Some thoughts on legalism, spurred by a rather amazing Bible Study on why earrings are wrong….and more. It’s especially amazing since Jesus so directly addressed these matters so clearly in Mark 7.
I can’t decide whether to be horrified or amused. This Bible Study on the wrongness of ear piercings reminds me of the approach to the Bible and the Christian life that prevails in so many churches: trivia, no Gospel, no understanding of the law, a total missing of the point. Do these people think Paul had a “Turn in your earrings” service right after any baptism? How can people miss the point so badly?
This week I studied Mark 7 with my students in Advanced Bible. I’d like to take a pass through the first part of this chapter.
Mark begins by telling us that Jesus is under the continual investigation of the Pharisees. Mark has been telling us this since chapter 2, when Jesus’ teaching, miracles and ministry begins raising all kinds of notoriety and questions. By Mark 3:6 a conspiracy to kill Jesus is working behind the scences, and the Pharisees are openly saying Jesus is the Prince of demons.
In chapter 7 the focus becomes more narrow: Jesus isn’t keeping the traditions of the Pharisees. In addition to the Old Testament admonitions to be different from surrounding cultures by being observant of the law, the Pharisees had developed a canon of additional, non-Biblical traditions that explained the application of the law in various situations. These rigorous traditions were regarded as particularly essential in areas where Jews and Gentiles mingled together- such as Galilee. They kept Jews separate, and kept the Jewish identity and faith strong in an atmosphere of compromise. Jesus’ refusal to participate in these various traditions wasn’t so much a challenge to the Pharisee’s power as it was a signal that Jesus was subverting what the Pharisees thought was the heart and hope of Israel’s identity: the Law.
Jesus bluntly calls the Pharisee’s system of traditions above the law of God a hypocritical sham. As we expect from Jesus, the problem isn’t the law. The problem is the Pharisees themselves, who have made the inventing and keeping of traditions a way to lay aside the greater commandments. (It is interesting that Jesus never endorses the idea of a “flat” Bible. He always sees the greater, clearer, thematic texts interpreting and putting into perspective other texts.)
He specifically cites their invention and abuse of a tradition that allowed a Jew to proclaim all his property as devoted to God, thereby rendering him unable to give financial assistance to his parents. Mark 7:13 “Thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
It’s plain that Jesus takes a dim view of even well motivated attempts to “ramp up” devotion to God by constructing ways of exploiting commandments with added requirements dictated by logic and creative exegesis. He particularly objects as those commandments are played against one another, leaving the middle ground of a false spirituality and doing things God never required, enforced by the spiritual elite as a way to control and intimidate others.
I can’t read Mark 7 without thinking of nonsense like the “earring” Bible study. Jesus was subverting this kind of legalism and calling out the kinds of abuses that were used to sustain the intimidation. I have letters from hundreds of people who went through terrible despair and depression because they were being told that God was like this. God cares about washing hands and piercing ears, and if you don’t, you aren’t a Christian.
I’m reminded of Paul’s words in I Corinthians when Gentile Christians brought a similar issue to the fore: Could Christians eat food offered to idols? Some wanted it to be required that no meat from any temple over enter a Christian’s body. Paul respects the dilemma, but he also says this:
1 Corinthians 8:1-9 SV 1 Corinthians 8:1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth- as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
Are the “no earrings” legalists listening? It just doesn’t matter. Since the incarnation and the cross, we aren’t presenting a God who is consumed with this kind of thing. We have the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if you read anything in the Gospel that presents Jesus operating on this trivial level, please share it with me.
This kind of “special spiritual knowledge” isn’t good for us. It’s corrupting. If we have to deal with it, we deal with it as immaturity and weakness in the Christian life. Churches that exploit it are wrong to do so. Avoid them. I particularly wish Paul had plugged into Jesus’ words in Mark 7, so it would be clear that we aren’t just talking about weaker brothers/sisters, but about abuse and control by phonies who exempt themselves from the heart of the Gospel of grace and misrepresent God.
Paul said that Christ makes us free, but that freedom presents us with choices. The key choice is to submit our freedom to Jesus himself; to become a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and not the servant of the Law, or human traditions. Being radically Christ-centered doesn’t go well in today’s evangelical world. Why? Preaching and teaching has increasingly forsaken Jesus and the Gospel for advice, life management and other pablum, leaving legalistic traditions with ever more influence.
Law and Gospel. Law and Gospel. Relating the two, and keeping Christ the source and meaning of our freedom: these are important matters, particularly as we continually defend the Gospel from the legalistic parasites that seek to attach themselves to the truth, and drain the Christian life of it’s joyful, free, worshiping center.