Let’s talk about legalism. It’s demanding, prudish, and ultimately ineffective, yet so many Christians get caught up in it. I can define the entire legalistic Christian mindset with one example: swimsuits. This is especially controversial when it comes to swimwear for girls: one-piece or two-piece? Modesty or scandal? Oh, the drama is endless!
I go to a small-town Bible college which I really do adore. When we do school events that involve swimming, such as pool parties at a nearby YMCA, we wear swimsuits but, as I discovered, NOT two-piece swimsuits. As it happens, two-piece swimsuits are not prohibited in the school handbook but apparently they are not allowed. However, I was not told this prior to the party. We were, in fact, only encouraged to wear our most modest swimsuits. (I don’t consider any of mine immodest, but that’s blog material for another time.) So, owning only two-piece swimsuits, and being a girl fresh from a missionary life of beach living on the Indian Ocean, that’s what I wore. A bikini.
After an hour of swimming, some of the girl’s resident hall staff suddenly realized that I was – gasp! – wearing a two-piece swimsuit. Then, in the ensuing silence, with nearly a hundred pairs of eyes fixed on me, I was required to remove myself from the chin-deep water where I was swimming, and walk past everybody to get some sort of additional garment to put on atop my swimsuit. Let me simply confess that in my indignation, I stalked away from the pool and didn’t come back. I also considered delivering an impassioned soliloquy about injustice and the absurdity of legalism, but I would most definitely have said something regrettable. Anyway…
Long Beach, CA, 1937
Something snapped in my spirit at that moment. I was absolutely livid – though not for the reasons you might think. First of all, I should have seen it coming. I was the only female not wearing extra clothing over her swimsuit. Then I felt hurt for a few moments – if there had been a real issue with my swimsuit, wouldn’t one of my friends have said something? If there had been an issue, they certainly should have spoken up. It wasn’t as if we all weren’t swimming together already!
But, you see, it’s not actually about the swimsuit.
I’d also like to make it clear that it wasn’t about my person. Prior to the pool incident, some of the other girls had seemed surprised by my attire (I really should have known what was coming). One of them said, “Well, if I were skinny like you, I would wear a two-piece and I wouldn’t care what anyone else thought.” This deeply disturbed me. As if being a smaller size was the sole validation for wearing a particular swimsuit! This idea, too, was completely missing the point. The fact that I am small-framed does not make it acceptable or unacceptable for me to wear a two-piece swimsuit. The fact that another girl is larger-framed also does not make it acceptable or unacceptable. If the only reason women choose two-piece swimwear is because they are vain or prideful about their bodies, it would be completely wrong – impure motives being the problem. This post, then, is not meant to exalt or even recommend two-piece swimsuits, nor being “skinny,” nor any other sort of nonsense because those things are simply NOT the point. One could easily look at this issue through any number of examples: what movies are appropriate, what music is fine to listen to, whether people should be allowed to wear jeans to church – the possibilities are practically endless. Because, just as it is not about the swimsuit, it is not about size or shape or skin color or any of the external particulars that we might argue over.
I have always been a rule-follower, the stereotype “good girl.” It comforts me to have a list of rules because I can follow them – oh blessed list! – and feel good about my appropriate performance. My performance need not even face accusations, because I am always on the right side of whatever powers that be.
Now, as we get into this discussion, understand that when I talk about “rules” and “laws,” I don’t mean the obvious Biblical commands that we are called to obey (love your neighbor, do not steal, etc.) or the federal laws that we are bound to obey as citizens of our country (in accordance with the mandate of Scripture to obey authorities – for example, check out Romans 13:1-7). I am talking about the gray areas of personal regulations or the other Christian-ese rules that we compile with the other laws we should obey, to make up a single, lofty list: “Requirements for Being a Good Christian.”
Here’s the thing: there is nothing actually wrong with this. Scripture tells us to obey authorities, to follow rules, and to do what is right – all valuable and worthy goals. There is a particular mindset, however, that often comes along with “good” rule-following. The issue comes at the point when we cross over from obeying the rules to thinking that doing so will justify us – that is, legalism. This brings up a question:
Are we acting as we do because we know it is right and we are showing love to others or merely because it is the law?
We have two major problems that become glaring when we look at legalism. The first problem is that we tend to cling to the idea that we can “lead” people “into sin.” But that really is a fallacy. It is impossible to lead someone into sin. You can tempt people by what you wear or say or by the choices you make, but it is impossible to “make” someone sin. Consider the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba. Obviously there was no room for excuses from David such as, “Well, she was taking a bath where I could see her from my roof, so I really couldn’t help myself…” Clearly God would brook no such nonsense, and though David was angry that God sent a prophet to rebuke him, David knew his actions were wrong (especially considering he wasn’t out leading his army like he should have been). (Check out 2 Samuel 11-12 to dig deeper into this example.) Unfortunately, it is within the realm of Christendom and the Church that this “leading-people-into-sin” idea is most perpetuated. The entire concept is both disgusting and extremely un-Biblical.
In response to that fallacy, we must realize that we were created for freedom, freedom to choose. We should not think of this as freedom to do whatever we please but rather as freedom to choose what is right. We are always free to choose what is right. Romans 6:14 tells us, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” Do you see what this is saying? Christ gives us power to choose not to sin.
This is why it’s not really about the swimsuit itself – what we actually need to know is whether we females, by wearing our so-called scandalous two-piece swimsuits, are damning men to perdition by forcing them into the sin of lust (and other, darker things, as some might go so far to say). Is it the swimsuit that does it? It is the girl wearing the swimsuit? Whose fault is the sin? We struggle with the answers to those questions, and others like them, because we don’t really like to think about sin.
So we Christians seek to keep ourselves “safe,” not wanting to bear the guilt for causing anyone to sin – a most covert form of selfishness, because it is bound in a pretty wrapper of being beneficial to others. You know, “Avoid even the appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22) and all that important stuff. In order to achieve this “safety,” we construct neat, tidy, towering walls of rules and regulations: no two-piece swimsuits, no shorts higher than the knee, no crazy tattooing, no movies that are over PG-13 (except the Passion of the Christ), no being alone with a member of the opposite sex, no, no, no, no, no….And thus we build ourselves a cozy, sure little bubble of things we can and can’t do, because if we follow all the rules, everything will be fine and dandy. Or even if we don’t follow the rules, at least we know how to fast-track our way back onto the Heaven-bound path and get right with God: we simply have to follow the rules, a personal checklist to earning God’s favor….
Except that, too, is a lie, which leads into our second problem: external controls (rules and laws and even other people) cannot change hearts. No matter how many rules we follow, we can never change our hearts by simply obeying. And not only can external controls not change your heart; they actually have no power to combat sin in your life! Colossians 2:20-23 sums up the crux of the matter – which has nothing to do with which cut of swimsuit is appropriate:
‘Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – “Do not taste, do not touch, do not handle,” which all perish with the using – according to all the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.’
You can make rules like the ones mentioned above. You can swath women in fabric from head to toe, and you can take away every gun. You can ban abortion and alcohol. You can listen to only “Christian” music and demand that everyone else do the same. But none of these things will stop people from sinning. In fact, rules (even well-meaning ones!) are incapable of stopping sin because they only regulate actions or modify behavior. Wrong actions are the result of sin, but sin actually begins as a heart problem: dark thoughts, fleshly desires, wayward emotions. The nature of humanity has been tainted by sin since Adam and Eve made bad choices in the Garden of Eden; and our sin nature, the longings of our flesh, can’t be defeated by the external controls of laws. These laws appear to be right – noble, even – and yet, as we saw in the Colossians passage, they “are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh”!
Rules can’t set us free from the power of sin. Until people have an encounter with the living Jesus, their hearts will never be changed.
You might be protesting my strong stance on this. After all, according to Romans 14 and 15, we shouldn’t put “a stumbling block or cause to fall in our brother’s way” (14:13); we should walk in love and bring peace, not causing grief for our fellow believers by our actions (14:14-23); and we should bear each other’s burdens and seek the good edification of other believers (15:1-2). Also, following the previously-quoted section of Colossians, there is the admonition to clothe ourselves with godly ways (the “new man” we have through Jesus Christ) and live in love and peace with fellow believers, helping each other grow spiritually (3:12-17). This is all poignantly true. We ought to behave with love toward others, which means not doing things that we know will harm them (even if we think those things are fine) or cause them to struggle and stumble (because that would not be loving). If any of my guy friends had said that my swimsuit made them even the slightest bit uncomfortable, out of love I would have stopped swimming or found another garment to wear and made things right so that they could be well.
But there is another side to this, and that is what I am trying to illuminate without disregarding the need for treating one another with godly love:
Rules are not love. If rules had been enough to make love manifest, we would not have needed Jesus to set us free from sin and bring us into right relationship with Father God.
Rules can be good, helping keep us safe and promoting order. Humans are sinful, and because not everyone is walking in God’s ways, we need to have those external controls. But I will say again: rules are not love. Showing true, godly love and consideration for the people around us does not mean keeping a long list of unyielding rules. Following all the “right” rules cannot, in and of itself, display the love of Christ or truly help anybody.
Though we often have good intentions, using external controls to force a certain result is like keeping something dangerous locked up in a cell: no matter how well-guarded that evil thing is, there is always the possibility that it might escape. As a Bible college attendee, I have noticed that life at school is somewhat of a bubble where we make rules to help keep people out of trouble and free from temptation to sin. The problem is that the bubble isn’t real life. In real life, guys are going to see girls on the beach in two-piece swimsuits. And when they do, how are they going to react if they have been conditioned that any display of skin is wrong because it will sexually charge them to the point that they have no control and are “led into sin”?
We have a tendency to spend so much time removing temptations that we forget to teach our brothers and sisters in Christ how to deal with temptation victoriously. Because of that, we hear so many stories about pastor’s kids (or the pastors themselves), Bible college students, and other “good” Christians choosing to tear their lives apart with sin. Think about it: if the basis for our actions rests solely in the law, what happens when we come out of the little bubble of our local churches or Christian friend groups (or our Bible college campuses)? Well, suddenly those external controls are gone, and, with nothing to control you anymore, you run willy-nilly into all manner of darkness and delusion. Why? Because external controls remove the need for internal responsibility if we become too comfortable – after all, we are creatures of comfort who would rather not expend any unnecessary effort.
Our focus has been so wrong, because it isn’t about the swimsuit or the person or any of those other external things – it’s about the sinfulness of human nature.
Our sin nature is dangerous and evil, so we seek to lock it up behind a wall of rules, restrained by shackles of law – yet in the end, it is we ourselves who end up shackled by the law and trapped in a prison of rules that can only point out our flaws.
But then there is Jesus. His statement from the cross that ‘“It is finished”’ (Jn. 19:30) declared His triumph over the powers of sin and evil – it was a statement of completion, a sweeping victory that could not be reversed. When you allow the saving power of Jesus Christ into your life, becoming His, your sin nature is put to death (Gal. 5:24). It is not merely kept in a dungeon somewhere, leaving you with the lingering fear of its escape; it is utterly destroyed!
Then, by the power of His Holy Spirit at work within you, you come to a place where you do not need external controls to help regulate your actions, because your heart is in the right place. When your heart is in that right place of relationship with God, you will not need the safety net, the “bubble” of external controls because the Holy Spirit (sometimes called your conscience!) is your internal control. As Christians, we are called to walk in the Spirit (in step with the Spirit, doing the things of the Spirit) because we have been made alive only through the life of the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). We are meant to victoriously live out that which Jesus Christ’s death has already won – not because we are strong on our own, but because His Spirit is strong within us (check out Colossians 3:1-5).
1920’s swimwear via Pixgood
Ultimately, external controls are not God’s best – freedom is God’s best. As I mentioned earlier, true freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want but rather the power to choose what is right. In the end, external controls such as rules can help us regulate our actions or modify our behavior, but they can never be a substitute for the internal responsibility prompted by a heart that has encountered Jesus and been forever changed.
Here at the end of this passionate call to let the Holy Spirit be our guide, I have just two more things I want to mention. Firstly, I have now purchased a two piece swimsuit with a full-length top so I can honor even the implied rules out of respect for those in authority at my school. Secondly, I have now also been chosen to be part of the resident hall staff in the girl’s dorm, and I sometimes need to have discussions about what attire is appropriate – and I have times where I need to enforce certain standards. And in all this, I can’t say that rules are always right or always wrong, and I can’t say that I think two piece swimsuits always good or always bad. It is not and never has been about the swimsuit, about me, or even about rules. I desire to promote a culture of honor and grace everywhere I go, and I can only do that when I allow my life to be intimately transformed from the inside out by Jesus. No matter how silly or even twisted the issue at hand, making space for grace is always the right choice. Every one of us is learning how to walk in greater freedom and greater love with our Savior by our side. So be released to live in the spacious place of God’s grace that comes with allowing His Holy Spirit to be your internal control, and journey well, my dear friends!