Legalism is like a weed that you pull out of the ground only to see it spring up across the yard where it had sent its roots unseen beneath the surface.
One example that has been making the rounds recently is a list of 83 things women can and can’t do in the body of Christ. Another is the list that purports to describe the fine habits of wealthy people and the contrasting lack of those habits in poor people, as if adopting the habits of the rich will lead to wealth.
These lists are in no way based on Scripture, no matter how much the proponents claim biblical authority. Rather, they are based on the proponents’ attempts to draw lines around Scripture that are not meant to be drawn.
It’s not New Covenant life but Old Covenant law
The proponents of those lists actually do have some connection to Scripture. They are like people who told Jesus that he and his disciples kept breaking the Sabbath.
You see, Old Covenant law prohibited work on the Sabbath. So by the time of Jesus, religious leaders had come up with rules that they thought were a good idea but weren’t actually prohibited by that Sabbath law. It came up repeatedly
One time Jesus’ friends were hungry so they stripped some grain from plants as they walked through a field on the Sabbath. The religious leaders said this was work. Jesus said no, and that they didn’t understand what the Sabbath law was really about. (Matthew 12:1-8.)
A short time later, the leaders – hoping to trap him – asked Jesus if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. In answer, Jesus healed a man in their presence. The religious leaders were so incensed they started plotting to kill him as a law breaker. (Matthew 12:9-14.)
Another time, Jesus was in the synagogue on the Sabbath and healed a woman who had been suffering horribly for 18 years. The synagogue leader was so indignant that he proclaimed that people who came to the synagogue to worship on the Sabbath should not expect to be healed; they had to wait for another day. (Luke 13:10-14.)
Imagine that, refusing to help a poor suffering woman and telling her she had to come back another day. Jesus minced no words in rebuking them all:
The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16.)
The religious leaders, like the proponents of the lists I mentioned at the start, thought they were doing God’s will, yet Jesus called them hypocrites. Would he call these modern lists of legalism hypocritical too?
Freedom in Christ really is Free
As you can tell, the Pharisaism inherent in those lists galls me. I live under the New Covenant and my practice is to rest in Christ’s freedom when dealing with things not clearly addressed in under that Covenant. And in all my reading of the New Testament I have not seen 83 rules on anything, let alone rules drawing lines around what women can and cannot do.
When it comes to how to live in Christ, what I do read are verses like these:
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36.)
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery [to Old Covenant rules]. (Galatians 5:1.)
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17.)
Is there any law under the New Covenant? It’s summed up in these verses:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10.)
If you want to find the law the New Covenant demands, that’s it. That’s all of it. There is no more. Anything beyond that is not law for those who belong to Jesus, and if someone tries to tell you that you have to do more than that, they’re wrong. They might even be hypocrites for all I know.
I choose not to listen to such people.
[For more in depth looks at the problems with the list of 83 rules governing women in the body of Christ, read these excellent posts by Michelle Van Loon and at the Wartburg Watch. For an illuminating take on the list of practices for those wanting wealth, see Ben Irwin’s post.]