament and restated in the NT. Okay, the 4th commandment is a little tricky - keeping the Sabbath Day holy. I am not going to get into it here. (Let me know if you would like a more in-depth study on that.) In addition, Jesus gave us 2 great commandments: 1) Love God with all you have, and 2) love others as much as yourself. Actually Jesus said that if you keep these two commandments, you don't have to worry about any others, because by keeping these, you will keep the others. Finally, just before He left this earth Jesus gave a commission to His followers: make disciples, baptize them, and teach them 'to observe all things that I have commanded you.' Therefore Christians are to observe commandments Jesus gave. So we need to go to the Gospels, as well as the epistles to find out what Jesus commanded. Now I believe that if we follow these three common-sense guidelines we will be on the safe side of legalism.
There are plenty of Christians who add rules to their own lives, and Paul says others should not judge or despise theses people. As an example, when I was first married, I would not allow my wife to wear pants, because I sincerely believed it was wrong - Deut. 22:5. Now I regard that as an OT rule given to the Israelites. And no longer is my wife restricted from wearing pants. From the outset, though, I never sought to impose my rules on others. They were for me and my family. However we do have those who seek to impose rules on other Christians that are not necessarily biblical. There are many controversial issues such as dress, music, Bible versions, amusements, and others that can be debated by good men and women. But I say, if it doesn't conflict with our guidelines, don't impose rules that God did not. You become a Pharisee when you do. The Pharisees had all sorts of traditions that many thought were equal to the Scriptures, and some of their traditions even contradicted the Word of God.
In the latter half of Romans 14 Paul goes on to say that if a brother is offended and weakened by your liberty, you must set the liberty aside in order to keep the brother from sinning. Reading the chapter will do much to explain what I am trying to say, but I will give an example. As a disclaimer let me say that I have never imbibed in alcohol (adult beverages as Rush Limbaugh would put it.) Since there is nothing in our guidelines which condemns drinking wine (and actually Paul recommended Timothy to use it as medicine), let us suppose I were sitting in a restaurant drinking wine. A brother in Christ walks in and notices what I am doing. If this brother believes what I am doing is wrong, I may have caused him to be offended and possibly weakened him. Therefore drinking that wine is wrong.
One final point is that if we believe certain practices are not right, even though not necessarily condemned by our Savior, to us they are still wrong. Going back to my wine illustration, if I believe that drinking is wrong, then I should not drink. I must be convinced in my mind that it is acceptable in the sight of God. If I don't believe that, and drink anyway, to me it is sin, Romans 14:23.
There is more I would like to discuss concerning the commandments of our Master. Perhaps in the next post. As always, your comments, even if you disagree, are welcome.