In a free society promoting liberty and diversity, ‘legalism’ is a common cry. If something is judged as absolutely right or wrong, not respecting personal choice, it’s now labelled ‘legalistic’. If it doesn’t include diversity of thought, it’s branded ‘legalism’. But is legalism and legality the same? For the Christian who has a heart for the mind and will of God, how does Holy Scripture present legality, liberty, and diversity? The following is a short summary.
God is a legal God. Legality upholds right and wrong, which is justice. God is revealed as ‘just and right’.1 The Lord’s law to Israel upheld social justice.2 God ordains government to uphold civil justice in punishing evil.3 Even the Lord’s universe operates by absolute laws, like the law of gravity, etc. Jeremiah chapter 31 verse 35 says, ‘the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night’. The gospel is also legal [just]. It requires punishment for sin [His death] before offering forgiveness ‘that he might be just’, which upheld the law that requires death for sin.4 Legality doesn’t function by bias or mood but by justice, which can protect and secure.
Legalism – the perversion of legality.
Legalism is to impose man’s way on God’s people as if it were law. Legalism is to restore Israel’s law in principle, with works or rituals as a requirement to secure God’s salvation of grace.5 It includes binding Israel’s, or man’s, traditions on the church, that contradicts God’s way, as the way to worship and serve.6 It can involve man’s professional hierarchy which restricts the liberty given to the New Testament church by limiting the practice of the priesthood of all believers in the assembly meeting.7
Caution – what legalism is not.
To obey the word and traditions of the Lord Jesus is not legalism but love.8 Do not be intimidated by dubious cries of legalism. Express your love for the Lord who died for you by obedience to His word!
Consider Israel. The Lord wanted them to leave Egypt: ‘let my people go that they may serve me’, Exod. 8. 1. But Pharaoh said ‘no’, as he was their slave master. Israel couldn’t serve God – they were restrained by another power. So the Lord freed them from the bondage that restrained them. They now had the ability to serve the Lord freely – this is liberty!
Liberty is being made free from restraints that keep us from serving God. There is the restraint of the power of sin: ‘being made free from sin ye became the servants of righteousness’ is what the gospel of Jesus Christ accomplished. Free to serve! There is the restraint of the authority of the Old Testament law to form a relationship with God. ‘But now we are delivered from the law … that we should serve in newness of spirit’, Rom. 7. 6. The law, with its principle of judgement, stirs up our flesh, rather than produce fruit unto God. Now the church has been ‘called unto liberty’,9 free and able to serve the Lord His way!
Liberalism: the perversion of liberty.
Liberalism is based on my right to choose what I want – my choice of what to believe, what lifestyle I will live, how I worship, or how church should be. The Lord’s liberty is not freedom to choose my choice – but being free to choose God’s choice. It’s not freedom to sin but freedom from sin<.10
Diversity is ‘including a variety’ – but a variety of what? The world is made up of diverse nations, peoples, families and languages11 – one blood (human race) with different nationalities. This happens naturally by God’s choice apart from our choice.12 The church also has a diversity of spiritual gifts.13
The Lord’s diversity in the gospel of Christ is the equal inclusion of all believing nationalities into the body of Christ. It is without bias or discrimination. All groups are equally united in the Head. All are given the same blessings regardless of colour, culture, class, gender, prior religious heritage, or sins committed.
Each member of this one body will have the manifestation of the Spirit with gifted abilities to serve, but the gifts will differ. The body of Christ is a diversity of God’s choosing forming the unity of the one body.
Inclusivism: the perversion of diversity.
Biblical diversity is not the inclusion of diverse immoral lifestyles. God’s church, as the holy temple of God, is not to be tolerant of so-called believers who are living in sin. Immorality and other sins of the flesh are our choice. Our choices are not God’s diversity.
The Lord’s diversity is not equal roles for men and women in the home or the church but diverse roles. God’s diversity is not the toleration of unscriptural practices in the church. The church, while made up of diversity, is called to a unity (oneness) in its Head. The thinking and wisdom of the Lord Jesus Christ alone is to govern us.14 The church is designed to be a diversity created into a unity, expressed with unanimity of speech and thinking from its Lord.
The Lord Jesus Himself is not pleased with a doctrinal diversity of choices or practices by His churches.15 What Paul taught in one church, he taught in all.16 The church is a unity of truth. Amazing grace!
Deut. 32. 4.
Deut. 4. 8.
Rom. 13. 4.
Rom. 3. 25, 26, 31.
Rom. 3. 28.
Matt. 15. 8, 9; Col. 2. 14-17.
Heb. 10. 19-25; 1 Pet. 2. 5; 1 Cor. 14. 23-40 (note vv. 36-38).
John 14. 15; 1 Cor. 14. 37; 2 Thess. 2. 15.
Gal. 5. 12.
Rev. 5. 9.
Acts 17. 26.
There are diversities of gifts’, 1 Cor. 12. 4. This happens supernaturally apart from our choice – but His choice, 1 Cor. 12. 11.
‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment’, 1 Cor. 1. 10.
Rev. 2 and 3.
1 Cor. 4. 17.