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When do good cultural norms become legalism? Can our efforts to avoid sin become sinful?

The Story of Ellis, Legalism, and Nirvana

The other day I read an article by John Ellis titled “Claiming Rock Music is the Devil’s Music Is, in Fact, a Devilish Claim.” The article is about his experience in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church. According to Ellis, the church he grew up in was very strict.

In Ellis’s words, the “rules had rules.” Things such as dress, personal interactions, media, culture, and career possibilities were determined or regulated from the moment he was born. This level of control did not sit well with Ellis, who writes in his article, “I longed for agency.”

After introducing us to the environment he grew up in, Ellis talks about his love for rock music and how people in his church viewed the genre. According to the article, rock was considered the devil’s music and the “key to all vice and sin.” Ellis then makes several fascinating observations about how man-made rules can negatively affect people and the church.

Many of the points he makes are worth contemplation. The idea that rock and roll is the “key to all vice and sin” really stood out to me. Having grown up on bands like Blink 182 and Social Distortion, I disagree with the premise that the genre leads to vice. However, I do not think the principles this slogan is built on are entirely incorrect.

Building Barriers

Throughout our endless battle with sin and temptations, Christians have developed strategies that help people overcome the crushing grip of vice. One of the most popular strategies consists of building barriers around sinful things. This strategy aims to create distance between the person and immoral activity. This distance makes sin less accessible and therefore easier to overcome.

The way some alcoholics will distance themselves from alcohol is an excellent real-life example of this strategy in action. Some will ban it from their homes; others will even avoid all social gatherings where it’s present.

The barrier strategy is also a tactic utilized by parents with young teens. When I was growing up, almost every church event had a designated adult who was there to make sure no shenanigans went down. Although this strategy is very effective and has helped many people overcome and avoid sin, it can be misused. 

Ways Barriers Are Misused

Sometimes the barriers we construct are mistaken for sin itself. Ellis’s story is a good illustration of this happening in real life. During his youth, there was a fear that rock could be an avenue to drugs, sex, and other kinds of debauchery. So many people believed it should be avoided, which is a fine barrier to put up. However, others took things a step further, arguing that listening to rock music is, in fact, a sin.

Rock and roll, like all music, is a tool that can be used in both proper and improper ways. To say all rock songs are on the same moral level as lying, murder, adultery, and idolatry—which have no acceptable use—is a severe mischaracterization. When we turn a helpful man-made barrier into a “thus saith the Lord” law, we have crossed over into a form of legalism.

The Problem with Legalism

One of the most significant downsides of this kind of legalism is its tendency to spiral out of control. Like the people of Jesus’s day, if we are not careful, we can easily find ourselves crushed under a pile of artificial rules.

The second big problem that can spring up from turning barriers into law is a loss of credibility. Nonsensical rules breed nonsensical arguments. For example, Ellis talks about how anti-rock preachers attempted to support their positions by tying rock songs to the occult.

“I can’t tell you how many times I rewound and then replayed the opening and closing of Def Leppard’s ‘Love Bites,’ trying to hear if the anti-rock music preacher was right that the sinister-sounding voice was saying, ‘Jesus Christ, go to hell.’ Spoiler: it’s not.”

Arguments like this are probably the most harmful way sound barriers get misused. Making exaggerated claims kills credibility and promotes the very thing you want people to avoid. As Ellis points out,

“If something is made the “holy grail” of sin, that something becomes far more attractive and far more impactful than it should be.”

How To Prevent Barriers from Becoming Legalistic

As stated above, I think that barriers are a great way to overcome and avoid falling into sin. However, there will also be times when we cannot place a barrier between us and sin. Like it or not, every alcoholic knows that their temptation will be easily accessible one day. Chaperones eventually stop attending parties. Consequently, barriers should not be viewed as a permanent solution to temptation. Like training wheels on a bike, barriers allow us to develop the skill to ride independently.

Moreover, this idea that artificial barriers are the long-term solution for sin also does not align with a key goal of Christianity. Christianity is not a religion that is interested in creating a world of robots who blindly obey rules they do not understand or appreciate. Likewise, it’s also not trying to turn people into fragile creatures who can’t leave home without a good coating of protective bubble wrap.

On the contrary, Christianity is for those willing to surrender their lives to God and grow up into the image of Jesus. As followers of Christ, our goal is not to forever hide from the world behind barriers, but instead, to mature into people who are capable and strong enough to face the temptations of this world head-on.

“We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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