Tag Archives: Rules

Jesus and the Religious Rule Keepers

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Mark 2:27 (NIV)

As a child, I did a lot of walking and playing outdoors with the kids in my neighborhood. The neighborhood around the 3100 block of Madison Avenue was pretty much a virtual playground for us. I still remember who lived in most of the houses on our block and several of the houses on the blocks around us. We knew all of the “shortcuts” between garages, through fences, and how to quickly both get to other places and to disappear in need. We also knew the quickest routes, by foot or bike, to the woods, creeks, and green spaces that surrounded our neighborhood.

As we would play tag, hide-and-seek, or walk to the woods, I can remember nonchalantly playing with whatever plant I happened to walk over or past. Dandelions could be turned into a woven bracelet, and their dead blooms could be blown to the wind as a natural form of confetti. The leaves from corn plants in people’s backyard gardens could be held tightly between your thumbs like a diaphragm and made to make the most unusual noises when you blew through the hole between your thumbs. Of course, apples, cherries, and other fruit could be picked as you walked by for a quick snack. If you could spot one, a four-leaf clover was always a must-grab for luck in our next game of Freeze Tag, T.V. Tag, or Kick-the-Can.

What struck me in today’s chapter was the fact that, as Jesus and his followers were walking, “they began to pick some heads of grain.” Of course, they did. They were no different than me and my neighborhood friends as we walked through a neighbor’s yard. If you’re on a walk and you walk through a field your hands naturally reach out and caress the heads of grain to feel the softness across your hand. Your hand unconsciously closes around one and your fingers rub the grain loose from the head. You let the chaff fall from your palm or blow it like the natural confetti of a dandelion. You pop a grain into your mouth without thinking much of it. I learned as a child that interacting with creation as you walk through it is as natural as breathing.

How silly, then, that the religious people of Jesus’ day thought the natural act of picking heads of grain to be breaking “the Sabbath.” The “Sabbath” day was simply a day of rest each week. It follows God’s example in the creation poem in Genesis. God creates the universe in six days and then takes a day off. God later told His people in the Ten Commandments: “Do just like I did. Work six days, but make sure you take a day off, a sabbath.” The rule was meant to help perpetuate a healthy life. I need sleep each day. I need a day off each week. I need a few weeks of vacation each year. It’s part of the healthy physical rhythm that promotes mental and spiritual health, as well.

Along my life journey, one of the things I’ve observed is that religion likes to translate spiritual principles into strict, prescriptive rules of behavior. I remember one Bible college a friend of mine considered attending desired that their students stay sexually pure, so the rule was that if a member of the opposite sex is sitting in a chair and vacates it you must allow time for the chair to cool from that person’s body heat before you sit in it. I wish I was making that up. Without the rule, I would have never even thought about residual female body heat on a classroom chair. The legalistic rule intended to keep me “pure” actually ends up creating the illicit thoughts it was intended to prevent. The religious rules intended to ensure that I keep the spiritual principle actually become more perverse than the sin it’s trying to keep away from. It’s a perfect illustration of what Paul told the followers of Jesus in Rome in his letter to them:

The law code started out as an excellent piece of work. What happened, though, was that sin found a way to pervert the command into a temptation, making a piece of “forbidden fruit” out of it. The law code, instead of being used to guide me, was used to seduce me.

Read Romans 7:8-12 (MSG)

So, let me come back to today’s chapter. Jesus and the disciples walking through a field casually picking off a head of grain. The legalistic, religious rule keepers confront Jesus and point to the behavioral rules they’ve manufactured to give clarity to the earlier code of conduct which was born out of the one rule God gave them in the Ten Commandments in order to adhere to a spiritual principle of making sure you get some rest and stay healthy.

Jesus, in reply to the religious rule enforcers, simply points out an exception to the rule that those same legalistic rule enforcers chose to ignore (e.g. “You’re condemning me for doing the same that King David and his men did, but I don’t hear you condemning him.”) Jesus then cuts to the heart of the matter: the Sabbath was made as a principle of rest to help give you have a good life and keeping your heart, mind, and body healthy.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking of all the ways I once adhered to religious legalism. I confess, there was so much about what Jesus was teaching and getting at that I didn’t get at all. But, that was my journey. I had to walk through those stretches in order to learn, fail, struggle, persevere, grow, and mature in my own heart and mind. As the old hymn says: I was blind, but now I see. I have come to perceive that I, as a religious person, can be more spiritually blind than the “sinner” I believe that I am trying to save.

In this season of Lent, as I walk towards the annual memorial of Jesus’ death and celebration of His resurrection, I can’t help but think of the confessed thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus. The confessed sinner went with Jesus to paradise while the religious rule-keepers, who condemned and had Jesus executed, stood there hurling insults and condemnation at Him. They were blind, as I once was. Even Jesus said in those moments as he looked down at his executioners and the good religious rule-keepers condemning him: “Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they’re doing.”

I’m left thinking that this wayfaring stranger would rather hang on a cross, a confessed sinner next to Jesus, than religiously stand in condemnation of others for their breaking of the rules that were addendums to the previous code of conduct, which were additions to the one ancient rule, which was originally intended as a principle to spiritually guide people to Life.

I think I’ll go for a walk today. No dandelions out yet to blow to the wind, but I can pick a few leaves, and just maybe a four-leaf clover.

Anyone up for a game of kick-the-can?

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Let Good Rule

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
Luke 6:9 (NIV)

Religion loves rules.

When I was a young man I, for a short time, found myself living among a conservative, legalistic, religious Christians. I stop short of calling them Jesus’ followers because I eventually came to realize that they were the spiritual descendants of the religious leaders who, for two chapters now, have been keeping their critical, judgemental, condemning eyes on Jesus. Their motivation is to catch Jesus doing something wrong so that they can dismiss Him, judge Him, and condemn Him. In doing so, they can feel righteous about ignoring Jesus’ teaching and proud of leading others to do the same.

Religion loves rules.

In Jesus’ day, there was no better example of religious rule-keeping than the Sabbath. The Sabbath was established at the very beginning, right after creation:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

Genesis 2:2 (NIV)

This was a long time before God gave the Top Ten through Moses (Sabbath made it to #4 on the Top Ten commandments list).

Sabbath simply means a prescribed time of rest. It’s a day-off, a time-out, a quiet time, and it’s all about R&R, recharging, and being refreshed. Sabbath began as a spiritual principle God exemplified for all of humanity. After six days of work, everyone could use a little break from the daily grind, even God. It’s good for your body, mind, and spirit.

The problem with humanity, of course, is that we struggle with principles. They are so, well, gray…

“What does ‘rest’ mean exactly? I need that defined. And ‘work’ too. Is feeding my cat work? What about taking out the trash with my baby’s stinky diaper? And, speaking of stinky, what about having to watch the stinkin’ Packers game with my in-laws (that always feels like a lot of work)?”

“We’re supposed to labor for six days and rest on the seventh? What if I work weekends?”

“By ‘work,’ are we talking gainful employment here? What if I’m currently unemployed?”

“You tell me how in the world I’m supposed to rest from being a mother. There is no rest from these rug rats and their incessant demands!”

Along life’s journey, I’ve come to observe that humanity is given to rule-making in almost every area of life. Government institutions become bureaucracies with libraries dedicated to tracking all of the laws, codes, rules, and regulations. In fact, according to LegalZoom, if you’re driving through certain rural parts of Pennsylvania you are legally required to stop every mile and shoot off a flare to mark your position. In North Dakota, it’s unlawful to buy beer and pretzels at the same time. Women in Florida are forbidden by law to fall asleep under a hair-dryer.

Another example is how the notion of taxing citizens to pay for Government services has resulted in the 74,608 page U.S. Tax Code.

When it comes to religion, we humans do the same things. Well-intentioned religious institutions start with a spiritual principle about getting some much-needed rest and end up with an endless list of rules which, eventually, require a lot of work to keep straight and follow. This is where things stood in the days when Jesus was teaching in today’s chapter. Breaking the “sabbath” rules was something that Jesus and His followers were accused of doing repeatedly.

In today’s chapter, the Sabbath police were following Jesus around just waiting for Him to break one of the rules. That’s the other thing about religious and social rule-keeping, it typically ends up with some kind of group who police the masses. Of course, Jesus knew they were there.

Jesus asks, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” The answer, of course, goes back to the principle of rest that was the heart of Sabbath in the beginning. The tome of sabbath rules, sub-rules, and clarifications had both perverted the principle intent (keeping the Sabbath became work) and allowed the perpetuation of evil (people refused to help out a neighbor in an emergency in order not to be caught by the Sabbath police).

So, Jesus healed a man’s paralyzed hand in front of the crowd on the Sabbath.

Let good rule!

The religious rule-keepers immediately went into judge, jury, and executioner mode.

There’s something grossly wrong with this picture, and that was what Jesus was trying to get people to see and understand for themselves.

My time among the legalistic Christians didn’t last very long. All of the silly rules about clothes, hair, shoes, music, and fraternization were more than I could take. I did, however, make a number of worthwhile observations and I learned a lot of very valuable lessons. I came to understand that legalism keeps people imprisoned to rules, codes, and regulations while keeping them from developing the spiritual maturity and self-discipline necessary to develop Godly wisdom.

This morning I find myself reminded that doing a good thing for someone else should never be against the rules.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

New Ways, Old Ways, and the Inside-Out

But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Luke 5:30 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus I was in my early teens. I had been raised going to a small neighborhood church that belonged to one of the old, global mainline denominational institutions. As such, there was a certain institutional way that everything was done. There were rules, regulations, a chain-of-command, and a dizzying bureaucracy for making decisions. There was a certain formula to faith and life that fit neatly inside the institutional box, and most everyone who had long been part of the institution was comfortable with the formula.

As a young, passionate follower of Jesus, I quickly learned that where I was being led did not fit comfortably inside the institutional, denominational box of my childhood.

In today’s chapter, Dr. Luke continues to chronicle the early days of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he travels from town-to-town around the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The chapter reads like a series of vignettes, giving us a feel for the larger story arc of what’s happening in Jesus’ ministry at this time. He is attracting a following with His teaching. He is calling disciples. He is performing miracles. He is teaching in parables.

And, He is stirring things up.

Like the institutional denomination of my childhood, the religious Judaism of Jesus’ day was a staunch institution with thousands of years of history. There were religious paradigms that were not to be questioned. There were certain ways things were to be done. There were rules upon rules upon rules with regard to how to conduct oneself each day in every aspect of life. There were powers to be obeyed, and consequences if one did not fall in line.

With each vignette of today’s chapter, Luke is telling us that Jesus was cutting against the grain of every religious social convention in the Jewish religious box.

  • Teachers in Jesus’ day called disciples who were aspiring young men of prominence, educated in religion and law. Jesus calls disciples who are rough-around-the-edges blue-collar fishermen and a sketchy, sinful tax collector who was viewed as a traitor of his people.
  • If you want to make it in music you go to Nashville. If you want to make it on stage you go to New York. If you want to make it in movies you go to Hollywood. If you wanted to make it as a religious leader in Jesus’ day you went to Jerusalem to network and teach. Jesus chooses to teach in backwater towns considered the sticks by the institutional religious power brokers.
  • The institutional religious leaders flaunted their religion publicly, wearing robes, prayer shawls, and parading their religion publicly in front of people. Jesus slipped off by himself to remote places to have one-on-one conversations with the Father.
  • Good Jews were expected to live lives of austere appearance, scarcity, and to have nothing to do with anyone who didn’t adhere to the institutional checklist of propriety. Jesus feasted, drank, and frequented the company of all sorts of people, including the socially marginal and religiously inappropriate.
  • The religious leaders of the day were concerned with outward, public adherence to religious rules and practices that had little or nothing to do with inner, spiritual transformation. Jesus used miracles to show that, for God, the things that we humans consider to be important and miraculous in our outside physical world is actually easy and mundane. What Jesus was constantly most concerned with was the health of His followers’ inner, spiritual heart of their true selves and its transformation of their daily lives and relationships.

Jesus came to show a different way. He came, as He put it, to bring “new wine in a new wineskin.” The way of God’s Spirit is not the same as the way of human religion. Jesus even recognized at the end of today’s chapter that “people prefer the old.” With each of the vignette’s Luke shared in today’s chapter, the leaders of the religious institution were suspicious, critical, and condemning.

My spiritual journey led me to leave the denominational institution of my childhood. I did so because, for me, I needed to experience a change and to break out of old patterns to embrace the new ones Jesus reveal to me. The funny thing is, I soon found myself entrenched in other institutional paradigms and falling back into outside appearances and keeping rules. I broke out of one box only to step into another. My spiritual journey has been a perpetual cycle in which I am always trying to avoid falling into patterns of outward religion and to seek out the power of God’s Spirit that results from inside-out contemplation, confession, repentance, and transformation.

In the quiet this morning I’m realizing that two months of constant travel, busyness, and events have depleted my spiritual reserves. I’m thinking about Jesus’ example of slipping away for quiet and one-on-one with the Father. I could use a little of that myself.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Rules and Exceptions

On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God.

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
Nehemiah 13:1,3 (NIV)

A large part of my daily vocation is working with companies and their Quality Assessment (QA) efforts. You know, when you call and they say, “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes”? That’s a piece of what our company does.

Many years ago I observed a pattern in many companies with whom I consulted on their QA programs. An exceptional situation will result in a general rule for the population. Often, the rule had more of a detrimental effect than the exceptional situation that started it ever would. Let me give you an example.

Our team’s customer surveys (another piece of what our company does) typically find that customers appreciate a company who knows their name (Remember Cheers? “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”) and offers a personal service experience. Then one day a well-meaning Customer Service Representative (CSR) makes a mistake and addresses the caller by the wrong name or butchers the pronunciation of an unusual sounding name. The customer goes postal on the CSR and calls back to speak with managers and executives up the org chart making a huge deal out of a relatively little thing. Management, not wanting to have that happen again, makes a general rule: CSRs will no longer address customers by name!

The result? One exceptional, cranky customer who made a mountain out of a molehill has resulted in all customers getting a diminished service experience from the company.

Then I began to realize that this isn’t just something that happens in business. It happens all the time in families, churches, communities, and cultures. In fact, it happens in today’s chapter, but I bet you didn’t see it if you read the chapter.

Back in the days of Moses, there were two exceptional enemies of the Hebrews. The Ammonites and Moabites had gone out of their way to curse the Hebrews and attempted to thwart their passing through the land. Because of this, the law of Moses contained an exceptional rule:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.

Deuteronomy 23:3-4 (NIV)

Then, I read again what Nehemiah and the returned exiles did when they read this text:

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.

Nehemiah 13:3 (NIV) [emphasis added]

Do you see what they did there? They took an exceptional situation that applied to two specific people groups (the Moabites and Ammonites) being allowed into the temple, and they expanded into a general rule excluding all people of foreign descent from the entire land.

Here’s the kicker. In doing this, they were breaking another very specific law of God in Leviticus 19:

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.'”

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)

I can see the legal wrangling spinning in the hearts and heads of Nehemiah and his people: “If we exclude all foreigners from the land, then we won’t have any of them residing among us, and that renders the Leviticus rule moot!”

By the way, what Nehemiah and the people are doing in today’s chapter is part of why Jesus came 400 years later to find a culture of separation, animosity, prejudice, and hatred between Jews and Gentiles. If they’d have interpreted Deuteronomy 23:3-4 differently and made Leviticus 19:33-34 their general rule, things may have just have turned out differently.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking of all the ways we still do this today. Parents have one child who rebels and they clamp down their draconian rules on all of their children in the belief that the entire brood is a bunch of little rebels waiting to happen. Two young people at a school dance go too far and the girl ends up pregnant, so the church outlaws dancing in any form as evil. One dumb terrorist thought he could plant a bomb in his shoe (simply resulting in him burning his feet), and now billions of travelers have to have their shoes removed and x-rayed at every airport in the world.

By the way, I think both extremes of the political spectrum do this, as well. Let me give you two easy examples. The right does it with guns: “Because the Constitution made an exception for Colonists to have a musket to defend themselves against enemies and provide food for their tables, there’s no reason why I can’t have an M-16 and a rocket launcher in my home arsenal.” The left does it with abortion: “Because there are tragic situations of rape, incest, and life-threatening situations, we should allow abortion for all women, for any reason, right until the moment of delivery in the ninth month.”

The further I get in my life journey the more I observe that we humans are largely driven by fear, distrust, and emotional over-reactions. I don’t want to live that way. I’d rather have my life, words, and actions driven by faith, hope, and love. And, the latter most of all.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

“Kingdoms Rise and Kingdoms Fall”

In everything set them an example by doing what is good.
Titus 2:7a (NIV)

Tay, Clay and Milo visited Berlin this past week. It was fun for me to see the pictures and to get Taylor’s Marco Polo describing their trip to the Berlin Wall memorial. How remarkable that what stood as a very real, tragic, iconic and seemingly immovable metaphor of the times for my generation is now reduced to a memorial and museum piece.

[cue: The Times They are a Changin’]

I am fascinated by the times we live in. Technology is advancing at a rate faster than any other time in human history. Humanity is witnessing and experiencing more rapid change than our ancestors could fathom. As a follower of Jesus, it is not lost on me that our current culture is being dubbed the “post-Christian” era or the “post-evangelical” era. Denominational institutions are splitting and crumbling. Ironically, I might suggest, much like the Berlin Wall.

I’ve watched this create tremendous anxiety and fear in some. Yet, as I observe and witness these things, I can’t say that I’m particularly worried or upset about them. Why? First, we are told countless times by Jesus and God’s Message not to be afraid or anxious. Second, if I truly believe what I say that I believe, then I have faith that this Great Story has always been moving towards a conclusion that is already written in the eternity that lies outside time. Third, the mystery and power of Christ was never of this world. That’s why the Kingdom had to come as Jesus embodied and prescribed, and why Jesus was never about becoming an earthly King with political power and clout.  When humans attempted to make the Message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God about Level 3, institutional, earthly power I believe we essentially made it into something it was never intended to be and, at the same time, emptied it of its true power.

In today’s chapter, Paul instructs his young protégé, Titus, what to teach the followers of Jesus in Crete. What struck me was not what those specific instructions were, but the motivation Paul gives for the instructions and their adherence:

“…so that no one will malign the word of God.”

“…so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.”

“…so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”

The paradigm was not that followers of Jesus would have the political and institutional power to make non-believers toe our moral line. The paradigm presented was that we who follow Jesus would live out the fruits of the Spirit towards everyone, that we would exemplify Kingdom living in all we say and do, and we would love all people in such a way that others would see, be attracted to it, and wonder how they might experience the same love, joy, peace, and self-control they see in us. What a different paradigm that that of making rules, appointing enforcers, and punishing offenders which is the paradigm of this Level 3 world

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about times and change.

The words of an old U2 song flit into my thoughts:

October,
the leaves are stripped bare of all they wear.
What do I care?
October,
Kingdom rise and kingdoms fall,
but You go on,
and on,
and on.

And so I proceed on, into another day of this earthly journey trying to live out a little love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Thanks for joining me, my friend. Have a great day.

Masking Tape Mess

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:18-19 (NIV)

For most of my childhood there was a line of masking tape on the floor in the doorway to my brothers’ bedroom. My bedroom was across the hall. The masking tape was the visual border my brothers placed at the entrance of their bedroom sanctuary. I was told, and reminded regularly, that I was never to cross that masking tape without their permission and presence. Their room was sacred space and it was off limits to me.

So, naturally, I snuck into their room every chance I got.

It’s silly isn’t it? The rules telling us what not to do stirs inside of us the desire to do (and get away with) the very thing the rule is made to prohibit us from doing. The small town where Wendy and I live has a long tradition of being a religious community. The kids in our community are raised feeling pressure of the community to be “good” kids and “Christian” kids. Parents have told me that what their “good Christian” kids now do is to have one social media account to broadcast their “good” kid image to the world, but then they have a secret social media account on the same platform to get away with all the “bad” things they want to say, show, share and sext with their friends.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s a perfect word picture of the human nature problem that Paul is getting at in today’s chapter.

A few weeks ago my friend Katie presented a word picture that I love. The law, she said, is an x-ray. It shows us what’s broken, but it’s not going to heal us. The doctor is not going to wrap the x-ray around your arm in order to heal the break.

For a long time institutional Christianity and its adherents (myself included, I confess) have given the world the perception that being a follower of Jesus is just another religion with another set of rules. Yet when I read Jesus’ teaching and study His example, He is always about freeing me from the silly, broken system of rule-keeping that only seems to feed this insidious, secret desire to do the very things I’m not supposed to do. Jesus calls me to something higher; Something that C.S. Lewis described as “further up and further in.” Self-sacrificing Love, permeating grace, and radical forgiveness that is led by Spirit, built on Truth, and fueled by resurrection Life.

The further I leave behind legalism and religious rule keeping, the more I embrace and experience where Jesus is calling me to follow, the less I feel of that pesky desire to step across the masking tape.

Legalism’s Tragic Imitation of Faith

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:3 (NIV)

Legalism /ˈlēɡəˌlizəm/ noun  1. Excessive adherence to law or formula. 2. Dependence on moral law rather than personal faith.

I was a young man when I had the opportunity to pastor a relatively small, rural congregation. Taylor was just a newborn. I’ll never forget meeting informally with one of the church elders to get acquainted over a cup of coffee.

Where are you going to send your children?” he asked me early in the conversation. “Public school or Christian school?

What I didn’t know in that moment was that the question was a litmus test. The elder was raised in a denomination that practiced a form of legalism, and the education of children was part of the “moral law” for this particular denomination. You sent your children to Christian school, and there was no other acceptable option. If parents couldn’t afford it, then grandparents and other family members were expected to pitch in and foot the bill. If you failed this test then there would definitely be social repercussions.

By the way, I failed the test, but that is a different post for another day.

Along my faith journey I have encountered legalism in a number of different populations. I think it important to note that every brand of  denomination I’ve encountered, from Roman Catholic to Lutheran to Baptist to Reformed to Quaker has its own legalistic groups within. Both of the definitions pasted above fit hand-in-glove to what I’ve observed and experienced. What’s been fascinating to observe is how religious legalism seeps into every system with which it comes in contact. While living a among a group of legalistic Christians I found that the legalism was not confined to how the church operated, but it became how the connected family systems, social systems, educational systems, and business systems functioned. I certainly found individuals within these legalistic systems to be sincere and motivated by what they truly believed was “right.” So were many of the Pharisees for whom Jesus had such harsh words of rebuke.

In a legalistic group, observable public and social behavior becomes the standard by which a person’s spiritual standing is judged. Pressure is applied by the group as a whole to conform. Social acceptance or rejection is often the passive-aggressive form of reward or punishment. I’ve personally heard many tragic stories from individuals raised in these legalistic social groups. They’ve shared with me stories of being forced to stand publicly before the congregation in order to be shamed, and stories of church elders making weekly home visits to keep families toeing the line and under the church’s brand of social control.

Within the group I encountered as a young pastor the critical legalistic criteria of the denomination’s moral law not only included sending your kids to Christian school (controlled by the denomination, no doubt), but also strictly observing the sabbath (no work on Sunday), and attendance at two-a-day church services each Sunday (the “no work” law helped with this). Then there were all sorts of other unwritten, behavioral rules about the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the businesses you supported, the people you dated and married, the acceptable colleges you sent your children to, and on and on and on.

It is written that the “fruit” of God’s Spirit in one’s life includes:

  • love
  • joy
  • peace
  • patience
  • kindness
  • gentleness
  • self-control

I’ve observed that the “fruit” of legalism in groups like the one I’ve described are:

  • obedience
  • guilt
  • fear
  • judgement
  • threats
  • shaming punishment
  • authoritative control

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul is addressing a different form of legalism. In his case, it was the Jewish believers who’d been raised under the legalistic moral Law of Moses. Their adherence to these laws, along with others that had been made up, and the physical sign of being circumcised were the critical criteria. These followers of Jesus who came out of this form of legalism now wanted to apply their legalistic code to all followers of Jesus.

In today’s chapter, Paul tackles the issue head on by asking these legalistic Jewish believers two questions from their own scriptural tradition. Abraham was the spiritual “father” of Judaism (btw, Abraham was the “father” of Islam as well), and their scriptures said “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Not only this, but this simple “believe and you’ll be credited with righteousness” paradigm came before circumcision was a thing and before the Law of Moses existed. So, Paul argues, when Jesus says “Whoever believes in me will not perish but have eternal life, ”  he is simply going back to the original paradigm given to “Father Abraham” at the very beginning.

In the quiet this morning I’m seeing the faces of those who’ve shared with me their stories about being raised in legalism. Some are absurd to the point of laughter, and others are heart-breaking to the point of tears. I get why legalism develops as a human system. There is a social order produced, and we humans love our social order. The problem I’ve found, and that Paul is arguing, goes back to the definition I pasted at the top of this post: “adherence to moral law rather than personal faith.” Legalism actually chokes Spirit and Life and replaces it with a cheap imitation which actually destroys faith and, insidiously, feeds the flesh.

More about that in the chapters ahead.