Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers are fond of saying, when confronted over their cultic, authoritarian, legalistic codes of conduct, that they are not legalists; that legalism is adding works to salvation. In this post, I intend to use a recent article by Bob Gray, Sr. to demonstrate that IFB preachers such as Gray are indeed legalists despite their protestations.
The first time I heard the argument that “legalism is adding works to salvation” was in the 1980s in a sermon preached by IFB luminary James Dennis, the now-retired pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. The Baptist Temple (as it is commonly called), as is the case with most IFB churches, had a long list of rules (standards) church members were expected to explicitly keep. Anyone who was in leadership or worked in any of the church’s ministries was required to sign statement saying that they would obey and practice the church’s standards. Women, of course, were not permitted to wear pants, and men were not allowed to have long hair or facial hair. There were other rules detailing what entertainments and social activities were forbidden. These standards were the Baptist Temple’s version of the unalterable laws of the Medes and Persians (Daniel 6:8). Refusing to sign the form meant you were not permitted to serve in the church and were branded as rebellious and unsubmissive to the will of James Dennis — I mean God.
When thoughtful people would object to the strict rules, they would often say that the church’s standards were legalistic. Pastor Dennis’ response was to remind them that legalism meant “adding works to salvation,” and neither he or the church was doing that! According to Pastor Dennis, the church’s standards were derived from the Bible and were simply a statement of how God expected Christians to live their lives.
Bob Gray, Sr. uses the same arguments in a recent post titled, How to Tell if You are Being Legalistic. Gray writes:
Legalism is salvation by faith plus works! It is salvation plus baptism, plus church membership, plus keeping the law, plus communion, plus confession.
The Seventh Day Adventist doctrine, Church of Christ doctrine, Catholic doctrine, Armenian doctrine, Armstrong World-Wide Church of God doctrine, the Mormon doctrine, and the Jehovah (False) Witness doctrine are legalism.
Right off the bat Gray establishes with no justification other than what he has made up in his mind that legalism is “salvation by faith plus works! It is salvation plus baptism, plus church membership, plus keeping the law, plus communion, plus confession.” Thus, Seventh Day Adventists, the Churches of Christ, Roman Catholics, Armenians [sic], Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all preach a legalistic, works-based false gospel.
Using his made-up definition of legalism, Gray then proceeds to share why he is most certainly NOT a legalist. Gray, the retired pastor of Longview Baptist Temple in Longview, Texas writes:
Legalism is not a godly mother who insists that her daughter dress modestly. Legalism is not parents enrolling their children in a Christian school that believes as they do about separation from the world. Legalism is not a dedicated aged godly dad who takes his son to the barbershop instead of a beauty shop every two weeks.
Legalism is not a faithful youth director who insists his teenagers dress appropriately. Legalism is not a hard-working pastor who insists that his Sunday school teachers not smoke, not drink alcohol, no tobacco use, no movies, they visit absentees, and go soul winning.
Legalism is not the careful godly educator who forbids his students to dance or listen to bad music. Legalism is not the man of God who cries aloud against mixed swimming, in essence, mixed nudity, against vampire lipstick promoting drugs, and young males with their Billy Idol bleached porky pine spiked chili bowl hair do!
Right has not changed and wrong has not changed just because you enter into a different century. Black is still black and white is still white. Good is still good and bad is still bad. Legalism is not the faithful man of God who cries aloud against sin.
Was Paul a legalist when he told men not to have long hair in I Corinthians chapter 11? Was Paul a legalist when he told the ladies not to have short hair in the same chapter? Sit still and read the rest of the article before you become mad!
Was Moses a legalist when he said, “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” or when he said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery?” Was Paul a legalist when he said in I Timothy chapter 3 that the deacon should not be double tongued, or when he said a deacon should be the husband of one wife, or should be honest, or should be temperate?
Was Paul a legalist in I Timothy chapter 3 when he said the pastor should be sober, or the husband of one wife, or not greedy of filthy lucre? Was Titus a legalist if he obeyed the Apostle Paul in Titus chapter 2 when he told the aged men to be sober, grave, temperate, sound, loving, patient and the aged women to be holy and temperate? Was he a legalist when the told the young ladies to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, obedient to their husband, and the young men to be sober and of sound speech?
As a result in our day, we find ourselves not fighting the vehicle of formalism; as Dr. John Rice boldly put at the top of his SWORD OF THE LORD paper in a banner. We find ourselves fighting INFORMALISM. The pendulum has swung to another extreme with the same cry against the rest of us who hold our feet to the fire on being separatist and are being called “legalist.”
It takes more than facial hair to make a man. Your flowery shirts and glass pulpits are not impressing the Holy Spirit at all. Your “worship teams” disguised as a singing group are not fooling anyone. , especially the Holy Spirit of God. Your colored lights to get the atmosphere you want is insulting to the Holy Spirit. When you decided to secretly follow Rick Warren you had to embrace the tactic of calling the rest of us “legalists.” You are substituting convenience for conviction.
God’s people have a choice! You can be free inside of the walls or you can be enslaved outside the walls. It bothers me when I hear God’s people using liberty as a license to sin. Liberty is inside of the Laws of God and not outside of the Laws of God. Every commandment, rule, or standard of God has been given for one purpose and that is to build walls around his people especially the young people.
Liquor, dope, elicit sex, Hollywood, cigarettes, bad music, etc., enslaves and is addictive. God’s do’s and don’ts build walls of protection for his people!
If fundamentalism is not careful we will lose everything that is near and dear to us! Being a fundamentalist is more than believing salvation by grace, verbal inspiration, plenary inspiration, preserved inspiration, virgin birth, sinless life of Christ, security of the believer, and vicarious death of Christ. Being a fundamentalist also includes having some rules and standards to live by so we can be free.
Those rules are bricks in a mighty wall that has been built by our founding fathers so that we might have a place of freedom in this world of slavery. Rules and standards have never enslaved for the truth is they liberate for all that enslaves has been placed outside the wall.
We know cigarettes enslave so we put nicotine warnings on the outside of the packages so why shouldn’t God’s people put them outside the wall. The same is true of marijuana, liquor, and dope.
I thank God every day for an old-fashioned wall building Mama, teachers, and preachers! Thank God for wall building schools, colleges, churches, Bible Conferences, and leaders who stand firm inside the walls. This is not legalism but rather it is liberty!
We need the walls to remain strong so that our young people can stay innocent and remain fearful of an enemy that lurks on the outside of the walls of protection where there is the bondage of compromise. Give me liberty inside of the walls.
The rules must be consistent between the pulpit, parent, and peer pressures. If all three are going in the same direction and provide the same consistency the odds are in favor of the follower being allowed to make right decisions! Liberty or legalism?
James Dennis, Bob Gray, Sr. and a cast of thousands would argue that keeping church standards doesn’t save anyone; that their standards are simply a statement of how Good Christians® should live their lives. However, in the real world, these legalistic standards are used to determine who is and isn’t a Real Christian®. Real Christians® will live according to church’s standard, uh I mean the teachings of the Bible. Real Christians® will want to willingly obey their pastor’s dictates. (It is always the pastor who determines what an IFB church’s standards will be. His words are law.) Real Christians® will live Christlike before the world, willingly dressing and behaving in ways that make them stand out.
When saved people refuse to obey, there is doubt cast upon their salvation. These doubts, of course, are rarely uttered aloud. Instead, they become fodder for gossip or Wednesday night prayer meeting. We visited one church where a mother stood before the church and detailed the “sinful” behavior of her adult son who just so happened to be in the service. He quietly bore her excoriation, yet I have no doubt that he wished she would shut the hell up. I felt embarrassed for the man. I have seen similar behavior in IFB prayer meetings where the “backslidden” ways of this or that church member were aired as “prayer requests.” What is implicit in these things is that the person mentioned has a “doubtful” salvation. Those truly saved, would live according to the church’s standards. That they don’t is a sure sign that something spiritually wrong with them; perhaps they aren’t even saved.
IFB preachers who deny that they are legalists will often say, it is up to God to save them on the inside and clean them up on the outside. While this statement sounds good, in the real world, new converts are expected, over time, to strictly obey church standards. If new Christians are reading the Bible, praying, and attending church every time the doors are open, it shouldn’t take a long time for the newly saved to see the “wisdom” of following their church’s code of conduct. A failure to do so means the person is backslidden, not right with God, worldly, or some other negative label. If change is not effected, pastors and their devoted rules-keepers will begin to wonder if so-and-so is r-e-a-l-l-y a Christian.
It is actually quite easy to “test” whether an IFB preacher is a legalist. Just ask him if a lesbian Christian can be a member, or if a Christian woman who recently had an abortion can join the church. Ask him if a woman who wears mini-skirts and low-cut blouses can be a part of their club, or if a man with hair down to the middle of his back can lead the congregation in prayer. Such questions will likely be answered in the negative, thus proving that IFB preachers really don’t leave it to God to clean up people on the outside. That’s their job, shaping them into the kind of Christians “God’ wants them to be. Offenders will be called into the principal’s, I mean’s pastor’s office and educated about how the pastor, uh I mean God, expects them to live. Make no mistake about it, the message is clear: You say you are a Christian, then LIVE like it, and living like means following the church standards established by Christ’s representative on earth, the pastor.
I hope that former IFB church members have some stories to share about legalism and church standards. If so, please share them in the comment section.
I should mention that, according to the gospel preached by James and John, a case can be made for works being required for salvation. James said, faith without works is dead (has not life). I’m inclined to think that, according to some parts of the Bible, that there is a direct connection between how people live and what they believe. We reveal our character by how we live, not by what we say.