A while back, I started a series on worship and argued that why we do things often matters as much to God as what we do. God wants our love and worship, not just outward conformity. Then, I went on to talk about how these ideas have helped to see I need to focus less on externals and superficial obedience, and more on obeying from the heart. Today, I want to wrap up that series by connecting it to a couple other ideas. I’d planned on doing this back in March, but COVID-19 intervened so I’m only now revisiting it.

I wanted the leaders just to tell people what to do

Church is like a family, but a flawed family – one God intends to use to help us grow, and even its flaws can bring growth. But I used to look at flaws in my church – where people’s lives didn’t seem like they matched up with the teaching of the Bible – and think that the leaders ought to just tell people to shape up. If sign-ups were sparse for an event, I would think, why don’t the leaders just tell people they need to sign up? Now, however, I see the wisdom in our leaders generally not doing so. As we saw before, God is after true worshippers – those who worship in spirit and truth, obeying from the heart. Outward conformity is really not obedience at all.

So, I’m very thankful for the leaders in my church. They focus on giving people the principles, and teaching Scripture. They leave the Holy Spirit to do the personal work of application, to convict, challenge, and spur individuals on. Yes, if issues are serious enough they will confront sin – but they’re generally not out policing individuals and telling them they need to shape up. I now see clearly that doing so would tend to slant the church towards legalism and outward conformity, rather than heart-felt obedience. And it’s the latter that we need.

Not everyone needs the same thing

Two people in the church might be in very different places, but struggling in the same area and need very different ministry. Perhaps both are struggling to be consistent in participating in church events but for very different reasons. Perhaps one is really trying hard to join, but their life situation is difficult and unpredictable with heavy work and childcare responsibilities, and though they pray and work hard and are really making the most of their time, life intervenes and they are inconsistent in attending a mid-week Bible study, to their regret. But perhaps the other just doesn’t prioritize that study, and instead fills the early part of the week with gaming so that chores pile up until he or she decides those need to be done instead of the mid-week study, so study falls by the wayside. The two may need very different things; one may need encouragement to persevere in meeting responsibilities at home without discouragement, while the other may need a reminder of the importance of prioritizing Scripture. One may be trying hard to please God but feels nearly overwhelmed, while the other may be spiritually lazy and need prodding into action.

Before I started getting a greater appreciation of the importance of true worship, I leaned more towards a one-size-fits-all solution: Everyone missing Bible study needs to be reminded to prioritize it. But now I understand the reality is far more complex, and mostly relates to the heart.

A related article

A while back, via Tim Challies, I also happened on this related article, The Advance of the New Legalism, which touches some of these same ideas. The old legalism, the author argues, often took Biblical principles and then added rules on top of those in order to help ensure we kept them – so, for example, one might avoid getting drunk by never drinking, or avoid being immodest by setting particular rules about what sort of tops women should wear. The new legalism, he argues, tends more towards espousing particular approaches as “the best way” of doing things, or the only we must do them. So, in this new legalism, some might place commitment to church on a particularly high level:

Unless you drop everything to come to the church barbecue, or watch films with others, and you ever do anything on your own, or only with your immediate nuclear family, your priorities are askew.

This can come up in other areas too:

Others push hard for the ‘open door’ model of ministry. By that, I mean the view that people can come into your home whenever they like at whatever time they like. Again, that may be good. In some contexts, that may be best. But where does the Bible actually demand that? As good an approach as that may be, I just don’t see the bit of the Bible where Jesus says unless you welcome people into your house in your pyjamas at all hours of the night, you just aren’t cut out to be in ministry. We can be in danger of turning what is good, maybe even best for certain contexts, into a rule that the Lord never insists upon.

The article goes on to give a set of principles to use to help recognize legalism when we see it. I think I generally agree with the principles offered. But I’d also offer this additional principle: If I’m being told I should do something and it’s not out of a clear Biblical mandate, do the reasons I’m being given address what’s in my heart? Or, to flip it around – if I think someone else ought to do something, am I taking into account their circumstances and what is, or might be, in their hearts?

Does this have any particular application during COVID-19?

During this time of lock-downs due to COVID-19, I find myself wondering whether these ideas have any particular application in our unique circumstances. One way they seem certain to apply is to what happens as we begin to reopen our society and churches. Some will likely tell us say that if we don’t reopen our churches as soon as our governments allow – or perhaps even violate more restrictive state orders to do so – we’re denying Christ and failing to recognize the importance of church. Others will likely tell us that if we reopen our churches before a vaccine is found we’re being legalistic and recklessly endangering human health. And both groups of people may have very good reasons for thinking the way they do. This could easily lead to conflict.

We should step back, though, and realize that people we disagree with may have right intentions. It’s a time when it will be important to temper our words. So one of our leaders recently wrote:

Be mindful not to express your thoughts with overly strong force or aggressive verbiage. We can have our opinions but there is a lot we don’t know about the situation and it is best to proceed and to speak with caution.

I wholeheartedly agree. Like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ may come to very different conclusions about what’s the best course of action in this situation, and we want to beware of being legalistic about it. Instead, let’s seek to love God, love our neighbor, and love our brothers and sisters in Christ – even if that means that we have different views about what course of action is best for us or for our churches.