Sadly, there are evangelical Christian churches that have good doctrine and are passionate about evangelism, but fall into overbearing legalism. This results in a church culture that is rigid, strict, and lacking in grace, patience, and tolerance. The end result is that they become like the Ephesus church in Revelation 2:1-7.
BY STEVE CHA
Editor’s Note: This article is the last of a two-part series on “Is Your Church Guilty of Legalism?” Part one can be read here.
The Message to the Church in Ephesus
“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Ephesus. This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the one who walks among the seven gold lampstands:
“I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people. You have examined the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You have discovered they are liars. You have patiently suffered for me without quitting.
“But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches. But this is in your favor: You hate the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, just as I do.
“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”
The Apostle Paul teaches that the church will be full of people with different convictions on “silent issues” or gray areas. No Christian is to judge or exclude others – whether they be the weaker or stronger brethren – because he or she has differing beliefs and understandings of non-moral or undisclosed issues in the Bible.
In other words, these silent issues must be left to the individual conscience. If the Christian is wrong and he does things in a way that causes others to stumble, then he will give an account to God at the Bema Seat Judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10). We can encourage, pray for, or give a reason for why we believe differently on these issues, but to say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” on those issues and play judge by peer pressuring, excluding, getting upset at, or church discipling another believer is something that Scripture forbids. This is especially true if the Christian’s activities do not cause others to stumble and if done with no malicious intentions. These practices include watching certain movies, listening to certain music, drinking a glass of wine every now and then, maintaining social media, length of a courtship, boy/girl interactions within the church, holiday celebrations, eating certain foods, etc.
With that said, true legalism is manifested in three ways.
1. Legalism to gain salvation: This is the most severest form of legalism that is found in most every religion in the world. It teaches that people need to keep God’s law and some high standard of conduct and rituals in order to gain eternal life. People need to earn their way into heaven by living a good life. This is a heretical teaching and the kind of legalism that Jesus constantly rebuked when challenging the Pharisees. It adds an extra-biblical expectation to God’s way of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Works are upheld as necessary for salvation because faith itself is not sufficient, according to people in this category.
In Matthew 23:15, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” Moreover, Paul teaches in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 also affirms the validity of salvation by faith apart from works of the Law. The gospel teaches that man is saved by faith in Christ, a salvation which cannot be added or taken away by personal merit. Those who teach otherwise teach a works-based salvation. This is seen in many “Christian” cults around the world that do not affirm the doctrines of grace.
2. Legalism to maintain salvation: Believers are taught to keep the Law of God diligently in order to maintain a right standing with God, which can be forfeited by a lack of obedience. This is another heretical teaching that contradicts the gospel message, especially as it relates to justification by faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” No person can work to maintain his salvation by following a set of laws, because if that were the case, people would lose their salvation already.
Romans 3:10 testifies to the depravity of us all and shows us our inability to keep the law to gain or to maintain salvation. James 2:10 also teaches us concerning the perfection of the law, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” Christians live out the law of God as an act of worship to God, not as a means to maintain eternal life. When done with the wrong motives, works become meaningless. That is the point behind the judgment of the false converts in Matthew 7:21-23, when Jesus condemns so-called Christians who boasted in their achievements. It is not because works are bad, but that they were falsely trusted in rather than in the gospel.
3. Legalism to testify of salvation: Believers are taught to follow extra-biblical commandments and traditions in order to uphold a holy way of life, sometimes going so far as condemning believers who do not follow these rules. When Christians do not abide by these rules, they are peer pressured, criticized, or excluded from fellowship. They are judged as disobedient, unholy, and sometimes unfit for membership at the local church. This category of legalism is displeasing to the Lord because it is overbearing and often times judgmental. This is the kind of legalism you will see in hyper-fundamentalist churches or churches that place heavy emphasis on social or cultural traditions.
The principle is most clearly expressed in Romans 14:1-12. It teaches, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgments on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. 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. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God, and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God…”
Legalism can occur on the leadership level in how they govern and create the social structure of the church, or on the layperson level in how one believer treats another. In any case, Christians are called to be dogmatic on biblical commandments, but not on preferences. Commandments are those statutes that are given to us in Scripture which we are called to follow, and if we do not, it constitutes sin and can be the basis for church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
However, wisdom issues and preferences do not necessarily constitute sin, and God is the ultimate judge on those issues of personal conscience and convictions.
When the church elevates those wisdom issues and preferences to the level of commandment in that they judge by getting upset at, condemning, or casting people out of positions in the church, then the church becomes legalistic, and is guilty of lording it over the flock (1 Peter 5:3).
Steve Cha is the teaching pastor of Grace City LA.