To the legalist, almost everything is black and white. There are no grey areas. The Bible calls these “disputable areas” (Rom. 14:1). The historic church has called them adiaphora. Simply put, grey areas are things of which the Bible does not approve or disapprove that we have cautious freedom to participate in. Legalists love to focus on these grey areas, just waiting to rob you of your freedom. They have their “scruples” and if you don’t live by them, watch out! Their lists are long and varied.

Let me calm down for a moment. All of us have our “scruples,” including you! I remember at seminary one of my professors had problems with mixed bathing (girls and guys swimming together). I had a guy at Credo a couple of day ago whose church believed that men could not have a beard. Three days before, I was with two people who came from a tradition that said they must have a beard! I, personally, have a problem with people who asked for raised hands in church when evangelizing (“I see that hand”). Oh, I have my reasons, but I can’t really justify them as being biblical or the act as sinful. They are just scruples. These are things I don’t like, make me uncomfortable, and make me squirm. But they are things about which the Bible is indifferent.

The lists are long.

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Taking anti-depressants
  • Smoking
  • Going to the movies (or even having a television)
  • How one dresses
  • Dancing
  • Colorful language
  • Where you go to church
  • When you go to church
  • If you go to church (in this case, people require you to be in a church building once a week—in other words, church is always a building you go to rather than something that you do.
  • Celebrating Halloween
  • Playing Santa Clause with your kids
  • Starting a church in a bar
  • Driving a Camaro (okay, now this one is objectively right!)
  • Having breast implants
  • Wearing make-up
  • Living in a very large house
  • Standing on the side of the road begging for money
  • Seeing nudity (remember, in the Bible lust is the issue, not nudity—there are societies of people who don’t wear much clothing at all)
  • How often one has communion
  • Baptizing in a pool
  • Tattoos
  • Being too involved in politics
  • Not being involved in politics at all!
  • Styles of worship music
  • Eating meat
  • Head coverings
  • Listening to rock and roll

I could go on and on. I could also get a lot more controversial, but I have probably hit on one of yours and at least made you uncomfortable.

Each of us can be legalistic in a way. But the problem is not so much the scruples themselves, but when you require others to live by them. Legalists pressure people to live according to their lists and drain people of their freedom. The result is paralyzing. It creates great fear and a distorted view of God and the Gospel. We need to get over the scruples and understand that there is a lot the Bible does not speak on. We are not bound to the opinions of others.

Paul speak directly to this in Roman 14. He says of those who are looking down on others for not following their list:

“Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”(Romans 14:4)

We answer to God, not the lists of others. This is the Gospel of grace. This is what relieved the apostles as they lived in fear of the mile long list of the Pharisees. But Christ came in and set them free.

Romans 14 speaks of those who are free and exercise this freedom as the “strong.” He speaks of the one who has scruples as “weak.” But the strong person is not to regard with contempt the one who is weak (Rom. 14:3). And this is important as it is easy to get angry with people whose weakness keeps you from exercising your freedom in Christ.

However, we also must realize that there are “professional weaker brethren.”  These are people who tell you to live by their lists so they don’t stumble. But the problem with these people is that they should have grown out of this mentality. Paul does not intend for the weak to stay weak. I have to repeat that as it is so important: Paul does not intend for the weak to stay weak (much less make a profession out of it). At some point they need to concede that what they are preaching, teaching, requiring, and demanding of us is unbiblical and does not bind the conscious of others.

If  we were to bow to every scruple of every believer in fear of offending them, we would be able to do nothing. Nothing! The least common denominator would make us immobile. These “professional stumblers” (another good name) are legalists. Let me rephrase, they are legalists so long as they require you to live by their list of grey areas.

Friends, we must be willing to fight for our freedom. Yes, you will lose friends and family members. Yes, pastors, you will run a lot of people out of your congregation. But it is worth it. Christ was always running people off as he was unwilling to bow to the scruples of others. In fact, they hated him for it. You may be hated, maligned, gossiped about, and hung on a cross, but we cannot give in. Legalism is the most destructive enemy of the church there is. Grace and legalism cancel each other out.

What are some of the things I missed on the list?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    12 replies to "I Can’t Live According to Your Lists"

    • Nick Norelli

      I’m with you! In fact, just this afternoon I said many of the same things as I discussed listening to “secular” music with a couple of friends. One said that whether we realize it or not that music plants a seed and influences us. I conceded that that is true of some but certainly not all (music has never influenced me to do anything; visual media stimulates my sinful passions, not music). Another said that listening to it can be a stumbling block for others. I noted a real life example of certain people I went to church with being offended by my eating fast food after they decided to go organic in their diet. He immediately recognized that that was ridiculous. So I asked where we draw the line? What, exactly, can’t be considered a stumbling block by someone?

      I say let everyone be fully persuaded of their own convictions when it comes to these grey matters. It’s up to the individual to know what they can and cannot handle. Of course I’m not arguing for some kind of all encompassing subjectivism; simply on the matters where God has not spoken definitively. At the same time, I explained that I wouldn’t listen to “secular” music around people who I knew were bothered by it. Using my freedom to intentionally offend or make a point is a whole different kind of sin.

    • Matt Anthony

      You missed “doctrinal legalism.” This includes things such as, A true Christian is pre-trib pre-millennial; reads only KJV; doesn’t read opposing doctrinal views; maybe summed up best with, doesn’t think. I was taught those along with your list.

    • Glenn Shrom

      Some Christians say they don’t believe in remarriage after divorce. They are opposed, that is, until you tell them that the person they remarried is the same one they got the divorce from in the first place. 🙂

      You hit on quite a few. “Giving the appearance of evil” is one that is hard to deal with, especially when the “better” translations say “every form of evil”. You can always find some practice which someone will think appears evil to them.

      How about things like letting the offering plate go by without putting anything in it?

      Becoming like a heathen to win a heathen (participating in Ramadan as a cultural event, wearing a Burka to win Muslim women to Christ, etc.)

      Plastic surgery.

      In some churches, saying you are sick or poor. In other churches, mentioning the word “prosperity” without a scowl on your face.

      Saying anything positive about gay marriage, like it might lead to more adoptions of children who would otherwise be aborted. Saying anything negative about the bullying that is done towards homosexuals. Attending a same-sex wedding.

      Saying anything positive about an atheist. In the USA, not willing to pledge allegiance to the flag, or for some, pledging allegiance to the flag at all. Pointing out to the AFA that “to serve God and country” is to serve two masters, something ant-Christian that Jesus said you can’t do (subject to interpretation).

      Being a vegetarian.

      Working in evolutionary biology or old-earth astrophysics.

      Reading a Catholic author or saying anything positive about a Pope.

    • Stephen

      We also have to be careful of “reverse legalism”. My Dad was brought up in strict Wesleyan Holiness type churches. Churches where you weren’t supposed to have TV, where women were supposed to wear dresses down to their ankles, not wear jewelry, not cut their hair, etc.

      Such rules or customs left such a bad taste in his mouth that to this day, he cannot seem to speak civilly about such churches. I always have to hear him bashing people who adhere to those customs. He is so adamant about it that it seems like he, and others, have adopted a reverse legalism. A legalism which looks down its nose on those who see no value in having a TV in their home. A legalism which looks down its nose on women who prefer to wear nothing but skirts and dresses and who prefer not to wear makeup or cut their hair. A legalism which states that a Christian SHOULD have TV or that Christian women SHOULD wear pants, etc.

      It has been my observation that legalism and liberty are both two sides of the same coin. Some people parade their liberty about to such an extreme that their idea of Christian liberty becomes a legalism by which they judge others. They have found liberty to have a television, so they adopt that as a legalism by which to judge those who choose to live life without a TV. Folks who have found their liberty for women to wear pants have adopted that liberty as a legalism with which to bash and look down their noses at those who prefer to dress in a more old fashioned, traditional manner…almost as if it is a sign of spiritual maturity for a woman to wear makeup and jewelry and to wear pants.

    • Wolf Paul

      Glenn, your first example is of a different nature altogether from the others … firstly, because it has not been considered as “indifferent” or “adiaphora” until very recently in the history of the church, and secondly, because of the hypocrisy involved.

      But I especially like your last two and would add to them, reading (and claiming to have profited from it) “progressive” or “liberal” Christian authors.

    • Glenn Shrom


      By “first example” I’m thinking you mean the one about Ramadan and the Burka. I’m not sure I follow you completely. As a Christian, I don’t think we’d want to say that we are obeying Allah. But on the other hand, if nobody around you is eating during the daylight hours, and then you go ahead and do so, it seems to me to create hard feelings where there needn’t be any. The same goes with wearing western dress where the social norm is to be covered. Nothing in the Bible prevents forces us to eat when nobody else is eating, nor to uncover certain parts of the body.

      I am glad for your supporting comments about the last two! 🙂

    • Rob

      I would question the one about colorful language as I see scripture deal with it bluntly. For the record I don’t require those around me to restrict their speach but scripture is clear.

      “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (‭Ephesians‬ ‭4‬:26-5:4)

      Corupt talk, filthiness, foolish talk, crude joking… Pretty clear to me. And the reason is that we are, as children of God, to exude godly character. He says this type of behavior is “out of place, not proper among saints.” He reiterates this contrast through chapters 4 & 5. I agree with everything else. But we are also called to be wise and sometimes that means not viewing nudity, drinking alcohol, or other “controversial” topics. 1 we are td to not give opportunity to the devil for temptation(eph 4:27), 2 to be careful to think we are strong in that area lest we fall(1 cor 10:12), so that the name of Christ may not be blasphemed by the world(rom 2:24), instead if we live righteously, soberly, and godly(1timothy), they may glorify God as we fullfil God’s will for us to be transformed daily into the image of God. Also Hebrews 13 would also elude to a purity of abstinence from nudity.

      Overall, a great article. There is a balance of not being legalistic, yet to not take license as some “freedoms” are not “beneficial, tho they be permissible”(1 cor 6:12/10:23)

      May we live biblical, holy lives reflecting the nature and character of God and if anything gets in the way, whether good or bad, it needs to be shed.(heb 12:1-2)

    • Add to the list of taboos is being a biker and a Christian. Just because I throw out an occasional popular colorful euphemism, figure of speech, or saying that is being used in context of subject matter. If a certain doctrine is way too polemic and I call it bullshit, then the so called “upright Christian folk” in the crowd always take offense, point out some passage of Scripture in an attempt to correct me, or tell me that I am not a Christian. I got news for ya all, I ain’t your white-washed, holier-than-thou, holly roller type, even though I’ve also been accused of being that also. Go figure.

      What I really take offense to is being told that “Jesus would not have… (fill in the blank(s), etc, etc, etc. Fellow Christians, I got news for you. Jesus got nailed to The Cross for being controversial and going against the social norms and religious people of His day while He was on Earth. Why do we seem to forget just how much of a rebel He really is, and just How simple His message really is?

      Before any of you decide to answer that, remember what Jesus said to the crowd that day when they were going to stone the woman for adultery. “Let the one amongst you who has no sin, cast the first stone.”

      Christians seem to forget in light of church traditions, doctrine, denomination, or cult tendencies (aka, post-modern effect) that none of us are all that, we all have sin issues going on, and Sanctification on this side of Heaven is a bitch.

      It’s Miller time…

    • Wolf Paul

      No Glenn — I meant those Christians who speak out against divorce & remarriage when they themselves are divorced – perhaps you did not intend that as a “list item” or I misunderstood the situation you were describing.

      BTW my first name is Wolf 🙂 very confusing, I know.

    • Nikki Stone

      Romans 14 is a very interesting chapter that I do believe that the Christian community as a whole needs to read and reread …. basically what Paul is pointing out is that we can not make our personal convictions into God’s law … Personal convictions are just that “personal” and they change with time … Enjoyed the blog 🙂

    • David Sexton

      Great article as always Michael!
      I believe as our culture gets more evil it’s going to be more and more difficult to convince Christians to be distinct. Today a subject of legalism will be more of an issue then it was 100 years ago. Most of things that are legalistic are of an outward appearance. Like what Christ said of the outside of a cup. It’s really a matter of the heart, as we are all called to grow in knowledge and in grace. Here’s a great example I think helps me. If I see a kid in the mall with his pants half way to his ankles, I don’t have a right to tell him how to dress. On the other hand; if I want to appeal to him to grow in Christ I’m not going to use a method by me appealing to him with my pants halfway down to my ankles either. I keep myself distinct so he can ascend and grow in knowledge and in grace.

    • John

      What about naturism? Is that a grey area or always wrong? I see it’s been getting more popular since lockdown and quite a few Christians are advocating it.

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