Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sharper Iron - Younger faces, but is it the same old legalism?

Aaron Blumer wrote an interesting, if not troubling, article over on Sharper Iron titled Are Rules Dangerous: Part 1. In the article he notices the newer tendency to oppose man-made rules and encourages "younger fundamentalists" to see the value of such rules in ministry settings.

Near the beginning he asks, "should we conclude that "man-made rules" do not contribute at all to walking in a manner worthy of our calling? Is it accurate to say that rules contribute nothing to sanctification? Should we even believe that they are—as some suggest—inherently dangerous and often hostile to growth in grace?"

He goes on to say, "Perhaps some confusion on this point is due to binary thinking about the relationship between the inner man—the heart and mind—and outward behavior. Is it true that a believer either obeys with faith and love or sins? What if he obeys without faith and love or—as is more often the case, obeys with incomplete faith (and understanding) and less than pure love? Is this "sin"? Even if it is, is it no better than the sin the rule is intended to prevent?

I believe the dynamic between inner man and outward conduct is far from binary (all or nothing) and looks more like this:

  • Best: do right out of faith and love
  • Good: do right to avoid punishment, etc. (lacking in faith and love)
  • Bad: do right with some evil motive
  • Worst: do wrong"
Notice how he defines "Good" in the list above. It is "doing the right thing to avoid punishment--although lacking in faith and love". Compare that with Paul's words in Romans 14:23 ("...whatever does not come from faith is sin"). One also thinks of Hebrews 11:6 ("Without faith it is impossible to please God"). Blumer's defintion of good is pagan moralism at best, and it is not only incompatible with the Gospel--it is antithetical to it. When God called His creation "good" do we really believe He had this definition in mind? It is the Gospel itself that demands there are only two ways: the way of life or the way of death, the way of hope or the way of hopelessness, the way of holiness or the way of sin. Noting this clear teaching in Scripture, the Early Church document titled the Didache begins with this statement: "There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways." Yet here Blumer dismisses this type of thinking as "binary". Would Blumer really have us believe that Cain's sacrifice was "good" in some sense? He did, after all, obey God by bringing a sacrifice--yet God passed over Cain's offering because it was not given with a right heart. There is nothing good about obeying God's rules without the right motive. If Scripture is clear about anything it is this.

In what is a startling undermining of the Gospel, Blumer writes, "obedience is so helpful that increasing it by means of rules is a genuine spiritual blessing to believers even when their faith is incomplete and love is not their primary motivation." Actually, it is precisely this type of behavior, when applied to the spiritual mission of the Church, that Scripture calls sin. This is the thinking that led Paul to write Galatians. It is the grosteque specter of human religiousity from which Christ freed us and the watered-down moralism that has proven powerless to effect change. Faithless Israel begged to return to slavery in Egypt, and now Blumer offers us a taxi-cab ride back to Goshen. The belief that we must add man-made rules to the Church is an abandonment of the Gospel.

After I commented on his article, Blumer replied: "I am confused. Christ's church does have rules all over the NT. And breaking them without repentance leads to being disciplined out of the church in order to protect the gospel. So how can you say that adding them abandons the gospel?"

If "younger fundamentalism" cannot see the difference between Jesus giving rules and humans adding them, then we are destined to repeat the egregious errors of our fathers. Either the Cross (with the Grace it brings) is everything, or it is nothing.

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  1. Sigh.

    Maybe your friend would appreciate the Baptist church down south that's burning post-1611 translations of the Bible and books by contemporary Christian authors to "celebrate" Halloween this year.

    I've always appreciated Sproul's definition of legalism: "Man making rules where God has left man free." That pesky ol' Bible does say His commandments are not burdensome. Keeping man's sure are.

    The issue arose again as I found out one from one of my ministry colleagues this past weekend at the prison. He was attending IRUMC and moved a few counties south and is now attending a non-UMC church. He explored membership and was told one of the membership requirements was to profess and affirm total abstinence from any form of alcohol (even if he himself doesn't indulge, he is to affirm abstinence for ALL Christians). I find it interesting that such issues go so far - well-meant, of course (Really. I'm not being sarcastic. These people are indeed sincere and are just trying to protect the holiness of the people of God) - they would keep Jesus Himself from being members of such a church. If we apply that standard, it may perhaps cause us to look afresh at our in-house "rules."

    I guess that's what happens, though, when one believes that the believer is "sanctified" by what he/she does or does not do, which is nothing more than law-keeping. The Gospel saves us and the Law sanctifies us? Me thinkest not. Isn't the NT teaching that we are not only justified by faith but also sanctified by faith?

    Of course, some will object and say, "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" Too bad Paul never had to deal that, eh? Oh, yeah. He did. If we present the Gospel as Paul did in Romans, that's the natural objection - Paul knew it and addressed it before the people could bring it up (Romans 6).

    We are to strive for "the holiness without which no one will see the Lord."(Heb. 12:14). That holiness, though, is a product of faith, not by the divine Law or the law of man. Your SS lesson on Baptists being legalistic jerks (To paraphrase. Well, maybe it wasn't a paraphrase after all....) keeps ringing true.

  2. Well, he certainly isn't a bible-burner. Not even close.

    But, even though his "rules" would be different, I can't help but notice he follows the same logic and method of those same groups (as other such groups spawned by this low-version of fundamentalism). The rules look a little different, but what's same is a fundamental move away from the sufficiency of scripture.

    Whenever anyone begins to say, "Well, God needs us to make the Bible more specific in order to apply it to the lives of our people", then we know we've departed from the Reformational cry of ad fontes and sola scriptura.

    Wouldn't it be great if Protestants actually remembered what it was we protested about in the beginning?

  3. RE: Remembering. Indeed.

    Just don't you even go THINKIN' about changing the hymnal on me, though.....:)))

  4. Josh,

    Great post. It spurred me to go over and read through all the comments and discussions. Did you read the 3 part series on Legalism and the Christian School Movement by Mike Durning posted prior to Aaron's series at SI? It was night and day different to Aaron's posts.

    I'm with you on your assessment. Here's the comment I just left over at SI:


    Interesting discussions on Rules

    I finally took the time to catch up on reading through the different legalism/rules posts around here. As I read through Mike Durning's series, I was refreshed. He hit many things head on with what I've experienced. He avoided Christian colleges, but in my experience there, the supposed wonderful products of Christian education were treated no better than kindergarteners when it came to trusting them to make reasonable decisions. So now, after enduring Christian education to its end, when you leave the Christian college, then you are magically supposed to just "get it" and be able to thrive on your own with a full-fledged discernment-capable mind. Unfortunately for many it didn't work.

    Anyway, I was disappointed by Aaron's articles, especially as they seem to express a wrong view of sin and a wrong view of sanctification. It's not entirely clear and the topic is complex, but I lean toward Josh Gelatt's strong negative reaction to this. Where in Scripture do we see external obedience praised as "good"? And how is mandated "obedience" supposed to make one more likely to have internal obedience develop later? This seems to be moralism.

    In the Sunday Schools I grew up in, we learned stories of the Bible as character lessons. Rules of what to do and not to do were stressed to the extreme throughout my Chrisitan school and in my youth group, camp, etc. The whole environment facilitated the growth of "goody two-shoes", of which I was chief. I was constantly praised for what I looked like, merely because I could keep many of the external rules. Meanwhile, those who couldn't keep them fell off the deep end and left church or had other bad things happen to them.

    The whole aura was Christians do X. So you need to do X. Doing X keeps you "right with God". You should feel guitly for doing X or correspondingly for not doing Y. You are a big sinner! Just "grit your teeth and do it". "Just determine to do right". "Just dedicate yourself again to God." "Let Go and Let God".

    Everything was about what we do or don't do. Not much was about what God did for us, and clear teaching emphasizing that. This is what is missing in much of this. The rules can become a smokescreen that teaches us (directly or by osmosis) that God loves a law-keeper. We were to strive to be really good law-keepers. And then if we did that, we would arrive as the "product" the Christian church-school was aiming at all along....

    I don't think it means rules are the problem. It's the over-emphasis on them divorced from a full-orbed context of careful Gospel-teaching. It's easier to think that just as academics is a result of teaching labors + hard work by students, so also morality and Christian character can be a result of teaching labors + rules + hard work by students. Problem is academics and a God-glorifying true morality of heart are radically distinct things. The Bible's clear that the above formula doesn't result in God-glorifying true morality of heart.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Bob Hayton


    Thanks again.

  5. "Notice how he defines "Good" in the list above. It is "doing the right thing to avoid punishment--although lacking in faith and love". Compare that with Paul's words in Romans 14:23 ("...whatever does not come from faith is sin"). One also thinks of Hebrews 11:6 ("Without faith it is impossible to please God"). Blumer's defintion of good is pagan moralism at best"
    Just want to point out that in context my use of "good" could just as easily be termed "not as good" because I do indicate that doing right out of faith and love is "best."
    However, please note that I say elsewhere in the series that a true believer never acts with noand nolove. That conviction is important context for what I'm saying.

    It is not any kind of legalism to believe that we ought to apply Scripture to the choices we face today, which always involves going beyond what is written, and frequently involves declaring categories of things to be wrong. I have not yet seen anyone make a case for how this is contrary to the gospel.
    Indeed, since making us holy, is part of God's great gospel purpose, failure to apply Scripture to all the choices we face is actually anti-gospel.

  6. Aaron,

    When we personally apply Scripture to our lives that is certainly not legalism. When a church forces application of scripture upon its people in the form of a man-made rule, then THAT is legalism.

    Brother, your logic (if applied to the church) is:

    (1) claiming an authority which belongs solely to Christ,

    (2) it betrays a lack of understanding of the concept of 'application',

    (3) it is a complete abandonment of the Reformational cry of sola scriptura.

    Aaron, to be very frank, what your advocating will ultimately lead only to moralism. I urge you, as a fellow minister, to return clearly and solely, to being a champion of Scripture. You are spending far too much energy proving your right to make rules, rather than meditating singularly on Christ's sole right to be the rule maker.

  7. Could we perhaps look at some "rules" (in place at the First Hypothetical Baptist Church) and see how we would apply this discussion?

    1) Men don't use the women's bathroom at the gathering place of the church.

    2) Women don't wear skirts that show any part of the knee.

    3) No drums. EVER.

    4) Do not set foot in a movie theater.

    5) KJV or nothing.

    6) No real (defined as "with alcohol content") wine during Communion.

    7) Church members must home school their children.

    Is not the Biblical way that the people are taught not only what God's precepts are, but WHY it's important to obey them? So that they will obey HIS precepts willingly and out of love and honor to Him, rather than forcing obedience?

    I deal with a lot of prisoners who have to obey a lot of laws you and I don't have to obey. Why do they obey them? They have to. Do they WANT to? If they're Christian, they should - even the "silly" ones. We all do that with our daily lives as we go to and fro - we obey even the silly laws. But within the church, should not our people want to bring glory and honor to God by willingly behaving in such a manner that would do that? A woman should want - of her own free agency - to wear clothes that are modest in nature and we need to educate them as to why that's important, as one example. We should want to do those things and do them because we love our God and we love our brothers and sisters.

    "Rules" that go beyond love for God and love for each other would seem to be, in the end, counterproductive. We should be careful in declaring what is and isn't "sin" if it's not something we can draw as a conclusion from what the Scripture tells us. "Rules" can be refined as standards for "sin" and that's territory we'd best not venture into.

  8. Well, if you're ready to grant that application has value and that it occurs in the realm of "beyond what is written," we're getting somewhere.

    Would it be fair to say, then, that the essential difference between application and "rules" is that the latter are arrived at by folks in authority as opposed to believers themselves?

    I'm amazed that a place where there is so much rhetorical high regard for the Reformation would be so selective about what Reformation ideas it buys. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et. al., were not of the opinion that an application of Scripture is somehow anti-Christ and anti-gospel when it comes from a pastor or from a body of believers acting in concert, or from a parent to his child.

  9. Aaron,

    You seem to think that "application" means we must be more specific than scripture, or to "go beyond what is written". That I would vehemently deny.

    For example, how are we to apply the Biblical command "do not be drunk with wine"? Do we have the liberty to "go beyond" scripture and make an additional rule "don't ever drink wine"? Certainly there is a logic there (if you don't drink, you can't get drunk). I respect that logic, but also insist that the church has no authority to make a specific rule where scripture has given a general rule/principle.

    The very idea that "application" means "make scripture more specific" is patently false.

  10. Josh, I don't think I said "make Scripture more specific."

    I'll try another angle...
    On Sundays, when it comes time to preach, do any of us merely read a large portion of Scripture and then dismiss? We at least explain the text.. do we stop there?
    John Owen, Matthew Henry, Richard Baxter, and on it goes, certainly did not stop there. They pointed out--with great passion--what the teaching of Scripture required of their hearers in their daily lives. Of necessity, that included *many* details not in the text of Scripture itself.
    Is that "making Scripture more specific"? Well, I'd never put it that way. It is, however, making the implications of Scripture--the meaning of Scripture--more specific, yes.
    And if we fail to do that (whether we call it application or call it something else), we might has well make the sermon a Bible reading hour.

    I'm afraid your passion to reject all forms of do's and dont's is driving you to some damaging conclusions on other things.

    Even rejecting "legalism," is going beyond what is written. The word "legalism" does not appear in the Bible, nor does it *say* "having rules is legalism." So by your own categories, you are appealing to a man-made rule ("thou shalt not be legalistic") in order to reject rules. It really isn't tenable.

    Look, neither of us believes that human beings can achieve their own righteousness by obeying rules, whether God's rules or their own. So legalism is not in play here, nor is moralism by any normal definition. It's just that what I'm saying *resembles* something you despise and is, therefore, easy to just label and reject.

  11. Aaron B.,

    So, how is the act of preaching in anyway related to the dictating of rules?

    I am FOR biblical preaching. I am AGAINST human-rules over Christ's Church.

    You seem to think that explaining a passage of scripture inevitably leads to, at least in some instances, the necessity of providing some man-made "rules". I still passionately disagree with this as being anti-Gospel and an abandonment of sola scriptura.

    For the life of me I cannot understand how you think "application" in anyway leads to rule making. If your making rules in application, your definetly NOT applying Scripture, but your own finite ideas. As such, (if you really do this), you've stopped preaching and are only giving a religious sounding speech. This was exactly what was wrong with the extreme forms of fundamentalism of the past. FYI, this is no better than classic liberalism. Both liberalism and extreme fundamentalism committed the same methodological error--both preached culture rather than Christ.

    Calvin, Owen, Henry, Baxter, Luther, and a host of other great men never preached this way. I urge you to read Calvin's sermons, of which we have many available to us in English today. You simply will not find what you seem to be advocating---but you will find faithful application (without any 'rule-making').

    In sort, application is meant to apply Scripture---not for making up rules. I would far rather sit under a liberal pastor who at least stuck to the text than a fundamentalist preacher who added the rules of carnal man. It is one thing to advise and counsel, it is another thing entirely to claim the authority to make a rule where Scripture itself has not.

    In what way is your method any different from Roman Catholicism?

  12. OK, so now we're back to the question of what's the difference between an application and a rule, which is a great place to go.

    When we apply Scripture, we always go beyond what is written and discern, as best we can, the rightness or wrongness of choices we face. So when we apply Scripture, as I think I said earlier, we declare activities to be wrong even though the Bible doesn't specifically name them as wrong.

    How does this resemble a rule? An example might help. The NT commands me to love my wife. It does not say I should not beat my wife. I apply the love passage--and other Scriptures--and conclude that beating my wife is wrong.
    I now have a self-imposed rule: "I will not beat my wife."

    As a pastor, I believe that this application is important enough to need enforcing as a rule as well in the lives of those under my care. So, though it's not written down anywhere in our church documents (as far as I know) "Husbands in the congregation shall not beat their wives" is, in fact, a rule.
    ... and a mighty good one, too!

    I could dream up example after example of that sort of rule. An application of Scripture, "beyond what is written," and "man made." Neither having rules like these, nor insisting on their obedience, constitute legalism or moralism.

    Do they sanctify? No. Rules do not sanctify, only God sanctifies. But He uses a wide variety of means, and it doesn't take alot of imagination to see how He would use a bit of external pressure to desist wife-beating to move a saint toward Christlikeness. Just by ceasing that behavior, the man is improving. And though he may be motivated mostly by the rule (not entirely, if he's a believer - a believer always has some love for God as his motive for doing right) he still stops doing something reprehensible... (because God has used it in his life) and this cannot but help him become a better child of God.

    (Of course, it wouldn't help an unbeliever be a better child of God--to suggest that would be legalism--and moralism at the same time).

    Maybe that helps? I don't mind being disagreed with, but I do like to be understood.

  13. See Matt. 15:1-9 and 1 Tim 4:1-5.

    Would we allow Luther to be an overseer? Would we allow Luther to remain there if he said this (which he did)?

    "Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and the stars have been worshiped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky?

    …see how much he [God] has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all. Had I wished I might have started a conflagration at Worms. But while I sat still and drank beer with Philip and Amsdorf, God dealt the papacy a mighty blow."

    Just because learned people declare it does not make it correct - see infant baptism and what I still can't even fathom more than that - infant Communion as examples. A count of scholarly noses, to borrow from Doug Wilson, does not determine truth.

  14. Wow. Now Aaron's a Roman Catholic! Woulda thunk it?

    Really, you should go to Dave Doran's blog here:

    And read his articles on legalism.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  15. Don,

    Brother, let's not cheat with words. We are speaking about methodology here, not theology.

    But, yes. There are methological similarities since his argument is based not on scripture, but on something else (Catholics=church tradition, Aaron=personal pragmaticism).

  16. Jeff,

    You said (or actually quoted Luther), "see how much he [God] has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach."

    That is it in a nut-shell. The power is God's Word, not man's opinions.

    I still find it interesting that there isn't a shred of biblical evidence to support Aaron's position--not even an example from scripture. Yet still we find people clinging to such thinking. Nowhere does scripture extol the value of man-made rules---quite the opposite in fact (actually, scripture repeatedly seems to denounce this as full-blown legalism, undo moralism, or the weak faith of a spiritual immature believer--depending on the situation).

  17. What I find interesting is how quickly you descend to rhetorical cheap shots and name calling. "Legalism" and "Roman Catholic" are verbal bombs, not really attempts at discussion but attempts at inflammatory rhetoric.

    It isn't right. It isn't the fruit of the Spirit.

    And have you read Dave's article yet?

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  18. Don,

    You've completely misunderstood this post and its subsequent articles, and I think in a rather uncharitable way. As I have already explained, there is no name calling here. At the most, I've accused Aaron of holding to what is simply moralism (again, we are speaking in terms of method--not actual belief). There has been no charge of "legalism" or "Roman Catholicism".

    As for the Catholic comment, I did state that I find a similarity in terms of method, certainly not theology. In fact, it was just a question---not even a statement. I simply asked Aaron to explain how his method was different. Maybe it is, but that is for him to explain.

    I urge you to join Aaron and I in this conversation. You are creating personal insults where none exist.

    There are consequences for ideas. The ideas that Aaron is advocating, and perhaps you are defending, do methodologically lead to moralism---though I fully agree that is not the intent.

  19. Josh and Aaron,

    I noticed you are both discussing this over at Sharer Iron. All in all, I would agree with most everything Josh has said. Aaron, on a hermeneutical level, your view of scripture's application seems naive. I thought Josh's most recent reply and analysis was superb. He writes:

    "Thanks for providing some scripture, but you still have not addressed the issue. You still have not provided any scriptural support for the concept that man-made rules aid in sanctification. At best, you've just used unrelated scriptures while still resting your case on the authority of pragmatism.

    You write: "My conclusion was that whenever a rule results in a believer not sinning it has been instrumental in his growth." Eh? And where from scripture have you drawn this conclusion? Man-made rules are never described as having this power in Scripture. No rule made by man can, in any degree, keep a person from sinning. At the very most it can only constrain an individual from the outward manifestation of sin--and Jesus was never very impressed by such constraint.

    The rule about husbands not beating their wives is an excellent example of the POWERLESSNESS and FOOLISHNESS of rules, not of their power. At best, such a rule can only keep a woman from being beaten. I'll admit, this is in some (moralistic) sense better than her taking a beating from an irate husband. But, over at my blog you were trying in vain to highlight how this rule is a necessary outgrowth and application of the biblical rule to "love your wife". But while forbidding the beating of wives will produce wives who are not physically assaulted, it will never produce men who love their wives. Thus, your man-made rule is powerless and plays no part in the process of sanctification. It can never, by any means, reach one to the level of biblical obedience--which is why no such rule exists in the New Testament (God, in His sovereignty, did not appeal to a powerless rule--so why should we?) In fact, your rule actually detracts from the biblical command by placing the emphasis elsewhere. It is easy not to beat your wife, it is very hard to love her. Man-made rules always reduce scripture to powerless moralism that can be easily obeyed---without the cross, without Christ, and without the Spirit. Fine---a man obeys your rule and doesn't beat his wife. Yet you have lead him no closer to obeying Christ by loving his wife. You've described a perfect example of moralism, not gospel-saturated sanctification.

    My resistance to this is firm and sharp, not because I believe you to be a legalist, but because your method has lead you (perhaps unknowingly) to share authority with something other than scripture. Through hermeneutical gymnastics, you've come to believe that application of scripture will--at least at times--involve rule-making. I maintain, as the Reformers did, that human innovation in such areas will ultimately lead to an abandonment of scripture's authority (at least in part). Far too many movements have shared this method, all to the ultimate detriment of the Gospel."

  20. Isn't there a middle position in here somewhere. On the one hand, Aaron claims that human-derived rules aid in our sanctification. I would agree with Josh that this is contrary to the gospel. I also would disagree with Don because Josh was right to point out the comparison between this line of thinking and that of the Catholic church. I'm not even sure if Aaron fully means that rules aid in sanctification, or what he means by this statement, but the Bible seems quite clear that we are not sanctified even a little from man-made rules or regulations.

    But I wonder if Josh is missing something here too. Josh, isn't there room for any man-made rules in a church setting? I would agree we must take great care not to blend these with spiritual growth or sanctification (as Aaron has done), but can we not have these for order? Also, even if these cannot help in spiritual growth, there are times when the restraint of outward sin is important (granted, even if it does not restrain the sin of the heart).

    Josh: Perhaps you are not seeing any value in rules.

    Aaron: Perhaps you are seeing far too great a value in them.

    -Andy C.

  21. There is a world of difference between commandments we find in Scripture and man-made traditions designed to promote moralism. I would go so far as to say that most of the church does a pretty poor job of following the commands we do have in Scripture and as such has no business heaping traditions designed to promote an external piety upon us.

    I have no issue with the rules laid forth in Scripture, even the ones that I find inconvenient or difficult. I have an enormous issue with mad-made rules and traditions that not only are absent from the Scripture, they actually impede believers from following Scriptural admonitions and commands. Sanctification does not stem from following man-made rules, no matter how noble the intent.

  22. Don, far from being a cheap shot, I think Josh's comparison to Roman Catholicism is right on. In Aaron Blumer's post over at Sharper Iron he goes so far as to say that man-made "rules are essential" to the sanctification of the believer. Essential?!?!?!?! It is hard to think of a statement that is more damaging to the Gospel than that one.

    Rome says its edicts are essential to the Christian faith, and now extreme fundamentalism says the same thing about its man-made rules. Scary. No wonder so many of us have left fundamentalism behind. Jesus' grace and truth are too wonderful to be infested with such nonsense.

  23. Andy,

    I agree with you, and I do see a value in rules and procedures within the church. The only problem I have is when the Gospel is undermined by the claim that these rules are involved (in anyway) in the sanctification process.

    Also, in the spheres of home, government, and school I have no problem with rules. School's have the right to make dress codes, make kids stand in line, or even have a lifestyle code of conduct (no dances, no movies, etc). If the purpose of these is to promote discipline, civility, and orderliness then go for it. Just don't try to claim these things make one more like Jesus.

  24. Don took Josh to task for what he considers "name-calling", but over at his blog look at what Don had to say about Mark Driscoll (in reply to another commentor):

    "Daniel, if he was interested in correct doctrine, he wouldn’t blaspheme. He would clean up his mouth and his life. He is completely unacceptable as a Christian minister."

    Jeez, talk about your descent into rhetorical cheap shots and name calling...

    I guess fundamentalists are like the Pharisees after all, loading men with burdens they themselves are not willing to bear.