The curse of legalism: Part 1
Do those who condemn legalism practice it?
Although some rightly maintain that the practice of legalism is contrary to our freedom in Christ, the same individuals often cite scripture in legalistic fashion to support their cherished false doctrines, corrupt dogmas, and personal agendas.
This legalistic interpretation of the Bible has led believers into the exact kind of spiritual bondage Christ died to free us from.
If one accepts the Bible as a record of history, we can see that arguing the law is the world’s oldest profession. It was first practiced in the Garden of Eden by the Serpent.
In Genesis 2:16-17 we see God had given Adam and Eve only one command:
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
In the following chapter, we see the Serpent arguing his case using legalism before Eve:
Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
What we see the serpent asking is, is this really what God said? With this act was born the practice of arguing the law. This exercise plagues believers in Christ to this very day.
One need only spend some time in the courts of law man has devised, to see the process of legalism at work. Many of us assume in error, that a judge will decide which party is “right,” and which is wrong, according to the law. This assumption is in inaccurate. In court, each party argues that their position is supported by the law in question. Each will cite a law which seems to oppose the law the opposite party alludes to. Sometimes, each party will quote the same law – interpreting it differently.
Many times, neither party is “right.” The judge must then decide, which party’s argument of the law is most consistent with the law cited or is closest to the actual rule alluded to. Often, a lawyer is rewarded with success, for presenting crafty, cunningly devised arguments which are better than those of their opponents.
Like is done in the courts of man, so is it done in Christian churches, all across America. Here is just one example: God told his people that swine are not to be eaten nor even touched by his people.
And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you.
The legalist will argue that we are free from that command, and they will employ more than one device to justify the eating of pig. They will argue that the dietary law laid down in Leviticus 11 and elsewhere, is meant only for “the Jews.” This is in spite of the fact that there is no such distinction made between believers of the house of Israel and “gentile” believers. Any such distinction must be made by legalistic argument, using man’s suppositions and theories.
The legalist will employ scripture to justify the eating of pig using Acts chapter 10 as a “proof-text.” This scripture tells of a time when Peter wend down to Joppa, and went up to the housetop to pray. He was hungry, and while a meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance, seeing a vision. We are told of his vision in Acts 10:11-16.
And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.
Just as man's law has been used in the courts to justify behavior contrary to other laws, this scripture has been used many times by pig eating Christians, to negate the teaching of Leviticus 11:7-8.
If it were truly God’s intent that Peter (and all believers thereafter) eat swine flesh, why do we not read that Peter ordered a ham sandwich thereafter? The reason we do not see Peter (or any other believers) eat unclean foods following this episode, is that God was using the symbolism of Peter’s vision to make a larger point.
We discover in Acts 10:24-28 that there was in a town named Caesarea, a man named Cornelius, to whom an angel of God appeared. The angel told Cornelius to summon Peter, to hear his words. The following day, Peter journeyed to Caesarea, and upon meeting Cornelius, made known the meaning of the vision.
And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
So in context, the vision was plainly meant to show Peter that he should preach to Cornelius and his family – not counting them as “unclean” heathen. Yet for all this, Christians continue to defile themselves using the scriptures out of context to justify it, through a legalistic interpretation which ignores the true meaning of the passage. This perversion of the meaning of God’s word has led to all manner of evil – all of it done by authority of the “Church.”
In the coming installments of this series, we will examine how this false legalistic interpretation has crept into the church, how it injures us as believers, and most importantly – how we can escape it through Christ.