Many of the “heated discussions” within the church concern questions about where the line should be drawn on a number of important cultural issues. Almost invariably in such debates, the more conservative members of the church will be called legalistic by the more liberal members and will counter the charge by calling their accusers antinomian (against the law). Because these issues cause so much division and anger, it is important to discuss the issue of legalism and antinomianism in order to avoid needless conflict as commanded in the Bible.
If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:22)
A Sample Issue: Modesty
In order to frame the discussion on the distinction between legalism and antinomianism, we consider modesty as a sample issue that illustrates the main principles involved. On the “legalistic” side, you have Christians who believe that modern dress is inherently immodest and that women should limit themselves to wearing extremely conservative dresses and no makeup. On the “antinomian” side, you have Christians who believe that any standard of dress is “legalistic” and believe that a woman should wear whatever she feels like as long as it conforms to the cultural standards of the day.
To give the liberals their due, a conservative standard of dress that completely conformed to the Biblical standard of covering a woman’s hair would be very similar to the full-body burqa that Muslim women are forced to wear and this is obviously not appropriate for a church that has been freed by Jesus Christ. On the other hand, conservatives have a point when they argue that cultural standards are the same as no standards and will result in a church that has behaviour that is indistinguishable from that of the surrounding culture. How do we resolve this issue?
In considering this question, it is important to realize two critical points. The first point is that it is impossible to please God by keeping rules. A young woman who wore ankle length conservative dresses all her life has not earned God’s approval and a young woman who wears tight jeans has not thereby put herself beyond the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, in order to please our Saviour it only makes sense that we should seek to understand the principles that underlie the legal standard God has given us in His word and seek to please Him by applying these principles in our lives. What principles underlie the modesty commanded in the Bible?
When a young girl first transitions into womanhood, it is only natural for her to want to be found attractive by males in her community. While seeking male approval is natural, this does not mean that it is healthy or conducive to spiritual maturity. A young Christian woman should seek the approval of God who can love her unconditionally and not the whimsical approval of the young men that are there one day and gone the next. Young hormonal male attraction is as fickle as a summer breeze and seeking to be the target of its attention can only lead to long term insecurity and dissatisfaction. One important principle behind God’s commands to be modest, therefore, is that we should be seeking God’s approval and not man’s approval.
A second principle underlying God’s commands to be modest is evident when we consider the temptations that some women fall into with regard to immodesty. I have met women who enjoyed the enormous power that being an attractive woman gave them over men. Such women make a point of always going out in clothes that will make them the centre of attention no matter what the occasion may be. As we can see from this example, a second principle behind God’s command to be modest is not to seek to have power and exalt yourself above others.
A third principle underlying God’s commands to be modest can be discerned if one considers the effect of immodesty on others. When a person flaunts a superior physical or mental attribute in an immodest way out of pride, this typically has the effect of making other people feel bad about themselves. If an athlete shows off and humiliates an inferior rival, for example, this is an injury to someone for whom Christ died. If a young woman flaunts her physical attractiveness, this could make other women feel inadequate or stir up lust among male admirers. A third important principle behind God’s command to be modest, therefore, is to avoid injuring other people out of a love for them.
As I consider these principles, it becomes clear to me that it is possible for a young woman in skin tight jeans to be modest before God while at the same time a woman in a conservative dress with no makeup could be immodest before God. The essential thing to consider in this question is the heart which can only be judged by God. Is the young woman in jeans striving to please God and oblivious to the effect that her appearance has on those around her? In this case, she is being modest and has no fault before God. Is the young woman in a conservative dress desperately hoping for the attention of young men? If so then she is not being modest in her heart.
Now, of course, the motivations of the heart are impossible for us to judge and we must, as a practical matter of daily school governance, have an actual dress code that defines what is allowed and what is not allowed. In such situations, what is the church to do? Surrender to cultural forces and agree that anything is allowable? Or subject God to ridicule by insisting that God commands that every young woman wear a dress that extends at least three inches beyond the knee?
Honestly neither of these two alternatives are particularly attractive and I think the church should teach people the principles behind God’s commands for modesty while simultaneously giving students leeway in applying these principles on their own. Any rebuke for a perceived violation of the principles should be done in meekness, humility and love by someone who has a relationship with the person who has violated the principles. This, of course, requires discernment and spiritual maturity, but this should not be too much to ask of the church of Jesus Christ.
Legalism vs Antinomianism
When I consider the many battles that go on between various church members, it saddens me tremendously. You have people who sincerely love Jesus Christ on opposite sides of an issue where each group is holding on to an important truth they believe that the other side has compromised. While the church is bickering, the world looks on gleefully because our inability to settle issues amongst ourselves gives them an excuse to avoid considering the truth of the gospel. How powerful would a church body that had “antinomian liberals” constantly reminding us of our need for the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ and at the same time had “legalistic conservatives” reminding us of the importance of seeking to please our Lord by understanding and obeying His word? Unfortunately, we may never know.