Legalism and the Decline of the American Church

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?

Galatians 3:1

In his epistle to the churches in Galatia, Paul admonished Jewish Christians who were teaching that converts, including Gentiles, must adhere to certain Jewish customs under the Law of Moses, such as circumcision and observance of special days, months, seasons and years. By placing the yoke of the Law upon the necks of believers, the Jewish Christians rejected the freedom of Christ through faith. Just as the Old Testament Jews stumbled over the stumbling stone (that is, Christ) by focusing on righteousness through works, the Galatian Jews were stumbling over Christ by reverting to legalism.

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”

Romans 9:30-33.

Paul explained that Christians are saved by grace alone, through faith, and that righteousness could not be obtained by works or by following the Law. Righteousness though the Law came only from perfect obedience to the Law, which was beyond the ability of man, and failing to obey one aspect of the Law brought death. This insurmountable obstacle to works righteousness was why Christ paid the ultimate penalty of death. And His death fulfilled the promise made to Abraham that believers would be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul’s epistle to the Galatians comes to mind as I reflect on the decline of the Church’s influence in America, which presses upon my heart during this tumultuous political season. “Where have Christians gone wrong?” I wonder, as the decay of our Country’s morality and spirituality leap from TV, computer, and mobile screens.  And then there is the frequent criticism that Christians are hypocritical and judgmental and that churches are unwelcoming. Church rolls are falling, and denominations are floundering as they bicker over rules and regulations and even doctrine. Instead of building God’s Kingdom, Christians have erected barriers between Christ and the world, to the point where Christians are viewed as an angry fringe group as opposed to the historic bedrock and moral compass of our Country.

This decline is evident from Christians being known more for what they are against than for what they are for. Christians seem to be better equipped to tell the world what it’s doing wrong than about the love of Christ. Christians are heard more loudly condemning abortion, homosexuality, divorce, the lazy poor, and Islam, for examples, than they are heard sharing the Gospel.

I can almost hear Paul’s reprimand of American churches leaping from the tear-stained parchment of one of his eloquent epistles.  It might go something like this . . .*

You foolish Americans! Who has bewitched you?   I am astonished that you have deserted life under the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. You pervert the gospel of Christ by rejecting the freedom He gave us through grace to receive righteousness by faith alone instead of by works.  You are Gentiles, yet you live like Jews.  And though you live like Jews, you don’t obey the entirety of the Law as required by the Law, thereby justifying death. And though you do not fully comply with the Law, you place the yoke of the Law upon the shoulders of those that are being called. Are you so foolish? Did Christ die for nothing?

Do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing.  In Christ Jesus believers are all children of God through faith. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you wish to be enslaved by the Law all over again? If you let yourselves be yoked again by the Law, Christ will be of no value to you.   

Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? You should be rejoicing in your freedom and welcoming those who are being renewed by faith.  Instead, you do not love each other as you ought. Neither do you carry your neighbor’s burden.  You compare yourselves to others and take pride in the flesh, in your imperfect obedience to laws that only enslave you. You judge those who should be coming to Christ for healing, and, in doing so, drive them away. Instead of allowing them to carry their own load before God, you heap more burdens upon them, breaking their backs. Don’t you know that you are builders on the foundation of Christ? Instead, you take hammers to the foundation and bring down its walls. 

Christ came to heal the sick, not the healthy, and I tell you, no one is healthy apart from Christ. Walk along with those who are sinning, gently shepherding them along the path of righteousness. Do not bite and devour each other as dogs for food, lest you destroy one another. It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not of yourselves but it is a gift from God. Do not beat your chest proudly, but humble yourself before God, for His gift came at a price, which was the blood of Christ. Do not consider yourself better than you ought; rather be thankful for the Spirit with which God so graciously opened your eyes and is renewing your heart and mind. Do not be a stumbling block for your neighbor, but instead be a lamp to his feet.

Abandon your bent to the Law and human conditions, for salvation does not depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free, so live this freedom by the Spirit and serve one another humbly in love.  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

*Modeled after Galatians.

Sobering words.

When Christians focus on what others are doing wrong and are louder about rules and regulations than they are about the love of Christ, to the point where their condemnation is what defines them, they succumb to legalism, which not only condemns Christians by enslaving them to works righteousness but also drives away those in need of healing. Instead, Christians should rejoice in their freedom from the Law and enthusiastically demonstrate the love of Christ to the world. The Church should never be defined by what it is against; rather, the Church should be known for its love. The Church should be welcoming, ready and willing to serve the poor, the sick, and the lame, and should not be judgmental to the world.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? . . . God will judge those outside.

1 Corinthians 5:12-13.

By this, I do not mean to marginalize absolute truth and sound doctrine. The love of Christ is not in lieu of truth or doctrine; rather it is the fulfillment of them. Truth and sound doctrine are vital to the health of the Church and believers. But in defending truth and doctrine, the Christian must guard against legalism and a judgmental spirit. Disputes over laws and doctrine are not where salvation lies; rather faith in Christ alone is our salvation.

Christians need to shift their focus from forced morality to growing God’s Kingdom, which is accomplished by the Spirit’s work in the heart, not by works or by laws. Christians should be focused on planting and watering so that God can make things grow, preparing the field for the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of unbelievers.

So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

1 Corinthians 3:7.

I can already hear the objection that I am advocating condonation of sin and surrender of government to secularism. But I am not advocating condonation or surrender.  What I am advocating is replacing the image of a judgmental and unforgiving Christ with the image of freedom and grace. The believer coming to Christ must bear his own sin, his own Cross. Christians should walk beside the sinner and lighten his load, not spit in his face or increase his burden. Christians must evaluate everything they do in light of Kingdom building.

I do not mean that Christians should abandon shaping the laws of our Country according to Biblical principles. My concern is that certain political positions championed by Christians have led to the Church being labeled as judgmental. The Christian must always ask himself what he is fighting for. Is he fighting for behavior? Or is he fighting for the heart? The ultimate test should be whether the fight is effective for Kingdom building. Otherwise, the fight can be little more than disguised legalism.

Further, I am not condoning sin or saying that there is not a time to teach about sin. To the contrary, the Bible is clear that Christians must flee from their former sinful ways. In order to do so, Christians must understand what constitutes sin and often need a believer to walk beside them to overcome certain sins. What I am saying is that condemning people for sin before they have a heart for God and imposing legal requirements on believers and nonbelievers apart from faith is the very legalism Paul condemned. Such legalism is counterproductive to Kingdom building and leads to the decline of Church influence we are seeing today.

When Christians live the love of Christ, they are known for freedom, love, mercy and grace, not judgment, hypocrisy and hate.  “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23. This fruit should be the face of Christ, not legalism. “Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:23.

Whether or not the world approved of her faith in God, the world respected Mother Teressa for her love of and dedication to serving the poor, sick, needy and crippled. She lived out the love of Christ, and the world respected and embraced her. She did not judge and condemn; rather, she loved and served. And in her people saw Christ, whether they knew Him or not. She wasn’t defined by what she was against; rather she was defined by what she was for.

Christians need to heed Paul’s warning and abandon legalism and judgment and in their place substitute the love of Christ.  If Christians truly served the world as Mother Teressa did as opposed to condemning and judging it, the influence of the Church would be like a tsunami. As I watch the political drama playing out on TV, America is in dire need of Christians equipped to love and to serve.

8 thoughts on “Legalism and the Decline of the American Church

  1. This is well put. As Christians, it certainly seems we focus on changing the world through legislation. In other words, we try to fight the world on the world’s terms, it’s turf. Our turf SHOULD be one to one evangelism of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We carry GOOD NEWS for all mankind. Jesus told us himself, that all the laws and all the prophets boiled down to loving God and loving our neighbor. How do we love God while on the earth? By loving our neighbors. Do we do that by heaping judgement on them about whatever sins we perceive (correctly or incorrectly) they are guilty of before they’ve been shown the love of Christ in such a way that they might care that they are sinning? I think not. Good post, sharing on twitter.


    1. In several of my posts I’ve noticed a running theme of Christians not understanding what it means to truly follow Christ. As you said, we are supposed to love all to the point of death, with Christ as our model. Imagine how different policies and politician interaction would be if the love of Christ was lived out by believers. It would be transformational. I completely understand wanting to “fight battles for God” and preserve traditional Christian values. My problem is that it is clear to me that in fighting certain battles, though facially for God, Christians often drive people away. While I’m sure Christ is not thrilled when a nation’s laws diverge from His laws, he predicted that when the Jews first asked for a king to rule over them. God actually spoke a form of a curse in concession. At this point, if Christ were here in the flesh, I don’t think He’d waste a moment on the government. Instead, he would be fishing for men. That’s hard for many Christians to accept.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for those crystal clear insights. I saw a post on Facebook the other day that had a picture of Jesus superimposed on the White House and it stated they wanted Him in the White House. I struggled with that image and the fact that Judas also wanted Jesus to overthrow Rome and become an earthly ruler. I am wondering if we, too often, try put Christ in a box of our choosing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for following me because otherwise I wouldn’t have found this post. You’ve articulated so well many of my frustrations with the church today. This is so well put, and you’re right, Paul would have quite a lot of things to say to us… Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I grew up in a very legalistic-environment, and when I was in high school, we attend a church where the pastor thundered-forth the Ten Commandments from the pulpit EVERY Sunday. While the pastor was proclaiming the Law every Sunday, his teenage daughter got pregnant out of wedlock, and one of the Elders had an affair with his secretary, left his wife and family AND the church, and moved in with his secretary. During this same time-frame, the pastor’s son was in seminary and his fiance was in nursing school. After they got married, they went to Eritrea as missionaries. Same family, two very-different outcomes, and if legalism had really “worked”, the daughter would have kept her panties on and the Elder would have been faithful to his wife and family, rather than abandoning them.

    LEGALISM NEVER PRODUCES RIGHT-LIVING, but many churches use lots of rules to keep members “toeing-the-party-line”. I have seen this MANY times in my sixty-year trek on this earth, and I always cringe when the “traditions of the elders” is given more importance than the Word of God. I am blessed to be in a church which ISN’T “legalistic”, but rather recognizes that the Bible is our ONLY guide for faith and life.

    I was appalled with what I heard and read after the Supreme Court “legalized” same-sex-marriage because there was no love and grace in their condemnations. God gave US a code-of-conduct, but we have no right to enforce it on someone else, let alone a whole group of people.

    When I responded to the same-sex-marriage debate on my blog, I reminded Christians that the “church” is reaping what it sowed 180 years ago, when the “church” got in bed with the state to write the first “marriage-law” and institute “marriage-licensing”. The church has, ever since that time, been the “enforcer” for “marriage-licenses” by refusing to accept people as being “married” unless they have become “legally-married”. Once the “church” gave the “state” the “right” to decide “who” can get “legally-married”, that opened the door for the “state” to extend that “privilege” to whoever it wants. and the “church” gave up its “right” to have any say in the matter long-ago.

    That brings us back to our responsibility as Christian to “go and make disciples” and “love our neighbor as ourselves”. Only the Holy Spirit can change people’s hearts and lives, and if we are pointing people to Christ, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.



    Liked by 1 person

  4. Exactly! Thank you for your comments. And you are right about the marriage laws. I’ve always thought if the church wanted to preserve marriage purity it needed to disassociate the sacrament from the government. Same with schools.

    Liked by 2 people

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