There are many Christians among the Churches of Christ who continue to read the New Testament as though it is a law from God. Perhaps the best example of this reading is found when dealing with the issue of a cappella vs. instrumental worship and passages such as Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, and other passages deemed relevant to the subject. The argument goes that God’s word instructs to “sing” and that this excludes any mention of instruments. This argument is accompanied with other ad hoc proof-texts from scripture, both Old and New Testaments, to warn Christians about the dangers of adding to God’s word and offering unauthorized worship to God (e.g., Lev 10:1-2; 1 Cor 4:6).
There are various assumptions at work that lie behind this legal reading of the New Testament. One of those readings is the binding nature of silence among scripture which I have already written about in a post called The Silence of Scripture or Freedom in Christ?. But another assumption, perhaps the biggest, is that the New Testament is to be read as though it is a law from God, one that replaces the Torah or Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. Under such assumption, the New Testament is treated as though it is a constitution or instruction manual for following the assumed (yes, another assumption) one single pattern of Christianity called the New Testament Church.
This legal reading of the New Testament is wrong and it needs to be explained why because in the end it only produces legalism (see the video below). Think with me for a moment. The apostle Paul said this to say about the Law in Romans 7:12-13:
So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
Do you see what Paul is saying about the Law and humanity? The problem of sin is not and has never been the Law. Rather the problem with sin is and has always been humanity, you and I. By the grace of God, that problem is rectified in Christ. But here is the big question that must be asked which pertains to the issue of reading the New Testament as a new Law: If God’s aim or purpose in the gospel is to keep humanity living under a written law, why would God just not have us following the written Law of the Old Testament since it is already “holy, righteous, and good” law? A secondary question: Assuming the New Testament is a new written Law, what makes us think we can faithfully keep that Law if we could not faithfully keep the written Law of the Old Testament?
The fact of the matter is that if God’s intention for redeeming humanity in Christ was to bind them to a covenant that requires following any written law, then God already had a perfect—a holy and righteous—Law established for this purpose. Yet any cursory reading of the New Testament and the apostle Paul’s instruction to Gentile Christians is suffice to show that this was not God’s intent. This is not to say that there are no commands for Christians to obey or that Christians can live a “lawless” lifestyle. Loving God and neighbor (cf. Mk 12:29-31) are still the greatest commands that Christians are to obey; living by the Spirit (cf. Gal 6:13ff) is still a non-negotiable practice for all who profess the name of Christ. But obeying the two great commands and living by the Spirit is one thing, it is quite another matter to turn the New Testament into a legal code that prescribes how every local church must worship, organize itself, and regulate its practice of ministry.
In Christ, we have been set free. May we use that freedom responsibly and with integrity but may we also enjoy that freedom rather than being shackled by our own misunderstanding of the gospel and New Testament.
I have posted this video before of Rick Atchley, Preaching Minister of The Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX but I am posting it again because illustrates well the legalism that is produced by reading the New Testament as a law.