Protestant/Evangelical Christianity was in some ways a response to the legalism of the Roman Catholic church nearly 500 years ago when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the doors of a church in Germany. More importantly, it came against this notion that particular sacraments (a form of Godliness) brought the forgiveness of sin.
This was a time when men could do horrible things in the name of God and so long as they completed their sacramental, ritual practices, their crimes were dissolved and mattered not. Men could continue killing, raping, controlling and harming others without punishment, both in the eyes of man and God. They idolized legalism and stopped revering the God behind the pages.
Coming out of a severely legalistic church, I have experienced this first hand. There is a vast difference between second chances, grace and forgiveness, and gross negligence and hiding/covering up sins by leadership because the individual in question is following along with the ‘standards’.
For instance, I know of a situation in which a young man was being used in a local church, was placed into the Sunday school buses, teaching in the Sunday School classes. He was doing everything he was supposed to – wore the suit and tie, was demonstrative in his worship, ‘spoke in tongues’ which is the Holy Grail of a Oneness Pentecostal church. With glossolalia being observed, the boy was surely walking in the Spirit. That was all that was needed – he fulfilled the patterns and standards of legalism and thus, no questions asked – he was All God wanted in a person (as if it worked that way…)
Then, one day, with no warning, his face was on the front cover of the local newspaper.
Local man arrested, wanted by police for over a year was the headline. Same face, different name. I immediately read the article. He had been fugitive for over a year in another state. The article said he had changed his name, sold all his belongings, was on the run and in hiding, wanted for the crimes of molesting a small child.
I took a picture of the newspaper and texted it to another young person in the church who I knew would know him and said, “Is this Dominic? [Name changed for privacy]” It was, and the shock was real. How many children had the church put him into private positions with – no background checks, no questions asked. Just so long as you obey the church standards, nothing else matters.
There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of more stories of things being covered up in my old church alone, for sake of Purity of Doctrine and what I call the Idolatry of Legalism.
What is Legalism?
Legalism at its core is the belief that we can perform certain rituals and behave in certain fashions in order to please God and to warrant his favor. That man is so depraved, that without certain hard lines drawn in the sand that we must obey, administered by a local pastor, we have no hope of obtaining the Grace of Jesus Christ.
In my old church, it was taught often,
‘You want God to bless you on the job? Be at outreach more often!’
‘You want God to work in your marriage? Shave that beard! Be at prayer more than 30 minutes every day.’
‘Do you think God can bless you over you (women) wearing pants?”
‘If you aren’t paying your Tithes God isn’t going to answer your prayers!’
They truly believed that they had to dress certain ways in order to please God – such as no short sleeve shirts, no shorts on men or women, women were being like harlots to wear makeup, earrings, to dye their hair or to tan their skin. It’s a long litany of Thou Shalt Not’s, above and beyond any Scriptural example. Yet they honestly believe (or have been brainwashed to believe) that if they do any of those things – God will be dishonored, and worse, his wraith was to come.
But how is legalism idolatry?
It is idolatry when ‘playing the part’ is more important and overrides the Grace of Jesus Christ! When legal matters are brushed aside for the purity of the doctrine. It is idolatry when instead of worshiping God for Calvary and what the cross did for us, we obey the pastors every whim, believing that is what pleases God.
Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 2:2
for I made the decision to know nothing [that is, to forego philosophical or theological discussions regarding inconsequential things and opinions while] among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified [and the meaning of His redemptive, substitutionary death and His resurrection]. – Amplified Bible
Legalism turns inconsequential things into matters of doctrine and makes them sacraments for the atonement of sin, just like the Roman Catholic Church of 500+ years ago. If you want to be saved, pray in tongues every day. If you hope to have God’s blessing, pay more money. If you think God is going to help your family, stop wearing short sleeve shirts and shave your beard.
It is important to know, that God and God alone washes (atones) our sins. Not by any works of righteousness (Titus 3:5) which we think we can do. James rightly said faith without any works is dead (James 2:20) but our works are an outward effect of our faith, our faith is not predicated or made whole, or made better by works, or as legalists call them, standards.
The Fruit of God’s spirit is not legalism – it is not a dress standard, it is not ritual, it is not sacraments, it is not blind obedience to a pastor, and it is most certainly not judging others salvation based upon their outward appearance, which is what every legalist will do.
But the fruit of the Spirit [the result of His presence within us] is love [unselfish concern for others], joy, [inner] peace, patience [not the ability to wait, but how we act while waiting], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. – Galatians 5:22
The result of having the Spirit of Christ WILL produce THESE works. All other demands upon Christians is a false and phony doctrine. Paul went on to say;
Carry one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the requirements of the law of Christ [that is, the law of Christian love].
The end of legalism is Life in Christ and fulfilling the law of Christ, which is purely and simply, living our Galatians 5:22 – loving and caring for others in the way Jesus Christ gave himself for us. While we deserved nothing, he gave us everything!