After reading the Gospels and Acts over again, and starting on Romans, I have noted things that often seem to be lost in today’s American church. The church is consumed with legalism, legislating morality, and shutting the door of ministry and even the church to certain groups. Instead, the church should be consumed with carrying out God’s redemptive purposes in the world.
In many ways, the modern church is just like the Pharisees. The Pharisees were so obsessed with keeping the law that many of them looked down on those who broke the laws. Not content with the laws they already had, they came up with more.
Christ came along and, rather than calling them righteous as they would have expected, accused them of neglecting what was really important. He preached about following the spirit of the law.
For example, it was common for a man in those times to divorce his wife over trivial matters when the wife had done nothing wrong. Since the law of Moses did not forbid divorce, a man might do what he liked, thinking he had circumvented the law against adultery.
But Christ taught that lusting after another woman, divorcing the wife who had done nothing wrong, and marrying the new woman was adultery.
The sin was compounded when the man did not even give his wife a certificate of divorce, which made her appear guilty in the eyes of the community, and brought the label “adulteress” on her if she tried to marry again (from text notes in Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, NASB).
Rather than putting us under a new law which might keep people in destructive marriages, Christ is instead showing us how to love our spouses rather than deserting them without cause.
Another example is Christ’s chiding of the Pharisees for tithing so exactly that they even tithed their mint, dill, cummin, rue and all kinds of herbs, but neglected justice, mercy, faith and the love of God (Luke 11:42, Matt. 23:23).
With this example, that of the temple tax, and that of the woman who gave her last coin to the temple, we see that we are not to tithe in such a way that every dime is counted, and then think we are righteous.
When collectors came asking Christ’s disciples for the two-drachma temple tax, which came from the law of Moses, Christ said that it is the populace who is taxed, but not the king’s children (Matt. 17:24-27).
Paul wrote, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7).
Christ tells us he did not come to change the law, but to fulfill it. This means he came to fulfill the law’s obligation for a sacrifice, one complete, perfect, final sacrifice which covered everything we ever did or will do (from text notes in Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible).
We are released from the necessity of following the law and offering up sacrifices for forgiveness of sins.
The apostles, recognizing the stifling nature of the law, further released the church from the law of Moses, including circumcision, requiring only that the members abstain from “things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20).
Paul released us still further, saying that since idols are nothing, it does not matter if we eat something sacrificed to idols, though we should be mindful of how it would affect fellow Christians (1 Cor. 8).
The law was given to show us what sin is; without law, we cannot be held accountable for sin, even though we commit it (Rom. 5:13). When we become aware of the law, we become accountable for it.
But Christ’s sacrifice and Yahweh’s grace mean that we can be justified, or declared righteous, even if we have committed and still commit every sin.
This does not mean we should continue to sin. Should we be legalistic? Will we lose our salvation if we sin? No. Rather, we have been feed from slavery to sin and should voluntarily choose the way of righteousness (Rom. 6).
What does this mean? This means we are not to again put ourselves under the restraints of the law, which would also mean we will be judged by the law rather than grace (Gal. 2:15-3:14, Gal. 5:2-6, Rom. 2:12-16).
We must not place legalistic rules on ourselves: cut your hair, don’t cut your hair, wear only dresses, tithe ten percent of your gross income to your local church, obey your husband, don’t get a tattoo or dress in black, say anything you like as long as you don’t cuss, belong to this particular denomination or you are not saved, don’t drink alcohol, don’t go to movies, don’t dance, don’t go to that apostate mainline church, don’t let your children go to public school, don’t believe anything science tells you, don’t go trick-or-treating or read Harry Potter books or you will be practicing witchcraft!
Not only do we place ourselves under this law, but we begin to condemn others for not following it, exactly as the Pharisees did. Not only does this place us back under a law which Yahweh never gave us, but the world begins to view the church not as a place of love, but as a place of ridiculous restrictions, even hatred for those who are different. As it is written in Matthew 23:13-15:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Another verse, Romans 2:24, carries on this theme, referring to those who require others to follow the law without following it themselves: “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'”
This goes to the point of legislating morality. Not only do we make ourselves follow laws that Yahweh never put us under, but we try to force unbelievers to follow the same laws. We do not acknowledge the freedom this country gives to all religious groups, not just our own.
We are also all guilty of judging unbelievers for sinning. We are not to do this (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
Christ did not come as a politician, but as a spiritual leader. He acknowledged the sins of a sinner, and said to sin no more, but did not call upon the Romans or the religious leaders to punish that sinner. Not only did he not try to change the law of Moses, but he did not even try to change the law of the Romans.
The facts of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) are disputed, since it was not in the earliest biblical manuscripts. But it is consistent with Christ’s teachings and character to release her, rather than calling for her death under the law of Moses. He instead wanted her to follow Yahweh voluntarily.
The church also has put restrictions on the Holy Spirit. Some who are gifted for ministry or leadership are told not to follow through because they are not the right gender. Some women have been called Jezebels for preaching or even for teaching a Sunday School class with men in it.
The words of Paul are twisted to put women in secondary status, despite the fact that Paul had fellow ministers, deacons and apostles who were women (Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Mary Magdalene, Rom. 16:1-7). This disables a huge chunk of Christ’s workforce, and being under subservience to men puts a tremendous burden on women who have their own views, gifts and minds.
Do not give under compulsion, but what you decide in your heart to give. Have compassion. Fight injustice, not just for yourself but for others, such as the third world peasant who is being tortured and persecuted by military groups for having the wrong ideology or religion. (American “persecution” pales in comparison.)
Have mercy on the lost. Follow the three basic commandments which Christ gave us: Love God, love others, and spread the Gospel. Give honor and praise to God because it is from your heart.
Spend less time watching for signs of the Tribulation, and more time watching out for the poor, needy and oppressed of America and the rest of the world. Be a good steward of the earth. Throw off legalism and become free in Christ to work for God’s redemptive purposes in the world.
(“The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”)
[This was written around, I believe, 2004/2005, while I was Presbyterian (USA), before I became Orthodox. I’m not sure what happened to it after I put it on my website: Did I delete it at some point?
While I still agree with most of this post, some of the theological bits are slightly changed, such as the meaning of “justification,” which truly means to become righteous, not to be declared righteous.]