Legalism in the Church Today



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  • Legalism in the Church Today

    Symptoms of Legalism

    Does your church impose rigid external standards like dress code and possession restrictions? Do they teach Pastoral lordship? Do you feel trapped by these rules and regulations imposed by your Church? Does the leadership have an expressed version of the Bible that is contended as the only acceptable one? Does your church separate or divide on questionable or debatable issues? Have you witnessed the prideful and condescending attitudes toward other denominations who have different persuasions? Does membership sway from one church to another, depending on which is providing the teaching most appealing to the sect?

    "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ." [Colossians 2:8]

    Legalists always exhibit certain characteristics. Among the many, they exhibit periods of great highs and lows based upon their performance, frustrations with trying to become more holy, contentious, condemnatory towards others who don't do as they do, a lack of patience with others growing in holiness, and usually like to control others to think as they do. Legalists have feeling of being the minority right, of possessing the correct way, or being superior to those outside the group. Heavily polarized “us-them,” adversarial thinking, projection of one’s own shadow qualities onto others, making of distinction of how others are wrong (“they” are “bad” and “we” are “good”).

    Cults like the Jehovah's Witness and Mormons hold to some type of rigid outward performances as they "work" out their salvation. Legalism - even in its smallest dose - cultivates spiritual arrogance when self-branded holiness doctrines are imposed upon its members. Sadly, those who do not hold to the same level of "holiness" as their elite counterparts are usually treated with unwarranted disdain. Legalist leadership often strive to suppress dissents, doubt, critical thinking, sincere questions, discussion or independent judgment. Accept their standards without contest or move along is the criteria, which often brands the one departing as a spiritually blinded heretic.

    Legalists have a craving for followers; seductive recruiting strategies or heavy-handed tactics of proselytizing or conversion (including “love bombing,” that is, showering prospective recruits with friendly, but strategic attention). If a church body is authentic and its members are radiant with Christ's virtuous qualities, sharing geniune love in the Holy Spirit, new people will be attracted to the church intuitively, spontaneously, and naturally. The church won’t need to pursue any attendees with strategic methods to secure membership.

    To understand legalism, it is helpful to understand the purpose of the Mosaic Law. The purpose of the law was to teach man that righteousness could not be obtained by human effort. The Apostle Paul had this to say about the Law, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24) Not only is the law incapable of bring us into right standing before God but trying to be justified by the works of the law actually makes matters worse. “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound” (Romans 5:20) The Law was put in place that we would know that righteousness cannot be achieved by works or human effort, that by the law we might be brought to the end of ourselves and our efforts and clearly see our desperate need for a Savior. If righteousness could be attained by keeping laws or rules, then there would have been no need for Jesus to have died on the cross in our place.

    "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence." [Colossians 2:20-23]

    The believer's responsibility is to live in the world and not become a part of it. The child of God is to live his life in fellowship with the Spirit of God and please God and God alone. A God honoring life has a clear conscience which makes him impervious to opinions of people. "But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For "who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?" But we have the mind of Christ." [1 Cor 2:15-16]

    Paul warned about an ascetic legalism that was attacking the first-century church in Colossians 2:18-23. He said that one could be cheated out of their reward in Christ by four things. These four things were (1) false, or voluntary humility, (2) worshipping of angels, (3) not giving Jesus His proper place as the Head of the body of Christ, (4) and “subjecting one's self to human commandments and doctrines which teach that there is a spiritual benefit in abstaining from perishable created things which are not inherently evil.” (Segraves, Daniel L, Collected Writings (Stockton, CA: n.p., 1992 - p. 74) These things do have an appearance of true wisdom, but it is merely a self-imposed religion that is not able to help a person overcome their sinful nature (v.23). The humility and worship that these ascetics were performing were not from God, but came from their own human will, contrary to what Jesus taught concerning the worship of God. He said worship was to come from one's spirit (John 4:24), not by external adherence to man-made rules or obligatory traditions that mimic the "appearance" of godliness.

    Peter summed up the problem with legalism in the conference between the church at Jerusalem and Antioch. "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" [Acts 15:9-10]

    What kind of legalism is attacking the faith today? The most common form is that which leads the believer away from absolute reliance upon Christ toward a self-confidence based on his ability to do or to abstain from certain things not specifically commended or prohibited in Scripture. Concerning this type of legalism , Segraves comments:
    But the second form of legalism is more subtle, more difficult to detect and resist, and more apt to find acceptance among believers of every age, because it adapts itself cleverly to any culture and time. This is the system that makes one's interpretation or application of Scripture equal in authority to Scripture itself. Every ascetic practice can, for example, be defended by general scriptural calls to devotion, commitment, and holiness. Even resistance to technological advances can be justified by appeals to disassociate ourselves from the world. This can be witnessed among the communities springing from the Anabaptists traditions which repudiate zippers, electricity, automobiles and other modern inventions.
    "And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw nigh unto me , and with their mouth and with their lips to honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which hath been taught them." [Isaiah 29:13]

    The "commandment of men" is the religious teachings that make adherents think they are honoring God by submission to man-made requirements. They think they honor God by observance, but God rejects the legalistic submission as "hearts far from me".

    The contrast between legalism and the Biblical standard of Christian living is the regulations and standard of men versus the 'walk' of the believer by means of the Spirit of God. Legalism takes on several distinct forms. First of all, there are traditions that are in direct conflict with Scripture and yet they are elevated to a mandatory Christian practice and obedience. Some examples of this are baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, manifestation gifts such as tongues or strict observance of Sabbath day worship.

    A second variety of legalism is the rigid enforcing of personal convictions as a requirement or developing conclusions drawn from the Bible, even though the Bible is silent on the subject. Some examples are the reading of only the King James Version; no guitar or drums during service; required home-schooling or no birth control. The problem here is simply that their convictions or conclusions are an addition to the freedom in Christ, and this creates an artificial black and white standard that the Bible never sets forth directly. Furthermore, these are formed from personal discretions and tastes, not from the explicit teaching in the Word.

    A third sort of legalism is the enforcement of personal standards as a universal practice for all Christians at a 'higher' level than the Bible. This kind of legalism results in the sin of self-righteousness, a critical spirit toward those who have non-compliant convictions. With this intent, their standard of living is higher than the Scriptures, thus supplanting it. The classic examples of this is that women cannot cut their hair, women must wear a head covering, men and women cannot wear jewelry, women must abstain from make-up and hair dyes; mothers must breast feed; mothers must birth children naturally; never buy on credit; never kiss a fiancée until you're married; women cannot wear pants or shorts, no mixed swimming, no dancing or never listen to secular music. There is certainly value in any of these, as to abstain from worldly association and pursue purity. Overall, the Bible goes to the heart of the matter regarding life, its message does address modesty, motivation, and morality. However, legalism attempts to develop a 'higher standard' by an itinerary of rules that enforce external codes of conduct and fashion. The problem lies in the enforcement of external standards less a changed heart, as if forced external conformity results in pleasing God. Forced conformity normally assures the adherent does not address the important matter, the abase and corrupt condition of the heart.

    A short study of Galatians 4:9-10 is imperative here. “But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known by God: how turn you again to the weak and needy elements, which you desire to serve again? You observe days, and months, and times, and years.” (Douay-Rheims Version) How turn you again “Back.” “How is it that you are returning to such a bondage?” The question implies surprise and indignation that they should do it. “To the weak and needy elements” - To the rites and ceremonies of the Jewish law, imposing a servitude really not less severe than the customs of paganism. Weak, because they have no spiritual power to strengthen us; Needy, because they have no rich promises like the gospel; Elements, because they belong to a rudimentary condition, to an undeveloped state to the childhood of the race. “which you desire to serve again” - As if you had a wish to be under servitude. The absurdity is as great as it would be for a man who had been freed from slavery to desire his chains again. If the Galatians were turning again to them, it is evident that they had been once addicted to methods of external works righteousness. External works or adaptations can become a moral addiction to any person or sect!

    A fourth area of legalism is to promote personal views in gray areas as a standard for all believers. The result of this is a mechanistic type of Christianity which is inconsistent. This category of legalism is formed from the subjective intimations of what is right before the Lord. This form of legalism is manifested when one says one must pray at a certain time every morning; Scripture memory is the only way to learn the Bible; attendance at a prayer meeting is a sign of spirituality; one should not buy grape juice because people will think you are drinking wine; or one should not buy items from stores whose corporations have made donations to pro-abortion groups, homosexual causes, or are owned by some cult or different religion. While the choice of any of these are not wrong in themselves, it is the imposing of these on others that propagates legalism. Equally, to judge anyone as ungodly who would fail to meet the standard of any personal criteria is again one bound by legalism.

    "But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?" [Galatians 4:9]

    The New Testament believer is under the 'law of Christ.' [Gal 6:2] Paul is referring in this passage to the principle of love which fulfills the second table of Mosaic Law. This is the point that Paul made in his letter to the churches of Galatia. 'For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."' [Gal 5:14] Jesus stated the same thing in Matthew 22:39, "And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" The law of Christ produces a spiritual fruit not by compulsion of an external code, but through the indwelling power of the Living Spirit.

    "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit." [Gal 5:22-26] This raises a question as to what is included in the 'law of Christ.' Paul said in Colossians 3:1-4, "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory."

  • #2
    This article was well written. There is one aspect that you brought out that I just want to hit again. There is no legalism in: preferring the King James, worshiping with or without instruments, breast feeding, boycotting certain product, etc. These are simple matters of conviction. Legalism comes when we begin to feel superior to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ because we, “don’t touch, and don’t eat.” I think you covered that nicely.

    I spend a lot of time at our church pointing out the difference between three levels of conviction:
    • Commands of Scripture – “Thou shall not” and the “Thou shall” commands (No wiggle room here – I can’t justify stealing in any way, shape or form)
    • Principles of Scripture – These are the principles derived from the commands that also become binding, just not as obvious. I.e. Arranging for someone to “lose” his stuff so I can “find” it later (finders keepers, don’t you know). This is covered in principle by “Thou shall not steal” even though God did not specifically state “thou shall not arrange matters so that thou can end up with thy neighbor’s stuff.
    • Matters of Conscience – These are the personal convictions that I have in regards to How God is calling me to live. These are based on Commands and Principle but are not really covered directly. An example: “Own no man anything but love” – I am convicted that I should never borrow or buy anything on credit. Others see that God allowed for borrowing in His Word and take the verse in a more spiritual than physical sense.
    What I stress in teaching is that people understand the level of conviction they are in when they start to get upset about “the goings on” at the local church. If we all will take the time to understand if we really should be bothered by, “John wearing sandals to church” and if we really have a command from Scripture that requires (demands) that we make rules about footwear in the assembly. As elders, this is what we look at when complaints are brought. One like the “sandals” would be dealt with by explaining “the way of God more accurately” to the complainer.

    As far as church leadership imposing legalism on the flock goes, it happens far too often. As Elders we must remember one very important point. We are there to serve the flock – not to be served by them. We are there to care for them by ensuring that they are getting good food (the Word) and have a good pasture to rest in (relationships in the local church). Neither of these are provided if I, or any leader, elevates my personal convictions (likes/dislikes) to the level of God’s Word. We, as leaders, certainly must understand the difference in these matters and bear up the weak and guide them in gentleness least we inadvertently let out freedom in Christ destroy a weaker brother. It is an interesting problem, because some of the legalism that is dealt with comes to us in the form of traditions that, in and of themselves, are not bad. For example, singing the old Hymns. I prefer them to the newer praise chorus music. Prefer is the key word here. I don’t consider myself more righteous because I like the hymns any more than one who sings and dances in the pew should consider himself as being more “into” worship than me because I don’t.

    What is the Command of Scripture – “Make a joyful noise.” There is a lot of freedom in Christ about what that noise can sound like. Legalism comes when man tries to capture that freedom and subject it to the will of man. Jesus said, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” As an elder I must be very careful – my calling is to help remove burden, not add new burdens as people stagger along the way. (Note: I can’t remove any burdens myself, I can only encourage and show the people the One who alone can remove all burdens.)

    Anyway, thank you for the article. The better understanding the body has of what legalism is and what it looks like, the better chance we have of rejecting it and truly living as the children of God that He has called us to be.


    • #3
      Thank you Daniel, for your extensive overview on this difficult subject!

      I did want to clarify the first comment regarding the second variety of legalism you pointed out as not legalism. I agree that preferences are not legalism if they are retained as preferences. The important context of that segment was wrapped around “personal convictions as a requirement.” Meaning that one's personal convictions that are not addressed in Scripture, become legalistic if the same person or body enforces it as a mandate for belonging to that community, as one who is properly presented to Christ.

      And yes, there is always a cloud of superiority among those who are in submission to legalistic sects. In a discussion, I pointed out that all of us do have a level of legalism in which we must contend, whereas it springs forth from pride. To deny this is to choose to remain under the veil of its deceptive power. As any Christian knows, pride is the essence of the fallen nature that desires to resurrect. Pride is deceptive, and is pleased to resurrect in the guise of religiosity, works and submissions to self-imposed standards. Religious pride is often masked as false piety, similar to how Judas Iscariot skillfully managed to hide his true heart among the disciples, only to be discerned by Him who was selfless.

      I am certain, that all who name the name of Christ, should bend their knee to the Holy One, pleading for revelation upon these matters. Whereas the nature of deception is that the one deceived cannot see. We impede the sanctification process when we refuse facing the discovery process, and dismiss a matter as someone else’s weakness. May it be, that all who read this will seek truth in humility, acknowledging the internal conflict with the fallen nature. Whereas it is true, “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 NAS.


      • #4

        Thanks, that summed it up nicely and was what I hoped to get across. As long as preferences are recognized as just that legalism seems to lose much of its power. As far as dealing with legalism, I find that most of us, as leaders, end up dealing with is preferences as opposed to any other root for legalism. That is why I hit your point again and expanded on it from the view as a shepherd.

        It never ceases to amaze me at what it is that one Christian takes "offense" at in another Christian. We would all do well to remember what our parents (my parents, anyway) once told us, "You have enough trouble controlling yourself, so stop trying to control your brother." Paul pretty much says the same thing in Romans 14:4. "Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand."

        Thanks for the great post!


        • #5
          Traditions that Lead to Legalism

          Well done SERay! Such an important piece of writing that applies to most people of the faith.

          Mt 7:9 And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!"

          Ga 1:14 "I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers."

          How does one get over involved in the traditions of man that leads to legalism? I believe that it often occurs at a very early age. As above with Paul, he was conditioned very early in his life to respond in a certain way in his Jewish custom. This of course led to favorable conditions such as positive praise, rewards, and the feeding of the ego. When an individual has a favorable experience this often leads them to respond with the same behavior again and again and again. Such a habit is such a hard thing to break. For Paul it took the road to Damascus for these chains to be broken.

          How did these traditions take over in the first place? Who did they start with? Satan is well aware of our neurological functions and what causes certain behaviors to stick To the insider of a church fixed on legalism they perceive these routines as the absolute way. They need their Damascus moment! We all need these moments with Christ in order to awaken.

          2Co 2:11 " order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes."

          2Co 11:14 "And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light."


          • #6
            My Experiences With Legalism

            What a difficult and controversial topic! I am certain most of purposeful believers in Christ would not want to be part of a legalistic group and/or mindset and yet we are so easily deceived by our own prideful nature... we can end up in the midst.

            In my experience, I grew up in a church where certain external standards were a sign of mature spirituality. I didn't understand those signs when I was a child, but I followed them naturally, even though they did not come from my heart.

            Later, I came to learn that when my church was founded (1909), such signs were a 'common' and expected behavior of a renovated life - no TV or alcohol at home, mainly because all the converts came from lives destroyed by alcohol and also because they knew TV had little good to offer (by the way there's an ever growing non-Christian tendency today to avoid TV when raising kids); the ladies felt the call to wear skirts in a time when wearing pants was for 'worldy' women, and they kept their natural hair and the wedding band as the only jewel... and such.

            I came to learn that all of these 'external' signs sprang from the heart. These brothers and sisters felt in their hearts to be part of a revolutionary movement. They were resolute to abandon all what's worldly. I even heard one of our brothers (who had never heard any doctrine) gave his life to Christ one night and his heart was so filled with the Holy Spirit that when he was walking the next day in front of a theater, he felt he would quench the Spirit only by looking at the building. So he walked by looking across the street. The original body was motivate by the Holy Spirit to be set apart and pure, not out of conformity to an external standard.

            Now, 100 years later in the same church, I was faced with the fact that I practiced such standards because of a certain inclination, a certain comfort, not out of personal conviction. So I needed to come to the Lord and surrender this burden to my Lord. And He showed me his grace by allowing me to go through a painful trial and rescuing me when I had nothing good to give. His love transformed me and I could see my works as filthy rags. I am thankful to our Lord for the freedom He gives me to make decisions that are truly honoring to Him, the freedom from human doctrines and the freedom to follow his Word and discard the rest. For when the Lord sets you free, you are free indeed!


            • #7

              Johanna brings up a some very key points. External standards, how we behave, can be a sign of spiritual maturity. Paul said, "emulate me as I emulate Christ." In essense do as I do as I try to do what Christ would do. We also see from scripture that "as a man thinks in his heart, so he is." This is what, as an elder, can make dealing with this issue so difficult. Legalism is really a matter of the heart, and we can be so good at rationalizing and hiding our true motives.

              I love Johanna's example of the man not looking at the theater. There is no problem with what he did and everything is right about him heeding the Spirit in that matter. He serves as an example, that should be emulated by other Christian's. We see Job doing a similar thing, "I have made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully on a maid." (An external standard) But here is the tricky part - the example is in listening and being obedient to the Spirit, not in avoiding gazing upon a particular building. Legalism creeps in when we replace the Spirit with the physical. The gentleman could not look upon the theater because of what it would activate in his heart. Obvoiusly, none of us are allowed to "lust", but legalism can be a whole lot of projecting my weakness on you. "If I can't look at that building without lusting, no one can!!"

              You will notice that Jesus was able to be in the company of "sinners" particularly some women of dubious reputation. He, beinging lead by the Spirit, and motivated by love, not lust, was able to meet them where they were. Notice the Pharisees, who covered themselves in legalism and self righteousness, condemned Jesus for "eating with sinners". They, obviously could not look at the people with love, because they saw "sinners" (the women in particular) as people who would corrupt them and cause them to sin. The real problem was their heart - not who they ate with.

              Does this mean that if I was standing next to the gentleman as he averted his gaze that I could still look upon the theater. Probably not. I know my own weaknesses and it is best to "flee temptation". Even if I could look without lust, there is still my new brother in Christ that cannot. Why would I use my freedom in Christ to destroy him or cause him to sin against his own conscience. I am under obligation, not to a physical building, but to the Spirit of the Living God. He will dictate my actions - and this is why the gentleman is a great example, he obeyed. Thank you Johanna for your thoughts and insights.



              • #8
                Found in Church Today

                Much of legalism has been addressed here so I will share my experiences only on some points. Some have instituted rules and regulations as external standards and sometimes contrary to Scripture on the principle of either deceiving or trying to impress God or man by outward actions or processes.

                Legalism helps no-one but hinders everyone. The Holy Spirit has to traverse a minefield of un-scriptural rules and regulations in order to move in some Churches. Since much of the modern church is carnal-minded, it has embraced worldly doctrines of positive image and projection.

                Programs designed to influence the thinking of outsiders saved or not. These programs are created in order to promote a carefully crafted image of success, happiness, goodness, etc. The associated rules and regulations cover a veiled appearance, whereas underneath the surface of respectability lie's something else.

                1Sa 16:6 - “Now when they came, looking at Eliab, he said, clearly the man of the Lord's selection is before him. But the Lord said to Samuel, Do not take note of his face or how tall he is, because I will not have him: for the Lord's view is not mans; man takes note of the outer form, but the Lord sees the heart.”

                Just as the Prophet was wrongly swayed by only outward appearance and could have made a disastrous decision so we must be sure to test that all our ways and actions in accordance to Scripture.

                Legalism is often very subtle. A Church may put up fresh flowers for the Sunday service. In itself it seems harmless. The flowers bring no spiritual benefit to the kingdom of God or man and as such can only appeal to the flesh. But once it becomes a rule that flowers MUST be used EVERY Sunday then legalism has been born. Those who embrace legalism often have an obsession with appearance. If it looks good and promotes the system or people, ministry or Church then it will often be embraced.

                Jesus rebuked the Pharisee’s for implementing traditions and rules which subjugated God's laws. But at the same time these traditions had an appearance of godliness. God always looks beneath the surface and so should we. “What is good is not always godly but what is godly is always good.”

                2Co 5:7 - “For we walk by faith and not by sight.”
                Rom 10:17 - “Faith then cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ.”
                2Co 10:7 - “Do you look at things according to appearance?”
                2Co 5:12 - “We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. ”

                If we add these verses together then it says that we are not embrace or reject anything on the bases of appearance but only on the word of God. As for the increase in legalism, Scripture's state in the last days:

                2Ti 3:1 - “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.”
                2Ti 3:5 - “Having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”


                • #9
                  I guess in short, when God told Adam and Even to not eat the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, He basically designed the legalistic system. In His great love, he allowed our parents and us to choose.

                  We know that the only true freedom we will ever find is in His lap, living the life He intends for each of us. I am not too caught up in the arguments over legalism, religious traditions, political agendas, etc.. I just simply believe that anything we do that brings us closer to God is good and anything that takes us further away from His Love is bad. The only thing that really matters is that we can see His love and work had to stay in His shadow.

                  The difficulty really lies in discernment of spirits. How does one really know if something is from God, or the Evil one? Might answer, from the fruit! Taste and see the goodness of the Lord! Peace and blessings my friend.
                  Also known historically as St. Clair Glass


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