The Sound of Silence

PART TWO: THE LIMBO OF LEGALISM

Ryan Ross

Whether we call the Method "Bible Authority," "Hermeneutics," "the Silence of Scripture" or whatever, we make important discoveries when we see the Legalist's Lens applied to every passage that is supposed to qualify for it. The two most important discoveries are:

1. To be consistent is to be ridiculous.
2. Legalists always use the method erratically.

As we shall see, Discovery #2 logically follows from Discovery #1. The First Discovery is called the Law of Legalistic Ludicrousness.

THE LAW OF LEGALISTIC
LUDICROUSNESS

This Law simply states that consistent use of Legalistic interpretive methods inevitably yields doctrines that are Ridiculous. There are many people who can forbid pianos or Tuesday communions based upon the Lens Method. But when the Lens continues to be used to the point that handshakes are sinful, women aren't allowed to sing, Christians can't accept promotions, elders are appointed by the preacher, and P.J. is stuck at the Piggly-Wiggly, most people begin to sense that something is Ridiculous. One Legalist even told me, "Well, requiring a kiss as a greeting is consistent, but it's wacko." Precisely. The Law of Legalistic Ludicrousness shows us that its consistency is what makes it wacko.

How Ridiculous can it become? Well...

Note that every passage we have examined has been lifted out of context to some extent. Whether "sing," "break bread," "kiss of love," or whatever, we did not apply the Legalist's Lordly Laws to the entire context. What happens when we do?

Let's try I Peter. If we back up far enough in the context, we get to Chapter One, verse One:

"Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ; To God's elect, strangers throughout the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia..." This sets the context for everything that follows. The book is a letter, written to Christians scattered throughout these provinces. Now let's apply the Legalist's Lens. According to the Law of Exclusion, anything not authorized is automatically forbidden. By this reasoning, we are forbidden to apply anything in this book to twentieth century Americans. Peter authorized this book to be for Gods elect in those places, which means in those places only.

If we continue to use the Law of Exclusion consistently, we must also conclude that the book of Luke is only for Theophilus, 1 Corinthians is only for the church in Corinth, 2 Timothy is only for a young man by that name, and so on. Even the books that don't carry a specific address were intended by the writer for a First Century audience; the Law of Exclusion would forbid us to apply these books to anyone living today. If we apply the Legalist's Lens to the entire context, we have a Bible that is irrelevant because it authorizes nothing! If that sounds like Total Chaos, it is. It leads us to the Law of Legalistic Lunacy:

To be really consistent is to be irrelevant. Now we see why a Legalist must, by definition, use his Method erratically. He cannot use it consistently and still believe in it.

THE LEGALIST'S LIMIT

Everyone, even the Legalist, has an innate sense of the Ludicrous. That is why the Legalist uses his Method very selectively even when he touts it as being God's Will and the Only True Method. He can only use it - with a straight face - up to the point where he begins to feel He Is Being Ridiculous. At that point, he drops it. That point is called the Legalist's Limit.

At the Legalist's Limit, the Legalist sees that he is on a collision course with a Ridiculous Doctrine; he ducks. This is easily illustrated. Traditionally, Church of Christ Legalists have held that their Law of Exclusion must be applied to passages that mention singing praise: "sing means sing only." This has led to the conclusion that singing with an instrument is sinful. The conclusion is considered to be so rock-solid, so obviously God's Divine Will, that permanent divisions have resulted. But a different approach has been taken toward passages that mention Christians greeting each other with a kiss. Even though these passages are every bit as much "Approved Examples" as the "sing" passages, no one wants to require kissing; even the most passionate anti-instrumentalists realize that such a teaching would be...well, wacko. So what do they say? "Well, the 'kiss' was a customary greeting of their day. The handshake is the customary greeting today. Therefore, shaking hands is not sinful."

Notice what has happened. For the command "greet one another with a kiss of love" the Law of Exclusion is dropped. We are free to offer a modern substitute for a Biblical action! The Legalist has abandoned his Only True Method in favor of another method.

This situation raises questions for the Legalist. How can he justify using two methods of interpretation while he is insisting there can only be one? Even more important - how is he to know when to switch from one method to another? These questions constitute the Legalist's Labyrinth. He needs a way out.

THE LEGALIST'S LOOPHOLE

When preaching on "Bible Authority,'' the Legalist insists that all "Approved Examples" are Binding Examples. In practice, however, he admits that this is not truly the case. I have heard the president of a prominent Legalist Law School admit that there are some passages in the Bible that appear to be "Approved Examples" that are not Binding. The "Non-Binding Example" is the Legalist's Loophole.

Have you ever heard someone ask in a Bible class, "But how can we tell which Examples are Binding and which are not?" This question is really a verbalization of the Legalist's Labyrinth: "How do we know when to switch from one method of interpretation to another? The person needs to know when to practice what is preached and when to practice what is not preached.

The answer is usually something like this, "Well, we have to take each passage in its context. That's the only way we can determine when the Inspired Writer is addressing a particular situation or group and when he is addressing us today.

We have already seen the problem with that answer: every New Testament writer was addressing a particular individual or group. This means that every passage "taken in context" will result in a Non-Binding Example!

The "Non-Binding Example" is a very convenient Legalist's Loophole. It can be used at will. For any passage, the Legalist can choose one of two interpretive options: he may decide the "Approved Example" is Binding and use his Legalist's Lens Method; or he may decide to take the "Approved Example" in context, discover it to be Non-Binding, and use his other method. There is no objective basis for the choice. The individual decides according to his own preferences. These preferences will be determined solely according to the person's Legalist's Limits.

The Legalist's "system" turns out to be no system at all. It is purely arbitrary.

UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE...ALIKE?

At last we have a model to explain every division that occurs in so-called "Restoration churches." These divisions, often lamented, are no accident. They are a direct result of the Legalist's Lens Method of Interpretation.

Sensitivity to the Ridiculous varies from individual to individual. Some people are even willing to accept a doctrine they privately know to be Ridiculous because they think God wants it that way. Religious groups are therefore faced with a deadly combination:

1. Legalist's Limits vary according to the preferences of individuals;

2. Legalist's Limits cannot be determined by any objective standard;

3. Legalist's Limits are thought to originate with God.

This combination insures that the inevitable differences in Limits will become, to the people involved, matters of Divine Truth vs. False Teaching. Splits, division, and bitterness naturally follow.

Observe: the "Christian Church" brother and the "Church of Christ" brother were in agreement about human creeds, because they used the same Method to condemn them. But the "Christian Church" brother reached his Legalist's Limit on the matter of instrumental music: he felt that forbidding a piano was Ridiculous. His "Church of Christ" brother stayed with the Method and condemned pianos...The "Mainstream" Church of Christ brother reached his Legalist's Limit on the matter of supporting orphanages: he felt that forbidding aid to orphanages was Ridiculous. His "Anti" brother stayed with the Method and condemned it...The "Crossroads" brother reached his Legalist's Limit on the matter of using group psychology to evangelize: he felt that forbidding the use of such a tool was Ridiculous. His "Mainstream" brother, on the other hand, stayed with the Method and condemned it...Meanwhile, the "Anti" brother had reached his Legalist's Limit on the matter of multiple communion cups: he felt that to require only one cup for the Lord's Supper was Ridiculous. However, his "One-Cupper" brother stayed with the Method and condemned multiple cups...and so it goes.

The circles can be drawn anywhere. At the border of each circle is the Legalist's "Law of Exclusion." And make no mistake: it really excludes.

In the midst of this inevitable mayhem, there can be a sort of artificial "unity." This takes place when one individual (a Legalist's Lawyer) is able to convince others that his Limits are the "true" ones. In this case, the other individuals (the Legalist's Laity) conform their beliefs to his...or at least they humor him for the sake of peace and quiet. (Have you ever noticed that, in actual practice, the real answer to the question, "Which examples are Binding?" is "Ask the preacher"?)

THE LEGALIST'S LIMBO

No matter what pious-sounding name its adherents may give it, the Legalist's Lens Method of Interpretation is clearly a human concoction.

How did it come about? Probably one time - in fact, many times - there was a Christian A who wanted to do something, and a Christian B who didn't like it. Christian B didn't want to object solely on the basis of his own opinion, but he didn't have a Bible text to forbid the action. He figured out a way to make the silence of Scripture forbid what the text did not. Then he could pose as the man with the most respect for the Bible, and still get to lambast Christian A.

The Law of Exclusion speaks where the Bible is silent. It manufactures words like "only," "always," and "never," and it squeezes them between the lines. These added words then become battle cries for religious warfare.

Hence the term, Legalist. A legalist is "one who makes laws." In this case, he makes laws out of nothing.

It is time that Christians abandoned the Legalist's Lens. As we have seen, there is another method of interpretation. Even Legalists resort to it without admitting it. What is this other method? Can it be that it may provide us with a way out of the Labyrinth?

Please look in a future issue for The Legalist's Liberation.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

  1. Holy Bible: New International Version.
  2. Peter: The Peter Principle.
  3. White: The Once and Future King.
  4. Hook: Free in Christ/Free to Speak.