Last Sunday, I had the fun privilege of being asked to sing a shortened rendition of Aretha Franklin's song, "R.E.S.P.E.C.T.," to set up a sermon on disrespect. The Head Pastor of our church requested it be sung to creatively set up the topic and our Music Director/Pastor offered the crazy op to me. Being a musician with a love of diverse music, I accepted with joy. But due to my former legalistic upbringing, I had a little fear and trepidation about it after agreeing. I found myself wondering if it would "offend" some in the congregation that I was singing a secular song from the 60's on the altar of God. I had to release that fear to God and trust that Pastor Jim knew what he was doing. He would have never gotten me to sing that song for church 13 years ago, so at least I'm making some progress, albeit slow!
As I touched on last week, I grew up in a strict Baptist church where legalism was never mentioned, but practiced religiously. It was one of those churches where pretty much anything "fun" was frowned upon (dancing, card playing, secular music, you name it)! Singing anything but hymns on Sunday for congregational singing would have been strictly forbidden and frowned upon, (and singing an Aretha Franklin song in church probably would have been viewed as a call for God to strike with lightening)! Over the years that I have been a believer, I have come to realize that the Christian walk is not always black and white. Though there are many sins clearly laid out as, "sin," in God's Word, there are many other issues of daily living that are not as clear, as Romans 14 discusses. I happen to believe wholeheartedly that this issue of music is one of these "grey areas." Obviously, you can find music out there that is clearly "worldy" and even "evil" by the lyrics alone. But I happen to think that most music is delightful and God-given. I do not believe you have to listen to Christian radio only to be a devout believer or to remain sinless. If I truly believed that, then I would have to also watch only Christian news programs, go to only Christian movies, view only Christian TV shows, purchase only goods from Christian businesses, and basically, never leave my house! (I am guessing that this would not be a very effective way to witness and minister for the cause of Christ)! Where does one draw the line? Once you start drawing these staunch, heavy lines of legalism the next thing you know you are completely surrounded, or worse you become hypocritical (you draw heavy lines in some areas and not others--and the lines don't all get drawn from the same argument in your "laws").
Much like watching TV shows, going to movies, watching the news, listening to music, or wearing stylish clothing, there are things we do in the world that could be viewed as, "worldly." Though clearly not "religious" or "Godly," these things are obviously not inherently evil or bad. I believe that God gave humans the creativity and intelligence to develop everything from technology to medications, and that usage of those innovations is many times a huge blessing and gift from God. But as Christians, we are taught in God's Word to be in the world and not of the world (John 17:14-16; Romans 12:2). This is where the grey areas come into play. As Paul instructs us in 1 Corinthians 10:23, "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify." In other words, there are some daily living issues that aren't inherently evil or sinful, but some of them may not bring anything good to your life or help build-up your life, either. Paul goes on about this in further detail in Romans 14 when he explains that each person in the faith will have different personal convictions in these "grey" areas, based upon their own strengths and weaknesses, and that it is okay to agree to disagree on these matters. It is up to everyone to decide privately for themselves in faith in the Lord.
When we try to put laws or restrictions on each other in these grey areas, we are instigating our own code of do's and don'ts (creating laws), and essentially "playing God" to other believers. This is legalism--it is a highly religious, pious belief that whatever I deduce as sin, is sinful for everyone. But God's Word says that there are some sins clearly defined as sin by Him, and some that are not (Romans 14). According to this passage, all believers in the body of Christ (the church), must decide for themselves in these undefined areas--they must decide whether they feel they are sinless and "free" to partake of that particular area or not.
One of the grey areas that I didn't begin to view as "grey" until about 10 years ago is drinking. Growing up being told in church (and by other legalistic believers) that any consumption of alcohol was sinful, it was a hard area for me to rethink. I believed (and still do) that alcohol is one of the biggest pitfalls into which the enemy lures people, and having come from a family with some struggles in this area, I found it easier and better to abstain, especially while having my young, impressionable daughter living under my roof for so many years. I not only feared that I might possess the hereditary predisposition to have issues with alcohol, but I also wanted to be a good example to my daughter in case she would happen to have that gene. But I have heard leaders in the church twist God's Word to suit their personal position on drinking by taking Scripture out of context to make drinking an actual "sin." The verses in the Bible that speak to "strong drink" or alcohol, all state clearly that drunkenness is the sin, not drinking. They warn against strong drink, but you will not find a passage that says, "Thou shalt not drink any strong drink." Even Jesus turned water into wine to help some friends who had run out at their wedding celebration. If drinking wine was a sin, then Jesus, who was perfect and sinless, wouldn't have obliged and worked a miracle to make more wine for his friends. We also read about Paul telling Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach issues (1 Timothy 5:23). So we clearly see that drinking is not sinful when done so with caution and respectful reasoning. This is true for a lot of things in life--moderation and careful consideration are essential (gluttony can also cause severe health issues, and that doesn't make food inherently evil).
There are not only many grey issues in the Christian walk, but these matters also create many varying levels of conviction from believer to believer. Some Christians feel that attending R-rated movies is where they draw the line--period. Others may feel that the rating isn't the defining line for them. They may base their sinless freedom on seeing an R-rated film by the type of film it is--if it is an Oscar-nominated film with an excellent plot and deeper contextual meaning, they may feel completely non-convicted about seeing it. God may convict one person that a grey area would be bad or sinful for them and NOT convict another believer in the same area. This has to do with personal convictions and individual weakness/strength, not Biblical convictions (Biblical ones are true for everyone--they deal with clearly stated sin issues in the Word). I have a friend whose husband does not go to public swimming pools because he is personally such an overly visual guy, that he finds himself constantly sinning mentally while he is there. So it is better for him to not even go to the pool. How sad it would be if he transferred his own personal conviction and need to abstain from the pool onto my husband and ruined my husband's God-given freedom to go swim some laps. We all have different weaknesses and strengths, and God deals with us each accordingly.
Pastor Jim, our current head pastor, preached a sermon series 12-13 years ago on legalism using Romans 14. He coined these different convictions as, "per-cos" and "Bib-cos" (personal convictions and Biblical convictions). We were new to this particular church when he preached this series, and I recall being shocked and horrified at the things he was stating because they were in such stark contrast to the things I had been taught my whole life. (But I also recall being unable to find Scripture to support my long-held positions on these grey matters). I went so far as to set up an appointment to speak directly with him about this sermon topic. Upon that meeting, Pastor Jim graciously explained further the notion of personal vs. Biblical convictions, based on Romans 14. It made sense, but I still had some thinking to do in my processing of it all (it takes time to undo years of wrong information). I had gone into his office quite upset and convinced that I was going to disprove his opinion, and he kindly shared truth with me and just let it marinate. This spoke volumes to me--Pastor Jim understood not only from where I was coming, but He knew the Truth of the Word would eventually reign supreme. He knew I would either have to accept that Truth or not (and he wasn't going to get all riled up about it--he knew God was in control of my thoughts and beliefs). He didn't try to "win" and he didn't attack me for my incorrect Bible applications and previously held staunch beliefs. The sensitive, honest attitude that he exhibited was very refreshing to me--quite different than the direct, harsh, "do or die" attitudes I had so often seen in legalistic believers during my formative and earlier young adult years.
Honestly, and at the risk of offending someone, I am happy that God has blurred some of the ridiculous legalistic lines that I had drawn around myself for so many years. It is truly freeing to see that so much of which we yell "foul" is just senseless. I do fully realize that perhaps God has blurred some of my legalistic lines because I have spent 33 years being a Christian, and am now in a season of life where I have the luxury to not need to be quite so rigid (I do not have children in my home watching my every move for whom I need to be extra cautious). When we are responsible for youngsters, we need lots of lines and lots of guarded living (the world will already blur many lines for them in their life, so we have to pick our battles and lean on God's understanding for where to place those lines).
So I see now that the enemy uses legalism to keep unbelievers from the truth (they view Christianity as, "no fun" and, "too strict or rigid," and they just avoid everything to do with God and His Truth due to that). I believe the enemy also uses legalism to keep churches from grace and from growth. He enhances a "God-complex" in people who are supposed to be more concerned with love and grace than they are about laying down their own law and shaming their fellow believers. When this occurs, churches not only suffer a huge void of grace, but they can actually become a "dead" church due to it. I have also seen first-hand how legalism destroys communication and honesty in a church body. When people feel they will be ridiculed or judged for their personal convictions (or lack thereof), they hide things from their brothers and sisters in Christ which they shouldn't have to hide. My mother used to feel she had to hide that we were avid card players and that we had a devout love of all kinds of music in our family. This "hiding" of things that aren't inherently sinful actually creates a feeling of sinfulness in the people partaking of them, even if they didn't have a conviction about originally. It is a tangled web of hypocrisy and dishonesty spun by the legalists in the church for power and self-gain, and it spins out of control until people get hurt. I have spent years trying to mentally "undo" this web in my own mind.
Balance and much prayer are required in not only committing ourselves to a life not conformed by the patterns of this world (Romans 12:2), but also a life not founded on piety and graceless finger-pointing. Romans 14:13 states, "Therefore let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block OR obstacle in the way of a brother or sister." We see here that we are not to be so loose in our "freedoms in Christ" that we drag other, weaker believers down the primrose path to things that would be sinful for them. But we are also not to be so pious, self-righteous and hypocritical that we concern ourselves with condemning our fellow believers for things about which they have been given different personal convictions and are not sinful of which to partake. I think Romans 14:19 & 22 sum it up nicely: "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves."