I belonged to a legalistic church in the 1970’s. Males had to wear their hair very short; females couldn’t cut their hair at all, or use makeup, or wear pants of any kind. And males and females couldn’t swim together.
We couldn’t dance, attend movies, or listen to ‘worldly’ music. We couldn’t wear jewelry—not even wedding bands.
The pastor preached against all kinds of sins, including sports. This was a big issue because there was a baseball field across the road from the church.
He was always harping on short skirts (knee-length or higher). So when long dresses (maxis) suddenly became popular around 1972 I thought: finally the girls can wear something stylish and still be modest. But the pastor said he had better never see one of his members in those worldly dresses!
The list of things we couldn’t do seemed endless, but I noticed two things weren’t on the list: gluttony and gossip. There were few things members could do, so many of them spent a lot of time in these pursuits.
You Have Heard, But I Say…
Over the last several posts we looked at Jesus’ responses, in Matthew chapter 5, to legalistic observation of Old Testament commandments. Jesus contrasts statements in the Old Testament with proper attitudes and demonstrates that the commandments are inadequate.
It is not that the laws are wrong but that observing them legalistically is not enough.
Saying ‘I never murdered anyone’ doesn’t mean you didn’t hurt them.
Saying ‘I never committed adultery ‘ doesn’t mean you didn’t want to.
Saying ‘I swear to God’ doesn’t mean you are a truthful person.
Saying ‘All I want is to get even’ doesn’t mean you reflect God’s attitude.
Saying ‘I love my friends’ doesn’t mean you are a virtuous person.
Jesus doesn’t share his ‘opinion’ about the matter; he speaks with authority: ‘But I say!’ Jesus raises the standard but does not establish a new legalism.
Jesus Does Not Establish a New and Better Legalism
Legalism always fails as a guide to behavior because it concerns rules instead of people. Jesus shows time and again that treating people properly is what following Jesus is about. Rules can never achieve the proper results. No matter how long one’s list of rules become they never approach genuine concern for people.
Multiplying rules of behavior closes loopholes but takes away critical judgment and flexibility; the words and example of Jesus provide us with tools to make ethical decisions in any situation.
Of course the ultimate goal is to please God, but what pleases God is for us to treat each other well, and legalism can’t achieve that. The Father wants peace and reconciliation; I have never seen legalism produce peace and reconciliation because it doesn’t focus on supporting and loving people. Instead, legalism tends to devolve into judgment of others and to produce guilt feelings.
How Can We Ever Treat People Properly?
When we consider the expectation of treating people right, we wonder how we can possibly achieve the standard consistently. The answer is—we can’t. It is a process of growth that begins when we begin to attempt to see other people as the Father sees them. We grow better at it with time but we always fall short.
Theoretically, one can achieve a perfect score on a checklist of rules; but it is a hollow score. An imperfect score in treating other people right is superior to a perfect score in legalistic rules.
In describing my attempts to follow the principle of peace and reconciliation during the past few posts, I’m sure it seemed that I have adopted my own set of legalistic rules; this is not the case. I do use guidelines to help me relate well to others, but they change as I learn and the focus is on people and not on the guidelines.
The tough work in living by the principle of peace and reconciliation is growing in understanding what that means in daily life. And as a person grows, their grasp of practical applications also grows. I cannot do the growing for someone else. I cannot even use my own growth as a template for them.
However, I can share some guiding concepts that have helped me:
- Try to see people as the Father sees them
- Treat others as you want to be treated (assuming a healthy self-love)
- Genuinely consider the good and well-being of others on a personal basis
- Consider whether your actions involve hurting someone
- Approach others supportively rather than with judgment
- Continue to read the stories of Jesus’ words and actions for guidance
Continuous Course Correction
Marc is one of my regular readers, and I like his phrase: ‘Continuous course correction in loving others’. When we begin living by Jesus’ principle of loving others, we are not perfect. We grow by making continuous course corrections based on respect and supportive concern for other people, but we never become ‘perfect’.
The result is more peace, happiness, and understanding; and less hurt and alienation. As broken people we fall short of the ideal of the principle of love, but we make a huge difference nonetheless if we attempt to follow it.
What did you learn from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:17-48?
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Have a great day! ~Tim