Freed to live through the death of another.

Tag: Legalism

Reducing to One Practice

I am so thankful for churches like Covenant Life Church who are faithfully teaching the gospel, not only as the way to be saved, but also as the foundation for living in the world here and now. They do not only teach by words, but by the actions of the leaders, what it means to continually be challenged and changed by the Spirit of God as he works through the word of God to bring the gospel to bear on our lives in this fallen world.

At a recent members’ meeting, Josh Harris, the lead pastor, shared some areas with the church where God has been calling the leaders to repentance and to change — and to lead in the changing of the church culture. Josh walks a fine line of appreciating God’s grace and faithfulness to them through their history, but also acknowledging where patterns have emerged that have become counter-productive to gospel-living and gospel-fellowship.

You can read the whole statement he made to the church here.

In particular, I found this section compelling, because it puts into words what I’ve seen in so many churches (not just Covenant Life), but haven’t been able to express nearly so well. Here is their confession, with an explanation of how they’re striving to ‘reduce to practice’ without ‘reducing to one practice.’

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Reducing To One Practice

For several years now C.J. Mahaney, who was one of the founding pastors of Covenant Life and now serves as president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, has been leading the pastors of Sovereign Grace to recognize the difference between principle and practice. A principle is a clear teaching or imperative from God’s Word. A practice is a specific action or decision that seeks to apply a principle.

So for example, Scripture clearly teaches that husbands should love and cherish their wives (Eph. 5).

But how two Christian husbands put this same principle into practice can differ. One Christian can apply this principle by taking his wife out to dinner every Wednesday. But another husband might find time to communicate with and express affection for his wife with a walk around the neighborhood each night. They’re both honoring a biblical principle, but their practice is different.

One of the historic strengths of Covenant Life has been in putting principles into practice. We want to be, as James 1:22 says, not just hearers of the Word, but doers of the Word. May this never change! May we be a church community that takes God’s Word seriously and applies it to our lives.

Having said this, a strength in application can also be a weakness if we’re not careful. Here’s what I mean: if we elevate a single practice and invest it with the authority of biblical principle, we can place a rule or burden on people that isn’t actually commanded in God’s Word. For example, it wouldn’t be helpful if we said that the Bible teaches that couples need to go on a date every Wednesday. It’s a fine idea, but it’s not a scriptural command.

C.J. shared something with me recently that turned the light on for me. He quoted J.I. Packer who wrote that the Puritans were known for their ability to “reduce to practice”—in other words, they took biblical principles and reduced them to specific choices and decisions in their lives. This is a good thing. God’s Word, handled rightly, leads to humble and skillful application.

But C.J. pointed out that there can be a problem when we “reduce to only one practice”—and give the impression that there is only one godly way to honor a given principle.

Here are a few categories that members of the church have shared with us where they felt a single practice was over-emphasized in an unhelpful way:

  • Dating and courtship
  • Going away to college
  • Girls and college
  • Women’s Bible studies
  • Women working outside the home

In each of these areas Christians can have differing practices and yet honor biblical principles. But in various ways I think we “reduced to only one practice,” and at times that brought the unintended consequence of people feeling the pressure that there was only one truly godly way to do things.

So for example, to honor biblical principles of purity, you had to practice courtship according to ideas in my books. Or to love the local church you shouldn’t go away to college but stay local. Or to value the leadership and teaching of the pastors, you shouldn’t attend outside Bible studies. Or to practice biblical femininity, you shouldn’t pursue higher education or work outside the home.

All this is a disservice to you for several reasons. First, because it doesn’t teach you to grapple with God’s Word for yourself. We want you to study God’s Word yourself, see the biblical principles clearly, and put them into practice based on a clear conviction, not the conviction of someone else.

This is also a problem because it can lead to a legalistic environment where some people are more concerned with what other people practice than with the sufficiency of God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Reducing to only one practice has also resulted in people feeling judged by others for not having the same practice.

One of the realizations we’re coming to as pastors is that we can do a better job in teaching the principle of Christian liberty taught in passages like Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8-9. The principle of Christian liberty is that as followers of Christ we have freedom to make decisions about matters that are not revealed or mandated in Scripture without fear of sinning against God.

We can do a better job of teaching that one person’s or one pastor’s practice of wisdom is not God’s law and shouldn’t bind another person’s conscience.

We all need to wrestle with questions of wisdom. We all need to humbly seek to practice biblical principles and then discuss our differences with each other charitably and humbly. But we cannot as a church make everyone adopt the same practice. No matter how wise we think our practice might be, we can’t invest it with the authority of God’s Word.

We want to do a better job of teaching the principles of God’s Word and encouraging you as individuals and families to apply the Word as you see fit before the Lord. We still want to encourage each other to put God’s truth into practice. But we also want to emphasize the freedom we have as individuals and families to have different practices of the very same principle. We want to cultivate an even greater culture of grace even as we strive for holiness.

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Amen! And may God make Grace Fellowship Church such a church, which seeks to be practical, but not legalistic, led by leaders who are humble enough to admit their mistakes and strive to do better for the sake of the kingdom!

From Legalism to Licentiousness (and back again…?)

Over the last few Sunday evenings at Grace Fellowship Church, my friend Paul McDonald has been opening up Galatians 5.13 for us. The verse reads like this:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 

Over the flow of the book of Galatians, the apostle has been arguing that we are now free from bondage to the law and from all forms of legalism. This is fantastic news! For Christians of my generation, I often think that we take our Christian liberty for granted. We haven’t had to fight the battles for allowing women to wear pants, or for instruments other than piano / organ; we haven’t had to deal with the real rabid KJV-only types or the ‘don’t drink, don’t play cards, don’t watch movies’ mentality of the previous generation.

We have our freedom. We enjoy our freedom. But I often think we take it for granted.

The trouble is that when we take our freedom for granted, it’s only a very small step from freedom to licentiousness. Having moved on from legalism, much of our church culture now seems to glory in the fact that there is ‘no law over us,’ so we can do as we wish.

In Galatians 5.13, Paul seems to be saying, ‘Don’t give up your freedom (since that’s why you were set free), but don’t glory in your freedom at the expense of your brothers and sisters.’ Just like everywhere else in the NT, the old, written code is replaced by the law of love.

No one in the early church understood and lived this balance better than the apostle Paul. As he would argue in his epistles to the Corinthians, he had every freedom and every right to take a wife, to eat what he wanted, drink what he wanted, accept payment from them for his ministry, etc. He had those freedoms! But, because he knew that he could better serve his brothers and sisters in love if he denied himself those freedoms, he didn’t take them.

One really practical area where this works itself out in church life (as Paul McDonald taught), is modesty in women’s dress. Just like the apostle Paul, women could rightly declare that they have freedom from outside rules in terms of what they wear. There are no NT regulations on skirt length, sleeve length, how far a blouse should be unbuttoned, etc. But the NT rule that does exist is love and service. Just like the apostle, women who love and seek to serve their brothers (and sisters) in humility, will limit their freedom for the sake of love and wear what is helpful in order to serve.

Of course, once this is understood, this gives opportunity for legalism again, because our flesh hears ‘Serve by dressing modestly’ and applies that to our hearts as ‘Since I (or my wife) dress(es) modestly, we should judge those who don’t.’ We then create a new set of standards to determine what is ‘modest’ and what is not, and measure other people against that criteria. And the circle is then completed: we’ve moved from legalism, to licentiousness, back to legalism again.

So what do we do? Well, first we must work on the log in our own eye. Examining our hearts must take first priority. Do I really believe in Christian freedom? Do I impose standards on people that the Bible doesn’t? Am I looking to things like dress to help ensure that I am justified?

Second, we should seek to apply the love of love. Am I grasping and clinging to my freedom at the expense of hurting brothers and sisters? Is my love of my freedom to dress and act how I wanted prohibiting me from serving? Is giving others occasion for sin (Lk 17.1-2)?

Third, we must remain humble and charitable. Just because the Lord is working on my heart and convicting me of sin in a particular area doesn’t mean that he has to work on other people in the same way at the same time. We need to remember that we didn’t use to know what we’re now convinced of, and apart from a work of grace we never would have known it. We must not use our convictions as a throne from which we can cast judgement on other believers.

Fourth, pray for grace to find the balance. I pray that God would give me grace in every area (not just dress) to find the balance between glorying in my freedom and giving up my freedoms for the sake of my church family. I pray that I would never return either to legalism or licentiousness–but that when I do, that God would forgive me again, just like he always has before.

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