Legalism: The Great Friend of the Abuser

Matthew 23:16-23 ESV  (16)  “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ (17)  You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? (18)  And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ (19)  You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? (20)  So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. (21)  And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. (22)  And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. (23)  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

I still do not completely understand the mentality and motivation of the “Christian” legalist.  But I do know that such people and their alleged “biblical” system are no friend to the oppressed.  As we have been reading the comments this past week in particular about how the legalist flatly prohibits divorce for abuse, citing various Scriptures in a “biff-boom-bah-there-my-case-is-proved” manner, the evils of legalism have been illustrated and emphasized.  The religion of the Pharisees is indeed alive and well today.

What is legalism, anyway?  Let me see if I can try to define it.  Legalism is a mentality that fundamentally believes we earn merit with God through our deeds.  It is completely opposed to New Covenant salvation in Christ which is by faith (in fact it is actually completely opposed to the nature of real circumcision even in the Old Covenant)

Romans 9:30-32 ESV What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; (31)  but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. (32)  Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone…

The Christian’s works are the result of faith and repentance. They proceed from a regenerate heart.  The Christian obeys the law of God because he now loves the law of God, that law having been written upon his heart by the Spirit (Jer 31:31ff).  Legalism turns things right around and puts the cart before the horse, claiming that it is the works that must come first (though many legalists will say that faith in Christ is essential too), and then justification will follow.

Now, this mentality of legalism not only leads a person to the empty pursuit of trying to earn his righteousness before God, but in addition it radically colors his entire concept of Scripture.  His hermeneutic (i.e., system of biblical interpretation) is necessarily going to be skewed by his works approach.  The legalist gives the wrong answer to the following question that Paul knew his countrymen were asking:

Romans 10:3-7 ESV For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (4)  For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (5)  For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. (6)  But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) (7)  or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

The legalist, thinking that a right standing with God is dependent upon our performance, approaches Scripture through this lens.  He is always looking for works that he can put on his “to do” list so that he can make God happy with him. But he goes further. He concludes that based upon his performance, God IS happy with him.  Oh, down deep inside himself there are all kinds of doubts of course, but if you listen to him expound you will find a man who is quite full of himself and his own righteousness.  Once more, just look at the Pharisees and you will see what I mean.

And then the legalist continues.  Now he sets about working to bring others into this bondage. He takes Scripture and, driven by his “do this, don’t do that, touch that, don’t touch that” religion of works, he sees the Word of God as a compilation of just so many do’s and don’ts.  And he LOVES it when he discovers still another law to keep.  He makes up these laws even where there are none to be found.  And this is why we are warned against the legalist by the Lord:

Galatians 4:28-31 ESV Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. (29)  But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. (30)  But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” (31)  So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

And again:

Galatians 5:1-7 ESV For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (2)  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. (3)  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (4)  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (5)  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. (6)  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (7)  You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?

It is in this legalism then that Christians who are married to an abuser are being further abused and terrorized within the church. Legalists take the Word of God and, through their works-quest system of interpretation, forget entirely about God’s empathy and compassion for the oppressed.  They ignore the weightier matters of the heart that God is truly concerned with and keep to the bald, naked, context-less meaning of the words.  If Jesus, for example, says “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” – then, BOOM!  There it is.  Another rule for the list.  Another prohibition.  No regard for the context and the real heart of the Lord in that passage.  No regard for the suffering of the oppressed.  Just a bare, naked law.  And the legalist loves it so.  He sets out on his mission to lay his load upon the backs of others, even though in reality he would never bare that burden himself.

This is what is happening in all of this terrible business among Christians today in which abuse victims are being told that God does not allow for divorce for the reason of abuse.  But, I believe, Jesus would say — You have heard that it was said that divorce for abuse is not permitted, but I say to you come out of such bondage and be free.

Today, oppressed victims are still being oppressed by the Pharisee. I propose to you that any pastor, Christian, or church that teaches abuse victims that they cannot divorce their abuser is infected with legalism.  Jesus told us to beware of this leaven. Many, many pastors standing in pulpits and many, many “eminent” saints who are the “pillars” of local churches are in fact legalists.  They do not understand justice, mercy, and compassion.  Neither do they understand the true nature of evil and its tactics.  As a result, their preaching and teaching has enslaved many.  Their message is, “yes, the Red Sea is parted, the Angel of the Lord has passed over and laid the Egyptians low.  But it is God’s will for you to stay right here in Egypt and suffer as slaves for His glory.”

That is another gospel, and it is no gospel at all.

8 thoughts on “Legalism: The Great Friend of the Abuser

  1. I would just clarify that most legalists do not consider themselves living under law. Especially in Reformed circles. They know the doctrine, and can often flawlessly cite the verses on which it is based. They might explain that works simply demonstrate, not earn one’s salvation.The error of most believers comes not from rejecting scripture, but in twisting its application.

    The legalist is usually very doctinally sound. He spouts all the right words; the problem is that he conflates rightness with righteousness. The wily serpent slithers in and hisses, ‘Hath God really said?’ and the legalist takes the bait. He will explain, often eloquently, that works are merely the fruit of regeneration, but in his distorted application, he turns the fruit into measuring sticks. Not only for others, but for himself as well.

    It is a very rigid, rationalistic and noncompassionate way to live. And the greater groweth his zeal, the smaller becometh his empathy. He carefully preens before his mirror each morning, making sure his righteous stature is as flawless as it was yesterday. Then he goes to work examining everyone else. When my pastor explained how he, and he alone, was qualified and called to be a fruit inspector, due to his mature and sanctified state, it was just one more red flag that something was rotten in Denmark.

    It’s pretty easy to spot legalism, but the legalist rarely, if ever, will recognize it in himself.

    1. Amen, TS00!
      I love the way you put it:
      legalists “turn fruit into measuring sticks”. I’ve witnessed this. But mostly they measure OTHERS’ fruit! Not so much their own. Hmm. Much like the Pharisee who prayed “God, I thank You that I am not like OTHER PEOPLE…” And your title/term of self-appointed “fruit inspectors” is so spot on! They are very arrogantly proud to say so! Just like that Pharisee so arrogantly prayed out loud. They don’t even try to hide it! The bottom line truth is what you quoted, Pastor:
      Galatians 5:1-7 says “For FREEDOM Christ has SET US FREE; stand firm therefore, and DO NOT SUBMIT again to a YOKE OF SLAVERY.” (Or bondage of any kind imposed by anyone.)
      Yet these modern day Pharisees always TRY AND TRY to place others in their man-made bondages. This is something we MUST “Guard our hearts” against, as Scripture commands. No more bondage! Jesus HAS already set me free. I will not submit to any man or woman’s self-appointed yoke or “fruit inspection”.

  2. Biff Boom Bah! How I appreciate the feel of such a phrase. It is an annoying gavel pound which typifies the controllers. No room for discussion, mercy, or the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately it can effectively remove hope for a victim. But many warnings about such judgments are found in scripture which a legalist ought to consider for a day they may find themselves in a similar circumstance. Consider Luke 6:38b “for with the same measure that you use it will be measured back to you.”NKJV

  3. The legalist has the head knowledge that they are saved by grace, not works, but has not renewed their mind to really think, believe and accept that in their heart. In other words, there is still a denial or shrinking back of the true Gospel in them. If they’ve truly accepted Christ according to His Gospel, they are saved, but have not ever renewed their minds to operate and live according to the true Gospel. They still live their lives out under the old covenant and that’s what they give to others, because that’s how they think. They still live in fear. Therefore, they do not yet (or maybe at all) know and have not yet been perfected in the true love of God because His perfect love casts out fear, which allows us to operate in grace and mercy toward others. Therefore, they cannot demonstrate the love and mercy of God to others, because they don’t inwardly really accept the true Gospel.

    1. How true, and how sad. I have seen this in pastors and teachers, men with a great deal of head knowledge, who can discuss theology and quote scripture effortlessly.

  4. This is so good.

    Legalism is a god that is never satisfied, a god that willingly sacrifices genuine relationship to checklists and image-based obligations. Legalism says that we must try to find a way to earn what has already been freely given. It attaches a ball and chain to all that our gracious God has already done and who He wants to be in our lives.

    Legalism breeds doubt, fear, anxiety and pride. Once we fully embrace the truth that it is His Voice that leads us out of darkness and into the light, none of that other stuff matters. None of it. We can live our lives in grateful awe of Him, in wondrous, life-giving freedom.

    Let the legalists live in their misery, judge us all they want, and wonder where our peace, joy and contentment come from.

    I was reminded of this amazing skit: “Everything.”


  5. TSOO,
    It is amazing that your pastor actually told the church that he alone was the only one “qualified” to be a fruit inspector? That is very arrogant considering that Jesus teaches ALL His children to be able to discern the fruits of the spirit.
    Matthew 7:17-19 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.
    As you had said, a very DISTORTED application of scripture to use the fruit of the spirit as a legalist measuring rod (with no compassion or empathy).
    The Lord also teaches in Hebrews 5:14 But solid food is the the mature who because of practice have their SENSES trained to discern good and evil.
    The legalist does indeed “strain out a gnat and swallows a camel” Matt.23:24.
    That pastor you mentioned, sounds like a Baptist pastor’s wife that I once knew. She told all the children in Christian school that they were not allowed to bring sun chips in their lunch pails!
    2Corinthians 3:6 Who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the LETTER kills, but the SPIRIT gives life.


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