House Rules & Legalism

One the truths Doug Wilson has repeated throughout his family books is the difference between house rules and God’s rules. A house rule is a rule put in place to keep order and manage the home, but is not one of God’s rules. For example, take your shoes off before coming inside. Or we only watch movies on Friday night. Or we read our Bible before breakfast. Legalists take house rules and make them into God’s rules. They take the application of God’s Word to their lives and make it the equivalent of God’s Word. We all have good reasons for what we do. There are reasons why we clean the fridge on Saturday, wake up at 6:30 am, go to bed at 10 pm, brush our teeth three times a day, or take a walk several times a week. But none of these are God’s rules. A healthy Christian life and the ability to live in unity with other Christians is impossible if we confuse house rules and God’s rules. When we do this every issue becomes a hill to die on. Everything we do becomes a matter of holiness.

Christians would be wise to consider how many of their house rules they have made into moral imperatives, things other people have to do. But I wanted to focus on exercise and healthy eating. Earlier I wrote a post on how many women are in bondage to the legalism of being thin and attractive. Husbands have told wives and fathers have told daughters that if you want my favor you must stay thin. So women walk around feeling like God is displeased with them and does not accept them because they weigh too much, are not attractive enough, or ate an extra piece of pie. Our culture, including Christian culture, has put our wives and daughters in bondage. It is a grievous sin.

After that post several people asked me, “But is it wrong to exercise or to eat healthy?”  No. But it is not right either. It is not a moral issue. Paul says, “Food does not commend us to God.” (I Cor. 8:8) What does that mean? Well it means food does not commend us to God. Therefore exercise is a house rule. I run three times a week. I only eat dessert on Friday. I eat organic. None of those are God’s rules. Even keeping your body in shape is not one of God’s rules. You could deduce from passages on stewardship and nature that it might be best to try to be healthy. But there is little emphasis in Scripture on being healthy. Exercising and eating healthy are decisions you make for your life and for your family, which will vary dramatically from culture to culture, house to house, and person to person. We cannot confuse our rules for exercising and eating right with God’s rules. But because we think something is best for us we assume that it must be best for everyone.  If I run three times a week, then my fellow Christian, if he cares about his body and loves his wife will make sure he exercises as well. If I eat salad for lunch to stay thin, then my sister in Christ should avoid dessert so she stays thin. If we do not keep our legalistic minds in check, our house rules will slowly morph into God’s rules. God’s laws which are not burdensome are blotted out with our laws, which are burdensome.

Here are some questions to see if you have made the house rule of exercise one of God’s rules.

Do you look down on overweight people, particularly women? When you see an overweight person at Wal-Mart what is your gut reaction?

Do you feel like you sinned against God if you fail to exercise?

Do you look at other Christians who don’t exercise and think them less holy? Less able to fulfill God’s purposes for them? Destroying their witness for Christ?

Do you watch what other people eat and how much? When someone piles their plate high do you give a side long glance of judgment?

Do you think children wicked for wanting a second piece of dessert?

Do you try to impress others with your healthy eating or your exercise?

If someone has health problems do you assume their sinful choices have caused those health problems? If you have health problems do you assume your sinful choices have caused those?

Do you believe if you exercise, eat right, and love God you will have good health?

None of this is an argument against exercise and eating healthy. But these must be kept in their proper place. We should not make exercise, eating healthy, losing weight, etc. into a sin issue. Nor should we judge our fellow Christians based on these issues. We should make the best choices for our family and let our brothers and sisters exercise Christian freedom in these areas.  If we can’t do this then we will be putting others in bondage.