The Dangers of Legalism: A Lesson from NASCAR

…We build fences to keep ourselves from committing certain sins. Soon these fences – instead of the sins they were designed to guard against- become the issue. We elevate our rules to the level of God’s commandments
. “Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God’s Unfailing Love" by Jerry Bridges


We love National Parks. Years ago we set a goal of visiting as many national parks as possible before the kids left home. We have racked up an impressive 47 parks (parks, mind you, not monuments, etc.). Our favorite was Glacier National Park. We don’t have a least favorite but the most remote was Gates of the Arctic National Park. Last week, we took a very hot stroll through Congaree National Park in South Carolina. It is the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent. There is a 2-½ mile boardwalk constructed through this dense forest along with a written guide that corresponds to numbers on the walk.


We were amused that one of the stops featured the rusted out remains of a still from back in the “dry county” days. Did you know that there would be no NASCAR without bootlegging? For those of you with few ties to the south, here is a great description from Wikipedia.

“Stock car racing in the United States has its origins in bootlegging during Prohibition, when drivers ran bootleg whiskey made primarily in the Appalachian region of the United States. Bootleggers needed to distribute their illicit products, and they typically used small, fast vehicles to better evade the police. Many of the drivers would modify their cars for speed and handling, as well as increased cargo capacity, and some of them came to love the fast-paced driving down twisty mountain roads.


The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 dried up some of their business, but by then Southerners had developed a taste for moonshine, and a number of the drivers continued "runnin' shine," this time evading the "revenuers" who were attempting to tax their operations.The cars continued to improve, and by the late 1940s, races featuring these cars were being run for pride and profit. These races were popular entertainment in the rural Southern United States, and they are most closely associated with the Wilkes County region of North Carolina.”

For many, spending a weekend at Talladega is this side of heaven. However, what does this have to do with the church? I think that NASCAR’s roots are a lesson in the inherent dangers of legalism.


Prohibition was widely unpopular. So much so, that a whole cottage industry was born to flout the law and provide “demon alcohol” to the masses. The black market for alcohol contributed to the success of the Roaring Twenties which begat speakeasies and moonshiners, keeping many people employed. The only loser in this industry was the government, which lost out on the tax revenues of this underground success. Eventually, Prohibition was repealed but people continued to flout the tax laws in regard to moonshine.

Many tolerated the consumption of alcohol during the Prohibition. Even some of the local sheriffs were in cahoots with the bootleggers. In other words, the mores of the culture supported the right to consume “hootch.” The producers of “demon alcohol” became folk heroes and their souped up cars became the thing of legends. Hence, there was the birth of NASCAR after the demise of Prohibition.

However, there is an inherent danger in a society flouting the law. Once it becomes socially acceptable to break one law, it is easier to break second and third laws. Where does a society draw the boundaries? Look at the debate swirling around the illegal immigrant issue. How many evangelicals employ illegal aliens to save money? How many “good” Christians routinely drive over the speed limit?

I think that secondary issues in the faith are not unlike unpopular laws. What are some of the secondary rules that have been relegated to primary importance in some churches? Here are a few: young earth creationism, premillenialism, tithing, type of baptism, strict pastoral authority, courtship, large families, Republicanism, no women in leadership, Catholicism as a cult, frequency of church attendance (for example, one must be present for two services on Sunday and one on Wednesday), speaking in tongues, Calvinism, Arminianism, and on and on.

Let’s take a look at a fictional church. This church elevates premillenial theology to primary importance. If folks disagrees with this doctrine, they are accused of being “in error.” There are often innuendoes that their faith is somewhat questionable-they may not even be saved! Within this church there are many who don’t subscribe to this doctrine and see no reason to do so. There are others who are aware of their disagreement and believe that they have the right to believe as such. In other words, many in the church are rebelling against this supposed “primary doctrine.”

In this very same church, there are a couple of people who believe that Jesus is not the only way to salvation. They are convinced that their Hindu buddy is also going to heaven. They see others who do not believe in premillenialism as “getting away with it” and are convinced that their belief in universal salvation is equally valid. In other words, they confuse an “A” issue, a basic tenet of the faith, with a “B” issue that deals with the timing of Jesus’ return.

My point is this. When we elevate certain issues to primary importance, there will be many who privately disagree with the imposed secondary issue. Will they truly know the difference between a secondary issue and a primary issue? If they are in a church that emphasizes many secondary beliefs, I would guess that that the rank and file may be poorly taught and may not know the difference. Thenthey may be in danger of true heresy.

In a former church, a very bright man (not in our Sunday school class) once asked to speak to me in private. He whispered (!) to me that he believed that dinosaurs existed before man. I reassured him that I believed the same. What saddened me is that this man felt he could not talk about this openly because the church was ardently opposed to such a belief and he was obviously afraid that he would be found out.

Such a church is trading real Christianity for secondary issues that one-day may be proven to be false. Eventually we will know how old the earth is. In the meantime, how many people will be led down a path of legalism instead of the essential faith? I think that there are a bunch of churches and pastors who are guilty of emphasizing theories of man and risking the faith of those in the congregation.

I leave you with this quote by Jerry Bridges from the book quoted above.

“Despite God’s call to be free and His earnest admonition to resist all efforts to curtail it, there is little emphasis in Christian circles today on the importance of Christian freedom. Just the opposite seems to be true. Instead of promoting freedom, we stress our rules of conformity. Instead of preaching living by grace, we preach living by performance. Instead of encouraging new believers to be conformed to Christ, we subtly insist that they be conformed to our particular style of Christian culture.”

Racers….Start Your Engines!


The Dangers of Legalism: A Lesson from NASCAR — 1 Comment

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    You never cease to amaze me! Spot on!!!