The Folly of Legalism

What to do when everything is Forbidden

“Thou shalt not…

So says much of the opinion from the Pharisees. It’s echoed in the doctrines of Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutherism. Calvinists swear by it. Southern Baptists in particular have a long list.

The Law in the Old Covenant was misunderstood in a huge way. The ancient Jews thought it had been given to them so they could earn a way to Heaven. They completely missed the point.

A couple of years ago I read a great book called “The Year of Living Biblically” by AJ Jacobs. He describes it as “One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible”. It’s a brilliant and funny look at the crazy Laws of both the Old and New Testaments. A satirical (I hope!) look at legalism.

The thing is, as amusing – and trust me, it’s amusing – as it is, Jacobs focusses on the things forbidden by the Bible. I think to make a point.

And it did. It got me thinking about what I believe, and why I believe it.

The point of the Law was to demonstrate to the Jews that Salvation in every area was impossible to achieve by following a set of rules. Jesus equates holding anger in your heart to murder and “appreciating” the figure of the girl across the street as adultery. Just in those two simple thoughts at some point we’ve all been guilty of murder, coveting, adultery, etc, etc…

And I do mean all been guilty of it.

Pretty much the only thing that got a jail sentence under ancient Law was debt. Everything else, they killed you. That’s why when Jesus is brought the woman caught in the act of adultery nobody throws a stone. In retrospect, every one of them realised they were as deserving of stoning as the woman was.

I heard Donald Trump say he’d never asked forgiveness from God because he’d never done anything that needed forgiving. Maybe in terms of outward actions he’s right – unless you count adultery anyway. But he’s demonstrated what his thoughts are countless times, and I think we can agree this is a man who lacks a moral compass.

Not that Hilary Clinton is any better. She just knows how and when to keep her mouth shut (mostly). Politics is rife globally with morally bankrupt pseudo-leaders claiming innocence. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma was tried for rape shortly before being elected President, and the Constitutional Court held that several hundred counts of corruption and failing to uphold the Constitution should be prosecuted against him.

It seems like anything goes these days.

Nothing it forbidden any more.

St Paul had a similar problem in the church in Rome. Much of the society there can be seen in modern attitudes. Things which were absolute negatives by Mosaic Law were so commonplace nobody noticed them as sin any more. They were just a part of the way things were. Temples had prostitutes in them – some had more than the brothels did – murder was put on daily as entertainment in the Coliseum and Circus Maximus in Rome and the amphitheatres around the Roman Empire.

What do you do when society demonstrates no moderation?World Law

Demonstrate Holiness.

Worldly society is gradually changing the rules for mankind. When warned of changes, Christians need to be the ones to initiate reforms. Throughout history for 2000 years that’s what has happened. Abolition of slavery, education for all, welfare handouts (alms), legal age of consent, age of majority, ending racism and sexism (or trying to). These have been done, and are being worked on by Christians. Men like William Wilberforce, John and Charles Wesley, William Booth, Billy Graham, CH Spurgeon and many other lesser known but equally important men and women of God have changed history.

But their focus was mainly on what was not forbidden rather than a list of decrees on stopping behaviour.

Consider your toddler. “Don’t poke the dog” is seen less as a command and more of a challenge issued to small children. My own brother died because he didn’t listen when my parents told him not to go out on his bicycle to the local garden centre because the road was too dangerous. He was nine. He caused an accident that left him dead and scarred an innocent motorist’s memory for life because of Robin’s actions.

No, “thou shalt not” has never been particularly effective. Even the death penalty doesn’t deter people these days. And why should it? Popular society has decreed there is no literal Hell, the devil doesn’t exist and God is this guy in a dressing-gown with a beard down to his knees who is a vegan pacifist. Of course that god would let anyone in to heaven.

But there are moral absolutes. God’s opinion on sinful thoughts and actions is perfectly clear. The Bible also says God does not change, but rather:

Jesus Christ is [eternally changeless, always] the same yesterday and today and forever

Hebrews 13:8 (Amplified)

The Holy Spirit gives Peter a vision of all kinds of animals lowered in a blanket from Heaven, and he is invited to kill and eat (Hebrews 10 & 11) both kosher and ceremonially unclean animals. (Personally I’m glad. I love bacon!) This is an echo of Jesus’ words that it is not what we eat, but what comes out of our mouths in the form of anger or hate that makes us “unclean”.

All things are lawful [that is, morally legitimate, permissible], but not all things are beneficial or advantageous. All things are lawful, but not all things are constructive [to character] and edifying [to spiritual life]. Let no one seek [only] his own good, but [also] that of the other person.

1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (Amplified)

In the New Covenant, Jesus has completed the Law and granted permission to us to act how we choose. But Paul shows this freedom is only free because it has boundaries of morality and decency.

Not all things are good for us – even if the law of the World says they are ok. Man’s laws must be placed behind God’s, and it’s our place as Christians to see that they are.

Now before the extreme right wing gets their rifles out let me quantify that. (For the extreme right wing, that means I’m going to break it into small words for you so you understand.)

We should seek to protect those who cannot protect or speak for themselves. That includes babies being terminated.

PUT THE RIFLE DOWN!

It NEVER means “go shoot the doctor and blow up the clinic”. There are times when the safety of the mother needs to be considered. In the case of pregnancy by rape, the issue must never be an absolute forbidding of termination.

What it does mean to be “pro-choice” is that you are free to make the choice before the pregnancy. Sex outside marriage is not God’s plan, but if you’re going to do it at least make sure no unplanned pregnancy can happen. Abortion should never be a contraceptive option. No baby should be aborted because they will be inconvenient.

Sex before marriage is permissible in so far as it’s no longer something to be executed for, but it’s not beneficial for us. It gets in the way of our relationship with God.

I love “Bones” on TV. One of the greatest things is the battle inside Booth, the “good” Catholic, over his standing with God before he marries Brennan. He has a child with her and they live together but he can’t go to confession any more because he would have to confess sexual immorality and he can’t get absolution because his confession needs to be from a place where he will repent and completely stop the unGodly behaviour, but he won’t because he’s “in love” with Brennan.

Forgiveness is hard to come by when everything is forbidden.

It’s easy to go to God and be forgiven when it’s something we didn’t mean to do, want to do and will never do again. But when it’s something that brings a little happiness it makes it difficult. Blocks between us and God get put in place the second we say “forbidden”.

Samuel L Jackson’s character in “The Negotiator” tells his colleague to never say “No” to a hostage taker. It closes options.

God, I believe, recognises this in us. He meets us where we are.

And what was forcibly forbidden under the Old Covenant is more gently guided out of society through forgiveness and repentance – the complete turning away from these actions that threaten our relationship with God.

Forbidding leads to intolerance and hate.

And there’s enough of that without the Church adding to the mayhem. We should be the Peacemakers.