On my morning commute I heard Johnny Cash sing about being free from the chain gang. One line from the song struck me: “I got rid of the shackles that bound me and the guards that were always around me.”
It made me think of a recent conversation with some friends that came out of a legalistic Pentecostal church. The wife was condemned for the grievous sins of cutting her hair and wearing slacks. The pretext for this condemnation comes from a flawed understanding of Paul’s guidelines in 1 Corinthians 11.
If I rightly understand 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is not concerned with establishing a particular fashion for women in the church. He is instead, pointing out that the behavior of the women in the Church in Corinth should not cause those outside the church to think them to be socially inappropriate. In other words, they were not to allow their freedom to be expressed in ways that would damage the reputation of Christ among those who do not yet know him.
How ironic is it that those who use an over literal interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 end up doing the exact thing that Paul seeks to avoid. By their literal interpretation, they succeed in making the church look odd.
It does not matter what the particular issue is, legalism is a form of bondage. Yet as Paul reminds us in Galatians 5:1, we are not to allow ourselves to be put in the chain gang of legalism. The whole point of a chain gang was that every prisoner had to be in lock step with the man before him and behind him. They had to move as a unit because of the chains.
The chain gang is a fitting picture to illustrate what legalistic churches do to their people. They put shackles upon them and force them into certain behaviors that will identify them with the group. In the Galatian Church, the issue was circumcision, in my friends’ church, the issue was women’s hair style, it other churches it is movies, jewelry, dancing, Bible version, music, dress length, wearing of suits and ties, not wearing suits and ties, speaking in tongues, not speaking in tongues, the list of behaviors that can be turned into the chains of legalism is endless.
There are some behaviors that The Bible clearly indicates are inappropriate for followers of Christ. Paul addresses one such behavior in I Corinthians 5. I am not advocating that there be no standards of behavior. But where we go wrong is when we take our preferences, or perhaps even our own personal convictions and make them standards by which other must live. We may have good reasons for our own behavioral boundaries, but those reasons may not apply to our brother or sister.
Can we have enough faith in God to allow him to direct his people on issues where Scripture is not clear? For example, drunkenness is condemned in Scripture but consumption of alcohol is not. For reasons that are particular to me, I have the conviction that I should not consume alcohol. But I cannot, based on my reasons, inflict my personal standard on others when Scripture provides no justification to do so.
In the same way, if a woman feels that she should not cut her hair or wear pants, I cannot say she is wrong for holding to that standard. But this would not give her the freedom to condemn those who do not hold to that conviction.
We have freedom. Let us live as though we do and allow others to live in freedom.