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Guarding Against Legalism

The legalistic problems facing Paul and the believers in his day have not gone away. They are with us still, only in another form. We must guard ourselves against this.
by Lorraine E. Espenhain | Source:

"Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision,  we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh." [Php 3:2-3].


When Saint Paul wrote these words thousands of years ago, he was referring to Jewish Christians who were extremely zealous for the Mosaic Law and the traditions of their forefathers. These Jews believed that Jesus was the Son of God, but they also believed that obedience to the Mosaic Law was absolutely necessary if one desired to be in Christ. When Paul refers to them as ‘mutilators of the flesh,’ he is referring to the rite of circumcision, which these Jewish Christians were trying to push on believing Gentiles. These false teachers were infiltrating the churches and causing a lot of problems which Paul had to deal with over and over again.

In order for anything good to come of what I am about to write, it must be understood that Saint Paul is referring to certain Jews who believed in Jesus Christ and were a part of Christ’s Church, not the unbelieving Jews who wanted nothing to do with the Church at all.

Notice that Paul did not mince words. His words concerning such individuals were harsh. He refers to these men as ‘dogs, evil-workers, and mutilators of the flesh.’

It is tempting for those of us who belong to the 21st century Church to read this and say to ourselves, "Well, that was a problem that existed in Paul’s day; it no longer exists in our day. Gone are the dogs, evil-workers, and mutilators of the flesh." But are they gone? I tell you, they are not. We have just as many problems with legalistic teachings in our day as Paul did in his. The problem is still among us;
it has just taken on a different form.

Sometime ago, I was invited by a friend of mine to attend a Friday night Shabbat service at a messianic synagogue. Curious to see what it was all about, I accepted her invitation. (For those who might not be familiar with this term, messianic Jews are Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah). When it was time for the rabbi to speak, he taught the people that God the Father expected Gentile Christians to live as Jews. If we weren’t eating kosher food, observing the Passover and other Jewish holidays, and getting circumcised, we were not ‘saved.’ When I left the synagogue that night, I warned my friend to stay away from that particular rabbi, as his teachings could not be supported by the Word of God and contradicted everything that Paul taught in the Gospel.

Unfortunately, legalistic teachings have also found their way into many Protestant evangelical churches. I can write this because my husband and I worshiped in these churches for almost 20 years before I decided to return to the Catholic church and my husband became a Catholic.

I want to state from the very beginning that not all evangelical churches are legalistic, but I have attended enough of them to know that legalism is a big problem in these congregations. The pastors do not necessarily teach the people to live as Jews, as some did in Paul’s day. Instead, they teach people to live their way. I have been in churches where people were taught that it was a sin for women to cut their hair, wear slacks, use cosmetics, or adorn themselves with jewelry. I have listened to pastors teach that going to the movies was a sin against God, as was the consumption of alcoholic beverages, playing with a deck of cards, or watching television.

As Catholics, we might be tempted to say, "Well, that’s a Protestant issue. It’s really not something that goes on in our congregations, so why expose it?" My brothers and sisters, in the sight of Christ there is no such thing as a Protestant issue or a Catholic issue. If it concerns the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, it’s a Christian issue. If it’s causing confusion in Christ’s church, if sheep are being misled and taught improperly, and if it exacerbates the divisions that already exist in Christian circles, it is an issue that should concern us all. Most of all, if it takes away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it must be exposed, dealt with, and avoided at all costs.

There is a clear difference between sin and one’s personal conviction about something. The Bible clearly instructs us what sin is. Murder, sexual immorality, lying, idolatry, greed, selfishness, etc., are all sins. We are commanded by God to give these things up, for they have no place whatsoever in the lives of His children.

But what many of these false teachers and leaders are doing is confusing their own personal convictions with what the Bible actually calls sin. If a man wants to give up wine and movie-going for Christ, so be it. But when he turns his personal conviction into a doctrine that must be embraced by everyone else in the church, the end result is legalism.

Many well-meaning Christians are making the mistake of believing that they are accepted by God the Father on the basis of what they have chosen to give up for Him, rather than on Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Whether they want to accept this truth or not, this is a subtle ploy from the evil one to get them to put confidence in their flesh, instead of the righteousness of Christ. 

If I believe that I am accepted and loved by God as long as I avoid cosmetics, jewelry, and embrace teetotalism,  then Christ died for me in vain. If staying away from a television set, movie theater, deck of cards, or hair salon will keep my name written in Heaven, I believe in another Gospel other than the Gospel which Paul preached.

If a minister can stand behind a pulpit and teach people that in order to be saved they need to adhere to his personal convictions, is he any less of a ‘dog’ or ‘evil-worker’ than the legalistic Jews were who existed in Paul’s day?   Would Paul have spared these leaders if he lived in our day?  I tell you, he would not.   Paul was not afraid to expose such leaders in the churches and neither am I. 

Anyone who preaches acceptance with God on the basis of anything other than the redemptive work of Christ on Calvary is a false teacher. Any church leader who adds to that redemptive work is just as much a dog or evil-worker as those were who lived in Paul's day.

Worship isn’t saying ‘no’ to cosmetics, blue jeans, jewelry, Christmas trees, haircuts, wine, movies, etc. Worship is living obediently to the written Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit day and night, night and day. These are the worshipers that our Heavenly Father seeks. This is what it means to worship God in Spirit and in truth. Those who live like this have been circumcised in their hearts, and this is the circumcision that our Heavenly Father desires, not that which pertains to the flesh.

My righteousness comes from the Lord Jesus Christ. He is my holiness and my acceptance before God. He is the one who secured salvation for me. If wearing skirts, long hair, and going around with a face that is devoid of make-up is my righteousness before God, then Christ died for nothing, for I have achieved my own salvation.

Am I now being divisive because I am not afraid to expose these types of churches? Absolutely not!    The Apostle Paul’s purpose in exposing such teachers was not to be divisive, but to warn those in Christ to be on guard against their teachings, which deceive and lead men astray.

If we want to point fingers at those who are causing the most division in the Body of Christ, we need look no further than many of these legalistic churches which preach a different Gospel that is really no Gospel at all - a Gospel based on adherence to the personal convictions of men rather than the redemptive work of Christ on the cross.

Because of such false teachings, there are Christians who will not fellowship with other Christians if they do not believe as they do.   If wine is going to be served at a function, these Christians refuse to attend.  If an ecumenical prayer meeting takes place, they will not join if there will be in attendance women who wear pants or cosmetics. To make matters worse, these individuals, who are trusting in their own righteousness and putting confidence in their flesh, do not even believe that those who refuse to embrace their personal convictions are in Christ!  They have taken their judgment that far.

As a Catholic, I can look at Protestant Christians who attend some of these legalistic churches and still call them 'brother' or 'sister', but can they say the same of me?  Some can, but many will not.   This is because they do not consider anyone to be in Christ unless they adhere to their personal convictions about certain issues and worship with them in the same church.

These individuals have forgotten that  Christ instructed the woman caught in adultery to ‘leave her life of sin,’ not her cosmetics, wine, or jewelry.

When our chief focus is on adherence to legalistic teachings, rather than obedience to the written Word of God, how are we any different from the Pharisees in Christ’s day who walked upon that same miserable path? Are we not just as blind and displeasing to Christ as they?

If I can look at another individual who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, yet say to myself, "He is going to Hell because he drinks wine and smokes cigarettes, I know nothing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If I truly believe that a woman’s name has been blotted out of Heaven for all eternity because she likes to wear her hair short, then I know nothing of what it means to worship God in Spirit and in truth.

Paul instructed us as follows: "Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh." [Php 3:2]. The best way we can guard ourselves against the false, legalistic teachings and false gospels infiltrating many of Christ’s churches today is to study the written Word of God. Satan cannot easily deceive a man or woman who has a good working knowledge of the Word of God. We need to do these things in order to protect our souls from evil-workers in the church, posing as Christ’s shepherds, who only want to manipulate Christ’s sheep for their own distorted purposes.

I do not hate these men; I hate what they do, especially when they do it in the name of our Lord. I hate the turmoil, pain, confusion, and division they bring to the Body of Christ because they refuse to keep their personal convictions about certain things to themselves. Instead, they turn those personal convictions into church doctrines for everyone else to subscribe to. If you refuse to subscribe to those personal convictions, you are lost and without hope in the world.  You aren't 'saved.'

God has given us His written Word to serve as a light in this dark world. It is a lamp, given to us in love, so that we will not stumble and grope about in the darkness. But many in Christ are stumbling because they refuse to take the time to study and meditate on the Scriptures. When false teachers arise and shout, "Give up your jewelry and be saved!," they are duped and quickly become their followers. My brothers and sisters, Christ is calling us to give up our

The legalistic problems facing Paul and the believers in his day have not gone away. They are with us still, only in another form. If we are going to take our stand against such false teachers, who preach a different Gospel other than the Gospel that Paul taught, we need to know how to correctly handle the Sword of the Spirit, which is the written Word of God. Those who do know how to handle this Sword have absolutely nothing to fear when they come up against such men.   When false teachings come their way, they will be able to strike them down in the name of the Lord, for they have studied to show themselves approved unto God.

Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.  For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God...

...and who put no confidence whatsoever in our flesh.

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