on a dangerous reactionary response to legalism

Dr. Thurman Wisdom in his excellent book, a Royal Destiny: The Reign of Man in God’s Kingdom made this little comment near the end of the first chapter:

Legalistic excesses never justify licentious extremes. [p. 28]

This quote came to mind reading the blog of a fellow who was raised in a fundamentalist church of some kind. He apparently continues as a member of such a church. I don’t know him or his church. I only know what he has written on his blog. Some of the things he says show a discontent with fundamentalism as such, something all too common among many. In fact, my involvement in the fundamentalist ‘blogosphere’ is largely due to my dismay at the attitudes so many openly express.

While I often contend that legalism is in the eye of the beholder, there is no doubt that Pharasaic tendencies exist within fundamentalist ranks. (The fact is, these tendencies exist in any social group, especially and including doctrinaire evangelicalism, but that is another post.) I am currently working on a series of messages about Christian standards and legalism, contrasting the difference between legalistic hairsplitting over minutiae and personal devotion, the practice of submitting one’s whole life to the searching gaze and approval of the Holy Spirit. Pharisaism is about pleasing man – either self or others – with one’s own efforts. Devotion is about seeking to please God.

The fact is, personal devotion may look like Pharisaism to an outside observer. David Hesselgrave makes that point clear in an article posted by Bob Bixby, referenced earlier in my blog. The devotee is earnest about following God and eschewing the world (i.e., personal separation from the world). Both the Pharisee and the devotee can coexist within one local church body without either really being aware of the difference. On the outside, the lifestyle is the same. The Pharisee, in fact, may even appear more holy than the mere devotee. The difference is largely a matter of heart. It is an attitude towards Christian living, a matter of goals and objectives.

The presence of Pharisaism on the one hand and the devotee on the other can and does lead some to cry, ‘a pox on both your houses’. In reaction to Pharisaism, some will entirely abandon the heart attitude fundamentalism intends to foster. To them, fundamentalism equals a myriad of rules, establishing the length of men’s hair [short] and women’s skirts [long] and a host of other things.

Fundamentalism is not really about establishing how long a man’s hair or a woman’s skirt should be. The devotee will want to answer those questions for himself and to some extent will answer them for others, even making such applications a part of his preaching. But fundamentalism isn’t a new Pharisaism, it is a political position within ‘broader Christendom’. Fundamentalism is a reaction to the abandonment of doctrine and holiness by modernists/liberals and a resistance to the compromise of doctrine and holiness by evangelicals.

As movements decay (and they always do) proponents can descend into petty nitpicking about minutiae which can produce a drive to maintain ‘the standards’ as the be all and end all of spiritual life. Quite frankly, such an approach reduces religion to the minimums and quenches the development of personal devotion to some extent. That is, it quenches the Spirit. The pursuit of minutiae leads to Pharisaism, the attempt to please self or others by the perfections of one’s own disciplined life.

Individuals tend to react to Pharisaism in differing ways. Some try to ‘out-Pharisee’ the rest, perpetuating the ossification of the movement. Others rebel, one way or another. Usually rebels don’t just move ‘one notch’ over, to a more ‘reasonable’ position. Instead, they cast off all the restraints they feel imposed on them and move fairly far afield from their original moorings. Some may even abandon Christianity altogether. Most will at least abandon fundamentalism.

All of these reactions are a great concern to me. I believe that the philosophy of fundamentalism is biblical, though the practice of fundamentalists (including, alas, myself) often is not. My writing and thinking on this subject has one aim: to urge others not to abandon fundamentalism while wrestling with the biblical applications of fundamentalist thought. In other words, don’t abandon holiness and separation from the world, false teachers and disobedient brethren just because no fundamentalist is perfectly obedient!

Having said all that, let me get back to the blog that motivated this post. The fellow has a somewhat oxymoronic section on his blog called ‘Current Status of My Beliefs’ […how can something in a state of flux be a belief?]. This fellow evidently comes from a King James Only background. He is seriously questioning that position as well as a number of other points of his fundamentalist background. Evidently along with the KJO position, his background includes a seemingly heavy dose of Pharisaism [although I make that statement based only on his observations, I don’t know anything about the reality of the churches this fellow has been involved with].

For example, on a page re-evaluating fundamentalism, he says this:

A lot of the legalism that our church teaches is due to their understanding of “Holiness”. Are they correct? Holiness is why we can’t wear shorts to church functions in summer. It’s why we can’t go to the movie theater. Why we can’t drink, smoke, have piercings or tattoos. Why we can’t listen to music with drums. How do you quantify holiness?

The points following this post indicate the fellow senses something wrong with the church and identifies the problem as ‘fundamentalism’. [At least, that is the way I am reading it.] As I understand what this fellow is saying, his response is typical of many who are wrestling with the fundamentalist label. They are disgusted with something which they think equals fundamentalism. What they are disgusted with is Pharisaism. I would suggest that their disgust with Pharisaism is appropriate. The Lord never intended for us to descend to the level of the Pharisees. In fact, Jesus said our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.

On another page our blogger friend also questions what he calls ‘teetotalism’. The page illustrates my point in making today’s lengthy post. It is a reactionary approach to Pharsaic legalism. Once the tent pegs are loosened, the whole tent comes down. Consider this statement in that light:

Teetoalism [sic] is taught by my church, most of the ideas of which I am suspect [sic] right now.

To be fair, the points that follow on this page are barely a cursory examination of the premise. Further, I don’t really want to debate the issue of alcohol itself in this post. I draw attention to the post since this is one of the areas that a reactionary response to legalism seems to immediately go.

I have gone round and round on this with many people who claim to be fundamentalists. It is shocking to me that there is an argument at all. Alcohol is a drug with particularly harmful side-effects. The arguments made for its use ‘in moderation’ could be made for almost any illegal drug – and sometimes are, by Christians. The only restraint on illegal drugs in the minds of some is that they are illegal.

An online friend, Scott Aniol, notes that perhaps after music, no subject is more contentious than the question whether Christians should use alcohol as a beverage. Scott points us to a

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by my friend Gary Reimers as well as an article Gary has written on the subject. Bob Bixby posted a passionate article in opposition to the use of alcohol some months back. He posts on the topic here as well. I have posted the notes from sermons I have preached on the subject here and here.

But as I said, I don’t want to rehash the arguments against alcohol here. What I want to point out is that antagonism to Pharisaism often leads people far from their fundamentalist roots to a place of casting off restraints and indulging the flesh. Though right in suspecting the legalistic excess of Pharisaism, they fail to exceed the Pharisees in righteousness as Jesus calls us to do.

Recall Dr. Wisdom’s comment:

Legalistic excesses never justify licentious extremes. [p. 28]

Is it true that fundamentalists are guilty of legalistic excesses? Well, are fundamentalists human? Of course some of them are guilty. Perhaps all of us are guilty of it at one point or another. What human being isn’t? We all like to approve ourselves and we all are most impressed with our own righteousness. Sometimes we are able to impress others with our righteousness as well.

But how should we react to the legalistic excesses of others? Is the right response a move towards less restraint? Towards more self-indulgence?

We see many young people raised or trained in fundamentalist homes, churches, and institutions moving lemming-like towards increasingly wilder forms of music, lowering the restraints on alcohol, lowering the bar on various forms of entertainment, spending their leisure in increasingly self-indulgent ways. They embrace the world and call it godliness. Is this a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees? Is this kingdom living?

Is this a violation of Dr. Wisdom’s wise counsel?

Legalistic excesses never justify licentious extremes. [p. 28]

It really ought to be a concern to us when the ‘solution’ to fundamentalism is self-indulgence. In particular, the instinctive reaction of spiritually minded Christians against alcohol use is not Pharisaism. It is wisdom. It is holiness. It is Christian love. It is self-preservation.

There is no need for using alcohol as a beverage today. It serves no purpose but self-indulgence today. It is a means Satan uses for seducing the unwary into all kinds of licentiousness.

I urge any Christian, of any kind, to turn away from the temptation to indulge self with alcohol. I especially urge young fundamentalists to consider the danger of falling into bitterness over Pharisaical failures by some fundamentalists. Bitterness will only propel you to ruin. Beware of your own brand of Pharisaism, seek to help others caught up in Phariasaism, but don’t be tempted to abandon the cause of holiness and orthodoxy that Christian fundamentalism truly is.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Jerry Bouey says:

    Pharisaism is about pleasing man – either self or others – with one’s own efforts. Devotion is about seeking to please God.

    Interesting disctinction. Do you think this is why many oppose the idea of standards – ie. they are not necessarily devoted to God (not interested in drawing closer to Him, separating from all those things, etc. that would displease Him), but are only interested in pleasing man (fitting in with the crowd – whether it is an IFB crowd or an ecumenical crowd they are in)? They want to fit in and not rock the boat – they don’t want to change and be uncomfortable, or stand out from the norm – whereas the person who is totally devoted to the Lord wants to consider what is being presented to see if it is an area that they need to change in their walk with the Lord. Just some things I was thinking about.

    I work at the Kelowna Gospel Mission, and spoke with a man yesterday who recently recommitted his life to the Lord (after running from Him for years). Two days ago, he read 1 Corinthians 11, and came across the command to have short hair. First he was talking about what he read – but then I was challenging him to not just read it, but apply it too. He stated it was part of his native heritage to have long hair – and at first he didn’t seem open to change, so I just challenged him to consider the source (ie. God’s Word – truth), and his traditions. Which would be pleasing to the Lord – which would be better to follow, even if it went against how he was raised or what society thinks? He came back at the end of the day and said I was right about what God said and pleasing God being more important than how he was raised (traditions, etc.). Let’s see what he does with what God has now entrusted him with. God bless.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    Hi Jerry,

    There are different ways of pleasing self. One results in self-righteousness, satisfied with self as a result of keeping a set of laws. Another way of pleasing self comes from self-indulgence. You minimize or do away with any sort of standard in order to indulge self.

    Although both please self, the outward appearance is quite different.

    I need to think about the lack of desire to draw close to God and please God. Obviously there are some with low standards who at least profess a desire to know God, but it seems to me they have been captured by an antinomian view of liberty and directly disobey Gal 5.13, using liberty as an occasion for the flesh. That aspect of this deserves a little more thinking.

    Hey, I didn’t realize you lived in BC. I usually assume everyone I am blogging with lives far afield, especially since there are so few fundamentalists in BC! Anyway, glad to know it. Maybe we will be more likely to meet in the flesh sometime before glory as a result!

    God bless

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3