The limitations of legalists.

Back in college I had some classmates who had honest questions about Christianity. They were pagans who were raised by totally irreligious parents, so all they knew about Christians were stereotypes. Yet here I was, a real live Christian, who didn’t fit those stereotypes, who knew enough to give ’em facts and background, and not be a jerk about it. So they picked my brain.

  • What do you guys do in church? What’s the program?
  • What’s the bible about? What’s in it?
  • What’s the dress code? (They heard rumors about sacred undergarments, so I had to inform ’em that’s only a Mormon thing.)
  • What political views must Christians have?

And so forth.

But as I was trying to answer the questions, another classmate decided he just had to get in on this, and pitch his two cents. He was a fellow Christian, who went to another church than I did—a much more legalistic one. He continually felt he had to “correct” my answers whenever they got too gracious for his taste.

It got annoying pretty quickly—for me, ’cause I wanted to answer my questioners, not debate him; and my questioners, who on the one hand were seeing how all Christians think alike, but on the other hand had deliberately not gone to him, and didn’t appreciate his help.

So I deviously suggested a change of venue. “Hey, you wanna keep talking about this over lunch? Let’s go to the Pub.”

The Pub was an on-campus restaurant which, true to its name, served alcohol. And as I correctly guessed, the legalist would not go to the Pub. He said yes to the idea of talking over lunch—he invited himself along, obviously—but not the Pub, never the Pub; his religion forbade it. He scrambled to suggest five or six alcohol-free options… but the pagans quickly realized what I’d done and gratefully went along with it. So off we went, leaving the legalist behind, fuming.

Over lunch I talked ’em into trying out a church that Sunday, just to have the experience for themselves. And I let the church folks take ’em from there. Pretty sure my legalist classmate would never have got ’em even that far.

Yep, I totally took advantage of his hangup. Good thing we’re on the same team, right? Now imagine if we weren’t. (No doubt he wasn’t so sure we are.)

How legalists are made.

Christianity is both a relationship and a religion. We practice certain rituals, activities, and good deeds, religiously, to help grow the relationship. Irreligious Christians try to find reasons to evade the stuff, yet have the relationship (or claim to) anyway. And legalists focus so much on the stuff, they forget the point is to further the relationship and become more like Christ Jesus. And grow fruit.

Since the inclination of everything in nature is to not make an effort, not grow any more than we have to… how do people become legalist? Simple: They’re either raised by legalist parents, or right after they become Christian they quickly get mixed up with legalists.

And y’know, that’d be most new Christians. For obvious reasons: When you’re new, you have to learn the religion. You have to learn the customs, the practices, the Christianese terms, and how to behave among fellow Christians. You have to learn that dropping the occasional F-bomb isn’t acceptable behavior among many of them. (Well… unless they’re hypocrites who only freak out about profanity when they’re with their church friends. Which’d be a lot of them.) You have to learn to act Christian, to live Christian, to be Christian.

This sort of strict self-discipline doesn’t come easy for a lot of people. So after they get the basics down, and learn how to act Christian, they won’t always bother to move forward to live Christian. They act Christian around other Christians, but live pagan. Yep, they’re total hypocrites. And the easiest place to keep up their act is in a church which emphasizes a rigid Christian lifestyle: A legalist church, where they can pretend to be legalist every Sunday and Wednesday. The rest of the week, they drop the act.

What about those newbies in the legalist churches who never drop the act?—who think this is how you more forward and live Christian? Well this is how you make legalists. Visit a legalist church sometime (or don’t; watching their YouTube videos is easier, especially once you want to leave) and you’ll notice all the new believers really are legalist… and sometimes when they’re older, they move into leadership and become the old legalists who supervise the church.

Whereas the rest? Hypocrites. Catch ’em off-guard off campus, and you’d never know they went to this church. Many’s the time I’ve asked a stranger, “Which church do you go to?” found out they attend some Independent Fundamentalist Baptist cult—but nothing else about them suggests they’re so very rigid in their beliefs. They’re either hypocrites or legalists. Seldom inbetween, as they should be; in fact they’re entirely sure inbetween makes ’em lukewarm.

But because newbies have to get their act together, they do get just a little bit legalist as they’re sorting out, “Christians should do [ACT OF KINDNESS] and not [ACT OF A--HOLERY].” Self-control is a good fruit, so there’s nothing wrong with getting a little strict and rigid with ourselves as we develop it.

So long that we remember not to put our rules for ourselves, upon others. Legalists never seem to learn that one.

Legalists are weak in faith.

Because of their insistence on tight rules, legalists are obviously one of the folks Paul called “the weak in faith.” Big long quote time:

Romans 14.1-13 NLT
1 Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. 2 For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. 3 Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord’s help, they will stand and receive his approval.
5 In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. 6 Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God. 7 For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. 8 If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 Christ died and rose again for this very purpose—to be Lord both of the living and of the dead.
10 So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For the Scriptures say,
‘As surely as I live,’ says the LORD,
‘every knee will bend to me,
and every tongue will declare allegiance to God.’Is 45.23
12 Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. 13 So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.

Certain people are earnest Christians, but have hyper-sensitive convictions. There are a number of things they simply can’t do.

  • Sometimes they were taught they can’t by other legalists; i.e. their church forbids alcohol.
  • Sometimes they independently came to that conclusion. Like me: I have way too many alcoholics in my family, and I’m quite sure if I dabble in that area I’ll fall into the same pit. So I don’t drink. At all. Nothing against you drinking though—assuming you can handle it.
  • And sometimes they have a hangup they simply don’t know how to break, and haven’t yet trusted the Holy Spirit to sort them out. I know former alcoholics who absolutely insist no one should drink: They can’t handle it, and they’re entirely sure you can’t either.

I grew up in churches which forbade alcohol; I’ve been in Al-Anon or Celebrate Recovery meetings throughout my life; I know the various Christian views on the subject quite well. Which was how I knew to play the alcohol card with my legalist acquaintance: It’s not a hangup for me, but absolutely was for him. To him, no Christian should drink. Nor even be seen in a place which serves alcohol, lest other people think it’s an endorsement: “Leslie goes to the pub, so why can’t I?”

(Though back in my own hypocrite days, I discovered this argument, “Never go to a bar; you’ll look like you’re endorsing alcohol,” is crap. Whenever Christians wanna drink, they never say, “But Leslie’s okay with it”; they leapfrog me and go straight to “Jesus drank wine.” They could give a rip what I drink. Or don’t.)

Now for many legalists, devilishly suggesting the Pub would convince them I’m no true Christian at all. Worse, I was gonna lead these poor unsuspecting pagans away from Christ. (Even though my only intention was to lead ’em away from the legalist.) But here’s the deal: Let’s say this was actually true. Say I was one of Satan’s minions, plotting to lead possible converts to my dark master. And because you can’t go to the Pub, I successfully defeated you. I know your Kryptonite. I can defeat any “true Christian.” Muah-hah-ha.

Again: Let’s say this was true. How on earth could you abandon these poor souls so easily?

The Pub’s not a burning building. If my kid were in there and I had to go rescue her, even if I had all sorts of personal convictions about pubs, you know I would. I wouldn’t just stand at the door and fret, and try to get passersby to get her attention for me. I’d go in. My hangup wouldn’t get in my way: I’d gather what courage I had, and go in. And the very same should be true of lost souls. There should be no place on earth we Christians can’t go if we gotta. Jesus ate and drank with sinners for this very reason. Lk 5.30-32

The legalist couldn’t do that. He was too weak in faith. This is why weakness in faith automatically disqualifies people from many ministries: They can’t minister. Their hangup hangs them up.

Problem is, weak-in-faith Christians don’t realize this, won’t believe it—and will even insist on taking leadership in many ministries, despite their hangups.

The tyranny of the weak in faith.

Years after this incident with the legalist, I was on a ministry outreach team, and somebody actually brought up the whole “What if the potential convert goes into a bar?” scenario. My response was, “Will you be tempted to have a drink with him, and lose sight of why you’re there?”

“No,” she said.

“Then follow him in,” I said, “same as when Jesus went to parties.”

But one of the pastors overrode my answer. “Our policy is to not go into bars,” he said. “You might not be tempted to drink, but someone else in our ministry might be, and we don’t want to make them stumble. So for their sake, we don’t go in. We can try to block the convert from going into the bar, and hold him up as long as we can… but once he goes in, he’s gone.”

I didn’t want to derail the discussion by debating him about this at that time. I definitely did later. It’s a ridiculous policy. But many an evangelism ministry does have policies like this, forbidding their people from following people into any dens of iniquity. Even to get them out of there. Because our weaker evangelists might stumble.

See, the weak in faith can’t do anything. ’Cause they’re weak! They’re like newborn babies who can barely hold their heads up. Yes they can memorize bible verses, and lead people in the sinner’s prayer. But profanity freaks ’em out—and you might notice pagans are awfully fond of swearing. Obscenity freaks ’em out—and pagans consider obscenity to be background noise. Heck, just plain dirtiness—people who need a shower, people who reek of weed and hardboiled eggs—freaks ’em out. Unless new Christians have come out of that lifestyle themselves, they can’t handle the people who still live in it. And sometimes not even then: They’re way too tempted to dive right back into that life.

What can the weak in faith do? Lots of things. The church’s bathrooms always need a cleaning. But they don’t wanna do the few things they’re qualified for, and wait till they reach greater maturity. They lack the patience to be ministered to, and learn to overcome their hangups and weaknesses. Instead they want their comfort zone extended outward, and for pagans to adapt to them. Not the other way round.

This is how we wind up with legalistic ministries. Pagans are given a bunch of rules to follow. Do ’em or you get no help—even when you desperately need it. I worked with one church who (before my time there) refused to give food to gay couples. Another which demanded pregnant teenagers move back in with their parents—even when the parents were awful to them, or pushing them to have abortions. Another which shut down the youth ministry’s outdoor concerts because smokers attended—and left their cigarette butts on the church grounds. The situations range from life-ruining rejection… to little, stupid things.

For the most part pagans don’t care how I dress or wear my hair. I can swear freely in front of them if I wish. But were I to do that, legalistic Christians would lose their tiny minds, and demand I be punished for it. Even if I won those pagans to Christ. Every single time I’ve been in trouble with ministry leaders, it’s because a hyper-sensitive Christian complained. Never one of the folks I minister to. I unintentionally stepped on the Christian’s toes, and as legalists will, they decided I needed discipline. Never grace.

Leadership by the weak in faith.

Thankfully most ministry leaders are mature Christians, so when I get in trouble, I usually get out of it with the help of an understanding, forgiving leader. Usually to the irritation of those who complained.

And sometimes ministry leaders aren’t mature. Pastors might appoint their weak-in-faith, unqualified family members to run a ministry. Or weak-in-faith Christians create a ministry on their own, with no church oversight, with no mature heads among them to prevail when the crises inevitably happen.

Ministries run by young people are notorious for this problem. In high school and college, I joined various student-led ministries. The leaders were elected by popular vote, with nobody asking whether they fulfilled Paul’s qualifications for elders. Stands to reason nearly all of them were led by immature Christians, who ran things by insisting upon lots of rules.

(And insisting on ridiculous acts of devotion. Legalists like to throw down a gauntlet to find out just how serious their people are about the ministry. Some of us shrug and do them. Others fake our way through it.)

The fact such ministries get anything done at all for God’s kingdom, has to do with God doing his thing despite our counterproductive behavior. (Although the leaders had no trouble taking credit!) But if you find yourself in any such ministry where the leader isn’t qualified, quit. The ministry belongs to them, not Christ. You’re working for the wrong person anyway.

Look, there are all sorts of ministries which need to be done. People need to hear the gospel. Hungry people need food. Sick people need healing. Needy people need advocates. Wayward people need prophecy. All sorts of folks could use the active aid of God’s kingdom; the harvest is huge and the workers are few.

Unfortunately because the workers are few, we’re too often willing to take people who just aren’t ready, and put ’em into major positions. We shouldn’t, but we do. We’re that desperate for workers. But we mustn’t be. God provides, and settling for newbies means we don’t trust God enough to let him provide. We’re like farmers who can’t wait for the oranges to ripen, so we eat ’em green.

Legalists aren’t mature Christians. Might never mature. But some will, and we need to be patient and let em mature. Just because they’re willing and eager, doesn’t mean they’re qualified. Leaders need to recognize when they’re not yet ready, and redirect them towards ministries they can do. And work on getting them qualified.

And if you’re a newbie, be patient. Redirect your own eagerness into preparation: Work on your studies. Read up on other Christians who have ministered in the areas you’re interested in, and learn from their examples, good and bad. Get over your hangups; learn to love the people you’re working with. Get rid of your legalism; learn to forgive the people you’re working with. Grow fruit of the Spirit.