It was not too long after my conversion, that I began “dating” the daughter of the pastor of the church I was attending. Of course, dating her meant I spent a good deal of time in their home. We had meals together, talked, and often played games. One evening, they were teaching me the game of cards called “Hearts”. While we were playing, the doorbell rang. My pastor quickly gathered up all the cards and put them in a drawer before answering the door. I found that behavior odd.
His reaction to the door gave me a clear impression that what we were doing was apparently “wrong” in somebody’s eyes. He did not want to be found playing cards if the person at the door happened to be a member of the church or a leader in the church. He, my pastor, did not think it was wrong, but apparently he knew others would.
It was my first exposure to “legalism”. Apparently, the church I joined, a Southern Baptist Church, had a lot of those kind of “thou shalt not do” rules. The old drink, smoke, chew, or go with girls that do mentality. Of course my pastor had to beg the people to do evangelism, but they had no problem looking for offenders of their laws.
I resisted most of that type of thinking the best I could. Even without being familiar with all the scripture, I was pretty sure that kind of pettiness was not right, let alone Christian.
In Matthew 23, Jesus also addresses that kind of thinking. He shakes a very pointed finger at the scribes and pharisaic rulers for their “straining the gnat and swallowing the camel” mentality. (Matthew 23:24) These so called leaders had become so mired in the details of the minutiae regarding the law that they had forgotten its original intent. Jesus warns his disciples to “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do.” (23:3)
Of course, things can swing the other way as well where “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.” (Judges. 21:25) The result becomes almost American when that happens.
Is there a balance? A tender oasis between “do this and don’t do that” compared to “do whatever you like”. I suspect there is.
Mat 22:37-40 And he (Jesus) said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
What issues from the heart of love, the heart consumed and controlled by the “mind of Christ”, will not err. This is not a state of mind that comes easy, but it is a state of mind that seems to have its own moral compass. The weight of legalism then becomes replaced with the yoke of Christ. (Matthew 11:29-30)