Legalism

Pentecostals are unfairly accused of legalism for things including, but not limited to, different hair length on men and women, abstaining from makeup and jewelry, and not wearing clothes that reveal a lot of skin. These issues are covered in my previous posts called Humility vs. Pride and Hair Length, and also my essay about Corruption in the Church. If a church’s standards are based on Scripture, it’s not legalism. However, it definitely is legalism when those standards are at the pastor's discretion, based on personal preference rather than Scripture. These “standards” are actually “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Col. 2:22). I disregard all doctrine that doesn’t come from the Bible, whether or not it tightens or loosens restrictions. So even if I was given “permission” to do something I know I would enjoy, I still wouldn’t do it if God doesn’t permit it. If you’re in a church where you’re told not to question the pastor, that should be a red flag for you. Pastors should never be given the same authority as God.

I’ve been to various Pentecostal churches, and in none of them was it an issue for men to have facial hair. I’m currently clean-shaven, though I’ve had facial hair most of my adult life and it was just recently that I started shaving it all. I did so for a new look, not because I think God disapproves of it. First off, Leviticus 19:27 was a law for Jewish priests regarding beards and applies to no one today. (How that could be thought of as prohibiting facial hair, anyway, is beyond me.) That said, most Pentecostal men are clean-shaven; many of them do so because they feel it gives them a cleaner appearance. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless they tell other men they must do the same. It’s no different with expecting men to wear a suit. I’ve been in several Pentecostal churches, I always dress casually, and it has never been a problem. That’s exactly how it should be.

Television is something I’ve blogged about and is another issue that can be legalistic. There are some churches where members are forbidden to have a TV at all, but the real issue should be what is watched on TV. Unfortunately, most churchgoers who say they watch only decent programs are either lying or in denial. I’ve also been very disturbed when learning about some of the filth a lot of pastors watch (none of them were Pentecostal, by the way). Not having TV is great advice, but it shouldn’t be treated as doctrine. The same could be said of computers, which some pastors likewise forbid their congregations to have. I’ll readily admit that if my pastor said he forbids me to have a TV or a computer, I would tell him I’m keeping those things. (I’m not saying he would. I’m being hypothetical.) Yes, I would defy the authority of anyone who forbids me to do something that can’t be backed up by Scripture.

While I will never defy God’s laws, I’m under no such obligation to abide by man-made laws. So if I my pastor announced he forbids facial hair, I would grow a beard in protest not because I have a rebellious nature, but because I’m a no-nonsense Christian with a “show me the Scripture” attitude. Human standards should never be put on the same level as Scripture. I happen to know of a preacher I greatly respect who preaches against TV and doesn’t think anyone in his church should have one. But he happens to have a computer with Internet access. Someone once told me he was a hypocrite. I wanted to defend the preacher, but I knew I couldn’t. Everyone in his church could get rid of TV, only to watch the same programs on a computer.

I Timothy 5:17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13 tell Christians to honor and respect their elders in the faith because they look out for us. Based on that, I tell people to listen to the advice of their pastors, who should be entrusted with helping people in spiritual matters. You should listen to what your pastor has to say about something that might cause you to stumble. So if I got an email from a stranger asking for advice on a personal matter, I might tell the person to talk about it with his or her pastor, who would know more about the situation and could give better advice. Still, I don’t like it when the “ask your pastor” line is used for just about everything. What’s appropriate should not vary from one church to the next (we all read the same Bible). If I moved and started going to another church where I was told I can’t have facial hair or a TV, it wouldn’t suddenly become a sin for me because my new pastor forbids it. So I again say I will defy the authority of any mere human who can’t back up a doctrine with Scripture. I don’t care if a doctrine is coming from the super intendent of the United Pentecostal Church International. His job is to help individual churches teach sound doctrine, not to teach something based on his own personal convictions. That’s one of the things that bothers me about Roman Catholicism. Its followers are deciding what they can and cannot do based on what the pope says.

I want to say a bit more about churches where pastors have decided their congregations must give up TV to remain in the church. I think it’s terrible. For one, a lot of the people keep their TVs and lie about getting rid of them. Others do get rid of their TVs, but I would be in neither category. I would keep my TV and honestly tell people I don’t watch inappropriate things on it. Probably 99% of what’s on it is trash, so I’m not saying it isn’t good advice to encourage people to get rid of TV. I’m just saying it should not be treated as doctrine. I wonder how these pastors would feel if they retired and happened to join a church where the pastor said radios were forbidden due to ungodly radio programs. Maybe they would be fine with that, but believe me, I could rattle off a very long list of prohibitions that almost everyone would object to. If you’re a pastor who tells people they aren’t right with God for merely having a TV, despite what they watch on it, you are wrong! And if you’re Pentecostal, it’s people like you who give all Pentecostals a bad name, get us labeled radical and cause people to avoid all Pentecostal churches. I remember listening to a sermon on a CD and the preacher mentioned a church losing several members after the congregation were told they were expected to give up TV. Then the preacher implied those people weren’t fully committed to God. Disgusting! For all he knew, they may have all been watching perfectly clean programs, and he was condemning them.

I felt uneasy when deciding to write this article, because I feel like I’m caught between two extremes. I’ve heard people rightly say it’s legalism to forbid TV, and then I find out these same people are watching filthy programs. It’s as if they use this liberty as an excuse to sin. I especially feel uneasy about this next bit of legalism I’m going to criticize, and that is prohibiting unmarried adults (not teens under their parents’ authority) from going on dates alone. Believe it or not, some Pentecostal churches (and those of other denominations too) have a rule that couples must always have a chaperone with them, and requirements like this give ammunition to critics who say Pentecostals are legalists. Years ago someone said to me, “You’re Pentecostal? Isn’t that kind of radical?” I’m fed up with this accusation and that’s the reason I felt I should make a distinction between godly living and legalism. As with TV, there are fakes who rightfully say a pastor shouldn’t forbid couples to date without a chaperone. I start thinking I share their view, and then I learn they see nothing wrong with fornication because “you don’t know where your love might lead you.” I’m not saying it’s okay to commit “lesser sins.” I’m saying it’s okay to do what Scripture doesn’t forbid, regardless of how any mere human feels about it. If someone, anyone, tells you there should be a chaperone when you’re with someone of the opposite sex, ask that person if it’s a sin to not be watched when you’re behaving entirely appropriately. If the person answers honestly and says no, next ask, “Then why are you treating it like a sin?”

I feel very strongly about this issue and would encourage people to challenge their pastors if they teach this kind of legalism. If you think God would disapprove of that, I suggest you read about Paul publicly calling out Peter for teaching people they must do something they’re not required to do in order to be saved (Gal. 2:7-16). Peter was saving souls, yet he started telling people they were required to do something they weren’t, and Paul rightly set him out for it. I really want to hammer down this point that I’m making. Unmarried couples having others with them is great advice. Even many of the ones who genuinely believe they have the self-control to be alone together have succumbed to temptation and fornicated. My problem is with telling people they can’t be members of a church if they do things that might lead them to sin, in which case they just may quit going to church or go to a church where actual sin is permitted. They may look for a church where they don’t feel judged, and it may be one that teaches “God’s grace” allows them to live like the rest of the world. They may hear the lies that they can be right with God and at the same time smoke, drink, be underdressed in public, etc. These churches deceive people into thinking godly living is the same thing as legalism.

The legalism that has infected churches drives away or keeps away people who will end up losing their souls. I want these pastors to think about how they would feel if they were in a church that forbids them to live within a designated number of miles from a strip club or a bar, because they might be tempted to the point of committing sin. Sure, that’s a bit more radical than forbidding dates without chaperones, but it’s based on the same logic. This sort of thing should be advice based on an individual basis. Look, I’m a former alcoholic who lives very close to both a bar and a liquor store. It would be understandable if someone advised me to move, but I should not be expected to move. I have no more desire to drink, and even if I did, ignoring good advice alone would not make me a sinner. You know, I really am curious about this rule for men and women who aren’t married to each other being watched. I’m sure it varies from one legalistic church to the next, but I’m guessing that if they’re not allowed to be alone together in a car, neither would one be allowed to go to the other’s home and visit with that person in his or her yard. God forbid the man and woman are next-door neighbors! No one could watch them then! Would their pastor expect one of them to move?

Some pastors don’t want unmarried couples alone together because others who see them might get the wrong idea, and we’re to “abstain from all appearances of evil” (I Thes. 5:22). “Gray area” is a terminology I don’t use loosely, as mentioned in my article Humility vs. Pride, but this is another case I would use it for. Different things appear evil to different people, so what it basically comes down to is good judgment on an individual basis. Well-intentioned or not, creating additional rules for Christians to follow, based on how a pastor merely feels about something, does more harm than good. It usually just drives people away. If it’s sound doctrine that drives people away from a church, so be it. Church does no good for people if they aren’t living for God. Preaching against what the Bible doesn’t forbid, however, is another matter. Below are the words of David K. Bernard, super intendent of the United Pentecostal Church International. Please read what he has to say about legalism.

“If a church is founded on true scriptural principles it will withstand scrutiny of its teachings. The legalist, however, usually gives no justification for his man-made rules except tradition and authority. 'This is what our church believes, and you must obey the church. This is what the pastor teaches, and you must obey the pastor.' This kind of teaching will not be successful in developing true holiness.

“Particularly in our questioning age, it simply does not work. People today are more sophisticated and educated than ever before. There is a greater willingness to challenge tradition and authority. Autocratic methods that people sometimes accepted in the past are less effective today. Furthermore, as the church enters an era of great revival, it must be prepared for the influx of thousands of new converts. If it relies on tradition and legalism, the new converts will either overwhelm it or fall away. If it teaches biblical principles of holiness, the new converts will embrace them as their own beliefs.”

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