When Legalism Masquerades as Holiness

When legalism masquerades as holiness we run into all sorts of ugliness.

A while ago Scot McKnight wrote an excellent series on how the Pharisees had built ‘fences’ around the law (ie created their own rules) to prevent people from even getting close to transgressing, but in the process they created bondage and a system that actually abused people.

So when Jesus says this “How terrible also for you teachers of the Law! You put onto people’s backs loads which are hard to carry, but you yourselves will not stretch out a finger to help them carry those loads. (Luke 11:46) he is not referring to God’s law but to the rules created by them to allow them to stay in control.

Scot goes on to write:

Jesus’ harshest demands were reserved for Pharisees who had learned to construct fences around the Torah and who rendered judgment on others by those fences. They thought their fences were protecting people from breaking Torah; Jesus thought their fences were (1) boundary marking and (2) preventing people from living in the freedom of God and (3) a failure to trust the sufficiency of Torah/Bible and (4) they were leading others astray. Matthew 23.

Zealotry is to construct rules beyond the Bible and, in so doing, to consider oneself immune from criticism because of radical commitment. What we have learned is that such a radical commitment is actually a fearful commitment rather than a life of freedom. common reactions to crestor

That’s a powerful statement – What we have learned is that such a radical commitment is actually a fearful commitment rather than a life of freedom

download thick as thieves divx

care bears movie ii a new generation download


I remember growing up in a church where to become a member you had to agree not to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. I was 18 at the time and didn’t smoke or drink so for me it felt like a non-issue. I hadn’t given the matter serious thought.

However I remember attending several church meetings where the middle aged men got into serious dispute with the older powerbrokers of the church. For as long as anyone could remember this was a ‘rule of membership’ for Scarborough Baptist Church, but now these men – who were godly people – were challenging the ‘fences’ that had been imposed. To the best of my knowledge none of them drank alcohol or smoked tobacco, but they were concerned for the way legalism was infecting the church and that it was easier to get into the kingdom of God than into our own church membership. They saw a bunch of pharisees making fences and living in fear and they refused to look away and keep quiet.

It wasn’t a pretty battle and we were made to think all sorts of terrible things about the condition of these mens souls and their own walk with God, but as an 18 year old who was in many ways an onlooker, I was struck by the importance of knowing what to fight for. I was also struck by how slanderous a church community could be and how evil people’s behaviour could become when their security was threatened.

In the end the ‘freedom fighters’ won the day (officially), but the attitudes remained and it took a long time for real change to occur.

Of course there are similar ‘freedom’ issues around in church at the moment and there is also a similar need for people to advocate listening to the Holy Spirit rather than the most conservative believer.

However if you do be ready, for the gloves will come off and the beast will bare its teeth… The only thing worse than fighting over ‘fences’ is living within them because of cowardice.

13 thoughts on “When Legalism Masquerades as Holiness

  1. that is a really interesting post. I have been engaged in my fair share of church conflict, but have not observed it in the sense of older church goers going at it with younger ones….normally it has involved pastors at some level.

    Hamo, what do you think the issues of potential conflict are that churches are dealing with these days?

  2. Hi Mark – I think its the areas where freedom may be expressed or questioned and I think it varies from church to church.

    Conservative churches will have more fences and more progressive churches will have fewer fences – but I think we naturally build fences and find it hard not to.

    Anywhere you see pharisaism at work is where ‘fences’ are being used to ensure people don’t stray.

  3. Great story about the Scarbs meeting – I admire people who will fight on behalf of unknown others (ie, a principle) rather than for their own gain.

  4. Hamo,

    To me one of the things I have enjoyed about following your blogg is that I have often been challenged to reassess the things that I believe in and have a look at their basis. I have found some to be just habits with no real value and no scriptural basis and others are sound. I believe it has provoked my faith to have less froth and bubble and much more substance, at least I hope so. I am truly grateful to you for this.

    My default character is pretty legalistic and I wince at the pain this must have caused others. I would have stoned the adulteress and been OK with it, but Jesus forgave her and said “sin no more”. This is truly profound example of what our behavior should be.

    Many of us in the church need to have a good long look in the mirror and pieces like this one you have just written really provoke that sort of reflection.

    thanks again


  5. A powerful post, especially today when so many of fearful of life outside the fences. Good people many of them, just terrified of those who dare to think differently and perhaps cut a hole in that fence. Who knows what might sneak in, or out.

  6. Hamo,

    Please tell me that the advertisement on teh riught of your homepage for ‘sexy Christian singles’ is a piss-take? Please tell me that. Please, please, please…

    Or are you making money from the dark side?


  7. Yeah, Hamo, I’ve seen the link to ‘singles’ many times…does it know something about me or something!

    Most times I view your blog it shows….hmmm

  8. Hi Hamo,

    Good post, and the more and more I get into Scripture, the more convicted I am about how I put up my own fences for myself and for the others to act in a ‘Christian’ way. It really reveals how big I/we can be on outside appearances rather than true heart transformation. That’s pretty scary stuff!

    The other thing it made me consider was the role of questioning in Church and the ways of postmodern culture. For those older ones who fought for the non-alcohol and tobacco rules, they probably felt somewhat offended for the questioning of their rule. Yet, in the post-modern culture, we are taught to really deconstruct and question everything – something which a lot of Christians still seem to have trouble with at some level. Could it be that our culture has something to teach us about following Jesus – such as questioning tradition for tradition’s sake as Jesus did? Just a thought…



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *