LEGALISM OCCURS WHEN we add rules to the Bible that aren’t clearly there. For example, some Christians in eastern Europe will refuse church membership to a person that smokes. Tragically, tolerance of legalism usually leads to the opposite sin, tolerance of sins God specifically forbids, i.e. liberalism. Why? The heart that disrespects God’s word enough to add rules to scripture, will often disrespect God’s word in the the opposite direction. It will also subtract clear commands from scripture. The famous Dutch newspaper editor, pastor, politician, and theologian, Abraham Kuyper, famously wrote, “The man who today forbids what God allows, tomorrow will allow what God forbids.”

In her recent book, Evangelicals, Frances Fitzgerald listed some of the rules added by many early twentieth century fundamentalists. They included tobacco, liquor, Coca-Cola, movies, medicine, buying life insurance, swimming in public, watching professional sports, and wearing jewelry or makeup.

You might be secretly congratulating yourself that you are free from such obvious additions to scripture. If so, here are some issues that confront Christians today. As you read this list, answer this question. Which bind the conscience of all Christians because they are clearly articulated in scripture, and which are not clearly articulated in scripture?
  • Serving gluten-free Communion bread.
  • Serving wine at Communion?
  • Drinking only fair-trade coffee?  
  • Purchasing goods or services from businesses that advocate same-sex marriage?  
  • Striving for a small carbon footprint?
  • Eating genetically modified food (GMOs)?
  • Recycling?
  • Letting your children play video games, or read the Harry Potter books? 
  • Inoculating your children?
  • Sending your children to public schools? 
  • Eating caged chicken?
  • having churches with multiple services at multiple sites?
  • Letting your children eat too much sugar?
  • Listening to hip-hop music?
  • Watching an R-rated movie?
  • Body piercings and tattoos? 
  • Smoking cigars or drinking whiskey?
  • Using debt to buy a house or car?
  • Dating vs. Courtship?
  • The  number of children that a married couple should have?
  • Family devotions? When should they be done? For how long? How often?
  • Is it a sin to be overweight? If so, by how much?
  • How about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or trick-or-treating?
These issues all share two things in common. First, many of us have strong opinions about them, and the strong feelings are OK. But second, the Bible does not directly address these subjects. It addresses them indirectly. When the Bible does not directly address a subject, we should be especially careful to keep our opinions to our self and give others liberty.
The Bible  indirectly addresses most of these issues, but usually with generalizations. The result is that we have freedom to apply the  principle in ways that build up. For example, how many children does “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) require? Does it forbid birth control? Is less than four sinful?  Although Genesis 1:28 is a direct command to be fruitful, it does not mandate the number of children. So we have freedom to apply the principle in ways that builds up those around us.
Does the Bible address recycling or global warning? Not directly. It does command us to exercise “dominion” over the planet (Gen 1:26). But we have freedom to apply that principle in ways that edify in each specific situation.
Does the Bible tell us where to educate our children? No, it tells fathers to raise their children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Therefore, the clear principle is that it is up to each father, in each situation, to decide if public schooling, home schooling, or private schooling is the best way to accomplish that goal.

In summary, we don’t want to add rules to scripture. When D. L. Moody criticized Spurgeon for smoking cigars, Spurgeon famously quipped, “I am having enough trouble keeping ten commandments. I don’t want to add an eleventh.”

We should fear adding rules and regulations to scripture. The book of Revelation ends, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” (Rev. 22:18).

We rejoice that there are so few rules and regulations in the Bible. No dress codes, no dietary laws, no commanded fasts, mandated feast days, speech codes, secret handshakes, etc. This is one of the reasons that Christianity can so easily adapt to new cultures. Let’s work to keep it that way.
In closing, I think Kuyper was right. “The man who today forbids what God allows, might tomorrow allow what God forbids.” Since that is most likely true, let’s work at not adding rules to scripture.