Not long ago, I was talking with a beloved Christian friend about the listed qualifications of elders Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 3:2-7. My insistence to abide by this list when considering what a pastor must be led her to gently confront me by calling me a legalist. Ouch. That sounds like such a bad word and it is used frequently amongst Christians when discussions about what the Bible says come up. In the past few years of growth in knowledge of God’s Word, I strive to remain humble when confronted with an area of my life that I may be falling short in. This is where genuine Christian accountability can perform at its best.
Being called a legalist is new for me, considering the flagrant ways I conducted myself in years past. In fact, I’ve used it “against” others many a time. Now come to find out, I was using it all wrong. When we call a biblical Christian a legalist for referencing the Bible to assuage their case for belief in one thing or another, we’re misusing the term. Unless we’re calling them out for using Bible verses to elevate abidance by, or above, one of the basic tenets of the gospel (salvation by faith alone, not by works). Unless they’re implying that by the obedience of these verses, we will gain a greater righteousness before God. If these Christians are proposing that following the words in the Bible are going to get them cleaner, farther and faster, they’re sorely mistaken. That, in a nutshell, would be a Christian deserving to be labeled legalistic.
The other side of the matter is when Christians utilize the directives, as recorded in Scripture, to justify their case that carelessness is abound in one situation or another, they’re not, by definition, being legalistic. As Pastor Kevin DeYoung quipped, “they’re being Christians.” To be sure, we are not under law (Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:18), judged by what it says. We are judged by God, whose laws are always righteous and, even through His mercies of sending Jesus to atone for our sins, His ways and desires for us to revere His laws aren’t abolished by Christ, but fulfilled (Matthew 5:17). The New Testament books are filled with writings trying to convey this point to us, one so easily misunderstood when taken lightly to mean that God’s Law is no longer good. It may not be in effect to the point where we need to follow it to achieve salvation, obviously, but His Law is always good because it is His (Romans 3:31; 1 John 5:3; Psalm 119). Just as we claim His grace is good, we must also accept that His law is, too.
This can be difficult to grasp, but much time is spent elaborating on it in the New Testament, so it is understandable that it causes so much confusion. One way I try to work it out in my mind is to practice not being a Pharisee (see the seven woes in Matthew 23), which is to apply the laws of God to others with a self righteous attitude and one where I suggest these laws need to be obeyed in order to achieve salvation, rather than receive it. So when in discussion with another believer, or even more so, in your own mind as you contemplate God and all that His grace and law encompasses, question whether your allegiance to obey to His commands is out of your desire to follow His Words because it is pleasing and He is deserving of it, or if your heart is desperately reaching for a salvation by works motivation. We all err on either side at one time or another, so to be testing yourself consistently is prudent. And, being tested by Scripture, foremost, and loving Christian brothers and sisters is a treasure not to go unrecognized.
Which leads me back to the issue that originated this post, the upholding of what Scripture views as requirements of our elders. This is a singular case that emanates into the many other directives God gives us throughout His word. To approach them with a pluralistic relativism puts the pressure on us as to whether we take God at His word, period. We must be careful when assessing which parts of the Bible we want to accept as “gospel truth.” I admit that I have a painfully simplistic view when asserting that what He says, we honor, regardless of what direction our emotions or feelings lead us. Because, as believers in the Trinitarian Godhead, we need to submit to His authority above all else. So what He deems as prerequisites for eldership is right, good, and just. Although we may not understand the whys of what He states, we worship a God that gives us His laws and statues for our own good; which in reverence to His sovereignty, we must trust.