A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Trickle-Down Nature of Legalism (And How it Enables Abuse)

Gal 2:11-13 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.  And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has a lot to say about legalists. They are false teachers bringing their false gospel into the ranks of local churches with a very intentional method and motive. They distort the gospel to “trouble” us (1:7). They come into our churches in order “spy out our liberty” which we have in Christ:

Gal 2:4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in — who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery —

Gal 4:17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.

Gal 6:12-13 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.

Let me try to show you how these verses describe the “trickle-down” effect or “chain-of-command” of the infectious leaven of legalism that we must constantly be on guard against. Legalistic adherence to man-made traditions which are paraded as “God’s Word” always result in people being abused and in abusers being enabled. (Case in point: the Pharisees).

  1. A body of religious, extra-biblical tradition is created by man and foisted upon people as God’s Word (indulgences, purgatory, no divorce for any reason, willful subjection to suffering is redemptive, etc., etc.) This tradition is equated with the gospel in its supposed redemptive power. It is what Paul calls “law.” It can only condemn, kill, and curse.
  2. This body of man-made false-gospel enslaving tradition becomes the foundation of a false “church.” The power and control and authority of those who are the “biggies” in this false system energetically teach these traditions and demand adherence by all to them. And so the leaven begins to trickle down as “certain men come from James” to local churches (personally, or via books or podcasts or conferences, and so on).
  3. Leaders in churches, impressed with the razzle-dazzle (i.e., power) of these big cheezers oooh and aaah at their false gospel teachings and take those teachings back to their churches. These local leaders are not only motivated by a lust for some personal glory, but by fear.  Fear of what?  More like, fear of “whom.”  Namely, fear of the self-appointed celebrity head honchos who demand circumcision (no divorce, warped views of headship and submission, you all know what’s on this list). Look at Gal 6:12-13 above again. If a local pastor does not toe the company line, he is going to be ostracized and persecuted AND the numbers of people in his church isn’t going to grow (he won’t be able to “boast in your flesh”).  How desperately we NEED Paul’s attitude today in this respect — Gal 2:6 And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.
  4. So now the leaven has trickled down to the Peters (the supposed big names) and then trickle, trickle it goes down to Barnabas (let’s equate Barnabas to the local church leaders). Barnabas was a good man. Son of encouragement and all that. But Paul says that EVEN Barnabas got all carried away in this hypocrisy and the infection quickly spread. He starts indicating by his behavior that the gospel is not by faith alone, but is by works of the law.
  5. And so it would go trickling, trickling, trickling (as it was doing in the churches of Galatia) into the thinking of all the people in the churches. AND THEN IT BEGINS TO TRICKLE BACK UPSTREAM TO THE TOP! What I mean is, it is self-perpetuating. As the churches embrace the tradition, the cheezers at the top level are empowered all the more. It is indeed, the classic vicious cycle.

What does this infection do? It enslaves people, it severs us from the grace of joy and freedom that is ours in Christ, it puts us into fear, and it enables abusers. How? Well, as Paul explains in Galatians, the motive of purveyors of man-made tradition and legalism is that THEY be exalted by us. Their legalism effects this exaltation (and our slavery) because these yeast-spreaders (manure spreaders) become our “Bible.”  THEY are the ones who tell us the tradition of God. THEY are the ones we begin to fear if we step out of line. So we follow their rules and we give glory to them, instead of to Christ. We end up living in the fear that we used to be slaves to. “What will so and so think? Will this make them angry?  I’d better go ask them…” and on and on. There are many “popes” you see. Sadly it seems that almost every local church has one.

Abusers love this because a legalistic religious environment is fertile soil for abuse. Man-made tradition by its very nature abuses people, enslaves them, and creates an environment that glories in power and control. The very thing Jesus abhorred and said that such a thing was NOT characteristic of His kingdom.

I fear that this trickling down has been going on for a long, long, long time in our churches and in the circles of evangelicalism (by that term I mean Christians who profess to believe faith alone, Christ alone, and the other solas). It is one of the chief reasons that abuse is so commonly present in the pews today. In the environment of power, people begin to share the very same mentality of abuse.

We desperately need Apostle Pauls (you don’t really need to be a formal apostle to do this) to stand up “in the presence of all” and shout — “Peter!  What the heck are you doing? Stop that right now! Barnabas, I am ashamed of you, of all people, getting caught up in this nonsense.  We have all been crucified in Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. And this new life that we now live, we live entirely by FAITH alone in Christ alone, who loved us and gave Himself for us. We are justified and set right with God by faith in the finished — FINISHED — work of Jesus Christ. We are sons of Abraham and heirs of the Promise God made to him 430 years before the law ever came. Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female — doesn’t matter!  Now pick up your plate and silverware and git urself back over the Gentile table and load up on some more of that ham.”

And if anyone doesn’t like that, well they can just go take their legalism and tradition and go cut themselves off with it.

And that is the holy word of the Lord!  Yep. Oh yes, Peter and Barnabas listened. Good for them.

13 Comments

  1. joepote01

    “AND THEN IT BEGINS TO TRICKLE BACK UPSTREAM TO THE TOP!”

    The children in the pews absorb it and accept it as truth. They grow up and begin to teach Sunday School, where they perpetuate the false doctrines. Some attend seminary, but what seminary will they choose? One that their pastor recommends as supporting the perspective that he preaches, of course.

    Then we wind up with an intergenerational false doctrine…no longer even to be questioned, but simply accepted as a fundamental truth handed down from prior generations.

    Thankfully, God does intervene! He does shine the light of truth into lives that were once absorbed in legalism.

  2. Given my screen name, I feel I must say a word in defense.

    Or I could just place a bag over my head. 🙂

    • joepote01

      LOL! Too funny! BIT you are an Encourager!

    • No No, Please no bag over your head, BIT. We don’t want your voice muffled! You are not following Barnabas in being led away by legalists.

  3. I was a legalistic Pharisee … Saw the light 15 years ago. Unfortunately three of my children were bought up in this environment and I see the after affects. My eldest child has been very damaged and at this time not a Christian. Yesterday my counsellor told me that my husband is codependent. I believe this behaviour (self serving martyrdom) has been even more reinforced in this legalistic church. My eyes are being opened to much. The emotional and verbal abuse, the codependency, by breakdowns and depression have all been encouraged within this type of belief system.
    My counsellor said to me yesterday that my husband is judgmental and critical, like the Pharisee Jesus spoke of….. In our old church it was full of these type of people. A person that was led to lead a spirit filled life just could not survive there.
    My husband has a very strong view on divorce and remarriage…he is fiercely against it. This view too was reinforced in this church. It has been a huge relief for me to recently read that in scripture I don’t have to stay in this prison. It’s like a huge load has come off my shoulders. I have questioned this believe a lot over a number of years… That someone has to stay with an abusive partner. The thing that baffles me is that my counsellor, knowing about what I deal with is still encouraging me to stay, to grow, to not antagonize my husband and my husband and family will change,….. Is it really as easy as that?.. I don’t really think so.
    Legalism is a terrible trap…many of my now ex friends, as I was excommunicated when we left, are very legalistic and judgmental. The view of many is that their church is the only church you can really be a true Christian in… Many other churches are flawed and liberal… I could write so much…. Legalism is BONDAGE!

    • Oh Loves6, your counselor is partly right and partly wrong, by the sounds of it. Right in that your husband is judgmental and critical like the Pharisee Jesus spoke of. But IMO wrong in labelling your husband as codependent.

      From what you’ve described in your comments on this blog, your husband is an abuser. Abusers often show signs of dependency in some respects, e.g., expecting their partner to do most of the tedious day to day work involved of keeping the family fed, clothed, educated, socialised, getting by financially, even buying the Christmas presents for the abuser’s work colleagues, buying all the abuser’s clothes for them, putting the toothpaste on their toothbrush (YES, I heard that story). . . . but this childish dependency is not the core or primary problem. The core problem is the abuser’s belief in his or her entitlement to exert power and control over their partner, cause their partner to fear them, and coerce them into doing the abuser’s will to serve the abuser’s selfish ends.

      I also suggest that your counselor’s recommended recipe for dealing with your husband is not going to work. When someone diagnoses the problem wrongly, their prescription is likely to be wrong too.

      Would your counselor be open to reading this blog?

      • The honeymoon period was over two days ago. I challenged him on not interogating me about my day, I had it under control. This started him off being very defensive and thinking he has the right to being honest about me as my husband….we are one flesh…joined together etc. I recorded most of it and played it to a relative…she was aghast. My husband doesn’t swear but gets into my head…well at least try’s too.
        That afternoon when I got back he went off big time…yelling very close to my face with clinched fists in a fit of rage..in front of our children. So today I am physically exhausted… I’m just so tired.
        My councellor is a 70 year old lady that is stuck in her ways I believe… Lives a spirit led life and feels deeply that God directs her…so I don’t know that she’d be open to it.
        Well meaning friends spoke to us yesterday about our marriage… Most of the discussion was aimed at me which I voiced I did not appreciate….

      • You are getting stronger, Loves6! Well done. And don’t be dismayed about how you feel exhausted after a tirade from your husband. That is natural. There is just no way that anyone can be the object of such a torrent of abuse and not feel affected by it emotionally and physically. Even when our minds can tell us that all the abuser is saying is cruelty and lies, it still impacts our psyche, and the body and mind are connected, so we feel like we have been run over by a steam roller for the next few hours or days. Because we have.

  4. I have so many feels about this post I don’t know how to be coherent. I grew up in this system. I am the only one of my family’s children who left the church because of it, and in attempting to reconnect with God I find that I cannot deal with church any longer. I know they’re not all like this, but I get triggered just walking into a church building. It’s hard to reconnect with my family, too, when they are either still in the system or have not had their eyes opened to it’s reality and destructiveness. Growing up surrounded by fear, drowning in it, has left me with some very severe reactions even to seemingly innocuous things. I still can’t read the Bible, either. I struggle with depression and anxiety, I deal with chronic pain that is worsened by this, and sometimes my anger is the only thing that keeps me going. The knowledge that these things that damaged me were wrong, and need to be challenged and changed. But I struggle too with separating my anger at the system with my anger at people who were just trying to do what they thought was right. People who meant well, but were duped by the system as well. Sometimes I feel like the only person who ever saw through all the lies, and I wonder why everyone else is so blind.

    • joepote01

      “People who meant well, but were duped by the system as well. Sometimes I feel like the only person who ever saw through all the lies, and I wonder why everyone else is so blind.”

      I totally get this! Our Redeemer is faithful to also Deliver us from bondage, including the bondage of a false understanding of scripture. But, yes, it makes it hard to relate to others who still see things as we once did.

    • But I struggle too with separating my anger at the system with my anger at people who were just trying to do what they thought was right. People who meant well, but were duped by the system as well. Sometimes I feel like the only person who ever saw through all the lies, and I wonder why everyone else is so blind.

      ^ This. Exactly. Especially the last part. Well, especially all of it.

  5. Finding Answers

    Pastor Jeff wrote ……AND THEN IT BEGINS TO TRICKLE BACK UPSTREAM TO THE TOP! What I mean is, it is self-perpetuating.,,,,

    The legalism I learned trickled down in a semi-secular, authoritarian, patriarchal family of origin. In my own head, I translated and trickled it upstream to the top – to God.

    The Holy Spirit is ridding me of the legalism, one chapter, one verse at a time.

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  1. The Trickle-Down Nature of Legalism (And How it Enables Abuse) – GBFSV SPIRITUAL ABUSE VICTIMS' RECOVERY

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