There are two extremes that saints can fall prey to in their walk with the Lord: legalism or license. Both are killers to our witness and our fellowship with Jesus.
It seems like the overall condition of the church flits between those two sides of the pendulum. One occurs in reaction - or should I say overreaction - to the other. It’s a fine line to walk in the balance of the two.
Back in the 1970s/1980s, what was known as the Discipleship movement became popular. Those who recognized its error termed it Shepherding - and rightly so. Shepherding groups sprang up all over the place, led by strong oppressive leaders who demanded submission of the sheep to the control of the shepherd and his elders.
Groups that used this heavy-handed legalistic rule over the people included groups such as The Walk, The Church of Bible Understanding,The Boston Church of Christ, and Faith Tabernacle, among many others. However, the origin of the Shepherding Movement falls upon what was known as the “Florida Five,” of whom were Derek Prince, Bob Mumford, Don Basham, Charles Simpson, and Ern Baxter. Mumford and Baxter reportedly denounced their involvement years later, but the toll their teachings took upon the church was immeasurable.
The book, Shepherds & Sheep: A Biblical View of Leading & Following, came out in 1983 to equip the saints with the biblical view of leadership and expose the errors of shepherding. Written by Jerram Barrs, a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary and co-director of L’Abri Fellowship in England, it remains today the best tool to use when confronting legalistic leaders.
Barrs defines legalism on page 21 as: “the establishment of a rigid set of evangelical dos and don’ts. On the one hand are the don’ts: you must not drink, smoke, dance, go to movies, play cards...On the other hand are the dos: you must wear particular kinds of dress, attend certain meetings, give the outward appearance of spirituality. The problem here is that we can become genuinely confused about our spirituality: we may feel that because we are fulfilling these regulations we are truly spiritual. This, however, is the very mistake the Pharisees made.”
The Shepherding movement took things even further. Some Shepherding groups told people who to marry; when to fast; to break ties with unsaved family; not to carry insurance (lack of faith); and not to use modern medicine. The laity were told they had to have a spiritual “covering” consisting of an elder to whom they would submit all major decisions in their life.
In reaction to such legalist extremes, the notion of license came into popularity. Also called “cheap grace,” this idea says that since there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, it doesn’t matter how you live as long as you believe in Jesus. The “you can do all things” verse was taken to mean you could “sin all the more that grace may abound.”
The license crowd loves the teachings of people like Robert Schuler who popularized the “gospel of self-esteem” that teaches we should stop preaching against sin but to build up people’s self-esteem. When the Crystal Cathedral sings “Amazing Grace,” they change the word “wretch” to “soul” so as not to offend anyone.
Joel Osteen is the pastor of the biggest church in America because “sin” isn’t even in his vocabulary. He teaches sinner and saint alike how to manipulate principals to be the best and achieve your dreams to become a better you.
Sadly, the predominant view in the visible church today is license. Tolerance of sin and sinful lifestyles is seen as showing grace. Those who preach obedience to Christ are now falsely tagged “legalists.”
A case in point: At a church I used to attend, I sat next to a young lady at the church potluck who I had seen many times but had never met. She began venting against our pastor. She was angry at him because he refused to perform her wedding ceremony because she wanted to marry an unbeliever she was shacking up with and with whom she had a baby. I of course sided with the pastor much to her chagrin. But I had to wonder what she was doing at our church when she was flagrantly living in open sin.
The Bible tell us - “not to keep company with sexually immoral people” [1 Cor 5:9]. And to remove such people from the church to give them space for repentance. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” [2 Cor 5:12-13].
Such admonitions fall on deaf ears today as the goats appear to be at the helm of most pulpits in America. The most popular teachers are the ones who wink at sin or certainly don’t bring the subject of sin up in their messages. The day of the holiness preachers appears to be over, now that the last of that dying breed, David Wilkerson, has gone on to glory.
We need to strike the right balance in our church fellowships today, so that we don’t fall into either error of license or legalism. We need to be accountable to one another, confess our faults one to another, bear up one another’s burdens and not be high-minded one against another. We need to hear messages that encourage us to obey Christ and forsake sin, while at the same time not pay attention to messages that take away our freedom in Christ to make our own decisions in life as the Spirit leads us.
Walk the line!