A Kind of Legalism (Matthew 23:4)

Matthew 23:4


They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.


            The concept behind this verse has been something that has been challenging me for a while now. Do we do this that Jesus condemns? How? Why?


(To give proper credit here, some of the thoughts that I will share below are much more clearly articulated in Larry Osborne’s book Accidental Pharisees.)


            The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were not a people who wanted to destroy the faith of others. In point of fact, they believed that they were serving God and helping his cause. For sure, some of these men were wicked, irreligious, fortune-seekers; we have such people in every religious community. But, I think it is safe to argue that many of these guys got so excited about the rules of law out of zeal. They wanted to follow God even better than the way God commanded. They wanted—to risk using a modern term—to be radical.


            Do we, out of zeal and a desire to be radical, place burdens on others that God did not design? What would it look like if we did?


            Imagine that you find a standard or cause in Scripture that you are very excited about. It can be anything, big or small, popular or unpopular, man-made or actually biblical. You want people to get this point. You really want them to care. But the problem is the standard is not something we can fully describe pragmatically. Perhaps the questions would arise, “How much is too much,” or “In what way do we do this,” or “How long should I spend?” Imagine these questions are not answered by a biblical order. What do you do?


            Here comes the real danger for what Osborne calls an accidental Pharisee. Do you leave it to the person and the Holy Spirit to determine the lines, or do you help God by drawing the lines for the poor folks who don’t see this issue as clearly or desire it as passionately as you do?


            In order to avoid any appearance of me banging on someone else’s pet project, let me offer a fictional example. Let’s pretend that there is a verse which says, “Watch, therefore, no movies which are overly girly lest your own manhood be compromised” (2 Opinions 3:12). This is a good verse, and should be obeyed. But how? How do we help men obey this verse?


            Perhaps we have a conference on it. We have men watch Gladiator, Tombstone, and Saving Private Ryan. We show them manly movies in all their glory. But then we also prescribe some helpful applications for them. We tell them things like:

·        If anyone cries, the movie you are watching is too girly.

·        You should watch at least 1 manly movie per month to keep yourself appropriately manly.

·        If you even see an actor like Hugh Grant on a TV interview show, you must turn the channel immediately.

·        Prominent chick flick actors and actresses are to be avoided at all costs.

·        If a movie lacks gunfire or explosions, it is likely inappropriate.

·        If a movie has dramatic violin music and subtitles, it is very likely out-of-bounds.

Obviously, we have a good set of rules. These rules will help someone keep the commandment of 2 Opinions.


            But, does the 2 Opinions commandment really say not to allow someone to even watch an interview with a chick flick actor? Does the 2 Opinions commandment actually say that there is a monthly movie mandate? What if you just don’t like movies? Then what?


            Or, what happens if a more radical kind of 2 Opinions follower emerges? Perhaps this person says that it is all well and good to watch 1 manly movie per month, but it is far more radical, far more truly sold out, to watch 1 per week. Hey, what about a group that is ready to go on a 40 day mission of manliness watching 1 per day? Is that group better or worse than the one that is sticking with the monthly mandate?


            Wait. The commandment only told us to avoid overly girly movies. There is nothing in the command at all about how often one is to watch manly movies. In fact, there is nothing in the command to watch manly movies at all. The manly movie mandate is an applicational tool made up by the leaders of the conference to help men to learn to be manly movie connoisseurs.


            Does this illustration hit the mark for you? Can you see how, if we are not careful, we will take our good ideas about how to follow Scripture—not even scripture itself—and apply those ideas to others to “help them?” Do you see how we can, if we are not careful, begin to look down on others who do not practice our personalized plans as somehow less radical, less committed, less sold-out for Jesus?


            Goodness, notice, in my fictional command, that there is not even a definition of what actually is an overly girly movie? There is some sappy romance in a Spiderman flick. A purist might want to warn us off. And the command says nothing about explosions or subtitles.


            The point here is that we need to be more careful not to take the commands of God and add to them. We need to not weigh people down with extra burdens that they cannot lift. We have no right to demand that others live up to our expectations if those expectations are not clearly God’s expectations. Nor do we have the right to demand that everyone buy into every good cause or big idea with our own degree of passion.


            I do not desire that we would stop trying to make modern application of actual Scripture. What I do want us to consider, however, is how we often go beyond Scripture to lay burdens on others that God did not design. Battling sin and temptation, loving God, leading a family, holding up in a tough workplace, honoring Jesus the whole time, these are all tough enough. We do not want to add to God’s calling rules that weigh people down with more guilt for things that are not in the rules in order to supposedly help them keep the rules.


            Some might argue, by the way, that this kind of talk is risky. If we say stuff like this out-loud, people will take grace for granted. They will start to believe that God does not require obedience. If we aren’t careful, people will turn to lawlessness. Can I simply point out that this is one of the complaints people were clearly raising against Paul, and he was obviously preaching the true gospel.


            No, I’m not into cheap grace. I’m actually a believer in the fact that there is no salvation apart from the lordship of Christ. But, I do believe that there is salvation and even honoring Christ that can happen apart from anybody applying standards to others that are not actually in Scripture.


            So, how does this apply to you? Are you someone who adds burdens to others? Are your burdens biblical or man-made? Or, are you on the other side, ignoring even God’s commands in the name of supposed “freedom,” an equally deadly sin. Where are you tempted to make up the rules for what others should do, avoid, or care deeply about? Where are others doing this to you? How can we live for Jesus without adding burdens to others that we cannot help them budge? How, at the same time, can we call others to live for Jesus and obey his commands?

1 thought on “A Kind of Legalism (Matthew 23:4)”

  1. I appreciate this because there is a friend who, in their quest for closeness and holiness, think everyone should feel the same about what is right and what is wrong to celebrate during Christian holidays. No Santa, No toothfairy, No Easter Bunny and apparently 'We', meaning all their friends need to 'check out' what they just learned about the Origins of Easter. We will all be shocked and probably shouldn't decorate eggs now :/ It makes it hard to appreciate that they truly are just looking for a closer relationship to God. Unfortunately, they're quick becoming annoying.


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