Where Are the Legalists in Our Churches?

A little while ago there were some preachers that I know of who were going back to the book of Galatians and preaching a series of sermons on the foundational truths in that book of the atonement of Christ, justification and sanctification. Their explanation of the bedrock truths of the faith was very good. Where I think that they came up short was in attributing legalism in the modern church to a theological belief in righteousness by good deeds. That may well indeed be true of some people, but it is not generally not characteristic of many believers in modern evangelical churches who are most dogmatic about certain rules and regulations and setting themselves up as the authorities and judges of other believers where the scriptures are silent. In fact, many of these same believers may be at the same time extremely vocal about their conviction about salvation by grace through faith. So I don’t think that dealing with the theological truth is going to deal with the true motivation of their legalism. Moreover, I don’t think that most of them would ever see themselves in the place of a legalist however many sermons they heard that dealt with legalism as a mere theological belief that my good deeds will get me into heaven.

I think that the legalism that many are stuck in is the legalism that their religious convictions and obedience make them superior to others who do not believe in and practice the same things. This is often the perception of those who do not make a profession of faith in Christ of those in the church, and they are often right. In addition, I have also heard the same thing from those who had a profession of faith in Christ but who have fallen away. So, this attitude of religious superiority because of personal religious observances has been and will continue to be a great stumbling block to many both inside and outside our churches. And I don’t think that talking more about grace from a theological standpoint to those who are stuck in it will receive anything more than the protest that, “I do believe completely in the grace of God” – as a foundational plank in their theology.

Jesus told two parables in the gospel of Luke that showed what could be called practical and relational grace – how the grace of God deals with our own comparison of ourselves with others in our religious observances, and anything done out of obedience to God. I would myself preach sermons on these either as a preparation or as a follow-up to a sermon series on the book of Galatians.

The first one is in Luke 18:9-14:

“[Jesus] spoke this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who lived in contempt toward others: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other was a revenue agent for the Roman government. The Pharisee stood off by himself and prayed, ‘Oh God, I thank you that I’m not like others – thievish, abusive, sexually immoral, or even like this government revenue agent. I fast twice a week, and I tithe on everything that I have acquired.’ But the government revenue agent had stood a far way off, and he would not even lift his eyes toward heaven, but he was beating his chest as he was saying, ‘Oh God, be merciful to me – this sinner.’ I tell you, the government revenue agent went down to his home and had been justified rather than the other one; for whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.’” (Dale’s sight translation)

The next one is in Luke 17:7-10:

“[Jesus told the apostles], ‘When you have a slave who has been plowing or herding sheep and who then comes in from the field, who among you says to him, ‘When you have come in, sit down immediately to dinner’?  But won’t you say to him, ‘Prepare my dinner, and wait on me while I eat and drink, and then you can eat and drink?’ Will you give any special favor to that slave because he did what he had been assigned? In the same way, when you have done what you have been assigned, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have just done what we ought to have done.’’ (Dale’s sight translation)

In the first parable Jesus spoke to the Pharisaic sense of personal security and superiority that comes from comparing one’s own religious observances to others. This could be parallel to someone in a modern church having a testimony of having received salvation, but acting as if what he or she thinks, says and does in religious conformity as a part of a church makes him or her superior to those who don’t do the same things, or don’t do them as well. And believe me, those outside our church fellowships pick up on this quite easily. In the second parable, Jesus dealt with the idea that anything we do in obedience to God entitles us to any special favors from God in any way. The way that I’ve seen this work out – and I’ve been tempted with this myself – is to see that something that I’ve done entitles me to something special – some special privilege or permission – in some other way.

Very often this becomes an entrenched habit of thought and action and may well become the peculiar kind of religious superiority, authoritarianism and inflexibility that many see in believers who have been involved heavily with church activities for a long time. This may well be why often that someone in a position of church or denominational leadership seeks out or arrogates to themselves special privileges of position, offices, or even financial favors because of what they would call their faithful service to God in some way – usually in some church activity or office. Many times they may also extend this to their families, to where their religious involvement and observance means special privileges of church position, promotion or financial support for their family members.

There can often be an emotional incentive to this kind of legalism, because it feeds a person’s pride, self sufficiency and independence from God, and sense of superiority to others. After all, most adults in modern churches have never grown beyond the same social goals and skills as a high school senior. So  this kind of legalism can buttress the ‘formula driven’ forms of Christian involvement, where a person’s participation in the approved activities, saying the approved formulas and following the rules is normally perceived the outward indication that a person is ‘all right’ with God and with others. When coupled with a selectively proud and aggressive self presentation, this can be seen as nothing less than hypocrisy. Moreover,  this leads to, in some very competitive people, an aggressive use of the rules for personal aggrandizement and denigration and contempt of other believers.

Here are the signs that this kind of practical and social legalism are at work behind a theological profession of salvation by grace through faith:

  • Social conformity:  Believers seek to avoid sticking out and being different because this might attract attention and harassment by the social enforcers of the rules. In addition, this might lead to the idolatry of personal reputation that leads to a stubborn hypocrisy, where someone tries to preserve his or her reputation and outward conformity at all costs.
  • Social competition: This leads to a habitual quest to the demonstrate superiority over other people in some way, often by display of superficial Biblical or theological knowledge. An unbroken pride and an inflated self estimate does this to keep up a personal sense of having to be better than someone else in some way.
  • Social oneupmanship: Social conflict and aggression come from this sense to prove one’s superiority in following the rules over others. This is where some believers are on the prowl looking for areas in which others fall short, or testing them in short conversations or enlisting others to keep an eye on someone else.
  • Social control: This is where some try to keep the social group within the church in conformity to the rules. There may actually be an associated  sense of pride and explicit boastfulness how one has changed others to one’s own expectations and has actually been playing the Holy Spirit in the lives of others.

It is here where Galatians speaks most powerfully to these situations, with verses that deal with the personal and social effects of this kind of social legalism: “The works of the fallen human nature are obvious . . . fights, strife, jealousy, fits of rage, cutthroat competitions, vicious cliques, divisions,  . . . and such other things like these, which I already told you before that those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21). With this citation, I’ve left out the sexual and addictive sins, but left in the sins of personal rivalry and conflict, which are the works of the fallen human nature (flesh) which can have the most prevalent religious expressions among us.

Rather, there needs to be a renewed emphasis on the fruit of the Spirit as the effect of genuine regeneration and walking in the Spirit of Christ: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control; against such things there is no legal sanction” (Galatians 5:22-23, Dale’s sight translation).

There are two last observations that I have from this:

I’ve noticed that evangelical believers when operating in the social environment of the church are extremely vulnerable to listening to and passing on vicious gossip and to being instigated against others by false gossip. I’ve also noticed that many times false impressions and malicious rumors about others may persist among some believers and Christian leaders long after others have seen through them for the falsehoods that they are and have moved on. My hypothesis is that these false impressions and malicious rumors have become baked into that person’s sense of personal superiority, and that they function to keep that person’s sense of personal superiority by giving them someone else to be superior to through this persistent sense of contempt toward someone else. This also was a problem in the Galatian churches: “If you keep on sniping at and chowing down each other, watch out that you annihilate each other” (Galatians 5:15).

The second observation is that the rules often become a weapon and a smokescreen of the person with an abusive personality.  This is most likely one of the reasons why abusive personalities too often find long term sanctuary in churches as long term members and even leaders.They may harbor within themselves a belief that they have a special right and the justification to treat others any way that they please  so long as their own outward reputation remains intact. It is why sometimes credible accounts of vicious long term abuse come out where someone had a reputation for being a perfect spouse or from a perfect family. They were adhering to the rules, but not showing the fruit of the Spirit within their own marriages and family.

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