Balance is everything – and if you don’t believe me just drink too much alcohol and then try to walk somewhere! Or even better, try riding a bike! It’s obvious really, isn’t it? (Not that I have ever done so myself, of course! Or at least, not for a great many years!) Yet many Christians fail to realize the importance of applying this principle in a spiritual sense aiming constantly to be a balanced disciple. Indeed, there are things concerning which believers are, as drunk men do, so to speak, falling down all over the place. And one of the most important – outside of stuff like being balanced husbands, wives, parents and the like – is being balanced in regard to our relationship to the Word of God. You can fall off a log two ends, and in exactly the same way there are mostly two equal yet opposite errors regarding varying biblical truths. We will look at two areas of biblical understanding where such errors are common, the aim being simply to do everything we can in order to get the balance right.
Example Number One: The Twin Errors of Doctrinalism and A-Doctrinalism
The Error of Doctrinalism
I am doubtless not alone in having come across Christians who, though rightly believing scripture to be our final authority in all matters, seem to live their lives as if discipleship was merely a matter of ascertaining what scripture teaches about various things, and then just outwardly adhering to what it says it as if it were just some kind of religious system of objective ethics that we should be enacting. I do not suggest for one moment that such folk are not genuine believers, of course not, but they do seem to go about things as if apprehending the teaching of scripture was a purely academic and intellectual affair, rather than the means by which we can get to know Jesus better and better both personally and subjectively.
One of the things the Lord was keen to make clear to people concerning His written Word was that, as well as being true, accurate, and infallible, and all that stuff, it was also the means by which people can come to know and experience Him. Or to put it another way, it’s all about Him and not just doctrine. Biblical truth is the means, but the ‘ends’ is coming to know Him more and more – and it is the ‘ends’ that matters here and not the actual means. The moment you make the ‘means’ of the scriptures more important than the ‘ends’ of an ongoing ever-deepening subjective relationship with Jesus, you have pulled out the rug from under the true faith and ended up with little more than merely a doctrinal and religious system. What you then have is no longer true biblical Christianity, but rather what I have come to term mere Doctrianity.
As long as our perception of biblical truth is that of academic intellectualist understanding and theological systems, we are falling short, or, rather, falling off the spiritual log. Let me sum up the totality of Christianity, biblical theology and doctrine in just one word: Him! And if you add anything else to that, or think for but one moment that there is anything more to the above than simply Jesus Himself, then you err. The scriptures indeed lead us to Him, and are simply a ‘means’ – though the primary ‘means’, to be sure – of being able to know Him more and more; but when it becomes just about scripture, then it is no longer about totally Him, and Him only, and we, however unwittingly, drift away from Him.
Doctrinalism is indeed an error, and a very serious one too. It is also deeply subtle, because it is the way in which Satan deceives and distracts those who are, absolutely properly and correctly, serious about scripture. And of course it is obviously those of us who precisely do take scripture seriously who are the greatest threat to him, and who therefore most need to be neutralized.
We turn now, however, to the equal, yet opposite, error into which have fallen those Christians who, by way of contrast, fail to be as serious about the teaching of scripture as they ought.
The Error of A-Doctrinalism
Now by this I mean the attitude which creates a false dichotomy between the Bible and a relationship with the Lord, and which inevitably results in the rejection of whatever biblical teachings don’t suit one. Or, to put it another way, the emphasis is on a subjective and personal relationship with Jesus as opposed to being tied down by the any verses such as one doesn’t like in the Bible.
The reason this is an error, and an extremely serious one as well, is its failure to realize that even though we are believers, we are still massively prone to deception by the enemy. Indeed, as Jeremiah points out, our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and we are therefore incapable in this life of having any kind of ‘hotline to God.’ Therefore, as long as deception is such a distinct possibility: indeed, such a distinct probability, our greatest need is for an objective and definitive declaration of what is and what isn’t God’s will, written down in black and white in plain English for all to access. We have it, of course; and it’s called the Bible. And it’s pertinent in the extreme to take note of the simple fact that the one thing Christians are warned against in the New Testament more than any one other thing is precisely the danger of false teaching and deception.
There is therefore only one ultimate test as to whether or not any idea, doctrine, understanding, personal leading or guidance is of the Lord, or a deception of the enemy, and that is by the test of conformity to scripture. The Holy Spirit wrote the Bible, albeit through the numerous third parties whom He inspired and, being also the Spirit of Truth, will never contradict Himself, or lead and guide anyone in any way contrary to what has been revealed through what He has written. And whenever we have ideas and notions that are in any way contrary to biblical teaching, then the principle is simply this: the Bible is right and I am/you are wrong! That is simply the end of the matter and all there is to it!
This is why, for instance, no matter how convinced people are concerning it, the Lord is not raising women up into church leadership. This is why also, irrespective of whatever ‘leading’ or ‘guidance’ is being claimed, the Lord is neither leading people who have been un-biblically, and, therefore, illegitimately, divorced to re-marry. This is further why no believer ever has been, or ever will be, led by God to marry an unbeliever, even though there are deceived Christians who will argue black-is-white that the Lord leads some of His people to do all these things. The principle by which we must live and order every aspect of our discipleship is so simple it’s beautiful: anything that goes against the teaching of scripture is, by definition, wrong, and is being instigated by deceiving spirits and not the Lord.
In our modern feministic, family unfriendly and relationship commitment-loathe culture, many Christians are selling out to like never before, and doing everything they can in an effort to make Christianity more palatable to everyone. Well, I gotta tell you, what scripture teaches never has been, nor ever will be, palatable to unregenerate sinners. But to those who truly love the Lord, and who realize that loving Him equates to being obedient to Him, and therefore obedience to His Word (there is, after all, no other way to know what He wants), what it teaches is pure delight. I am delighted, for instance, that when I became a believer the Word of God showed me that feminism was wrong. I am delighted that it showed me that marriage is for life, and that nothing is more sacred than godly family life, and God’s patriarchal order for it.
We are all unbalanced in different ways, and one of the reasons we need both scripture and other brothers and sisters to be accountably learning from it with, is that none of us can be trusted to go it alone. Indeed, the very basis of church life is for all to take part in church gatherings and for all to share together, plus for decision-making to be collective and consensual; and this is so precisely because no one person can ever be balanced enough, and therefore trustworthy enough, to get things right on their own. We need each other precisely in order to be constantly balancing each other up.
As yet-sinful individuals we are prone to every imbalance and error under the sun, and so are we corporately as churches too. Our only hope is to constantly look to Jesus, embracing the fact that discipleship is about Him, and Him alone, and that the only way we can know what He wants is ultimately through the teaching of scripture. He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14v15) It really is that simple. To say we love Jesus and to then not obey Him is a contradiction, and I think we would all agree with that; but many believers get round it by precisely setting up the false dichotomy we have already noted of it being either Jesus or the letter of scripture. They disobey Him by, ironically, claiming that He is actually leading them to do so. What utter nonsense! What scandalous nonsense too! The only way we can know anything of what the Lord wants is through the teaching of scripture, written by Him. It is our final authority in all matters, and if something does not conform to it, then it is a deception and therefore wrong, pure and simple.
Rather like election and free will (for a fuller examination of the balance between these two strands of biblical teaching see my video series, “Embracing Biblical Truth Biblically” at http://www.house-church.org/movies_main.htm), this is strictly a both-and situation, with the errors we have examined arising when believers try to make it an either-or one instead. My prayer is that Doctrinalists come to know the Lord in a genuinely personal way, and that the A-Doctrinalists stop messing about and start getting serious about being in obedience to what the Bible teaches in it’s entirety. In Acts Paul told the Ephesians that he had taught them ‘the whole counsel of God’ and it is time that we did likewise, and stopped picking and choosing which bits of the Bible we like and which we don’t. To be unbalanced is, by very definition, to be indeed heading for a fall.
Example Number Two: The Twin Errors of Legalism and License
I think it’s pretty much the case that most Christians are aware of these two errors, and that they are actually erroneous, but there is so much confusion about what each one actually is that we would do well to put on our thinking caps and really get it sorted out in our minds once and for all. You see, the thing that so often goes wrong here is that you just end up with legalistic Christians pitching into licentious ones without realizing that what they are doing is coming out of their legalism, whilst licentious Christians pitch into legalistic ones without realizing that they are reacting from their position of licentiousness. Indeed, it’s further the case that Christians who are actually biblically balanced get labeled by legalistic ones as being licentious concerning certain things, and by licentious Christians, to be legalistic concerning others. (Let me make clear that I am not here using the word licentiousness in regards to it’s primary meaning of sexual immorality, but in its secondary sense of people claiming a license; that is, the freedom, to go against the teaching of scripture.)
The Error of Legalism
I will define legalism thus: the error of legalism occurs when Christians demand more of, and from, each other than does scripture, failing to limit demands and requirements to the terms and conditions of the New Covenant. Whether it be the imposition of things specific to the Mosaic Law, or things completely outside of specific scriptural purview, legalism seeks to put restraints and limitations on people that the New Covenant does not. This error usually falls into two categories.
Firstly, it needs to be realized that the Mosaic Law and all of its requirements applied to Israel as a nation, and not to anyone else. Moreover, even Jews are now free from it, it having passed away as a result of Jesus’ death on the cross, being both superseded and replaced by the New Covenant, as revealed primarily in the New Testament. Therefore, such things as tithing, Sabbath keeping, sacred places and/or buildings etc have no place in the New Covenant. They therefore have no part in either individual or church life, being excluded from the New Covenant and replaced by entirely different requirements, terms and conditions.
Secondly, requirements that are not dealt with in scripture, and concerning which there is a complete absence of chapter and verse, are to be seen as purely matters for the conscience of each individual, and not, as legalism does, made either compulsory or forbidden. I include here such things as watching TV, playing games, participating in sports, home schooling, plus a gazillion other things. Paul deals with this quite clearly in Romans 14, and if there is no chapter and verse mandate, either commanding or forbidding a particular thing, then whatever that thing might be, it is entirely an individual matter and must never be made an issue for enforcement. Simply put, if there is no clear chapter and verse commanding something, it must never be made mandatory, and if there is there is no clear chapter and verse prohibiting something, then it must never be forbidden. Therefore, anything that clearly falls under the banner of black-and-white chapter and verse, such things, for instance, as stealing, lying or drunkenness, are to be forbidden, and believers are to hold each accountable pertaining to such, whilst anything where there is not such black-and-white chapter and verse is to be left a matter for individual conscience, others having no right to pronounce disciplinary judgment concerning it. It is obviously valid that we are free to disagree with each other regarding such things, and to debate them, but only as long as it is in love and mutual tolerance, and as long as we never break fellowship concerning them.
Legalistic Christians, therefore, are those who seek to make mandatory such things as scripture does not, for example, Sabbath-keeping or tithing, or who seek to forbid such things as scripture does not, such as, for instance, playing games, dancing, doing sport, sending their children to school, or anything else not clearly specified in the New Covenant.
The Error of Licentiousness
It should be easy for the reader to now see why legalism and licentiousness are always at war with one another, being polar opposites plus the positions of believers who are, merely as people, let alone as Christians, the opposite ends of each others spectrum. But having seen the error of the legalists, we now turn to the equal and opposite error licentiousness: and if it is the case that legalism demands more than does scripture, then licentiousness is the equal and opposite failure of Christians to demand from each other as much as scripture does. Thus do we have the worldly and carnal compromising Chrisians, the Lord’s fair-weather disciples who buck against the comprehensiveness of holy living, and who want things to be other than as are taught by scripture, being soft not only on their own sinfulness, but also wanting to friends with the world and to be at peace with their surrounding culture by putting mere human philosophy above God’s Word.
Here are the Evangelical Feminists, plus the divorced church leaders who lack the integrity to have stepped down from their role as a result. Here too are those believers lax concerning sexual morality, and who are cool with Christian marriages ending without biblical warrant and with bestowing the freedom for those so doing to just go ahead and have a second or third crack of the whip once the latest divorce proceedings have been completed. Here are the Christians who tolerate other Christians marrying unbelievers, and who are both terrified and disapproving of even the mere mention of accountability and church discipline. To them, those of us who are serious about scripture, by which I mean those who are so in the balanced way we are arguing for, are considered too extreme, divisive and troublesome. But of course! You see, they think we are dangerous legalists!
Not for them Paul’s ‘difficult’ verses about women not being permitted to teach or be church leaders, or about husbands being the heads of their families, or those irksome words from Jesus about illegitimate re-marriage being adultery. Oh no! That’s just all too extreme! It’s apparently not loving or tolerant enough, even though what the Lord Himself actually believes. Whether in their seeker-friendly evangelism or their fellowship and Bible study together, repentance is virtually never mentioned; unless, of course, it is the need for people like me to repent of our alleged legalism. I have, for instance, heard and read countless examples over the years of genuinely Christian Bible teachers who, whilst completely ignoring the verses concerning women being in submission to their husbands, and not being allowed to teach or have authority over men, castigate those who actually believe and obey what Paul wrote, condemning them outright as bigoted chauvinists and oppressors of women, and duly demanding their repentance. Crumbs! Do they seriously believe that people like me are going repent of actually believing and obeying what scripture teaches? Just what kind of nonsense is this that we are up against today?
Such Christians are licentious because they turn the freedom we have in Christ into the liberty and license of being free to disobey scripture, and to sin, whilst yet claiming to be in obedience to the Lord. The love of God is virtually all they talk about, whilst His anger against sin and disobedience, including the unrepentant sins of His people, is never mentioned. These folk would never home in on, for instance, the third chapter that James wrote, because it depicts the wrong kind of ‘God’ for them and is just all too negative and legalistic. Theirs is a ‘god’ who just loves everyone to bits, and who and is cool with just about anything and everything; and anyone who teaches to the contrary, even though actually quoting chapter and verse from scripture itself, is said to be unloving and judgmental. But of course they are! You have to understand, you see, that to quote chapter and verse, should it be one of those chapters and verses they don’t like, is what they define legalism as actually being. When a verse says something they like, then they happily claim the authority of scripture for themselves, but when it’s a verse that says they don’t like so much, and that they don’t approve of, such as women not being allowed to teach, then it’s apparently just ‘the letter of the law’ and not the Spirit, so they don’t have to comply because the Lord is leading them in other ways. And of course the verse in question here (2 Corinthians 3v6) and has become what I term the So-Called Biblical Charter of Christian Licentiousness, and is, of course, being completely twisted. The context in which Paul makes the contrast between the ‘letter’ killing and ‘the Spirit’ giving life is not various written words of scripture versus the leading of the Holy Spirit, but the Old Mosaic Covenant versus the New Covenant. Paul isn’t teaching a (completely false) dichotomy of between either scripture or God’s leading, but is contrasting the fact that whereas the Mosaic law can only condemn one for being sinful, the New Covenant, due to the death of Jesus, and through the agency of the Holy Spirit is granting us spiritual rebirth when we repent of our sins and believe on the Lord.
So there you have it, the equal and opposite errors of legalism and license. And let’s not have any nonsense either with debates concerning which one is least serious and the error that least matters. You might as well ask if stealing is better than lying, or whether fornication is all right because it’s not adultery. When we have two options for error in front of us the response is simple; we reject both. I spend quite a lot of time in aeroplanes, and in particular at 37,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, and they all have two wings from which, theoretically, I could choose to hang. But hey, guess what? Yes, you got it! I invariably settle for a nice warm safe seat at the centre of the plane in the fuselage. Remember, you can fall off a log two ends, but how much better to just hang on for dear life in the middle.
I don’t suggest for one moment that any of us are completely free of either one or the other of these errors; or indeed, from being subject to a bit of both of them at the same time, just regarding different things; but what I do say is that it is quite straightforward, as well as perfectly possible, to recognize any significant leanings in such regard such as we might have in either, or both, directions, and to put things right before the Lord, balance up and make ourselves accountable to others so that they can assist us in so doing. It is, indeed, just ‘A Question of Balance’; and as well as being one the best albums of all time by The Moody Blues, it should also be one of the major quests of our discipleship.