Last May, discussion here at SI about Heritage Christian School in Findlay, OH and the senior who chose a public high school prom over his own graduation ceremony revealed a rift on the issue of legalism. The majority were certainly comfortable with the rule against students attending a high school prom. But some thought such rules were legalistic. While I have had some deep misgivings about the rules culture in Fundamentalist schools over the years, a recent three-year study of Luke helped me to crystallize my views on this. During this study, I spent much time reflecting on our Lord’s confrontations with the Pharisees.
At this moment, most of you want to skip this post. “Oh, it’s the old ‘all Fundies are Pharisees’ argument,” is what you’re probably thinking. Nothing could be further from my intentions. It’s clear to me that our Lord did not cause an enormous volume of His teachings against the Pharisees to be preserved for the ages merely to warn us about a sect that would be extinct by AD 136. These teachings serve as a warning to all of us who are “religious” (in the nicest sense of the word). Legalism is entrenched deep in our hearts. It is a strong tendency in all humanity, at one level or another. It is basic to all false religions and creeps into adherents of true religion unless we are very careful.
A further denial: My concerns about legalism being inherent in such rule structures are not intended as an affront to the school in Findlay or the associated church. The pastor of that church is an old friend of mine, and I have great trust in him. I am certain the school is administrated well and has a Scriptural reason for everything they do. I don’t believe Gordon Dickson is capable of anything less.
While there are doubtless many fine Christian schools which do not operate in a legalistic fashion, I believe the majority of Christian schools operate with these three fallacious legalistic premises prominent in their thinking.
- Man-made rules that prevent violations of God’s rules have inherent spiritual value (which I will address here in Part 1).
- Rules promote godliness, in that behavior change leads to heart change.
- Enforcement of righteousness is valid and valuable as a first step to sanctification.
I will address Premises 2 and 3 in Part 2.
False Premise 1: Man-made rules that prevent violations of God’s rules have inherent spiritual value.
In Luke 6:1-11, Matthew 12:1-14, and Mark 2:23-3:6 we find two Sabbath stories. In each of these, the Pharisees posit that the disciples or Christ Himself have broken the Sabbath. A little background on the Sabbath teaching of the time reveals that the Jews had become obsessed with protecting people from working on the Sabbath, “work” being exactly what God had forbidden for the Sabbath day. When confronted with regulation, the legalistic nature of humanity seeks to understand exactly what it can get away with.
So the Jewish leaders had created a complex set of regulations to define what was work on the Sabbath. Lawyers could lose themselves in the fruit of this regulatory process for years.
- “Fivel, throw me that dinner roll.” Is that work? If it is thrown in the house, no. If the roll is thrown from inside the house to the outside, yes.
- Cooking? If the crust won’t be formed on the baked product by sundown Friday, don’t start! You would be causing work to be done.
- On the Sabbath you can pour cold water into warm water but not warm water into cold. Increasing heat is causing work (an interestingly precise definition for work in a pre-scientific age).
- You can move a chair to sit in, but if it makes a furrow in the dirt, then you have plowed—and that is work. So don’t drag it.
- You cannot take a shower because the hot water might accidentally clean the floor, which would be work.
You see how the attempt to micro-define all work quickly ran out of control.
The leaders of the Jews were creating a seyag (fence) around the law. Their philosophy was that it was the proper role of spiritual leadership to fence the law to avoid violations. In the face of uncertainty about what might constitute work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees had set out to define it with fences, and then rigorously enforced their fence with the full weight of the original law.
It didn’t matter if you thought you were working on the Sabbath. Their fence had defined your activity as working on the Sabbath. Violating their fence made you a Sabbath breaker.
In the Luke passage, Jesus points out that the effect of their regulation actually contravened the Lord’s original intent. The effect of their fences would have left the disciples hungry on the Sabbath as they traveled, and would have left the man with the deformed hand still deformed! Thus the Sabbath, given as a blessing to man (Mark 2:27), would become a curse! The “Lord of the Sabbath” rejected this reasoning and declared the doing of good to be always right on the Sabbath.
Warnings against fences
In related passages our Lord warns against such fences. In Matthew and Mark, He says that the hearts of the people are far from Him, because they teach the commandments of men as though they were doctrine. He says this makes their worship vain (Matt. 15:7-9, Mark 7:6-9).
What would our Lord say about us in Fundamentalism, when we also make such substitutions? For instance, the Lord has forbidden a lustful heart. How can we tell if we are lusting? Pharisee-like, we take the easy way out. Rather than looking within ourselves moment by moment and communicating with our Lord about what our hearts hold, we make rules. We should not go to the beach. We should not go to the dance. That TV program is off-limits. And then we enforce such rules as though they are the fulfillment of our Lord’s desire that we not lust. Having kept such rules, we assure ourselves that we have fulfilled all righteousness on this topic. But we still find many consumed by lust. And as new avenues for lust open due to technology, we find ourselves racing to keep ahead with rules. For decades the Christian school student could not go to the dance. Now we find rules multiplying in some schools forbidding or limiting camera phones, Facebook, MySpace, Skype, etc. Can we possibly race ahead and create enough rules to protect everyone? No.
Instruction in what lust is, how to deal with it, how to flee it—all of these ought to be part of the instruction and discipleship process in every ministry. But rules that are extensions of the no-lust principle are no substitute for teaching, and for some, they prove a distraction from the core issue.
It seems inherent in Christ’s teaching to the Pharisees that such fencing of the law generates spiritual blind spots to what constitutes true righteousness. Decades of fencing the law has made it possible for the church-going Fundamentalist to hide his sin problem from everyone—even himself. Staying home from prom will not stop you from lusting if your heart is filled with lust. I leave it to you to decide if the converse is also true.
For too long, we have convinced ourselves that rules-based structures that fence the law can protect us from sinful hearts. Jesus’ teaching ought to be a warning to us that we are building a defective structure. There is not one kind word from Christ for such rules-based structures. He wants us to keep the real law of God—and is not particularly concerned about man’s add-ons. And He even identifies the keeping of the real laws of God as being a simple matter of the heart. Love of God first, and neighbors 2nd inherently puts one in the right frame of mind to keep all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:35-40).
Creating a rules-based system to fence Christian righteousness has the potential to bring into play all of the negative results to which Christ refers. And how often have we seen that result in the lives of Christian school students? All too commonly true colors are revealed when the restrictive rules structure is removed after graduation. Such rules do not necessarily produce a spiritual result, and too often provide a cover for carnality.
I do not affirm that there is never a place for rules in the school setting. Functional rules are a necessity. Even spiritual rules (those associated with godliness) are probably a practical necessity for any institution. But we need to recognize the strong negatives that come associated with extra-biblical rules designed to “fence” God’s law. They are almost always counterproductive unless bundled to a discipleship program that instructs in their purpose. Even in the rare Scriptural instances when such fences around God’s law were erected by prophets or apostles, they were usually given in association with the underlying intent of our Lord. Barring this, such rule structures can become a quick shortcut that avoids the need to disciple the young person, teach true discernment, and produce values in the student as opposed to mere compliance without inward change. The goal should be to use such prom-like decision opportunities to teach a discernment process. Teaching this discernment should be one of the absorbing goals of all who are in roles of spiritual leadership, whether in home, school, or church.
Parenting concerns are outside the scope of this paper, but I would caution parents too. It is all too easy to succumb to the tendency to make submission to the rules the goal, rather than understanding of the underlying principle being the primary goal and submission only secondary.