Another Anti-legalism Rant

After seeing last week’s YouTube video one of my friends commented, “Ralph’s on another anti-legalism tirade.

I guess I am and maybe have lived on one for most of my adult life.

Back when I was a youth pastor I knew an upstanding Bible-believing man who refused to come to church with his family. Someone had taught him that he couldn’t be a Christian if he smoked cigarettes. He loved the Lord but believed salvation was out of his grasp due to a habit that held him by the throat.

A few years later we planted the first Hope Chapel. The pillars of our church were a group of hippies who, after finding Jesus, attempted to visit an establishment church. A greeter refused to allow them in the building. The guy actually told them to wear better clothes and get a haircut in order to enter “God’s house” reverently.

Talk about fruitless legalism.

Three times I’ve turned people away from our churches over music.

It went like this, “I love this church and your preaching is fabulous, but can you make those kids quit playing that rock music.”

My answer, “Look at the average age of our church. We’re reaching people that others can’t. If we change the music, they’ll leave. It’s better that you leave so let me help you find a church where you fit in better than with us.”

A man in the first church I pastored lost his wife to Alzheimer’s disease. She slid downhill for more than five years. The guy visited her in a care home every evening after work when she could no longer live at home.

Along the way he began conversing with another woman who was there due to a back injury.

Shortly after his wife’s funeral he sought out the other lady and they married a few months later. We had watched he and his wife suffer and our church was thrilled over his new marriage—all but one legalist who argued that he should have waited a year to marry. He needed to grieve the loss of his wife.

But he had grieved her for more than five years. Some people need to get over themselves and their need to control others.

I recently spoke with a pastor who suffered under the same style of legalism.

His wife threatened to divorce him, pretty much every day, for nearly a decade.

When she pulled the trigger, the congregation seemed happy. People believed it was inevitable and seemed relieved that the drama had ended. The staff were tired of seeing their boss wearing sunglasses to hide eyes red from crying.

Then a few people decided that he shouldn’t begin dating for a year.

He connected with a woman in the congregation about five months after the divorce. Staff members asked her not to come to services for several months so the couple wouldn’t be seen together and “offend” anyone. They complied.

They announced their intention to marry a bit over a year after the divorce.

The legalists went ballistic.

They concocted a scheme to prove their love since it had been such a “short time” since the divorce and they knew the guy had never grieved the loss of his first marriage (according to whose timetable?).

The plan went like this. “You should cut off all contact, including texts and email for three months. If your love survives that then you can marry.”

Think what that would do to a recently engaged woman. “Honey, I love my job and my team more than you so I’ve decided to impose a three-month blackout on our relationship.” Neither love nor patience could survive a hatchet-job like that, and rightly so!

This guy left his job rather than submit to the legalists in his life. He did the right thing!

So what’s my point?

You and I need to examine the legalisms we’ve allowed in our lives.

I grew up in a church that labeled smoking, drinking, dancing and movies as sin (I never could figure out why movies were sinful in a theater but not when they played on television).

Then a Billy Graham film came to theaters in our town.

You guessed it. We weren’t allowed to attend. The logic went, “A non-Christian might see you in line for a ticket and you’d lose your testimony. They wouldn’t notice the marquee displaying Billy’s name. Its better that you don’t go to any movies in theaters.”

Now this was way back, around 1956 or something. That church is decidedly more grace-oriented today. But their extreme posture makes a point. We all have a little weirdness in us.

We all tend to pick and choose scriptures to support some denominational or political non-essential.

I’m still thinking back to Song Solomon, where we’re warned against the little foxes that spoil the vineyard—the little foxes that spoil the harvest. What little foxes are in your life that you need to capture?

We need to get off this stuff and back to the Bible as the root of our lives.

Legalism won’t cut it for a broken world that increasingly needs the gospel of loving God, loving our neighbor and making disciples who do the same.

NOTE: This is not intended as a commentary on marriage and divorce. The point was to focus on people who permitted, even endorsed, a divorce only to get testy over unsubstantiated time frames. As always, your comments are very welcome.