December 2, 2020

The iMonk Weekend File: 2:26:05

/images/belushi1941.jpgSome thoughts on legalism, spurred by a rather amazing Bible Study on why earrings are wrong….and more. It’s especially amazing since Jesus so directly addressed these matters so clearly in Mark 7.

I can’t decide whether to be horrified or amused. This Bible Study on the wrongness of ear piercings reminds me of the approach to the Bible and the Christian life that prevails in so many churches: trivia, no Gospel, no understanding of the law, a total missing of the point. Do these people think Paul had a “Turn in your earrings” service right after any baptism? How can people miss the point so badly?

This week I studied Mark 7 with my students in Advanced Bible. I’d like to take a pass through the first part of this chapter.

Mark begins by telling us that Jesus is under the continual investigation of the Pharisees. Mark has been telling us this since chapter 2, when Jesus’ teaching, miracles and ministry begins raising all kinds of notoriety and questions. By Mark 3:6 a conspiracy to kill Jesus is working behind the scences, and the Pharisees are openly saying Jesus is the Prince of demons.

In chapter 7 the focus becomes more narrow: Jesus isn’t keeping the traditions of the Pharisees. In addition to the Old Testament admonitions to be different from surrounding cultures by being observant of the law, the Pharisees had developed a canon of additional, non-Biblical traditions that explained the application of the law in various situations. These rigorous traditions were regarded as particularly essential in areas where Jews and Gentiles mingled together- such as Galilee. They kept Jews separate, and kept the Jewish identity and faith strong in an atmosphere of compromise. Jesus’ refusal to participate in these various traditions wasn’t so much a challenge to the Pharisee’s power as it was a signal that Jesus was subverting what the Pharisees thought was the heart and hope of Israel’s identity: the Law.

Jesus bluntly calls the Pharisee’s system of traditions above the law of God a hypocritical sham. As we expect from Jesus, the problem isn’t the law. The problem is the Pharisees themselves, who have made the inventing and keeping of traditions a way to lay aside the greater commandments. (It is interesting that Jesus never endorses the idea of a “flat” Bible. He always sees the greater, clearer, thematic texts interpreting and putting into perspective other texts.)

He specifically cites their invention and abuse of a tradition that allowed a Jew to proclaim all his property as devoted to God, thereby rendering him unable to give financial assistance to his parents. Mark 7:13 “Thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

It’s plain that Jesus takes a dim view of even well motivated attempts to “ramp up” devotion to God by constructing ways of exploiting commandments with added requirements dictated by logic and creative exegesis. He particularly objects as those commandments are played against one another, leaving the middle ground of a false spirituality and doing things God never required, enforced by the spiritual elite as a way to control and intimidate others.

I can’t read Mark 7 without thinking of nonsense like the “earring” Bible study. Jesus was subverting this kind of legalism and calling out the kinds of abuses that were used to sustain the intimidation. I have letters from hundreds of people who went through terrible despair and depression because they were being told that God was like this. God cares about washing hands and piercing ears, and if you don’t, you aren’t a Christian.

I’m reminded of Paul’s words in I Corinthians when Gentile Christians brought a similar issue to the fore: Could Christians eat food offered to idols? Some wanted it to be required that no meat from any temple over enter a Christian’s body. Paul respects the dilemma, but he also says this:

1 Corinthians 8:1-9 SV 1 Corinthians 8:1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth- as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Are the “no earrings” legalists listening? It just doesn’t matter. Since the incarnation and the cross, we aren’t presenting a God who is consumed with this kind of thing. We have the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if you read anything in the Gospel that presents Jesus operating on this trivial level, please share it with me.

This kind of “special spiritual knowledge” isn’t good for us. It’s corrupting. If we have to deal with it, we deal with it as immaturity and weakness in the Christian life. Churches that exploit it are wrong to do so. Avoid them. I particularly wish Paul had plugged into Jesus’ words in Mark 7, so it would be clear that we aren’t just talking about weaker brothers/sisters, but about abuse and control by phonies who exempt themselves from the heart of the Gospel of grace and misrepresent God.

Paul said that Christ makes us free, but that freedom presents us with choices. The key choice is to submit our freedom to Jesus himself; to become a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and not the servant of the Law, or human traditions. Being radically Christ-centered doesn’t go well in today’s evangelical world. Why? Preaching and teaching has increasingly forsaken Jesus and the Gospel for advice, life management and other pablum, leaving legalistic traditions with ever more influence.

Law and Gospel. Law and Gospel. Relating the two, and keeping Christ the source and meaning of our freedom: these are important matters, particularly as we continually defend the Gospel from the legalistic parasites that seek to attach themselves to the truth, and drain the Christian life of it’s joyful, free, worshiping center.


  1. Hey, I just want to say thanks Michael. You’ve been a blessing. Keep writing!! Now, what should I pierce next, hmmmmm??

  2. These guys MUST be right because they believe in inerrancy!!

  3. Mark Whittinghill says

    I read various studies on the site, and actually had quite an enjoyable time. It brings me back about 10 years when I was hearing a lot of the same things taught. I’m not nostalgic for legalism, but sometimes things bring up memories of a time, and you get very reflective. That fact that I am drinking a beer while reading these studies makes it that much more enjoyable. 🙂

  4. God forgive me for laughing at the expense of these folks, but I had to share the following gem I found in their Bible study on “Christian Appearances”:

    “Note: When a man has long hair, it is a shame unto him, and thus he will feel self-conscious about it. The longer a manÂ’s hair is, the more self-conscious he becomes. Watch a man with very long hair walk down the street. Many times he will keep looking back and forth, and all around him. Do you know why he keeps doing that? Because he feels self-conscious about his appearance, and he is wondering if anyone is looking at him. He probably does not even realize that he is doing it, but nature itself is telling him that he looks out of place.”

    When I had long hair, I ddid indeed “keep looking back and forth”…but it was just to keep the hair out of my eyes. 😆

    The study also informs me that I need to use a KJV Bible when filling in the blanks of the study or “I will not get the correct answers!” I think a better use of these blanks might be to use them for a game of Madlibs.

  5. Good thoughts, I could not agree with you more, another case of trying to look at a twig (not even a tree) and missing the whole forest.

    Now we have the Bible as a manual on how to dress, whatever happened to the Gospel?

    Great comments on Mark 7, I am working through Mark 6 at the moment with an adult Sunday School class, so very appropriate. Thanks.

  6. Did anybody notice the irony that the anti-earring Bible study is at a site called LIBERTY Gospel Tracts.

    Kind of like North Korea praising themselves endlessly for their perfection of Freedom and Democracy.

  7. What about the way they blame women for dragging men into sin?

    I sin well enough on my own, thank you.

  8. To women I say, “Lead me not into temptation, I can find it all by myself.”


  9. What a bunch of ignoramuses. Haven’t they got anything better to rail against than ear rings? How about projecting lyrics up on the screen? Raising hands? Guitars? Lots more important things to be against…

    OTOH, why do you waste your valuable time with such ignoramuses?

  10. I belonged to a Baptist church once that forbade jewelry, makeup, pants on women, and I forget what else. (I ran away screaming after a year). When I read the “Bible study on earrings”, it was like coming into that church all over again. Gave me shivers down my spine!

    You know why I think they do it? Because this way, it’s easy to separate the sheep from the goats. Earrings, bad, step to the left. No earrings, good, step to the right. You take your earrings off and you instantly feel better about yourself. Of course, this is spiritual pride, which is the worst thing of them all, but, as long as you’re not wearing earrings, who cares, right?

    Great essay, Michael, please keep them coming, we all need you!

  11. i had fun reading some other stuff on the anti-earrings site. it gave me a good laugh. thanks for the good article. ::looks in mirror at most recent piercings, earrings # 3 and 4:: people who are so legalistic make it difficult for not so pharisaical christians to convince the rest of the world that christianity is not about laws and regulations, but about Jesus Christ’s saving grace.

  12. I find it ironic that the same Bible study which says that earrings, makeup, and rock music are so offensive to God also says that our salvation is not based upon works.
    Keep up the good work.