“Why won’t legalists have sex? Because somebody might see them and think they’re dancing.”
While you’re still dying of laughter over that one…
Rules protect us from sinning. That’s the whole spirit behind legalism. Rules about what you wear, what you watch, how you dress, what you eat, where you go — they’re all designed to keep you from ever getting close enough to a sin to commit it. They “fence off” the sin so you can’t get to it. Want to avoid sexual sin? Probably best not to go dancing.
That way, you can be sure that God will bless you instead of punishing you.
The problem is… actually, there are a lot of problems with living life this way. One of the problems is that there are never enough fences. Legalism creates row after row of fences, trying to block off any avenue to that sin. That includes even the good parts of our human nature that might lead us too close to that sin.
And eventually, breaking the “fences” becomes just as great an offense as the sin itself.
These rules vary from one subculture to another. In my own “Fellowship,” (Bill Gothard’s homeschooling program) girls could wear makeup and earrings, but it was a big deal not to listen to “rock” music (which was almost any music other than hymns or classical). In the church my husband grew up in, the music rules were less stringent, but women weren’t allowed to have pierced ears or cut their hair. I read about other cults where members weren’t allowed to attend other churches, or had to log a certain number of hours in prayer every week, or weren’t allowed to eat marshmallows.
And it never works. We still mess up. Legalism just gives us hundreds of extra ways to mess up, without the remedy of God’s grace and mercy to restore us.
It’s a heavy burden of guilt to be credited for a sin you never committed.
In my world, the “fence” progression looked something like this:
Sin: sexual sin
Rule 1: To avoid sexual sin, don’t date until you’re ready for marriage.
New sin: dating
Rule 2: To avoid dating, commit to “courtship” in which the parents make the decision that you’re ready.
New sin: violating courtship commitment
Rule 3: To avoid violating your courtship commitment, don’t let yourself fall in love with someone your parents haven’t approved.
New sin: falling in love
Rule 4: To avoid falling in love, don’t let yourself have crushes.
New sin: crushes
Rule 5: To avoid crushes, don’t interact with the opposite sex on a casual basis.
Interacting with and enjoying the attention of the opposite sex is, in effect, sexual sin.
So back away from the fence and behave. That’s what God said, after all.