When I became a Christian at age 16 or 17, the pastor of the church I attended at that time taught that women should not wear pants. I had only been in church sporadically before this time, and I was also new to reading my Bible regularly and systematically. I had never heard this taught before.
Around this time, I saw an episode of The Big Valley in which the daughter wore pants, and it was A Really Big Deal in the community. I thought maybe modern society had just gotten away from the idea.
It wasn’t terribly hard to switch to wearing only dresses. The hardest part was trying to explain it to family members who thought it was odd.
Fast forward several years. In one of my college courses, the teacher happened to mention the verse that many people believe teaches that women shouldn’t wear pants, Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God” (NKJV). She pointed out that both men and women wore robes in Bible times, so this was not talking about pants.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized my teacher was right. I believed that the Bible taught as a general principle that men should look like men and women like women. But that wasn’t necessarily defined by pants.
By that time, though, I had gotten used to wearing dresses and skirts. I had some pants for PE, for our childbirth classes (because I had to be on the floor for some of our exercises), and for the gym. But I felt comfortable in dresses as well as modest and feminine (though of course there are modest pants and immodest dresses, and femininity is not always manifested in dresses).
Fast forward another few decades. We were visiting Cade’s Cove on a late autumn day. It was incredibly cold, and I was tromping around foresty areas with bare calves. I thought, this is ridiculous. So I bought a couple of pairs of pants for such occasions.
Through all of this, I’ve been surprised to come across the sentiment that those who held to the belief that women shouldn’t wear pants were legalists. In most Christian circles, that’s almost the worst thing you can call someone.
But difference of interpretation that results in stricter standards and practices is not legalism.
At its most basic, legalism is the belief that I have to keep the OT law to be right with God. There’s also a sense in which trusting in rule-keeping to get or keep right with God is legalism.
Jesus’ death set us free from the law of Moses that people in the OT were under. Of course, the moral law carries over and is repeated in the NT (loving God first, not lying, stealing, killing, etc.). But the minutiae of the law given to Israel, which no one could keep anyway (Acts 13:38-39; 15:10-11), was kept perfectly by Christ in our stead. His laying down His life for us paid for all our failures. So we have a wonderful sense of freedom when we believe in Christ.
But this freedom doesn’t mean we can do whatever we feel like. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15).
I used to think that, since all Christians are indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, we all ought to come out on the same page about various issues. But that’s not what the Bible says.
There are some fundamental Biblical issues for which there is no wiggle room: the Deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc. But Romans 14 has instructions for those who come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches in those areas that aren’t fundamental to the Christian faith. (Though the passage is discussing weaker brethren, I think some of these overarching principles apply.)
In Romans 14, people came down exactly opposite in their convictions and practices on some matters. Paul told them that each should do whatever they do as unto the Lord (verse 6), not judging or condemning each other, (verses 3, 10,13), being fully persuaded in their own minds (verses 5, 22), remembering they’re accountable to the Lord (verse 12), not being contentious about it (verses 1, 17-19), not to “quarrel over opinions” (verse 1).
One of the issues in Romans 14 was eating meat—not just meat that had been offered to idols as was the case in other passages. “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (verse 2). Scripture actually sides with the meat-eaters in this case. God told Noah after the flood, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3). Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:18-19). In Peter’s vision, he was told that all food was clean. Paul warned against those “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3-5). Some may choose not to eat meat for other reasons, but it was not unclean any more as far as OT law went. Even still, in Romans 14, Paul advised people not to judge or quarrel over eating meat.
So we need to avoid “accusing” someone of legalism if they don’t believe in women wearing pants, if they do believe in women wearing head coverings, if they don’t believe in Christians drinking alcohol, if they have a stricter understanding of the role of women in church, or any other area in which you feel you have freedom that they don’t feel. Freer standards do not always equal spiritual superiority. Stricter standards do not always indicate legalism or weakness. They may just mean that someone has a different understanding of Scripture than you do.
These principles don’t mean we can never discuss these issues with others. But we need to avoid a “set them straight” mentality. First we must be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath (James 1:19). We need to understand where the other person is coming from in their thinking. We need to assess whether the issue really even needs discussion. Is it really harming anyone? Is it something that will likely correct itself with time, growth, and maturity? Is it something we can agree to disagree about and move on? And if we feel that the other person actually is wrong in their interpretation and understanding, or they are operating from a feeling of conforming to a culture’s rules rather than the freedom of Scripture, we need to remember that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach” (2 Timothy 2:24).
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