Martin Luther said Christians are like drunks on a horse. In order to avoid falling off one side we fall off the other. There are two kinds of bad churchmen. Those who promote lawlessness, and those who promote legalism. Many good churchmen (in fact, all) struggle between these two extremes. We fall in love with a generous Saviour and find that our tendency to sin continues beyond our conversion. This makes us question His Lordship in our lives. Frightening passages such as “depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” make us swing to the other side and cling to self-discipline with white knuckles. Ultimately this leads to despair because the sin in us is so pervasive that it is like trying to grasp wind. The Gospel is first understood in theory: saved by Grace alone and made into a new creature with new appetites. Fair enough. But the trickiness of the Gospel is how it makes us feel, day in and day out, as we live non-theoretical lives of real suffering, real doubt and real failure. Can we be secure in a real world where every new day can potentially bring out the worst in us? If not externally sinful we can be quite unholy in our secret places. And God, through Jesus Christ, made it very plain that He looks at the heart, not the hands.
Because of this difficulty, we need to identify bad churchmen of both varieties. Lasciviousness and legalism. In this text we’ll focus on the legalist. Not simply the Christian who struggles with fearing God and therefore trying to obey Him, but the one whose spiritual pride suffocates the life of the Spirit in a fellowship. These bad churchmen are at their worst when in leadership.
Regarding legalism, John Piper writes:
“legalism is the pursuit of the law with some other engine than faith, on some other steam than the Spirit. What is the engine of legalism? Paul calls it “works” (Romans 9:32) and he calls the fuel of this engine “flesh” (Galatians 3:3). “Works” is the opposite of “faith” and “flesh” is the opposite of “Spirit.” So legalism is not whether you strive to obey the commands of God, but which engine and which fuel you run on”
In Galatians chapter 5, Paul lists what the flesh does.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
We can dissect from this list descriptions of both the lawless and the legalist. A lawless man can hide behind the fact that he lacks ambition, hatred and does not cause dissension. At least obviously, outwardly. Likewise, the legalist can hide behind the fact that he does not even touch alcohol, is faithful to his wife and does not explode in rage. However it is the legalists that draw Christ’s harshest condemnation. A cool, rule keeping and hard working exterior can hide the most vicious interiors. And Colossians 2:23 says the legalist’s heart is not pure as it seems: “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.”
How does one spot the legalistic bad churchman?
1. First, he loves authority. Take away or challenge his authority, and you will see an entirely different side to him. He will either fight or flight. But he will not humbly walk down the banquet to a lesser seat. There may be some very impressive and holy-sounding reasons for either his fight or his departure, but you can be certain he will not withstand scrutiny and remain and be chastised. He will bully or bow out.
2. Second, he will not be broken or humble. Ask him what prayer needs he has and you will get a very sterilized answer. And the aura put forth by this bad churchman will be one of being “above the fray.” No admission to struggles, sins or doubts. But unwavering strength is the image. Something not even the apostle Paul would dare do (Rom 7:14-15).
3. He will slowly but surely wear out those who go under his authority. He brings his burden for you to bear. Not Christ’s. And only Christ’s burden is light.
4. He will slowly but surely eliminate those who do not go under his authority. Either openly, or passive aggressively, he will impose his will on the church. If you are not like-minded in peripheral, non-essential issues, you will find yourself punished, one way or another.
5. If given his way, he will mold the fellowship according to his theology. Instead of letting the Holy Spirit bring together a raggamuffin, diverse and unlikely “dirty dozen” out of which He seeks to form a genuine, unique and organic fellowship, the bad churchman will impose his spirit and conform the church according to his beliefs.
6. Over time, those who adopt his critical view of others who do not agree with him will begin to form a very tightly nit, tense, graceless and loveless clique that are certainly not known by their joy and love.
As John Piper elaborates:
“the power of legalism comes from ourselves (flesh). This is crucial because the aim of legalism is to trade with God value for value. And so the engine of works must have something self-wrought to offer God in the deal.”
The bible agrees:
“To the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due”
The overall theology of the bad churchman is that if you “do, do, do, do” God will then “give, give, give.” It is a dead theology that kills the spirit. Galatians 5 continues to describe what the Spirit’s work looks like in an individual:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22-23)
The net effect of the bad churchman on a fellowship is precisely to kill the first 8 fruits in order to try and create the last one: self-control. But a control based on flesh. Not Spirit. The very fruits the Holy Spirit is seeking to grow, the legalist unwittingly sprays with poison.
In his book “Righteous Sinners,” Ron Julian makes the statement:
“We come to now that we are justified because we see the evidence that we are being sanctified…. on the one hand believers are truly sinners. For as long as we live our lives will show an innate tendency toward evil. Neither God or our neighbour will get from us what he deserves. Even the most mature saints in the golden years of their walk with God can succumb in a flash to their petty, selfish, destructive tendencies. Thus the works of the believer will never be anything near as good as they should be in this life… no biblical author expects his reader to escape sin and moral weakness in his lifetime… no biblical author wants our every moral failure to plunge us into doubt and despair about our own salvation.”
We are not to agree with bad churchmen who say God’s Grace is a license to futile, powerless lives of lust and sin. But we are just as much to stay away from bad churchmen who make fellowship about external obedience to standards they have selected themselves. Much of the legalist’s pre-occupation is with the creation of a particular set of rules which are pressed upon others as though they were central biblical principles. Leonard Ravenhill was once quoted saying: “When there’s something in the Bible that churches don’t like, they call it ‘legalism.’” And there is much truth in that statement. But I would also add a guard rail on the other side of the bridge and say “When there’s something in the churches legalists don’t like, they call it sin.” We can’t make the church according to our experience and personal convictions. We must make it about what the bible says is central.
Often, the bad churchman of the legalistic variety takes a long time to be discovered. His arc is long but it bends towards joylessness and heaviness. People who lean towards legalism are very apt to point out biblical passages warning of lasciviousness. But they are slow to see that the majority of the New Testament warnings are against legalism. The warnings against loose living are certainly for today. The warning against Phariseeism are just as relevant and to be used today as well as tomorrow. Pharisees live among us just as much as they did in Christ’s and Paul’s days.
1 Corinthians 13 says the pinnacle of the Spirit’s work is love. This love is patient, very optimistic, hides transgressions (does not discuss them behind backs), creates a trusting atmosphere, is not boastful, wants to protect fellow believers and is more important than knowledge and courage. When a religious leader approached Jesus and asked Him what religion was really all about, Christ answered ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:36-40) If your religion is biblical you can’t just say “I’m really spiritual because I’m really obedient because I love God.” If you make that statement without following through and being a presence that is deemed by your brethren to be optimistic, hopeful, protective, forgiving, joyful, long suffering, free, humble, honest and downplaying their faults, than you are a liar. 1 John 4:20 says that if we do not love the brethren we liars and the truth is not in us. How we treat one another is a direct revelation of whether or not we love God.
I have struggled with being too loose and too tight. I have been the bad churchman. At least internally if not outwardly. May God continue to refine my balance. To allow the rebuking of others without grudges or hatred. And to grant wisdom as to when it is time to keep silent about the sin of others.