Saturday, December 01, 2012

Moses Called: He Wants His Stone Tablets back


Ah yes, legalism. It’s as old as Moses, and it’s as popular as the Beatles. It comes in so many forms, and it transcends generations. Male or female, black and white and tan and yellow, fat and skinny and tall and short, it has a genre for all types and ages. It is satisfying to the flesh and it is famous for creating crusades, denominations, and systematic theologies. Legalism is when believers cull out certain outward behaviors and either make them either a necessity for salvation or a necessity for being “right with God”. In almost 40 years of being a believer I am still looking for the believer who is completely “right with God” because of something he does or does not do, and that is even without examining his or her thought life which many times would rival a toxic waste dump.

The new starting quarterback for the SF 49ers is a man named Colin Kaepernick. His short term as the starter has been extremely good. He is now being criticized for his many tattoos. Wow, for a minute I thought I was in church. Tattoos, although not mentioned or dealt with in the New Testament, find their way into some churches as standards or lack thereof of…well…something. And do not fret if you are unable to find this subject in the New Covenant because there are talented men and women who can cast a line backward and reel in a prize Mosaic catch. And they can take that catch, place it on a plaque, and display it handsomely on the doctrinal wall formerly known as “grace”.

Israel just approved 3000 more West Bank settlements. China has stealth technology. The United States is going to spend 4 billion on new fighter jets. The world teeters on the edge of economic collapse. Violence still rages around the world. Children are molested and raped around the world. And tattoos get under our skin? The church is filled with adultery and divorce; our children are leaving Christ; addictions are widespread within the church; preachers are becoming filthy rich; billions upon billions of evangelical dollars go to pay mortgage interest; but tattoos are the demons we must exorcize?

But tattoos are just one example of legalism, which when unpacked is self righteousness. Believers so desire to feel righteous and vindicated by what they believe that we add to God’s Word. And armed with those outdated weapons, we wield them against all kinds of miscreants who refuse to tow the line to our dictates. But legalism is a hard task master and requires an enormous amount of self righteousness and Biblical compromise. While the legalist contends that others compromise the Scriptures, he himself is compromising the essence of the freedom in Christ.

Usually a legalist does not chose divorce or adultery or drugs as his sin of choice against which he rants. It is some periphery behavior, many times aligned to a more modern era, which elicits his hobby horse. In the above example it is tattoos, and that is a s good as any. Sometimes it revolves around honoring a certain day as holy. It used to be long hair on men or makeup on women or some other breach of an ecclesiastical construct set up by man. And when some unsuspecting saint steps over this legal line he places himself directly in the line of fire. Most of the time the legalist must be armed with some Old Testament fodder in order to complete the condemnatory ensemble.

Even today many legalists suggest a prominent display of the Ten Commandments in certain public places. But they are not using those commandments in order to create a thirst for Christ or a need for the gospel. That display is not to make sinners see that “the soul that sins it shall die”. No, quite the contrary. They contend that a prominent display of those Ten Commandments will, get this, help elevate the morals of the culture comprised of sinners dead in trespasses and sins. Oh yes, they suppose that lost and depraved sinners will elevate their sin game to an acceptable standard which will positively affect the culture which will ultimately satisfy the legalist and in turn create an atmosphere more morally pleasant to believers. Yes, I believe that is called narcissism.

Imagine a very large house completely engulfed in flames. You are in it, but as yet you do not know you are going to die. Somehow firemen come and rescue you. They bring you out into the street and suddenly you become aware of just how deeply your life was in danger. You look back at the house on fire and you are thankful you are out. You rise to your feet and begin to walk, but as you walk you hear the screams of people still trapped in that house. Their screams start to annoy you and you tell them to lower their screams. You realize they cannot stop screaming altogether, but you insist their screams are way too loud.

That is self righteousness toward the lost. But imagine that when you begin to walk you stop to purchase some shoes. Although they are a little painful, you still love them. But when you look at the feet of other people who were once in the fire with you, you notice they are walking in different shoes than are you. You hurry over and tell them they should purchase your kind of shoes because the firemen that rescued you command it. These other shoe wearers say that they have spoken to the firemen and they said nothing about shoes. And when they refuse to change, you go about speaking words of condemnation against those who wear shoes different than yours.

You see, it would seem to be difficult to place such man made restrictions upon people once we have ourselves been rescued by grace from the pit of destruction and despair. You would think we would err on the side of grace, and yet it is so easy to slip into self righteousness. In fact, the flesh demands it. And even though our theology shouts grace with boldness and even smugness, our flesh needs a consistent fix of self righteous condemnation and at least a small list of contrived dos and don’ts in order to feel spiritually content. Throughout the church age it has been an all too familiar ecclesiastical treadmill. Believers have made days and holidays and foods and tattoos and jewelry and all kinds of things their hobby horses. And like-minded people have formed ecclesiastical cliques bound together by one or more of these issues. It makes them feel spiritually superior and divinely favored. All of us are prone to such things, and many of us have participated in some form of this continuing phenomenon. Only after we are set free and repent can we see just how self righteous we were and are still sometimes.

There are some issues that are important but must never rise to the level of, legalism, even if they are Biblically sound. Of course all redemptive issues are sacrosanct and must remain sacred. But there are other issues that have varying degrees of importance and must be addressed, but they must never be our focus or our constant crusade. Politics, Halloween, Christmas, Bible versions, number of children, Biblical foods, prophecy, and others should be important but not be draped in self righteous legalism. We as believers feel very strongly about a host of issues and it is difficult to embrace things with anything less than the strongest conviction and emotion. And that can and does lead to legalism.

The gospel is a message of hope and redemption and freedom. It should never be made to carry legalistic baggage. Every true born again believer is on a journey and at any given moment he or she is either growing or retreating, but no one has arrived. But when we make things like tattoos an issue of spiritual depth or a staunch Biblical position, then we have entered the "no grace" zone. And in keeping with my title, “Moses called…he wants his stone tablets back!”


JMD said...

Very good points. There is a reason non-believers call Christians judgmental.

Anonymous said...

You know, Rick, I don't believe I've seen God trying to strike a new believer with a deadly illness because they were not circumcised. Or the Angel of the Lord with his flaming sword standing there saying we have to curcumcise you now, because you know "IT'S THE LAW". I hope you know I am trying to make light of what some in the churchs take on as being the only way to salvation. No tattoos is only one.

I thank God for sending His Son to take my punishment for my sin.

I also thank God that He looks at my heart and not my outward appearance.


David said...

"Legalism", a term that man has invented, is the reliance upon outward markers to justify the flesh. This is why Paul warned against circumcision - it would eventually lead to people trusting in the outward rather than the walking humbly with God. But to walk in the Spirit means to put of the deeds of the flesh to death, including impurity and sensuality. To mimic the world's impurity and sensuality is not spirituality. To argue that because my motives are "sincere" my outward appearance is of no relevance is the teaching of men. Otherwise, why would Paul and Peter warn against immodesty? The world hates Christ because He testifies that its deeds are evil.

Rick Frueh said...

Man looks upon the outward appearance but God ponders the heart. Immodesty is a particular issue related to sexual attractions, but when men judge people because of unbiblical parameters it is self righteousness.
Should we condemn a preacher who waers a suit because he is dressing like a Wall Street Tycoon?

Anonymous said...

Thank the Lord who has given you this insight.

Years ago, in a church that frowned upon drinking alcohol, I knew a woman that would not even give herself or her children cough or cold medicines that had a tiny amount of alcohol (as ingredient) in the mixture. She wouldn't eat those dessert squares with rum in them. Maybe it was the "do not touch the unclean thing" that prompted their motives more, rather than always being sober.

It's true that the act of avoiding vices can turn into an act of legalistic self-righteousness. Soon, the avoidance isn't enough. They have to feel good about avoiding it too. And so true, we all do this at times without realizing it; I have to "check" my motive meter every day and honestly ask myself why I choose to not partake of certain things, or asky myself if it's necessary even though it's permissible. Is it a yearning to feel justified rather than worry it might turn an unbeliever away?

I am like Paul said, a miserable woman at times, trying to justify, then just so tired and not justifying, or tempted to throw in the towel of things that I so carefully avoided years ago.

There were aspects of the church I attended that made some small bit of biblical sense. Women and men swimming together, women praying at the altar on one side and men on the other. This was supposedly the norm in the church in the book of Acts. Today, in the west, we are way too permissible in the way clergical men and women engage with one another, traveling, working side by side for 8 hours every day. But, these important details in our society get quashed, because it might rile up the feminist in female christians. So these topics are avoided, and tattoos are the target.

I used to go along with the belief that a nation can either be righteous or non-righteous. And that if sin was contained, God would bless that nation. Thank the Lord Jesus, I started to look for answers in the bible and realize we can't live in a changed nation, we can't depend on others to tow the line, we can't depend on ourselves even. A nation will never be justified, since seeking His grace is a choice, and there will be some who will never choose His grace, or some christians will 'backslide' into old patterns. How can we know everyone's heart? Forcing men to believe in Jesus is not the Way. How easy it is for a "people" to not be satisfied with grace, but to want to let all those unbelievers out there to feel guilty. So wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's like the parable of the man who should have been thrown in jail because he couldn't pay his debts. But his master forgave him of his debt and he avoided jail. At first, he was so appreciative, but soon he had a man who owed him money, and he threw that man in jail. This is how it feels today and in every denomination. The rituals or unique special acts that each denomination is known to do, is a proven demonstration of how these churches turn themselves into Pauls, or Apollos' who think themselves better than the other camp.

Anonymous said...

Great post and great title, Rick. Thank you.

I would comment, regarding Anon's comment, that individuals may have particular areas of consecration that they observe, in context of their own intimacy with the Lord. We should never judge those consecrations that others make. The point is, that we should not bind any man's conscience beyond the Scriptures, regardless of what the Lord may have called us to do.

About tattoos, I think a disciple of Jesus should never choose to get one; based on Scripture about the body being a temple, avoid the appearance of evil, and so one. Kind of like vandalizing a building with grafitti. But it's not necessarily a fellowship-breaker.

And for a person who does not claim Christ as Lord, tattoos are moot.

Anonymous said...

The question that a disciple needs to ask, since their bodies and lives belong to the LORD, is does the LORD WANT me to do this. Where does the idea of getting a tattoo come from - from being in your prayer closet with the LORD or from watching too much TV and admiring the world?

Rick Frueh said...

Well, the same with getting your hair done, or whitening your teeth, or earrings and any jewelry, or birthdays or Christmas, or more than one pair of shoes. All things are lawful but not all things are beneficial.