LEGALISM IN THE CHURCH
The modern day church struggles with many different problems. There is infighting within denominations, there are pastors and priests caught in adulterous affairs, elders and deacons stealing money from the treasury, and financial debt that piles so high churches end up filing bankruptcy. The problems do not stop there because there are hundreds of others that often prompt these "larger" and more visible tragedies. Some denominations cannot decide whether to be liberal or conservative, and consequently, there is a church split where many former members leave to go elsewhere. The one problem that faces all churches, though in some more than others, is the problem of legalism. Legalism can be found in every church in the world. It may not manifest itself with the pastor or the rest of the leadership, though in many cases it does. More often than not it is found within many individual members who parade this legalism to everyone they meet and drive many would-be "seekers" away from a golden opportunity to hear the truth of Godís Word.
What is Legalism?
In the Christian context of the church legalism is a term used to describe a system of beliefs that must be adhered to in order to be a "good" Christian. What is of vital importance, however, is that these "legalisms" are NOT found in the Bible. Many legalists would go as far as to say that if a person does not adhere to their own beliefs of legalism then they are not Christians at all even if they have placed their trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of their lives. They simply say that any action going against what they believe to be right or wrong is evidence that they are not believers at all.
By way of example, many people would say that any and all consumption of alcoholic beverages is wrong. This is a legalistic belief because no where in the Bible is drinking alcoholic beverages forbidden. However, many believe this is wrong, and any attempt at convincing otherwise most often proves futile. Now the Bible does forbid drunkenness, but even Jesus di not denounce the consumption of wine (cf. John 2).
Other examples of legalism include the restriction from attending movies, eating meat, and abstaining from heavier forms of music. Many churches believe that only the old traditional hymns of yesteryear are appropriate and any other music sung in the church is sinful. Some even believe it to be a sin when new mothers do not breast feed but use formula instead! There are countless examples of legalism, but the point is this: People must not be held to a standard of conformity that is outside of the teachings of scripture. If this takes place then legalism begins to take root. If the scriptures teach, "You shall not commit adultery" then this should be adhered to. But when the scriptures are silent regarding a certain issue it should never be preached to anyone as a must. Such a preaching is legalistic, and legalistic preaching and teaching is at the heart of the non-believerís rejection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Judaizers as Legalists
The Bible addresses legalism plainly. In Acts 15 Luke records that "Certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ĎUnless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.í" The ones who were teaching this were called Judaizers. These people were early converts to Christianity who tried to force believers from non-Jewish backgrounds to adopt Jewish customs as a condition of salvation. Evidence of this movement within the early church first emerged about A. D. 49. In this case they were spreading a legalistic teaching with regard to circumcision. They said that a conversion to Christ was not enough -- that person had to be circumcised too. What they promoted, therefore, was Jesus AND an adherence to the Jewish law as recorded by Moses.
Legalism in Acts 15
There were some Jews in Judea who believed that Christianity was just a party within Judaism, so they assumed that these new converts to Christianity needed to become circumcised (proselytes) according to the Mosaic Law. These Jews could not conceive that pagans could simply enter the church and immediately be on an equal basis with Jewish believers. Consequently, in Acts 15 there is a council of men who met together in order to discuss what must a person do to be saved. The apostles had successfully kept works out of the salvation process as they resisted the pressure to impose Judaism on Gentile converts up to this point, and they wanted to keep it that way. In the end, they forbade the inclusion of works as a part of salvation and claimed that it was for all time a salvation brought about by Godís grace through faith in Jesus Christ -- apart from any human effort.
In view of this passage and the conclusions by the apostles regarding extra works for salvation, it appears that legalism was addressed from the beginning of Christianity. There are no works to be added to the salvation experience, and todayís legalists should consider the Bibleís teaching from Acts 15. There are many destructive heresies to be found today, but there is none more heretical than the teaching that salvation is attained by human works. This is never taught in scripture -- as a matter of fact it is explicitly condemned throughout.
The Apostle Paulís View of Legalism from Romans 14
In Romans 14 Paul addressed the issue of legalism. He first spoke of the fact that that no one lives his life for his own self. All live and die to the Lord. He goes on to say that every knee will bow before the Lord, and each person will give an account of his life to the Lord. It is not the responsibility of man to put restrictions on other people if God has not ordained it. Paul uses the example of eating in this chapter. Since the Jews had grown up under the Law, and that law forbade the eating of many foods, it was natural for many of them to continue to reject those foods after coming to faith in Christ. Paul, however, reminded them that Christ had declared all food as clean, and consequently, could be eaten by all with a clear conscience. But Paul made it clear that even though all foods were clean it was not up to an outsider to judge another for eating or not eating all kinds of meat. The legalism came from both sides of the debate, and this is part of what Paul is addressing in Romans 14. Some felt that all foods were clean and could be consumed while others felt that abstaining from all meats was the true "Christian" way of eating. Paul warned not to be legalistic from either side of the debate. On the contrary, Paul wanted harmony, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he taught that both ways were fine as long as one brother did not cause another to stumble. If one manís conscience did not let him eat meat then that was fine for him, but another man who felt he could eat meat also had every right to eat that meat as long as he did not cause his vegetarian brother to stumble by eating meat.
Addressing Legalism in Galatians
When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians he displayed his frustration with the legalism that had infiltrated the ranks of those Christians in Galatia.
Paul says, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:6-9).
Being accursed here apparently means to incur Godís wrath and judgment. This sounds extreme, but Paul was astonished by how quickly the Galatian believers were abandoning the true gospel message he had preached and following a legalistic one by following the old Jewish laws and customs. When a person trusts Christ as Savior he/she becomes a new person in Christ and is set free from the requirements of the Jewish law: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation" (Gal. 6:15).
Dr. Donald Campbell says, "The departure was not simply from a system of theology but from God Himself, the One who had called them by the grace of Christ." Paul was attempting to convince the readers that the legalistic gospel they were now following was not the same gospel he preached to them (and was accepted by them). It is important to understand the passion with which Paul wrote concerning this matter because any attempt in churches today to employ practices outside of faith alone would fall under Paulís teaching. Legalism in Galatians is severely denounced, and legalism in modern-day Christians circles must also be denounced in the same way.
The New Testament speaks of two categories of people to whom God devotes to destruction. First, anyone who does not love the Lord (1 Cor. 16:22). Second, false teachers. Paul calls these people "accursed" twice in this Galatians passage. Going further, Jesus warned His disciples that "false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders , so as to mislead, if it were possible, even the elect" (Matt. 24). John 8:44 says, "False teachers are children of their Ďfather the devil, and ... want to do the desires of their father,í who Ďwhenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies." Paul adds to this in his letter to Timothy that such people in the leadership of the church at Ephesus he had "delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1:20).
How Does Legalism Manifest Itself in Todayís Churches?
Today, despite Paulís teaching, legalism manifests itself in churches all over the world. One reason there are so many different denominations is due to legalism. Some believe that breaking bread must be done every week at church. Some believe that since the Old Testament Sabbath day corresponds to modern-day Saturday then worship services must always be on Saturday as well. Speaking of the Sabbath, many feel that it is a day that must be honored in the same legalistic way it was in the Old Testament. Some do not allow dancing or drinking. Some do not allow musical instruments to be played in the church building. Some believe a person must be dunked under the water while others say that the sprinkling of water is sufficient. The list goes on and on, but it only takes one legalistic doctrine to make the whole church legalistic. The manifestations of this problem are numerous, but the solution is always the same: what does the Bible have to say about these problems, and what is itís teaching? As already seen, Paul speaks to this issue, and he has some very strong words to say about it as he denounces it.
Legalism should never be viewed as harmless. Though it may appear this way in some instances, many heresies present themselves as harmless until they grow and become truly destructive. Itís like a "white lie" or a harmless piece of gossip -- it grows and grows until it eventually destroys. Guarding herself from becoming legalistic should be an item the church considers every day of her existence. Obviously, the best way to guard legalism is to preach against it and use all of the many examples of legalism that exist today to illustrate how prevalent it is. Going further, for those who persist in thwarting the pure gospel of Jesus Christ through legalistic teaching, the church should practice church discipline in this matter as outlined in Matthew 18.
Most legalists are simply ignorant to the pure gospel. As humans it can be very difficult to just accept Godís grace without feeling as if it must be worked for. Instead of seeing legalism as harmless the church should take measures to educate and model what true grace really is. This problem is old, and it is apparently going to plague the church forever. But this is no reason why good teaching and preaching cannot minimize the destructiveness of legalism.
Campbell, D. 1983. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Galatians. Eds. Walvoord, J. & Zuck, R. Victor Books: USA, Canada, England, p. 590.
Constable, T. DTS class notes on The Book of Acts, page 173.
MacArthur, J, 1996. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts. Moody Press: Chicago,
MacArthur, J, 1996. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians. Moody Press: Chicago, page 10.
New American Standard Bible