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The Divine Hermeneutic

Legalism
Binding Where God Has Not
(A Departure from the Divine Hermeneutics)
Donnie Rader


Proper hermeneutics demands respect for the authority of the word of God. Legalism, on the other hand, is a departure from the divine hermeneutics that really doesn't respect the authority of the word.

Not all who use the term legalism understand what it is. Neither is everyone who is charged with being a legalist guilty. It is true, however, that legalism is real and alive. It was a problem in the first century and is still a problem today.

What is Legalism?

Many times when we contend for a "thus saith the Lord", we are charged with being legalists. So, let's first clarify what legalism is not:

  1. It is not making a plea for Bible authority. All that we do in word or in deed is to be in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17). To do something in the name of another is to do so by his authority (cf. Acts 4:7). Thus, Paul's instructions of Colossians 3:17 demands that we make such a plea for Bible authority.

  2. It is not an effort to be obedient. Striving to obey the Lord and demand that others do so as well, is not legalism for God demands that we obey him. Eternal salvation is offered to those that obey (Hebrews 5:8-9; Matthew 7:21). Only those that obey are purified (1 Peter 1:22). Everlasting destruction is promised to those that obey not the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).

  3. It is not a demand to careful in following the Scriptures. All too often we are accused of being too careful in our effort to follow God's instructions and are thus called legalists. However, Paul said that the Christian should walk "circumspectly" or "carefully" (Ephesians 5:15).

  4. It is not following law. Some would have us believe that we are not under any kind of law. Thus, we are told that those who talk about what the law of God is, are legalists. If we are not under law, there is no such thing as sin, since sin is a transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). The point John is making in 1 John 3:4 is that the child of God has a law by which he lives. Paul tells us that we should fulfill the law (Galatians 6:2). James tells us that we are under the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25).

If these four things are what legalism is, then I must plead guilty to be a legalist.

What then is legalism? It is making laws or regulations where God made none. It is insisting that others follow your conscience or scruples.

The Problem With Legalism

When we make requirements where God has made none, we have a basic problem with respecting the authority of God.

  1. It disregards the authority of the word of God. In Acts 15, when the brethren were discussing whether circumcision should be required of the Gentiles, appeals were to the authority of the word of God. Please notice the contrast in the Jewish teachers who were binding where God had not (requiring circumcision of the Gentiles) and the apostles' appeal to the authority of God. The apostles presented three principles: (1) Necessary inference (vv. 7-11). Peter argued from the case of Cornelius that the Holy Spirit falling on that household necessarily infers that the Gentiles can be saved without being circumcised. (2) Approved example (v. 12). Paul and Barnabas reasoned that their work among the Gentiles is an example that they need not be circumcised. Furthermore, their example is approved of God as evidence by the miracles they worked. (3) Command or direct statement (vv. 13-21). James appealed to a direct statement from the book of Amos (9:11-12) that stated that the Gentile would be saved.

    In contrast to Acts 15, legalism disregards the authority of the word by binding what cannot be bound by command, example or necessary inference.

  2. It makes laws where God made none. The apostles were instructed that what they would teach by inspiration would be what God had already bound in heaven (Matthew 19:19; 18:18). In other words, they could only bind what God had bound. On the other hand, legalism binds where God has not bound. We must only speak what is found in the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11).

  3. It disregards the Bible as a sufficient guide. The Scriptures are complete and are sufficient "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). To bind anything additional to what God has bound in his word is to deny the sufficiency of the Bible.

  4. It adds to the word. Moses warned the children of Israel saying, "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2). Likewise a warning is recorded by John, "For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Revelation 22:18-19). When we enforce regulations that God has not given, we are adding to the word of God.

The Pharisees: An Example of Legalism

  1. The Pharisees bound their own restrictions as law. The Mishna contained many rabbinical interpretations of and additions to the law that God gave through Moses. The Pharisees condemned the disciples for eating with unwashed hands (Matthew 15:1-9). The law did not make such a requirement, but it was strictly enforced by the Jews. In fact, they required more than just a simple washing of the hands. One must follow the specified ritual for cleansing.

    The Pharisees likewise had greater restrictions for the Sabbath than God had. Again, the disciples were condemned for plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:24-28). Also, Jesus was targeted for healing on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11; cf. Matthew 12:1-2; 9-14).

  2. The real problem was that they didn't respect God's law. It was not that the Pharisees were trying to follow the law of God too close, but that they didn't follow it close enough. Don't forget that they neglected the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). They were hypocrites (Matthew 23:3-4; Luke 11:47-48). That lack of respect for God's law caused them to both take away from and add to the law.

Application Today

Many examples of adding to God's law (making restrictions or requirements where God made none) can be given. It would not be fair to say that all of these examples given are examples of people who do not have any respect for the word of God. In some of these cases it may be a matter of not knowing what God has required (or authorized) and what he has not.

  1. No Bible classes. Some brethren have argued that we cannot separate into various classes. There must have been some dividing into various groups or classes on the day of Pentecost for the text says, "And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, 'Look, are not all these who speak Galileans?'" (Acts 2:6-7, emphasis mine, DVR). Obviously more than just Peter was speaking. They either were divided into classes or there was mass confusion (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:33).

  2. No women teachers. A few brethren have contended that we cannot have women teach classes of children or women. Yet, Paul told Timothy, "And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men (Greek: anthropos which is the word for mankind, not aner which is males- DVR) who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). Older women are to teach the younger women (Titus 2).

  3. Must use only one container for the Lord's Supper. No Bible principle is violated by the use of a plurality of communion cups any more than the use of a plate for the unleavened bread. Both are aids to carrying out the command to eat the Lord's Supper. Furthermore, the text uses a figure of speech called metonomy (the container mentioned for the contents) when referring to the fruit of the vine. For example, Paul records the Lord's words saying, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). Thus, to require that only one container be used is making restrictions where God made none.

  4. Can't use a pitch pipe. Some brethren have objected to the use of a pitch pipe thinking, perhaps, that it was like using instrumental music. Those who make this objection fail to understand that difference in an aid and an addition to the word. An addition involves another element being added to the word. When an aid is used, one is doing nothing more than what God says. When a pitch pipe or tuning fork is used, one is doing nothing more than what God said, which is sing (Ephesians 5:19). If one forbids a pitch pipe he is making a restriction God did not make. To forbid one aid would require consistency and forbid other aids like, song books, lights, pews, and microphones.

  5. Must say a formula when baptizing. The Oneness Pentecostals have argued that a formula of words ("in the name of Jesus") must be uttered when one is being baptized. Some brethren, while rejecting the doctrine of the United Pentecostal Church, think that some formula of words must be stated over the one being baptized. Both of the above fail to understand what is meant by doing something in the name of another. To function in the name of someone means to function by his authority (cf. Acts 4:7). Thus, to baptized in the name of Jesus simply means to baptized by his authority. In fact, all that we do is to be in the name of Christ (Colossians 3:17). That doesn't mean that I am to utter a formula of words with every thing I do. It simply means I am to function by the authority of Christ. To require a baptismal formula is to bind where God has not.

  6. Only use the KJV of the Bible. The King James Version is certainly a good translation. But there are other translations of the Bible both before 1611 and since that time. The ASV and NKJV are certainly reliable. That is not to say that all translations are. They are not. However, some brethren have argued that the KJV is the only reliable translation. I had one brother who so argued to tell me that if he had lived prior to 1611, he would have done without a Bible. Those who so argue fail to realize a couple of things. (1) The KJV they use today is not a 1611 edition, but is a copy of several revisions of the 1611 translation. (2) Proper translation gives to us in our language what the original says. For example when Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, he was not quoting the Hebrew Bible, but from the Septuagint (LXX) translation (a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek). To require one particular translation to the exclusion of any other, is to require what God has not.

  7. A woman can't cut her hair. Some brethren contend that a woman cannot cut her hair. However, there is no such restriction in the Bible. Paul does state that the woman's hair is a covering (1 Corinthians 11:15), but that does not say she can never cut her hair at all. Again, this is a restriction God did not make.

  8. No celebration of Christmas. Most who read this article would agree that we cannot participate in any religious celebration of Christmas. But, some would tell us that we cannot celebrated in a non-religious way (exchanging presents, eating dinner, decorating with a tree and lights, etc.). Such an observance of Christmas is no different than an observance of Thanksgiving or the 4th of July.

  9. No Bible class literature. Some brethren have contended that we cannot use Bible class literature or other printed material. Again, as with the pitch pipe, they fail to distinguish between an aid and an addition. If the class workbooks are used as a creed or some inspired book of God, then we have an addition to the word. However, the printed comments and questions are no different that someone's oral comments and questions. If one is a creed, then so is the other.

  10. Must have running water to baptize. A few have contended that for baptism to be Scriptural, it must be in running water. Thus, one baptized in a baptistry would not be Scripturally baptized. There is no passage that required running water. If so, one baptized in a lake or pond would not have scriptural baptism. Again, we have a requirement that God did not make.

  11. Must use "Thee" and "Thou" when referring to God. A few brethren have contended that any use of "you" and "your" is not respectful to God, since the Bible uses "Thee" and "Thou". This is based upon their use of the KJV (old English) translation. If this contention has any merit would it not demand we go back to the Greek and use the exact word the text uses. To refer to God with "You" and "Your" does not show any disrespect any more than using "Thee" and "Thou" instead of the original Greek words. To require old English terms is making a requirement that is not found in the Bible.

  12. No located preacher. A number of brethren have contended that it is unscriptural for a preacher to locate and work with a congregation on a regular basis. The idea is that one cannot preach to the church, but the gospel is to be preached to the lost. First, Paul was located at Ephesus and worked with the church there for three years (Acts 20:31). The same apostle thought that the could preach the gospel to the saints at Rome (Romans 1:15).

Conclusion

As "conservative" as these points may seem, when we bind where God has not, we are not truly respecting the authority of the word. No one objects to anyone practicing what their personal conviction demands. It is another matter to bind that on others as a matter of faith. The brother who could not eat meats was not condemned for not eating meats. He was merely told to keep that to himself and before God (Romans 14:22).

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