Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hedge of Protection Rules, Accountability, and Legalism

I was having a conversation yesterday about something and this blog post comes out of that. In previous generations, Christians and vocational ministers often had so-called “hedge of protection” rules, such as: never counsel a member of the opposite sex alone, always call when you are travelling away from family, limit or get rid of TV, etc. These are also placed alongside accountability rules, such as internet software (at least in today’s society), weekly meetings, phone calls, and small groups. These rules are in place, ostensibly, to keep people safe, their hearts pure, and their focus on the Lord.

On the other hand, lately I’ve seen a lot of comments from contemporary Christians that such rules are not desirable. Even worse than this, they are indicative of either an immature Christian or else an evil and/or impure heart. So which side is right? How can we adjudicate this rationally and spiritually?

It seems to me, on the one hand, that the accountability side is right. We are made for community, both because we image-bear God (cf. Gen. 1:27) and because we are made to be in fellowship with each other, bear one another’s burdens, and so on (see literally any and all of Paul’s letters). Additionally, Jesus himself advocated for taking radical steps, albeit while speaking hyperbolically, to avoid sin (see Matthew 5:27-30). Paul urged us to “flee” youthful lusts.[1]

On the other hand, there is something right about the naysayers. There is a legitimate point to be made about legalism and how it doesn’t change your heart. If all you do is institute a bunch of rules, you may simply be revealing how sinful your heart really is, and these rules aren’t going to change that—they simply remove some particular opportunities to commit that sin.

Here, I think, is where we can find a rapprochement. It’s very true that if a man struggles with watching inappropriate things on TV, removing a TV doesn’t cleanse his heart or renew his mind. In fact, all it does is simply remove one way he might sin. He’s still living, and breathing, and thinking, and thus his problem is not solved. Thus, we can see if one is trying to cleanse his heart and renew his mind by simply hedge-of-protection rules or accountability, this will not work.

However, if a man struggles with inappropriate thoughts, and is in the Bible and praying, he may add accountability, and radical measures, and this will be fine, and even good for him! Why? Because it’s motivated by a desire for a change of heart, and as we are being renewed, we remove temptation from our lives where necessary. The arrow runs in the other direction. You’re not holy because you remove temptation; you are being made holy, and you recognize for your life you need to remove this temptation for a time, or even permanently. The danger is in thinking it somehow makes you spiritual, or in insisting others do it as well, or else be in sin.

This can be applied to other sins as well (indeed, all of them!). Gluttony—perhaps remove particular foods. Body image issues—perhaps remove particular magazines or TV programs. Gossip—perhaps remove yourself from particular friends for a while. The list can go on and on. None of these help you become spiritual. But what they do accomplish is to help someone who is becoming spiritual weather temptation in different areas.

Finally, one last note: we all struggle with something sinful. That’s because we all have a sin problem. So if you think, “If that person struggles, then he is really sinful,” just know you’re right. I am really sinful. And so are you. So pray for each other, and show each other grace. As (I believe) Mike Grover once suggested, too often we claim we have avoided legalism, but in reality all we have done is switched sides!

[1] Granted, this is plausibly in juxtaposition with “following” righteousness, faith, charity, and peace in the same verse, and so may be more metaphorical. Nonetheless, I suspect Paul may have had room for a literal application (Joseph, anyone?).

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