Another question I routinely get asked is one everyone — myself included — has asked on numerous occasions: “Can I do ____?” This inevitably seems to lead to self-justification and nuancing of exactly what we were asking. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. Everyone does that . . . right? So what I really meant to ask was if I can do <minutely modified version of original action>. So, can I?”
Entire books have been written on this sort of thing, and most of them are directed at teenagers and young adults, it seems to me. Most people who grew up in church or around other Christians know you’re not supposed to have sex before you’re married, but that seemingly simple rule had caused gallons of ink to be spilled in attempts to pin down what exactly it does and doesn’t mean. If standard vaginal intercourse is right out, what about other specific intimate acts? And what happens after marriage? Does that give the married couple free reign to do anything they please, regardless of violence, humiliation, or other considerations?
“Can I do ____?” is an entire industry. The problem, of course, is it’s the wrong question to ask (or at least it is nine times out of ten, in my opinion). And we all know how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question. (I personally thank Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for getting that message through to me.) When we make our religion a series of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” we turn it into a legal code. Legalism, the name we give to this sort of behavior, has always been a serious problem for Christianity, but it seems to have really blossomed over the last century or so. Certain theological movements and denominations can be worse for this than others, and it creates a bit of tension between Christians. (“They believe you can do X, but I think you can’t. I believe we can do Y, but they don’t.” You get the idea.) Denominations have undergone complete schisms because of this attitude. Legalism takes a religion based upon love and holiness and turns it into a set of rules. Then people who live by the rules without having a personal relationship with the risen Lord think they’re still okay soul-wise. It’s a serious problem.
I do want to be perfectly clear, however, about what I’m saying here. I’m not advocating for some sort of antinomianism or hedonistic/humanistic Christianity where anything goes. We do have rules, and we do advocate people follow them. The Bible makes this explicitly clear. The problem arises when the rules become the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. A relationship with God, personal holiness, saving faith — these are the main thing. The main thing is not legalism.
Similarly, I’m not jumping on the “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship” bandwagon so popular among evangelicals today. It’s rubbish. A religion is a means of thinking about divinity and the interaction between humanity and deity. Christianity is definitely a religion, and Jesus Christ very much founded a religion when he and the Holy Spirit established the Church. The Christian religion has done amazing things as a religion, and it’s done horrific things as a religion. Regardless, it’s still a religion. Now, I understand what these guys are saying. They’re decrying the empty rituals, the hollow rites, the mindless adherence to church protocol which can come out of a religion being followed just because it’s a religion. I get that, and I’m on board with you 100%. Going through the motions — a form of legalism, if you will — won’t cut it, either, no matter how many times you flawlessly recite the creed, genuflect in front of the crucifix, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. All of these things must be done out of faith stemming from one’s relationship with God lest they be futile human actions. When infused with faith, all the trappings of religion come alive. So when I say the “Can I do ____?” question is the wrong one because it’s legalism vs. relationship, I’m not throwing out ritual, rite, ceremony, or anything else, even though they can become empty legalism themselves (as can about anything else).
With that said, legalism is still the wrong way to look at our faith. We don’t need to base our entire view of our religion on a yes/no dichotomy. Instead, we base it on our experience with Jesus Christ. As we grow in faith, love, and holiness, we draw closer to God. We more readily discern His will, and we’re more sensitive to the internal promptings — the “still, small voice” — of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer. In turn, this closeness comes out in the way we act. Instead of trying to walk a fine legal line, God shows us in our very thought processes and gut instincts what we should and should not do. God didn’t give us a thousand-paragraph legal code with two additional volumes just for footnotes (although I’m sure some people would argue the 613 commands in the Mosaic Law can come pretty close at times). What God did give us was a comforter, an encourager, and a moral guide. The Holy Spirit directs our steps the same way Scripture acts as “a light unto [our] path.” As we live in this grace-filled relationship, we occasionally stumble and cross a line, but mercy and healing follow as we ask them from a loving God.
The next time you’re tempted to turn a matter of faith or behavior into a “Can I do ____?” situation, stop for a moment. Pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Set aside a legalistic mindset and embrace a relationship with the God of grace and love. Then act in a way which is biblical, is consistent with the will of God, and is respectful/loving of yourself and your fellow human beings. Above all, realize it’s probably the wrong question to ask anyway. The right question is, “Will this help or hinder my relationship with God?”
The right answer to the right question is something always worth knowing.