Flesh Tank and Peashooter Regulations

This coming Thursday evening, at the second half of our annual business meeting, we will be voting on the proposed amendment to the church covenant. I want to try to clarify this morning what is at stake in this decision and to apply the Word of God to our present situation.

From 1871 to 1946 Bethlehem had no church constitution or covenant. From 1946 to 1965 Bethlehem lived under a covenant identical to the one we have today, except that for those 20 years there was no clause about abstaining from alcoholic beverages. In 1965, the church amended the covenant to add the sentence, "We engage . . . to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage." The constitutional effect of this amendment in 1965 was to make total abstinence from the use and sale of alcoholic beverages a prerequisite for church membership.

The Proposed Amendment

The amendment before the church this Thursday is to replace the sentence about total abstinence from alcohol with a broader commitment that would require a good deal of heart searching and biblical self-examination. It would read as follows: "We engage . . . to seek God's help in abstaining from all drugs, food, drink, and practices which bring unwarranted harm to the body or jeopardize our own or another's faith." I wish I could help everyone see that the reason I support this amendment so strongly is not to encourage, but to avoid a great evil. Alcohol abuse is a great evil in our land. And no one can reasonably construe the proposed amendment to countenance such abuse. Not only that, I regard total abstinence generally as a wise and preferable way to live in our land today. It's the way I live, and the way I will teach my sons to live.

The proposed amendment is not designed to encourage anyone to drink alcoholic beverages. It is designed to drive us to biblical, spiritual self-examination in view of the stupendous fact that we are God's dwelling and are called to love one another and to build up faith wherever we can. The requirement of total abstinence, on the other hand, is heeded by millions of unbelievers and unspiritual church attendees. It is a regulation that requires no inner love to God or love to the church. The proposed amendment, however, drives us to God because it makes us ask, "Why abstain?" It makes us face the deep issue of whether we are following a tradition or whether we love with all our heart the holiness of God and the spiritual welfare of our fellowmen.

What is more, the proposed amendment will give a tremendous support to those of us who believe that alcoholic beverages can be dangerous and should generally be avoided. It supports the choice of abstinence not by explicitly requiring it for church membership, but by giving the deeper, spiritual, biblical mandate of purity and love which lead to abstinence for those who judge alcohol harmful. The proposed amendment is not weak on alcohol. If we believe alcohol is harmful to health or faith, the amendment charges us to give it up. Therefore, as I said earlier, the reason I support the amendment is not to encourage a great evil, but to avoid a great evil.

The amendment will help us avoid evil in two ways. It will help us by drawing our attention to other activities besides drinking which enslave us and do no good to this bodily temple of God or to anyone's faith. The amendment says that we will "seek God's help in abstaining from all drugs, food, drink, and practices which bring unwarranted harm to the body or jeopardize our own or another's faith." All drugs, all food, all drink, and all practices are to be passed through this biblical sieve: do they bring unwarranted injury to the body, and do they threaten anyone's faith? Among other things, this is a strong statement against the use of mind altering drugs, because no one experiments with drugs in order to increase his trust in God, and build the faith of his friends, and preserve the health of his body. The amendment is broad and goes to the root issues of holiness and love and, therefore, it is flexible and able to address with power every new threat to holiness and love that comes along from year to year.

A Biblical Definition of Legalism

But the main reason the proposed amendment will help us avoid evil and the chief reason I support the amendment is that it helps guard us from an unbiblical legalism and exclusivism. Let me define what I mean by legalism. The New Testament does not use the word "legalism" and, therefore, it is thrown around today pretty carelessly. I want to try to define it in such a way that you can see that it is evil and that the New Testament does indeed deal with it, even if it does not use the word. I use the word "legalism" in at least two senses, but both have a common root problem. First, legalism means treating biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God's favor. In other words legalism will be present wherever a person is trying to be ethical in his own strength, that is, without relying on the merciful help of God in Christ. Simply put, moral behavior that is not from faith is legalism. The legalist is always a very moral person. In fact the majority of moral people are legalists because their so-called Judeo-Christian morality inherited from their forefathers does not grow out of a humble, contrite reliance on the merciful enabling of God.

On the contrary, for the legalist, morality serves the same function that immorality does for the antinomian, the free-thinker, the progressive, namely, it serves as an expression of self-reliance and self-assertion. The reason some Pharisees tithed and fasted is the same reason some German university students take off their clothes and lie around naked in the park in downtown Munich. The moral legalist is always the elder brother of the immoral prodigal. They are blood brothers in God's sight because both reject the sovereign mercy of God in Christ as a means to righteousness and use either morality or immorality as a means of expressing their independence and self-sufficiency and self-determination. And it is clear from the NT that both will result in a tragic loss of eternal life. So the first meaning of legalism is the terrible mistake of treating biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God's favor. It is a danger we must guard against in our own hearts every day. And please know that my old self is just as prone to it as anyone.

The second meaning of legalism is this: the erecting of specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for full participation in the local family of God, the church. This is where unbiblical exclusivism arises. There is no getting around the fact that the church does not include everyone. We do exclude people from membership because we believe worship should imply commitment to the lordship of Christ, the head of the church. But exclusion of people from the church should never be taken lightly. It is a very serious matter. Schools and clubs and societies can set up any human regulations they wish in order to keep certain people out and preserve by rule a particular atmosphere. But the church is not man's institution. It belongs to Christ. He is the head of the body, and he alone should set the entrance requirements. That is very important!

As the church covenant presently stands, we are compelled in principle to say (and I am concerned precisely with the principle): "Brother (or sister), even though you trust Jesus Christ as your Savior and aim with all your heart to live under his lordship and have been duly baptized according to his ordinance and give hearty assent to our affirmation of faith, nevertheless, you can't be a full participant in the family of God here because your use of wine doesn't square with ours." I am persuaded in my mind and in my heart that such a regulation falls into the category of legalism and falls under the judgment of the apostolic word in Scripture. I'll try to show why in a moment.

The Root of Legalism Is Unbelief

But first, recall that I said these two uses of the word "legalism" have a common root. I want to bring out what that is before we look at Colossians 2. On the one hand, legalism means treating biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God's favor. On the other hand, it means erecting specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for full participation in the local family of God, the church. In the first case, we use our own power to make ourselves moral. In the second case, we use our own power to make the church moral. In the first case, we fail to rely on the power of God for our own sanctification. In the second case, we fail to rely on the power of God for the sanctification of others.

Therefore, what unites these two forms of legalism at the root is unbelief—unbelief in regard to ourselves that it is God who works in us to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12, 13); and unbelief in relation to others that God will make his will known and incline them to do it. As Paul says in Philippians 3:15, "Let those of us who are mature be thus minded, and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you." He confidently entrusts the purification of the church to God. Wherever happy confidence in the sovereign power of God for our own lives and the lives of others grows, weak legalism creeps in. For we inevitably try to compensate for loss of dynamic faith by increased moral resolve and the addition of man-made regulations. But wherever joyful confidence in the power of God is waning, the flesh is waxing. Which means that the very morality that we had hoped would save ourselves and the very regulations we hoped would purify our church fall victim to the massive power of the flesh, and become its instruments of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

Brothers and sisters, these are not the words of a man who in soft on evil. I hate evil, with the apostle who said, "Abhor what is evil, and cleave to what is good" (Romans 12:9). I abhor the evil remaining in my own heart and see enough of it there to break the stiff-neck of my pride every day. I want to hate what God hates and love what God loves. And this I know beyond the shadow of a doubt: God hates legalism as much as he hates alcoholism. If any of you still wonders why I go on supporting this amendment after hearing all the tragic stories about lives ruined through alcohol, the reason is that when I go home at night and close my eyes and let eternity rise in my mind, I see ten million more people in hell because of legalism than because of alcoholism. And I think that is a literal understatement. Satan is so sly. "He disguises himself as an angel of light," the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 11:14. He keeps his deadliest diseases most sanitary. He clothes his captains in religious garments and houses his weapons in temples. O don't you want to see his plots uncovered? I want Bethlehem to be a place Satan fears. I want him to be like the emperor in "The Emperor's New Clothes." And we will be the babes (not in thinking! 1 Corinthians 14:20) who say, "Look, he thinks he is clothed in white, but he is naked and ugly."

Listen as I uncover one of his plots. Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn't look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don't feel welcome in church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church. Therefore, what we need in this church is not front-end regulations to try to keep ourselves pure. We need to preach and pray and believe that "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither teetotalism nor social drinking, neither legalism nor alcoholism is of any avail with God, but only a new creation (a new heart)" (Galatians 6:15; 5:6). The enemy is sending against us every day the Sherman tank of the flesh with its cannons of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. If we try to defend ourselves or our church with peashooter regulations, we will be defeated, even in our apparent success. The only defense is to "be rooted and built up in Christ and established in faith" (Colossians 2:6); "Strengthened with all power according to his glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy" (Colossians 1:11); "holding fast to the head from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together, . . . grows with a growth that is from God" (Colossians 2:19). From God! From God! And not from ourselves.

Five Implications of the Redemptive Work of Christ

And now I focus your attention on the text which has been the seedbed of all these thoughts. Colossians 2:16–23. We will undertake a detailed study of this letter at another time and try then to describe the false teaching at Colossae. But short of that there are five very brief observations that we can make from verses 16–23 relating to the issue of total abstinence as a criterion for church membership.

In the preceding paragraph Paul teaches that when we are baptized as an expression of our faith in Christ, we die with him and are made alive as new people. We are forgiven all our sins, and the warrant that the law had out for our arrest is torn up. Christ so fully satisfied the righteous demands of God on our behalf that we are freed from the curse of the law; and the demonic powers that loved to torment us with guilt and enslave us with legalism are disarmed and defeated. How then should we live as new creatures in Christ, set free from the power of legalism?

In verses 16–23 Paul draws out some implications. I'll try to sum up what he says in five observations. First, "Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink." The consumption of food and drink is in itself no basis for judging a person's standing with God or standing in God's family. To be sure Paul had to deal with the abuse of food and drink; the problem of eating meat offered to idols and the problem of drunkenness (1 Corinthians 8, 11:21; Romans 14). But his approach to these abuses was never to forbid food or drink. It was always to forbid what destroyed God's temple and injured faith. He taught the principle of love, but did not determine its application with regulations in matters of food and drink. This is also the aim of the proposed amendment to the church covenant.

Second, verse 18, "Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels," etc. The false teaching at Colossae had two parts: it called for angel worship on the one hand, and strict ascetic regulations on the other. Both of these were erected as requirements for those who wanted to qualify for "fullness of life" (2:10) or for full participation in the spiritual community. Paul denounced both requirements. Their theology is wrong because all the fullness of deity dwells in Christ (2:9), not angels. And their ascetic regulations regarding food and drink are useless because they are only shadows of reality and lead to being puffed up.

Third, the source of life and purity and growth is not through religious visions (2:18) and regulations about food and drink, but as verse 19 says, through "holding fast to the head (Christ) from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God." The only hope for spiritual growth and health in the body of Christ (Bethlehem Baptist Church) is personal cleaving to Christ the head, not exclusivist regulations.

Fourth, verses 20 and 21, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch' (referring to things that all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines?" The implication of these verses is that a church which erects regulations about food and drink as a means of judging or disqualifying does not yet know what it means to die with Christ and be freed from the powers of the world. It seems to me that this is exactly what I said earlier: wherever authentic, joyful confidence in Christ diminishes, regulations are brought in to preserve what the power of Christ once created. If you erect enough regulations and build a big enough endowment, an institution can endure for decades after the spiritual dynamic that brought it into existence is gone.

But, and this is the fifth and final point, (verse 23) "These regulations, though they have an appearance of wisdom in promoting vigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, nevertheless are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh." The entrance requirement of total abstinence at our church may secure for us a membership with one common attitude towards alcohol, but it is no help in making us a pure people who do not live according to the flesh (Romans 8:13). On the contrary, by imposing a restriction which the NT never imposes, this entrance requirement in principle involves us in a legalism that has its roots in unbelief. It is a sign of the faded power and joy and heart righteousness that once was Bethlehem, and, God helping us, will be again.

I think the best way I can summarize what I have tried to say is to read a letter from my Father dated November 10, 1981. With this I close.

. . . Your previous letter had raised the question of alcoholic beverages in relation to church membership. This is a real toughy. Most of the churches in which I minister have it directly in their constitutions and by-laws that no member will buy, sell or use such beverages.

I think my attitude and thought is this: The church should take a strong stand against such an evil and such an enormous destructive force, but should not include this or any such evil in its by-laws. My reason for this is first, that you cannot legislate righteousness or make people more holy by having laws, one any more than another. For example, what about living as man and wife without benefit of marriage and what about homosexual practices, or for that matter what about smoking or gambling.

Understand me, as I am sure you do, I am definitely for living a separated life. And, I think as ministers we are responsible to expose all such evils and let the church know what is wicked and wrong in this world. But I faced and saw the weakness of legislated righteousness years ago. I cut my eye teeth on preaching against THE BIG FIVE—dancing, drinking, smoking, gambling, and theater going. I heard messages against these things by the dozen. I heard very little about gossip, covetousness, a hateful spirit, etc. I observed that people who adopted this separated life often become pharisaic and proud of their separation, and I heard very few sermons against such pride. For example, one preacher I knew observed that while some women thought separation meant wearing long hair, they often had tongues as long as their hair!

So, while the problem is surely not a simple one, I think if I had a church and wrote my own constitution, I would word it positively, perhaps saying, "It is expected that all members will abstain from habits and life styles that fail to honor Christ and will seek to perfect holiness in the fear of God doing everything in word and deed to His honor and glory." Something like that, anyhow. And then leave it to the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the word to effect the right results . . .