The Danger in Hedging the Law

hedgeShortly after Moses came down from the mountain with the Law, the people of God began to try to understand what it meant, how it applied to their lives, and how to obey it. They were very serious about obeying God’s word. So serious, in fact, that to protect themselves from disobeying, they set up “hedges” around the laws. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain became don’t even speak His name. Don’t boil a calf in it’s mother’s milk became don’t eat dairy and meat at the same meal.

Those who built the hedges were really good, godly people. They acted out of love and respect for God and for their fellow believers. They wanted to be obedient. But what they did was create an onerous, impossible system of rules and regulations that no one could hope to keep. The hedges or add-ons became equal to the laws that God had given. The people were hurt two-fold by these extra rules.

On the one hand there were so many rules that they hung around the people’s neck like a milestone. On the other hand, the Pharisees added a whole layer of self-righteousness in their mistaken belief that they were so much better than everyone else because they kept these laws (or so they believed). They missed the point of the law, which was to drive them to God in recognition of their need for a Savior.

So what does this have to do with us today? Quite a lot actually.

As Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” There is always a tendency to “hedge” God’s law. There is always a trend towards self-righteousness. We want rules that are easy to follow, check lists with bite-sized pieces of law that we can obey and feel good about ourselves and how we match up to others. Not sure what I mean, well, think about these topics.

-How we worship God. A very important topic, and one many disagree on. What style of music is right? Contemporary? Traditional hymns? Psalter only?

-“Godly dating” Only group dates? Only courtship? Girls can’t ask guys out? No kissing before the wedding?

-Disciplining our children. Spanking? Time-outs? Consequences?

-Schooling our children. Private school? Public school? Home school?

-Drinking, dancing, smoking?

And those are just a very, very few issues. Everyone has opinions about all of these issues. Who’s right? Well, I don’t know. That’s why I read my Bible, pray, listen to good advice, and talk to my pastor. Then I make my decisions, but that’s all they are.

The problem comes when we take good advice and elevate it to the level of Scripture. I’m not arguing for moral relativism. There are absolute rights and wrongs in life. But there are also lots of grey areas where I believe God has called on us to use our best judgment, and not judge others who decide differently.

Colossians 2:8,16-23

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

6 thoughts on “The Danger in Hedging the Law

  1. Already Reedemed in Texas says:

    Wonderful article Rachel. Especially relevant after the Christmas season and all of the debates I heard about everything from Santa to any celebration at all. The truth is simple, living in community with individual interpreters of truth, not so much:).

  2. Tony says:

    Excellent article Rachel! “Hedging” the Law is exactly how God’s people under the Old Covenant went from 10 Commandments to 613 by the time Christ came on the scene. Given this ongoing tendency for Christians today, it helps to be reminded.

    God bless & keep you!

  3. Kassandra says:

    As my (very wise) mother-in-law says, “You can fall off both sides of the horse.” Often, in hedging, we back away from one sin while stumbling into another.

    This reminds me of what my (also very wise) professor of professional responsibility said about the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Exam–if you always pick the “safest” moral-seeming answer, you will fail. This is because the exam is designed to test whether students know the actual rule, not have some vague gut reaction in the rule’s general direction. The rules are precise, balancing multiple, often conflicting, duties. Trying to avoid transgressing one rule too broadly can result in a breach of another duty.

    How much more important, more perfect than those rules of conduct is the Law of God? As Proverbs 30:5-6 says, “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.” Improving on the Law by adding to it is an exercise in such stunning arrogance, only humans could have thought of it. It’s so appealing to human nature, to give God a hand by adding to his words. But as the Proverb says, adding to God’s words makes us a liar. About God. And if that’s not idolatry, I don’t know what is.

    Certainly, I’m just as capable of the nasty self-righteousness that comes from self-created standards as anybody (as one of nature’s born misanthropes, probably more so), but I have had the blessing of being part of healthy Reformed churches for more than a decade now. In my experience, Reformed churches, with their reverence for Scripture, are more likely to be suspicious of the claims of the groups enamored of hedging in moral decision-making. Until I was Reformed, I had never heard the phrase “Christian liberty.” I came from the “don’t drink, dance, or chew or go with boys who do” school of Christian moral philosophy, in one of its more benign forms.

    Among groups that invest heavily in the hedging philosophy, no decision is merely prudent or imprudent, tasteful or tasteless. Everything, from the choice of where to work to the choice to eat white bread, is weighed down with overblown moral implications. This tendency to moralize (and offer a “right choice” for) every possible decision, regardless of whether Scripture speaks to it, is not to treat God and his Law as more important, but as less. To make everything “The Most Important Moral Decision of Your Life” trivializes genuinely important moral decisions. To paraphrase The Incredibles, if every decision is special, then none is.

    For many people, this pattern of moralizing every aspect of life can even atrophy moral (and prudential) judgment, leaving them without the skills to respond wisely or virtuously to novel or complex situations. Often, people who finally give up on the burdensome minor rules feel they may or must give up on all. After all, the rules were portrayed as moral requirements–from white bread to adultery.

    Rules intended to protect can cripple. Rules intended to keep far from evil can render people incapable of making distinctions between real good and evil.

    The road to Hell really is paved with good intentions, and we really can fall off both sides of the horse.

  4. Stephanie says:

    I have only recently discovered your posts and I am thrilled. What a joy your articles are to read and ponder! This is one of the best explanations of putting a fence around the law I have ever read. This is just so rampant everywhere all the time! It fascinates me and amazes me…that we humans keep beating our heads against the wall with this.

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