Help! My Church is Becoming Legalistc?

The following is the emailed answer to a message sent by a brother who was becoming distressed over a growing legalism in his church. He particularly mentioned probitions against owning a TV or a video player, any form of hair styling or make-up, and even against virtually any contact or relationship between Christian brothers and sisters in the church. From what he said, violations in any of these areas could be grounds for forbidding such things as baptism or marriage.

Dear Brother ______,

Unfortunately what you are describing is classic legalism. No doubt the leaders desire to restrain sin and produce righteousness in their followers but this is not the way of the gospel. The changes that we need must come from the inside out and not from external rules — particularly the kind where someone imposes their own personal convictions on others. True holiness is produced in the heart through a work of God’s grace through truth and it RESULTS in progressively righteous behavior.

The whole book of Galatians deals with the difference between serving God by grace and through law (rules). Whether the followers conform to these rules or not has little bearing on their righteousness before God. It has NO BEARING on their imputed righteousness because that is based on Christ’s righteousness. And practical righteousness must be a heart thing and can often differ in details from person to person. Certain things may bother and be snare to some but not to others. Paul said in Romans 14:14 that nothing is unclean OF ITSELF. All of Romans 14 is instructive in this area of Do’s and Don’ts.

In Colossians 2 Paul deals with the imposition of legalistic rules. Listen to the conclusion in Col. 2:23, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” NIV. That, in essence, is the the problem. Rule-based Christianity cannot make anyone righteous. It simply doesn’t work.

When God imposed the law he did it to somewhat restrain evil but mainly to show man his sin. It was never meant to be a pathway to righteousness. It was meant to bring men to an awareness of their need and drive them to Christ that they might be saved by grace. How foolish to attempt to bring this principle of “law” into the gospel. It could not produce righteousness then and it can’t now.

Laws can only produce Pharisees and bring people into great bondage. It is one thing to minister the grace of God by the anointing and see Him produce Christlikeness that comes from the heart. It is another altogether to try to impose one’s own concept of righteousness on people through “rules.” The former ministers life and hope; the latter ministers death and bondage.

Your example of contact between the sexes is an appropriate one. It is wrong to assume that ALL contact must be avoided to guard against sin. Where is that taught in the word? Surely we can, through God’s grace, act like brothers and sisters in the Lord! I’m afraid your leaders would be scandalized if they came in among us. We actually embrace each other — in a truly brother-sister way! I think that God can give us discernment enough to know if anyone is getting “out-of-line” and giving the devil an opening. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that everyone do as we do — it depends on many things — but God seems pleased to bless us here in doing it.

God has called His people to liberty — not law — and also enjoined us not to use that liberty to serve our fleshly nature. I can’t tell you what to do other than to pray and seek God and try to serve Him with honest convictions.

May God bless you,
Phil Enlow

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