Legalists, Libertines, and Galatians
Note: I hesitate to call the position that the Bible forbids using alcohol as a beverage "the abstinence position" because a number of Christians who don't believe that the Bible forbids using alcohol as a beverage still hold that the wisest decision for a Christian is to abstain. For this post, I will use "strict abstainers" or "strict abstinence position" to desribe those who believe Scripture prohibits consumption of alcohol as a beverage.
As I've mentioned before, there has been an on-going debate over SBC Resolution 5 (2006) and whether or not the Bible teaches that one must abstain from alcohol. It now seems to me that the worst of this storm has blown over (whether people have just gotten tired of debating the issue or whether we all finally realized we were spending more time on the discussion than it deserved, I'm not sure). I acknowledge that I was an active participant in this debate, hopefully maintaining a Christian attitude throughout, but willing to accept correction if someone disagrees. The following is only tangentially related, and, I think, touches on a more serious matter about which alcohol consumption is merely an example.
What Is Legalism?
During this argument, a number of labels got thrown around, primarily "legalist" applied to those who say the Scripture requires believers to abstain, and "libertine" applied to those who believe the Bible teaches drinking in moderation to be acceptable. Both sides have denounced the use of the labels as being appropriate to them. Both sides have acknowledged that the use of the terms do not help to foster a reasoned discussion. But some (thankfully, a small number) on both sides continue to use the terms. Both terms (or the closely related terms moralist and antinomian) carry heavily negative connotations in Christian circles. Therefore, before we apply these labels to others, we need to be clear on what we mean.
I'm less concerned about the terms libertine and antinomian in this post. I hold to the Biblical allowance position on alcohol, so in the discussion these terms would be applied to me. I'm more concerned about the term legalist (for my purposes here, I will assume moralist has the same basic meaning). I'm more concerned about this term because a few who hold a similar view to mine on alcohol will use this term to describe the strict abstainence position.
But I'm primarily concerned about this term because, in order to shed themselves of the label, those who hold to a strict abstinence position will argue that the term legalism only applies when we are discussing justification. One blogger has put it this way, "maintaining Biblical standards of holiness as a way of life is not legalism, rather, legalism is an insistence on certain behaviors to accomplish salvation."
Is this a good, Biblical definition of legalism? I would argue that no, it is not.
The Biblical Picture of Legalism
What then is legalism? I think the best place to understand what legalism is from a Biblical perspective is Galatians. Specifically, I'm thinking of Galatians 2:11-3:3. In this passage, Paul is attempting to get the Galatians to realize that keeping the law is not a requirement of the Christian life. He begins with a negative example, that of Peter succumbing to peer pressure in Antioch. Peter had formerly been eating with the Gentiles in Antioch until "certain men from James" arrived. At this point, Peter withdraws from the Gentiles, leading the other Jews including Barnabas to withdraw as well.
It is at this point that Paul is driven to act and confront Peter. He states openly Peter's hypocrisy and proceeds to expound on the gospel. So is what Paul confronts here "an insistence on certain behaviors to accomplish salvation"? I presume many would think the answer to be yes. After all, does not Paul say "yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified." (Galatians 2:16 ESV) Paul here is talking about justification, isn't he?
As is likely obvious by now, my answer is, "no, not in the sense many think." Sure, Paul is reminding Peter that justification is by faith. It is not about what we do. But notice that Paul is telling Peter that they "have believed." Peter's problem was not he was displaying that the law was necessary to obtain salvation, but to be sanctified. "How," you might ask, "can you say that, given Paul's repeated use of 'justified'?" Because of what Paul tells the Galatians immediately after relating to them the incident with Peter.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3 ESV)
The issue in Galatia was not how salvation starts (justification) but how it continues (sanctification). Paul's concern about legalism, therefore, is not restricted to justification.
Untangling the Knot
Then why does Paul spend so much time in the early part of Galatians talking about the gospel? For example:
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14 ESV)
The New Testament knows nothing of this (continue reading in Romans 6 for a more detailed explanation). In the Scriptures there is a clear link between justification and sanctification. Those who have been justified are being sanctified. Sometimes, in the lives of some believers, sanctification might be hard to see, but it is there. What Paul is saying in Galatians is that sanctification is not keeping the law, but is the "fruit of the Spirit." (Likewise, in Colossians, Paul adds that no mere regulations will be effective against the flesh).
What does all this have to do with defining legalism? Paul is saying in Galatians that legalism is anything that adds requirements to salvation, whether we are discussing justification or sanctification. Stated slightly differently, legalism is not just adding requirements about how one begins the Christian life, but even adding requirements to how we progress in the Christian life. If, therefore, we state that one who drinks alcohol in moderation will always be a second class Christian, then we are legalists. Therefore, legalism is an insistence on certain behaviors for progression in the Christian life.
Legalism and Holiness
Let me tangle the knot again. In the quoted definition of legalism at the start of this post, the statement begins with, "maintaining Biblical standards of holiness as a way of life is not legalism." If my definition of legalism states that any insistence on certain behaviors is legalism, what about sins that the Bible explicitly names, like sexual immorality or bitterness? I believe that there are some behaviors so explicitly condemned in Scripture that just and reasonable men could and should agree that they are sin. If you repeatedly do something that you understand to be a sin, you will hinder your spiritual growth, perhaps to the point of stifling it entirely (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).
Down the rabbit trail: This applies not only to true sin, but also to violating your own conscience (the act itself may be permissible, but if you consider it sin, than for you to do it is sin). The flip side isthat just because you are convinced that the Scripture allows a behavior does not mean that behavior is not sin. We may, and I think often do, participate in that behaviors that are sin and therefore hinder, but do not halt our spiritual growth. In fact, part of our continued growth will (likely) be coming to understand that the behavior is in fact sin.
Back to our main path: So how do I reconcile the Bible's clear teaching that some behaviors can in fact hinder, or even halt, our spiritual growth, with my definition that "legalism is an insistence on certain behaviors for progression in the Christian life"? The point is in who's applying the standards. There are some behaviors which the Bible explicitly identifies as sin and participation in them will significantly hinder spiritual growth (Galatians 5:19-21). Matters about which just and reasonable men have essential agreement. With resepct to these we should apply Galatians 6:1. If there is unrepentant sin, we must exercise church discipline. But even in that case we are to act with the aim of restoration (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 and 1 Corinthians 5:5).
Legalism is an insistence, maintained with an attitude of condemnation and/or superiority, on certain behaviors for progression in the Christian life.
What about other behaviors which the Bible does not address directly or about which just and reasonable men can and do have differing opinions? We should follow Romans 14:3. What is needed is clarity among believers on what these matters are. I do not think the debate over alcohol as a beverage was bad in and of itself. We need to have these kinds of discussions (for good examples of the kind of discussion we need to have, see this post and this post at centuri0n's blog). But we need to have them in a spirit of humility and mutual submission. And when there is substantial disagreement over these matters over Christian living among believers who are united on the essentials, there has to be freedom. That does not mean we do not discuss the issue, but it means we do not despise and we do not pass judgment.