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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.