When it comes to talking about legalism in the church, people start to get a little squirmy, uncomfortable and even a little defensive. We want to think that legalism is for those cults and sects like the Branch Davidians or Sciencetology. But legalism has crept in on a more subtle level and has become a cancer across denominations in the Christian church.
Legalism is often defined as an overly strict or rigid adherence to the Mosaic Law or to a religious or moral code. Legalism within the church puts doctrine, ritual and/or an overly zealous moral code over true Biblical commands and teachings and can also tie action to salvation. Some would even go as far as putting personal preferences at the same level as scripture such as men should wear beards, drums should never be used in worship music or women should never be pastors. In of themselves, these ideas are not good or bad, but when these ideas are made black and white, do or die issues in the church, legalism has taken hold and becomes more important than the message of God.
“There is one thing that most of these Christian legalists have in common. They all assume that any others that do not see things their way are not even Christian. They claim to be in the body of Christ but their doctrine and their actions attack people that are actually in the body of Christ.” – Don Koenig “Christian Legalism – The Dark Side of Christianity”
Legalism so often ties what we do, how we live and what we believe into how secure our salvation is. I have heard and been part of conversations about hot topic issues and the consequences for Christians if you believe in being pro-life or pro-choice, whether there should be marriage equality or whether a transgender person can be baptized.
One of the simple truths we need to remember is that legalism is not new to the church. When Christ walked this earth, he faced a judgmental, legalistic and oppressive religious system. Originally it was a system that God himself had put in place at the time of Moses and Joshua, but over the long history of Israel, it was corrupted by men twisting scriptures, the use of biblical literalism and by men who put themselves over others, let alone put themselves between God and his people.
There is a reason the curtain in the temple tore at the moment of Christ’s last breath. For far too long there was a separation between God and his children. From the very act of taking our place on the cross, no longer will man stand in the way of God’s people from truly knowing him and understanding what it means to be saved.
There are those today that have forgotten the message in Ephesians 2 verses 8 through 9, “For by grace (not man, not anything you do) you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God (not man); 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”(NASV) So it is a gift that we are saved from death. It’s not because I followed some set of rules, outdated laws, mistranslated scripture or scripture taken out of context. The works or the life we lead after we are saved are an outward expression of the love and life we now have in Christ.
At the time of Christ, the Pharisees had created such a separation between the people and God, that many didn’t even really know who God was anymore. The Pharisees had put themselves above the people and even killed God’s prophets that had spoke God’s truth. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” Matthew 23:37-38
What is lost today in the rituals, laws and personal preferences that the church preaches is that Christ did not come to this earth to establish a new religion. He came to abolish the twisted & legalistic religion that existed and the ones that can still be seen today. Christ came not to encourage religion but to establish a relationship with him. Christ doesn’t say go to your pastor or priest for forgiveness. He doesn’t say do certain things then and only then will I help you. He has said “come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest”.
Did you notice it says “all”. Not just those who follow a set of rules. Not just straight cis people. God said ALL may come to him and find rest and strength from the load we carry.
Just as a child in a healthy family does not need to earn the right to receive food and shelter from it’s parents, neither does God withhold his love from us, his children – no matter who we are. Legalism wants us to believe that God is obligated to do things for us. I have news for you – God is not obligated to do one single thing for you – NOT ONE! But the good news is that God WANTS to do things for you. We are blessed and receive blessings because and only because God loves us.
Legalism wants to control, it wants to think that you, an ordinary person, isn’t capable of following God on your own – it judges you inferior and thus imposes rules for you to follow.
Legalism at it’s heart is a judgmental religion in of it’s self. In Romans 14, we are reminded to be weary of a legalistic mentality and not cast judgment on others. Even though we may think one way and glorify the Lord that way, we are not to cast judgment on someone else who glorifies the Lord though they may have different methods or beliefs.
One of the glaring examples of this is how the church has treated the LGBT community. For far too long Gay and Transgender Christians have been ostracized for their beliefs. We are told that you can’t be Gay and Christian or you can’t be Transgender and Christian.
Even though there is concrete evidence and the church preaches that God loves everyone, many within the church – including pastors – have failed to communicate and live out this message. They take a view of scripture that is literal and lean on today’s translations of scripture to be heavy handed when dishing out condemnation. We hear that being homosexual is wrong yet the word “homosexual” didn’t appear in scriptures until around 1946. (Here we could get into an entire conversation on biblical translations, but that is an entire post by itself.)
What we need to remember is that by our very nature, we are not equipped to judge others. We are not all knowing (that maybe news to some)- thus we lack one of the most important essentials to judge others. Yet the prevailing attitude in the Christian community as seen by those on the outside is one of legalistic judgment.
We are told throughout scripture that only God is the one who can judge us. So when we cast judgment on others, whether you want to think about it or not, you are placing yourself on the same plane as God. I’ll let this sink in for a minute; judging others = putting yourself before God = having any other gods before Him is idolatry. Thus you judgings others = you committing idolatry. Romans 2:1 “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself”
We must remember that we do not know the entirety of God’s will and his plans for each and every one of the seven billion people on this planet.
These legalistic, judgmental attitudes and practices are continually pushing people away from the Church. For various reasons, some say up to a million people per year walk away from church, many of those never go back. Rachel Held Evans in a 2013 article for CNN says, “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
Legalism, without a doubt, will be the death of the church we have come to know. The church God wants will be when people take a serious look at the scriptures as they were originally written, dwell on what is loving, honorable and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:6), pursue peace and the building up of one another (Romans 14:19), be kind to one another, tender hearted and forgiving each other (Ephesians 4:31-32), accept one another as Christ accepts us (Romans 15:7), understand that we, in a great diversity, are all one in God (Galatians 3:28), and live out that God came to give us all salvation (John 3:16) – not just a select few who follow a legalistic mindset.
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. ” Galatians 5:1
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