“Therefore, it is my judgment that we do not cause trouble for those from the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols, from acts of sexual immorality, from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has those who preach him in every city, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” — Acts 15:19-21
Legalism. It’s a poison that slowly and silently discourages good people looking for guidance in their new faith. Legalism is a dependence on diligently keeping the Law rather than having a personal relationship with Jesus. It keeps track of doing good works or obeying a set of rules, by which it is believed a person earns or merits salvation. Taking God’s Law seriously is not legalism. Distorting God’s commandments and adding to them is. Churches have scattered because of that excess and it was affecting the Gentiles in the early church who were coming to Jesus by the thousands in the first century. It didn’t take long for the converted Pharisees among them to demand the newbies give first allegiance to the Law, while quietly forgetting that was not the requirement for their own salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). Perhaps in fear of losing their voice and power in the early church they began to make themselves loudly heard as Luke tells us,
“Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses'” (Acts 15:5).
Welcome to Legalism 101! As I write this article based on the events leading up to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council, it’s ironic that currently the nation’s largest protestant denomination is also going through a battle that some call legalism. The issue is whether a woman should be allowed in the pulpit.
However, numbers may tell part of the story as the denomination reportedly lost 450,000 members from 2021-22. Former Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren, whose church was their largest before being expelled, recently issued a tough challenge by calling them out for what he calls their “hypocrisy.” Prompted by the recent death of Dr. Charles Stanley, the revered one-time president of the denomination, Warren reminded them that Stanley himself was converted after hearing a sermon by a woman pastor*
Legalism? You decide, but that beast can come in many forms. I remember an event I attended at the invitation of a friend who had just been appointed as pastor of his church. The outdoor event was joyous until the invited pastor of another “denomination” got up to speak. After asking us to open up our Bibles, it didn’t take him long to point out that if we didn’t have a specific translation, we were all in danger of eternal damnation!
Whether it be hair length for men, skirt length for women, going to the movies or watching TV, participating in mixed bathing at the pool or seashore, avoiding certain foods, or listening to the sound of a violin in worship, legalists torment by being blind to what the Bible says,
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1) See also Galatians 5:13; John 8:31-32).
Thank goodness for the wise council from an authority that soon spread out to the early church reminding them that our God is one of grace and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8, et al)—revealed in His Son Jesus Christ who died for our sins. The Apostle James and God’s Word saved the day!
May it also be done in our day—every day—as we defeat the devil again on his turf of legalism.
Welcome to Legalism 102: It’s called Grace! — Maranatha!
*Charlene Aaron, CBN News
“God is good all the time. All the time God is good!”