Legalism's Attack on Unity - A Discussion on Essentials (Part Four)

The more legalistic we get, the more divided we become.  Look at the remnants of the Restoration Movement, that’s the movement our churches were birthed out of in the 1800s.  We started as a unity movement trying to be like the early church.  It was our goal to restore that church we see in the New Testament, something we still have a lot of room to work on.  Our movement allowed anyone from any denomination to join around the Lord’s table as brothers and sisters for the Lord’s Supper.  We accepted anyone, no matter what denomination they were part of, as brothers or sisters in Christ if they claimed to be His follower and showed fruit, and we did not expect them to leave the denomination they were part of but to remain part of that group and to help the churches they were involved in to put an emphasis on studying Scripture.

Now, we, a mockery of unity, have three major strands, the Disciples, us as the independent Churches of Christ/Christian Church, and the non-instrumental Church of Christ, as well as many minor strands.  As legalism over certain pet doctrines solidified over the years, sectarianism crept in, and people refused to accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ over issues such as musical instruments, baptism, supporting missionaries more centrally, local autonomy, drinking, and the list goes on and on to the shame of us and the disgrace of Jesus.  Gandhi as an outside observer of Christianity had it right, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” 

In the more legalistic settings, people seem to fake that they believe certain things or hide their “inappropriate” behaviors because they want to be accepted by the legalistic leader or group.  Once we create an environment where people have to fake and hide things, which a broad list of essentials inevitably fosters, then we cannot have true fellowship with one another.  I once went to a church where the official stance of the church was that people in their church should not drink.  What happened?  Most of the people hid that they drank.  This unscriptural teaching on drinking led to falsehood.  Fellowship - real, authentic community in Christ - becomes impossible in an environment where people are fake, secretive, and deceptive. 

When we stray from being people of love into people of legalism - I’ve seen this with most legalistic churches - we stop loving people, we stop meeting their needs, and we just worry about the truth.  But a truth that does not spur us toward love is not the truth of Jesus.  And legalism causes us to refuse to love others with people who are different than us.  We should never refuse to do loving actions with someone because they believe differently than us.  If we are loving others, then we should look at the opportunity to show God’s love no matter how that opportunity presents itself.  For so long, the church would not love unless the love was done in a way that directly presented a verbal gospel rather than just loving people.  If the reason we are loving others is to get them to believe what we believe, then our love is not sincere and it is just a form of manipulation.  Our heart must be as pure as we can get it to be in order for our love to be genuine, as Scripture states our love should be (Romans 12:9, 2 Corinthians 6:6)

James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” [James 1:26-27 (ESV)].

I know “religion” has become a dirty word in today’s world.  But if this is religion – visiting orphans and helping orphans while being in the word yet remaining unstained from it, then I want to be religious.  Pure and undefiled religion.  It’s the type of church we need to be.  If we are not people who take care of orphans and widows and remain unstained from the world – if we think that talking about Jesus is enough, then we are deceiving ourselves like James warned and are far from being the people God wants us to be. 

If we believe in a minimal set of essentials in order to foster unity and freedom in Christ, then let us refuse the ensnarement of legalism, the desire to broaden the essentials to exclude others, and our tendency to look down on others to puff ourselves up.  Instead, may we be servants like Jesus was.  May we focus on the essentials of loving God, loving neighbors, loving one another, developing the fruit of the Spirit in our life, and continue to proclaim that Jesus is Lord.  In that we will find unity and freedom in Christ.