Walking the Line: Biblical vs. Legalistic

cslewishumilityIn the Christian Churches (Restoration Movement) we have long prided ourselves on our biblical stances. We are People of the Book who seek authority and guidance from the pages of Scripture. We, above all others, are quick to cite a verse to answer a question or prove a point. This is the church I grew up in, and it is where I still live. I am a person of the Book, and I believe in the authority of the Bible for guidance in my life and in my church.

Yet, many times I have seen this biblical stance slip into an intolerant legalism. (A better term for this might be “legalistic orthodoxy.”) After all, if I believe I am right and have Scripture on my side, why should I be tolerant of dissenting viewpoints? BTW, this is not a fight with non-Christians. Our polemical use of Scripture is almost always aimed at other Christians.

My teacher, Grant Osborne, taught us that a bedrock principle of biblical interpretation must be what he called a “hermeneutics of humility.” We seek to understand the Bible as fallible humans, people locked in our own culture and biases. Can we ever be sure we are not scouring Scripture to find the answers we want to find? Don’t we read with our opinions already formed, often just looking for reinforcement? I know I do this. Sometimes I run into a Scripture passage that doesn’t fit my theological grid or agenda, and I am stumped. If I am wise, these are the times I hear Dr. Osborne’s voice reminding us to slow down and not be overconfident. I must lay down my theological swords, holster my doctrinal guns, and unplug my stubborn ears. Even at my age, Scripture still has a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn.

The worst thing I can do, I think, is to hop from one legalism to another legalism. I trade one set of proof texts for another. I move from one dogmatic universe to a parallel but equally dogmatic universe. I want to be a person of the Book, but even more than this I want to be a man of God who listens and follows rather than judges and condemns. May God help us shed unhelpful and hurtful legalism. It divides Christ’s church and breaks God’s heart.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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12 thoughts on “Walking the Line: Biblical vs. Legalistic

  1. “The worst thing I can do, I think, is to hop from one legalism to another legalism.” – Right on. I keep having to remind myself that people with much more conservative or legalistic perspectives than my own also are children of God and have things to teach me. We’re parts of the same body who need to learn to work together and appreciate one another’s gifts and perspectives.

  2. This made me smile today Mark, because just this morning I was reading the book of Acts and came across a phrase in a text that is, at least on the surface, at odds with my theological perspective. My first thought was to go by it and not deal with it… pretend in some way that I hadn’t read it. Then it stopped me… these are the texts that I need to deal with more thoughtfully and with more humility. I highlighted it, wrote a couple questions to myself in the margins, and determined to take another, new, look at it.

  3. I don’t know if it was intended or not, but I love the irony of your opening sentence about how we “pride” ourselves on our biblical stances. In writing about this very topic, Alexander Campbell said, “Receding from pride, covetousness, and false ambition; from love of the world; and in coming within that circle, the circumference of which is unfeigned humility, and the center of which is God himself, – the voice of God is distinctly heard and clearly understood. All within this circle are taught by God; all without it are under the influence of the wicked one, for God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
    Christianity Restored, Ch. 1 Principles of Interpretation

  4. When I read “hermeneutic of humility” my mind went to directly to Paul’s words…

    Ephesians 4:1-3 (ESV)
    “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

    From here forward I suspect when I read the text I’ll think “hermeneutic of humility.”
    Thanks…

  5. Mark, you can not know how timely this is for me. The pastor of the church we are attending has rocked my spiritual world by getting down to the heart of exactly what you are talking about. I never really thought of myself as legalistic, or particularly hard line, but I have had to rethink my theological base line. It has not been an easy road. I would hope that many more leaders in the church today would re-examine what they speak, before they speak, and not just spout rhetoric that they have heard over the years and never questioned. God gave us a mind to use. Thank you for opening mine just a little wider…..

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