For most of my adult Christian life I have wondered why so many churches slip into liberalism yet we rarely notice churches slipping into legalism. I have asked that question to many people over the years and received very few answers. The only one that appeared to make any sense was that our culture, in general, tends to reject authority and people gravitate toward churches that allow them to worship and serve God on their own terms. I have accepted that explanation because it seemed reasonable and I could not think of better one, although a lingering doubt remained that I was missing something.
I also wondered why we continually hear sermons, lessons, lectures and read articles warning God’s people about the dangers of liberalism, but rarely hear or read about the dangers of legalism? Who were Jesus’s mortal enemies during his ministry, legalists (Pharisees/Sadducees) or liberals? What group did He call “vipers?” Obviously these legalists perceived Jesus as “out of bounds” of the Mosaic Law they so fiercely guarded even though He was simply fulfilling the prophecy contained in the Law.
These same legalists (weak persons) were judging those Christians who ate meat offered to idols and did not observe Mosaic Law Holy Days (strong persons) in Romans 14. It seems clear to me that they were attempting to enforce obedience where God had not spoken. In other words they were “drawing lines where God had not drawn them.” I have found in my studies that legalists are extremely good at drawing lines. I have asked numerous people, who are the weak and strong persons today? I have heard only one answer that offers a reasonable conclusion; those persons who attempt to draw lines of fellowship where God has not drawn them. In spite of Christ’s prayer for unity among His followers, legalists continue to find ways to divide the brotherhood. I believe this poison is silently infecting the Lord’s church.
As an admitted “recovering legalist” I am very concerned that we seem to spend an inordinate amount of our time and energy guarding the front door of the church against liberalism while legalism slips in the back door unnoticed. The question I asked myself is why? I believe the answer lies in the difference in the nature of these two diseases. The effects of liberalism tend to be noticeable while the effects of legalism are subtle, almost silent. Liberals often readily admit they have changed their thinking about some aspects of their religion, but legalists rarely admit they are no longer just “strong conservative Christians.” I have come to believe there are at least two reasons for this condition. First is the insidious nature of legalism. It subtly changes how we view scripture. It causes us to slide from an unbiased, neutral viewpoint into a new paradigm or framework that leads to an often undetectable works-based mentality. The first century legalists were reading the same Mosaic Law that Jesus was reading but drawing starkly different conclusions, why? Legalism. The second reason is that conservatives are quick to recognize liberalism because it is so different from their beliefs. They are much closer to the legalists in their beliefs and often cannot or will not recognize their viewpoints have changed.
I used to think liberalism and legalism were opposing views. I have come to understand that they are actually partners, members of Satan’s team. Both have the ability to infect the church. Satan just wants our souls; he is not concerned about how he gets them, either by liberalism or legalism. As we know, he is always watching us (1 Pet 5:8). When he sees us unbalanced in our defense he attacks the weak side. There is little doubt in my mind he is concentrating on legalism because we all but ignore its danger in spite of the fact it is just as much a threat as liberalism.
Roy Johnson, Lads-to-Leaders Executive Director, occasionally starts his opening comments at our Board meetings by telling us,. “Lads continues to receive criticism from the Far Right and Far Left so we must be ok.” The trouble with legalists is that they believe everyone to the left of their positions is a “screaming liberal” who must be brought back to their version of the “truth.”
We have congregations today that forgo Easter egg hunts on church property for fear their communities will draw the unwarranted conclusion that they celebrate Easter as a God ordained religious holiday. Should we no longer preach sermons related to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Thanksgiving since our communities may think we celebrate these events as religious holidays also?
The problem with drawing lines of fellowship where God has not drawn them is that they often lead to unintended consequences.
Religious arrogance is a dangerous trait that Satan easily exploits. (I Cor 10:12)
Every relationship has boundaries, including our relationship with God. The critical question is, “who draws the boundaries?”
I encourage you to read or reread Everett Ferguson’s “The Rule of Faith,” especially the summary. We can know God’s boundaries.