How the Crusade against Legalism is Destroying the Evangelical Church

Recently an evangelical church decided not confront a Sunday school teacher and a member of the worship team that are cohabiting in order not to appear legalistic. This church might be characterized as the typical, fairly large contemporary evangelical church that can be found in virtually every city in the United States, this one perhaps differing in its reputation for being somewhat more conservative.

The concern of this church over escaping legalism manifests itself in most contemporary evangelical churches, revealing itself in a variety of ways. The goal is to avoid being judgmental of lifestyle choices.

This commitment to avoid legalism is rooted in the perspective that God’s grace annuls all requirements on the believer to perform in order to enjoy His favor. Any critique of a believer’s lifestyle conveys a requirement to meet some standard in order to please God. Contemporary evangelicals argue that establishing such standards is not only unbiblical but also counterproductive. Rather, the believer’s realization that he is accepted by God and fellow believers regardless of his performance empowers him to develop a biblical lifestyle.

The contemporary evangelical enthusiasm for escaping the Old Testament law tends to make morality an inconsequential element of our relationship with Christ. I can enjoy God’s favor despite immoral behaviors. The theory asserts that when God looks on me, he does not see my dirt but the righteousness of Christ. In other words, whatever moral requirements might be included in the New Testament, the cross assures that my failure to meet them does not affect my relationship with Christ in any way.

This perspective overlooks the almost ubiquitous New Testament teaching on morality. Scripture places the believer under the law of love. I explain in my book, Counterattack: Why Evangelicals Are Losing the Culture War and How They Can Win, that morality is the foundational component of love. For example, a moral society is more loving than an immoral one. Almost countless examples could be cited of New Testament insistence on moral living. Not only does it condemn fornication, adultery, and homosexuality, but it also addresses more mundane expressions of immorality such as displaying partiality toward the rich. In fact, New Testament teaching on morality permeates every dimension of life. The New Testament presents morality in it more generic form using terms such as righteousness, godliness, and holiness.

But contemporary evangelicals might argue that they are not displaying disregard for New Testament morality but rather are employing a biblical approach to achieving it. As explained above, they contend that we develop a biblical lifestyle by basking in God’s unconditional acceptance, which becomes the agent of transformation.

In reality, the New Testament not only teaches a comprehensive morality, but it also warns us in many places that failure to live morally will negatively affect our relationship with Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:30 teaches that God punished with sickness and even death those displaying selfishness in their observance of the Lord’s Table. “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” In 1 Corinthians 9:27 the Apostle Paul acknowledges that God will remove him from the ministry if he does not maintain a disciplined life. “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

In other words, Scripture does not teach the mechanism embraced by the contemporary evangelical church that the experience of God’s unconditional acceptance will produce godliness, but rather it calls us to live godly lives in order to enjoy His favor and blessing. One is hard-pressed to find those verses that teach, “I know that your lives are riddled with unbiblical behaviors. However, be assured that I accept you just the way you are. It is only as you bask in my unconditional acceptance that you will spontaneously morph into the godly person I designed you to be.” Instead, we find many verses such as James 4:4, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

Failure to maintain God’s morality not only negatively influences our relationship with Christ but also creates chaos in our personal lives. God’s approach to life works and deviation from it not only harms us personally but also everyone that our lives touch, especially loved ones.

Fear of appearing legalistic has prompted pastors, Bible study leaders, and evangelical authors to avoid the many biblical texts that mandate morality. This has resulted in the metastasis of immorality within the body of Christ and the negative outcomes in our relationship with Christ and in our personal lives described above, leaving the evangelical church weak and ineffective.

Various studies reveal that evangelicals are losing market share and their young people. For example, one survey concludes that “among 18-29 year-olds, only about 8 percent currently identify as evangelicals.” Though many factors contribute to this decline, the loss of our moral fiber and the resulting impact on our relationship with the Lord and our personal lives certainly constitutes a major one. Perhaps the time has come, especially in an evangelical community in which preaching on smoking and wearing lipstick has disappeared and pornography and cohabitation run rampant, to recognize that our greatest enemy is not legalism but immorality.

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