What does ‘living under the law’ look like?

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What does ‘living under the law’ look like?

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Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Colossians 2:20-23

Suggesting that believers are being taught to live under the Law seems like a vague complaint. It’s like saying that I feel bad. It’s hard to be sure what ‘feeling bad’ means. It can have a different meaning for different people. Living under the Law has that same problem. This kind of claim can cover a lot of ground. Does it mean that believers are not free to eat unclean food like chicken and shrimp? Or does it mean that any admonition that makes me feel restricted in any way is an attempt to keep me under the Law?

The letters of the apostles contain a lot of do-not-indulge-in-this-act warnings. So I am pretty sure that the gospel did not mean believers were free to ‘live any way they wanted.’ We will come back to this thought in a later blog post. Paul’s concern for the Colossians was focused on avoiding a righteousness trap set by misguided teachers. His over the top reaction comes from his knowledge of having pursued a righteousness of his own in the past, only to find himself a murderer in God’s name. He knew that the Law did not make you holy, but exposed what was deeply wrong with you. This is still its function, but many teachers continue to use the Law as a basis for Christian living.

What exactly does it look like for a believer to live under the Law today? Let me suggest several disguises it wears in Christian circles.

The first is literally putting believers under Law. Some groups teach a continuation of the Mosaic Law, like keeping the Sabbath on the seventh day or not eating certain foods. In other words, they insist that what was given by God to set the Israelites apart as His chosen people was meant to carry over to the church today. I have personally heard some teachers do this by suggesting that keeping the Law is still the ‘spiritual’ expression of devotion to God.

The second is more subtle. It is a ‘fence law’ approach to living. These teachers communicate, “Since we know that certain activities can destroy your morals, your reputation or your faith, we who shepherd you need to put up fences to keep you safe.” This is the, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” that Paul refers to. Drawing lines and circling the wagons is the style of faith these churches exude. When you are in a church like this, you may even feel secure. But this is living under the Law. Living fenced in will not produce the life Jesus promised. It will actually make you spiritually sick.

Finally, there are teachers who universalize their preferences and make them into rules that their flock must live by or suffer dire consequences. Like how to vote. How you are to dress. What to eat or drink. What music to listen to. What places you may go—or not go. I remember my wife considering homeschool curriculum from a prominent Christian organization that explained that, if we wanted to use their materials for raising godly children, we would need to follow their plan for ordering each minute of our lives. Nothing they suggested was bad in itself. But what they wanted was total control over our lives.

I have been part of local churches all my life and have overseen churches for a number of years. As a result, I have been exposed to various ‘living under the Law’ experiences more often than I wish. Like Paul, I have come to see that, while they have great allure, the rules themselves “are based on merely human commands and teachings.” Their promoters often radiate an aura of great wisdom and insight, but they are messing you up. You will find all too quickly in this kind of environment that your desire to rebel and choose sin will increase instead of decline. Their rules are taking you on an alternate route that does not lead toward wholeness.

So where do those rules lead? I’ll cover that next time.

-Steve Smith


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