Monday, September 15, 2008

Reservation Legalism - A Cultic Form of Legalism

There is a form of legalism which is so subtle that most people wouldn't even notice that it's legalism at all. And yet it is extremely powerful.

I mean “extremely powerful” in the sense that it causes Christians to be fake, phony and stifled.

Now when a Christian is fake, phony and stifled, something happens. They quench the Holy Spirit, and live as though they were of the world.

You may be asking at this point, “Terry, what in the world are you talking about?” Okay, let me jump into this subject.

Off The Reservation

You may be familiar with the phrase “off the reservation”. It is a sort of politically incorrect statement originally referring to a Native American, otherwise known as an Indian, who has left the reservation and has become rebellious to one degree or another.

The “reservation”, of course, is the piece of land that was reserved for the Native American to live on. Having usually been kicked off of his original land, but that's another story.

He was given a place to live, which was often not the best place, and which could even be considered a form of incarceration. For him to travel off of the “reservation” was considered an act of disobedience or rebellion against the Government, and he could be punished, or even engaged in battle.

Anyway, the term has come to refer to anyone who has a different view from some sort of group. He is an oddball. One who doesn't go along with the crowd. Theoretically, he may be right or wrong, but the point is that he doesn't go along with the majority, and so he is considered at least a rebel or maverick, if not an outright enemy.

A Cultic Form of Legalism

I say all that to say this. There is a form of legalism that is not just unfortunate, but cultic. It is a form of legalism that keeps a Christian from being able to dig into the Scriptures and think.

It keeps a Christian from exploring the meaning of Scripture to see if it really means what the group has always thought it meant, because if he questions whether it means what the group has always thought it meant, he will be thought of as “off the reservation”.

End of thought.
End of inquiry.
End of exploration.
End of being a Berean.

You remember the Bereans were applauded by Paul the Apostle, because they not only welcomed the preaching of the Word, but they also searched the Word to see if the preaching really was accurate. To see if the preaching matched up to the Word of God.

This Berean attitude is often applauded today by those who teach the Word. They exhort us to be Bereans. To not just accept anything we hear preached, but to examine the Scriptures to see if what is preached is really true. The term “Berean” is typically used as a compliment. “He is a Berean”, or “she is a Berean”, meaning that they are discerning, and not easily fooled by a false teacher, because they check it out against the Scriptures.

However, when that ugly spirit of Reservation Legalism rears its head, the Berean spirit is quenched. If you are a part of a certain group, and you even begin to question the way that something is usually taught, you are likely to be considered an oddball, if not an outright heretic. Not for teaching false teaching, but for even questioning the way it's always been taught.

An Example

I hesitate to give examples, but I feel like I must, in order to really get the point across. So here's one example:

Suppose you are a Covenant Theologian. And so you have been taught that the Ten Commandments are not only operative for today, but that they are the “rule of life” for the believer. And that the Fourth Commandment, to keep the Sabbath, is one of these rules that the believer is to follow even today.

And suppose that you are reading some Scripture that seems to indicate that the Sabbath is no longer binding on Christians under the New Covenant, but that the Sabbath in the Old Covenant was symbolic of our rest in Jesus. That is, our rest from our works as a means of earning God's salvation, or His love and favor.

And suppose that you want to discuss this question with someone from your group. Are you free to examine this Scripture? Are you free to question whether a Christian today is to follow the Sabbath, and cease from working on Sunday? Or are you free to question whether the Sabbath was ever changed from Saturday (the seventh day) to Sunday in the first place?

The answer is “no”, you are not free to question the group's belief.

Of course you may question it, but you are not really "free" to do so, because you will be thought of as “off the reservation”, and the group pressure to stay “on the reservation” is fierce. To even attempt to discuss it is to mark you.

You are not free, because you know in your heart that if you even bring the subject up, you will be thought of as “weak” in some way. You will be thought of as someone who is not strong on doctrine, someone who is not discerning. Someone who may even be a troublemaker, who is not “one of us”. Someone who is “off the reservation”.

I hope that gives you a feel for the concept I'm talking about. It's very subtle, yet I believe it is one of the most prevalent forms of legalism, and one of the most destructive.

If you are not free to go before the Lord and study His Word, and question whether your group is right or wrong, without your group thinking you are not “one of them”, then you may hurt your own spiritual growth by suppressing the truth in some way, or outright denying what you see as true, according to the Scriptures.

Many years ago, I heard Dallas Theological Seminary professor Howard Hendricks define “friendship”. He said a real friend is someone you can share your worst heresies with. Think about that. That's pretty good.

We all have questions or thoughts from time to time, that make us question whether our most cherished doctrines are true. And it's good that we ideally have others who can correct us when we're clearly wrong, or at least sharpen some iron with us by discussing it.

But when that same person subtly or not-so-subtly makes us feel like we would be somehow a traitor or an undiscerning fool if we brought up an opposing view for consideration – well, we just don't bring it up. And so we lose not only the chance to hash it out together and see if it might be true or false, but we lose the courage that it takes to question the way it's always been.

The loss of courage in these things is a very serious thing, because when we cower from examining the Scripture and questioning the group, because we want to fit in with the group, error often takes hold, a cultic attitude develops, and we think more of the group's opinion of us than we do of God's truth.

When we fear going “off the reservation”, even if we think the reservation is wrong, truth suffers, we suffer, and those whom we might have helped suffer. And the guardians of the reservation are puffed up and proud, having saved another soul from drifting off the reservation.

But hopefully you are different. You don't want to be obnoxious, but you want to be courageous. You don't want to be someone's thorn in the side, but you want to be truthful. You don't want to go off the reservation just to be a troublemaker, but you don't fear going off the reservation if you think it is right and true, either.

Which brings me to the subject of reservation legalism and grace.

Reservation Legalism & Grace

See, when you really begin to get a handle on grace; when you really begin to understand the Scriptural principle that we are no longer under law, but under grace; when you really begin to understand that your performance isn't the basis of God's love for you, then you are veering off the reservation of most churches, who desperately need to be set free from their bondage of performance-based Christianity.

And when you begin to realize that you are no longer a sinner as far as your biblical identity, but that you are a new creation who loves Jesus and hates sin;

when you begin to realize that you are righteous because God declared you to be righteous when you believed in Jesus Christ;

and that you are righteous apart from your performance or your obedience;

then you are wandering off the reservation of most churches, who are so focused on their sin that they can't really see their Savior.

And when you come to realize that, although doctrine is important, without love doctrine is empty;

without the life of Jesus living through us, doctrine is cold and dead;

without the fullness of the Spirit, doctrine is an academic graveyard;

without a warm fellowship with Christ, doctrine kills; and

without seeing Jesus in every part of the Word of God, even the Word of God is just a bunch of facts, and history, and rules;

when you come to realize that, [then] you are so far off the reservation that those cold sterile pushers of what they consider perfect doctrine, think there is no help for you.

Yet it is they who need help. It is they who need to understand Galatians 2:20 when it says that we have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer we who live, but Christ lives in us.

At worst, you will be called a heretic, one way or another. At best, you might be looked at with suspicion, and you might not be understood. But what they will understand is that you're different. What they will understand is that you are not on the reservation. That you have wandered over the line to another land that doesn't fit with their group-think. That you don't line up with their Christian guru or their cultic Seminary culture.

Unlike Howard Hendricks, they don't think that a friend is someone you can share your worst heresies with. They think a friend is someone who will be so horrified if you even mention the possibility of another view, that he will pounce on you and do his best to herd you back onto the reservation.

That, friends, is reservation legalism.

How To Fight Reservation Legalism

Here are three things to do in order to combat Reservation Legalism:

1. First, walk in the Spirit.

You be in fellowship with Jesus. You be filled with the Spirit. You commune with the Lord and practice His presence day by day. Without Him you can do nothing. But with Him nothing is impossible, including shaking off reservation legalism. This close fellowship with Christ is the foundation for the next two points.

2. Be courageous.

Always strive to be true to Scripture, but always have the courage to put your honest understanding of Scripture above what any person or group has established as politically correct. Even if they shun you. Even if they look at you funny. Even if they wonder about your faith. Die to self, and follow Jesus. Now there's someone who was off the reservation.

3. Err on the side of love.

You won't do this thing perfectly. Love one another, in Christ. Be humble off the reservation. Don't flaunt your freedom. Don't be a rebel for rebellion's sake. Don't scoff at those who have not come to understand what you have.

Don't be a grace Pharisee, pouncing on everyone for every single statement that could be seen as legalistic. Even though they may be wrong, graciously give them line upon line, precept upon precept, gently leading them toward the truth, as best you can.

Perhaps the day may come when they join you "off the reservation".


Craig Glenn said...

very good Terry, descibes my life at the mo to a T...great encouragement.

Anonymous said...

Found your blog by following you from another site where you commented that in order to 'discern' Godly speech just spend time in God's word & prayer and be being filled with the Spirit - then listen. It caught my eye as my mother used to say exactly the same thing about music. I have also found it true. Like the response you received - it usually doesn't go over well, because generally others truly believe they are doing that - and how dare I suggest they don't! I guess you have to experience it to understand it!

A couple of comments... found it amazing you were writing about grace exactly the same weekend it was coming at me from several other unrelated sources.

Re: this post - My oldest son David, (in his 30s) is definately 'off the reservation' right now and this was a good article for me after our conversation last night. He is questioning everything - yet has a solid foundation of knowing he is God's child through the shed blood of Jesus. He's just questioning many of the solid tenants of our faith - the epistles, the trinity... - and also the way churches are teaching about God today... Yet, I see God sanctifying him as the years pass - inward changes, not just human mental choice to 'act Christianese' He has been trying to find a church within walking distance of his place (he lives hundreds of miles from us), but his choice is; off the rails charismatic, mega seeker church, hyper legalistic seniors church... He has few friends (maybe 1 right now) (his odd ideas might not help...) and is so afraid of some of the 'man teaching' that is in our church world that he isn't open to any of the good teaching I have found helpful to me online. I really must trust God with him and trust that even those on a lonely path 'off the reservation', questioning everything but truly seeking - God will reveal Himself to them.
Still, it was a hard conversation to me. This article was a good reminder for me to also be gracious to those who are 'off the reservation' and allow them time to question and seek the truth for themselves. I may not have had his same questions, but everything I believe I have come to in struggle myself - I'm sure I horrified my parents at the same age too. Still, many things he said threatened and frightened me... Guess I've known too many over the years who have gone so far 'off...' they have lost the truth in the process and ended up in a cult-like state of mind. How do I balance that in my mom's heart?

Thanks - you have challenged me in a good way.

Only Look said...

Hey Terry,

I have been thinking a lot about this the last few days and I agree with much of what you say; however, I do have some concerns and I think you do as well, but I want to be careful how I say this.

You see, It is one thing to go to another brother and tell him that he is really struggling with a biblical truth and then quite another to teach it from the pulpit or even in a forum such as these blogs.

I am beginning to also see so much rank heresy today on some blogs and many in my opinion seem to be puffed up as though they are tolerant and understanding, calling it the diversity of the body of Christ and in many cases it is no more than persistent false teaching from unrepentent people. It seems like the flip side is also occuring and so I do believe to some degree leaving the reservation can be a bad thing as well when it comes to areas like the death and resurrection of Christ.

But I know full well what you are refering to as there are other points to be made without feeling you should be booted out of the fold for considering them.

Grace upon grace,


Philip said...

Thank you, Terry.

Tommy said...

Interesting. I appreciate your focus on slaying the dragon of legalism. I like to kick that dog every time I walk by it too. Blessings to you brother. Stay in the fight.

Terry Rayburn said...

Catching up on comments...sorry for the delay...


Thanks, it's too common, isn't it?


I can really empathize with you. There's often nothing sadder than seeing someone not be where they ought to be, and having that helpless feeling that we can't change it.

But, of course, God can. It helps so much to rest in two truths: 1. God is truly good and does all things well; and 2. He is sovereign and there is nothing too hard for him.

So even if our hearts are broken and the outcome we seek is not fulfilled, we can trust Him and rejoice in Him.

I pray, "Lord, may you give peace and even joy to this mom, in the midst of her trial and suffering. And Lord, you know our desire...that this son walk closely with you as a born-again child of yours. Amen."


Your point is well-taken, brother. That's the value of distinguishing between so-called "fundamentals" and non-fundamentals.

Back in the 1980's, I was an elder of a church who's Pastor was a fine teacher/preacher and had a real Pastor's heart. But he began teaching some really abhorrent heresies (I won't bore you with them unless you really wanted to know).

With sadness, I gently confronted him, then took another elder who agreed that these were unacceptable heresies. When the Pastor was unrepentent, we wrote a letter to the church, which the Pastor himself read to them.

Amazingly, the Church (who by then was being put under great condemnation by his heresies) took up the Pastor's case, said it was O.K. for him to continue in the heresy. I and the other elder left, in sadness.

So you are right. There is a big difference between *discussing* things among friends, or differing on "unessentials", and teaching heresy as truth to the church.

Thanks for your insight.

Philip & Tommy,

Appreciate you, brothers. Thanks.

Blessings all,

Only Look said...

>Amazingly, the Church (who by then was being put under great condemnation by his heresies) took up the Pastor's case, said it was O.K. for him to continue in the heresy. I and the other elder left, in sadness.<

That is so sad and unfortunately becoming more and more typical. God bless you Terry. Your posts are such a blessing to me, including the one above this one and I love how you always bring out the truth of being a prisoner of circumstances but a free man according to the hope within us. Paul understood the plight of Philemon, yet he told him to go back and stay and rejoice in the hope he had and serve his master who believed in slavery and was still a believer.

I am a prisoner of hope brother...we all are really. Looking forward to the dawn of that new day.

Grace upon grace,