In the Lordʼs day the Pharisees propounded a doctrine of extreme legalism whilst the Sadducees aimed at removing Judaism from its narrowness by sharing in the advantages of Greek life and culture. The Pharisees advocated complete separation from all non-Jewish elements and were a strictly legal party: the Sadducees were more a political party smaller in number but rich and powerful. In a similar vein in the Apostle Paulʼs day there were the Stoicks and the Epicureans (Acts 17:18): the former said abstain whilst the latter said indulge. In every society, religion and ideology has produced the identical extremes—the legalist and the liberalist; those who abstain and those who indulge. Sometimes this happens unconsciously, being an instinctive reaction against a real or perceived extreme: sometimes the situation occurs because of a conscious conviction that the extreme position is correct.

In our day the same attitudes are inevitable. They may parade themselves under various titles or perhaps be labelled by others in a manner described in Ephesians where one party spoke of the other as “the circumcision” or “the uncircumcision” (Eph 2:11). The real danger in these situations is that one may be driven into an extreme position because of the desire to ʻeffect a balanceʼ.

Legalism is comfortable—rules kept, good works done and therefore a reward earned. Liberalism reacts to that in the extreme and mistakes freedom in Christ for licence to live outside law or rather to be a law unto oneself. In some instances there can be a defiance of things that are right as a protest against perceived extremism. This is truly a tragic situation but ʻextremes beget extremesʼ.

Liberty in Christ

Human nature being what it is, we each have a predisposition to either a positive or a negative attitude to life in general and to the Truth in particular. It is easier for the negative type brother or sister to hedge themselves about with rules and laws: in this they feel secure and may genuinely feel that they are “preserving the Truth” from apostasy. Unfortunately they may also develop a judgmental attitude towards fellow believers who do not see or live the Truth precisely as they do.

Human nature being what it is… the more positive brother may react to this position by demanding his freedom, protesting his liberty and in so doing, turning that liberty into a licence to do whatever his flesh dictates. Such a situation is set out in 1 Corinthians 8:9 where liberty may become a stumblingblock to others, as well as a perilous course for the brother himself—“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak”.

The Apostle Paul said, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). However, this did not mean that Paul was a diplomat beyond the limits of the law of God in Christ. Whilst he was an advocate of liberty in Christ his instruction to the believers was, “… ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). In other words, the Apostleʼs message is that our liberty in Christ gives us freedom to serve one another.

James speaks of the “perfect law of liberty” and contrasts this with the Law of Moses (James 2:10–12). Unlike the legalism of the Law of Moses, this law gives us freedom from sin and death because of the mercy it offers (Gal 5:1). However, a misguided use of this liberty can lead to its abuse, and if that danger existed in the days of the apostles it is certainly a greater danger in the licentious days in which we live.

Liberalism in Practice

Liberty turned into licence produces a liberalism which ultimately undermines established and accepted Scriptural traditions of doctrine and behaviour. It does not present itself as a blatant departure from the Truth but a ʻmoving with the timesʼ; a reaching out to those in the churches or in the world, probably with the most noble intentions. It may occur slowly and innocently. We would not expect a brother or sister to set out deliberately to sabotage the things we stand for: but merely to endeavour to make the Gospel more palatable to the unbeliever or perhaps present a more acceptable face to the world. We may not realise that we have gradually moved away from the well defined path—the “way” in which the true believer has trod down through the centuries as he longed and waited for the coming kingdom. We are perhaps simply reacting to an opposite extreme which we perceive as making an insufficient or unsatisfactory effort to reach out to, or cultivate the interest of the unbeliever.

Liberalism is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as that quality which is “favourable to progress or reform… favourable to or in accord with the policy of leaving the individual as unrestricted as possible in the opportunities for self-expression or self-fulfilment… free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant… not strict or rigorous… a person of liberal principles or views, especially in religion or politics”. It is obvious that the essence of this principle is self or the elevation and expression of the flesh. In fact, both legalism and liberalism elevate the flesh—one by denying it and the other by indulging it.

Because of the holiness of Yahweh whom we serve, there are restrictions and boundaries; there is a need for self-discipline and self-restraint. The doctrines of the Truth are moral and our response to those doctrines must be seen in a moral way of life, making no provision for the flesh. There is need to “ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein”. This does not change with the times nor does it require modification or adornment such as modern style music or “gospel songs” that can be purchased at any “Bible Bookshop”!

The apparent exclusiveness of the legalist in our midst can make us wish to run to the opposite extreme and lovingly embrace all those “nice” people out there whilst disregarding the purity of the Truthʼs Biblical doctrines and values. This inevitably leads along the path of mere humanism. Certainly we should have a desire to draw all men unto the Hope of the Gospel but on Godʼs terms and conditions—not manʼs and not to suit the particular situation or eccentricities of the prospective contact. Paul tells Timothy that God our saviour “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Then follows a succinct outline of the fundamentals of that “Truth”—“for there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time”. Despite our desire to draw men to God it must be for His sake and on His terms. We court disaster if we put aside the fundamentals of the One Faith as of no consequence, in a demonstration of the “milk of human kindness” which disregards the Glory of the Father and our duty of love and obedience to Him.

Liberalism in our day may also lead us to baulk at the rules, regulations, “standards” and “legislation” which we perceive as emanating from those who have burdened themselves under an extreme of law. “Action and re-action are equal and opposite” is a fundamental law of physics and the principle can often apply in human relationships. Because we feel the constraints of law we react by “casting off restraint”; by permitting ourselves liberties which can ultimately cause us to make shipwreck of the faith. Such behaviour is foolish and immature and more importantly, betrays a lack of daily application to the Word of Life. Neglect of the regular intake of the Spirit Word can seriously mar our judgment so that a spirit of humanism becomes the rule of determination of right and wrong. Rather, our course of action should be determined by what is in accordance with the Character and Glory of the Father. Anything that falls short of His Glory in that which we DO or OMIT TO DO should be counted as sin (Rom 3:23). The Scriptures will direct us to view life through Godʼs eyes as the basis of our judgment in all matters. In this case we will not need to resort to “Christian” literature for guidance in our relationships or daily walk, even if they do seem to be “easier to read” (whilst of course overlooking the doctrinal error contained in them!).

What should be done to avoid or remove these extremes from our community? Firstly, an awareness of the dangers is essential; then an honest assessment of our own conduct would set a very good basis to ensure that we are not victims of this phenomena. The practice of liberalism in our ecclesial life is a most dangerous extreme in light of the liberalism of the world around us. It blurs the purity of doctrine, casts doubts on the oneness of the Hope and labels as bigotry the uniqueness and separateness of the Truth.

Brother Islip Collyer has outlined a Scriptural principle by which we may measure our responses. In “The Guiding Light” (pages 71,72) he writes, “The world is full of unbalanced men and women, nearly all engaged in a work of destruction, and so little aware of their condition that it may be truthfully affirmed of them that ʻthey know not what they doʼ. We may well try to assist each other to maintain a better balance so that all may be able to render better service. Probably the greatest enemy is pride… If men are ʻpuffed upʼ they will not be balanced, either in their study of the Bible or in more general education. Neither will they develop the priceless quality of awareness, for they have already admitted the worst enemy of all into the mind, and they are not even aware of that. In such a condition only the rod of the Lord can save them. If, however, a man is not consumed with one of the many forms of disguised pride, there is hope for him in the quiet contemplation of the interrelationship of principles. Many principles may throw a light on balance, and in turn balance must be applied to all of them. ʻBe temperateʼ; ʻbe soberʼ; and ʻlet your moderation be known to all menʼ.”