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Am I a Legalist or a Libertine?

Living out our Christian faith is not about following parochial rules or personal rationales but purposefully responding to the Scriptures and the Spirit.

Social media has been abuzz because of this year’s Grammy Awards’ performance of the song “Unholy” by Sam Smith and Kim Petras. According to the Christian Post, they “delivered a demonically-inspired performance in which Smith, at one point, donned the top hat with devil horns while dancers gyrated around him while wearing grotesque face masks.”[1]

Criticism from the Christian community was swift. A debate also ensued as to whether those Christian artists present should have remained at the awards and if those who performed afterwards should have done so. The opinions varied, and you can search the web and social media to find all the drama and discussions.

I also ran across an online debate regarding whether Christians should attend Beyoncé concerts. Based upon the discussions, I was left with several questions: Is she part of the illuminati? Does she practice witchcraft? Is her husband’s, Shawn Carter (Jay-Z), album JayHovah a blasphemy against Jehovah, the covenant name of God?

The debate eventually entered the realm of the apostolic, with tutorials about the eye and ear gates of our souls; that is, what we watch and hear.

All these conversations caused me to reflect on the state of the church. On one side, we have the evangelical-holiness wing, which argues that God still distinguishes between the profane and holy, the clean and unclean. On the other side, we have the enlightened-libertine wing, which argues that the traditional, institutional church is Pharisaical, and each person should determine his or her own relationship with God.

As a Pentecostal trained by Evangelical institutions, I certainly fall in the former camp. The Bible is consistent between both testaments that the called-out people of God are to think and live differently than those who are not in a covenant relationship with Him—i.e., the world. Israel was to live differently than the nations they were dispossessing, and the church is to be salt and light among the ungodly. To say it intra-testamentally: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (cf. Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16).

Is postmodernism to blame? Partially. It is evident that our culture is anti-institutional, homogenously segmented, and adverse to any claims of universal truths or norms. But the church has historically experienced debate between what some would refer to as the legalistic and libertine wings of our faith community.

Paul had to address these two camps at the church in Rome. They were debating whether it was right to eat certain foods, drink certain beverages, and observe a particular day as holy. (It’s funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same.) Paul’s apostolic advice: “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).

According to BDAG, to be fully convinced carries with it the idea of being “assured, certain.”[2] What I find striking about this word is that it is in the passive voice. This means that our assurance or certainty about our conviction must be based on something or someone other than ourselves.

As born-again Christians, which are the only Christians there can be (John 3:1-7), we are guided by Scripture and the Holy Spirit. Our convictions cannot be based on popular culture, what we think or feel, or what sounds sensible. The Bible gives us our guide for living out our faith. It provides us a general framework for what is and is not acceptable. Sometimes, this may take a bit more scholarship because there are questions that we have today which were not an issue in the days of the Bible, but we have general principles that help us to make biblically-informed decisions. For example, cocaine is not in the Bible, but the Scriptures do inform us not to be under the influence of wine (i.e., mind and behavior altering substances [Eph. 5:18]), so we can reasonably conclude that it is not acceptable to use cocaine.

Additionally, we weigh the evidence of Scripture in consultation with the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said would “lead and guide us into all truth” (John 16:13). This is the same Spirit, by the way, that guided the authors of the very Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:20-21) we are consulting for how to live out our faith in an ungodly society.

Therefore, we wrestle with the questions of our generation by consulting the Bible and the Spirit to help us be fully convinced in our own minds about what is and is not acceptable behavior for a Christian.

Additionally, it is not about being a legalist or a libertine but a learner. A learner is one who is willing to weigh Scripture and the Spirit’s leading against the situations we are wrestling with. If after consulting the Bible and the Spirit we are assured and certain in our mind that the action is acceptable to God, then do it. But if we are not fully persuaded in our mind, then don’t do it. It’s quite simple.

The challenge for the church today is not to hang our hats on historical Christianity, because we would have to get rid of our marbles, televisions, and beach memberships. At the same time, we cannot rest our coats on our personal thoughts and feelings. However, we do have two objective sources, working together in unity, to help us discern what God’s will is in general, if not specific, situations.

Do I lean more holiness than openness? Sure. But I also enjoy going to the movies, playing cards, and encouraging our young people to go to college. So, I guess in some instances I’m a legalist and in others I’m a libertine. What matters most is that in whichever camp I find myself as I make decisions, I am fully convinced the Bible and the Holy Spirit agree.

Rev. Isaac Hayes is the founder of Healing of the Soul Ministries and author of Men After God’s Heart: 10 Principles of Brotherly Love. He is also an Assistant Pastor at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, Illinois, and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Follow Rev. Hayes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @RevIsaacHayes.

[1] [2] BDAG, 827.

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