Legalism, Cultism, and the Abuse of God’s Authority
Loyalty is good if it is based on truth, unquestioning loyalty to any person or church leadership is the mark of what a cult is made of. When you have people that follow what the one behind the pulpit says without checking the Scriptures to see if he is speaking the truth, disaster is soon to follow. Paul commended the Bereans who checked on the Scripture to see if what he was teaching is correct. That becomes a living principle for any church. The Bible does gives authority to pastors and elders who are servants and stay under Jesus’ authority (Heb. 13:7, 17). Their authority is not unlimited or unquestionable. They are to be the examples of servanthood to the church, not “lording it over them” being their masters. Those who expect blind obedience from their people without any questioning of their teaching or authority are cult leaders, the Bible classifies this as Nicolaitens (ruling over the people).
Oftentimes Legalism has much to do with manmade laws that are unique to a certain church or group, but they can be Old Testament laws. The Bibles law is not something you do to be accepted by God or man but a mirror to show what you are doing is wrong.
If one is walking in the flesh, as a believer they are no better off than a non- believer. Living under man made laws will do this, especially if one expects others to live by the same laws. Legalism uses human effort-self made laws, Biblical laws that are no longer applicable and rituals to improve self, for spiritually growth. A spirit led believer relies on God’s grace to gives to them power to live, they crucify the old nature by carrying the cross.
A person who practices Legalism looks to find wrong in others for no other reason except to compare how someone is living to the laws they are living by. They make their own laws more holy than the bibles, others by their own merits, not by the commands of Scripture.
Take for example prayer- getting up early to pray can be a joy if one decided to do this on their own, it is between them and the Lord. But if one makes this a requirement to be spiritual or obedient then it can be classified as legalism. Jesus never taught the time of prayer as requirement (Paul tells us to pray always). Another extreme can be how long one prays. In Jn.17 even Jesus kept his prayer short and concise (this is the only long prayer recorded of him). People who go on and on in prayer and have a requirement of spending hours in prayer or it does not count, or they view one as not spiritual because they do not spend this amount of time are wrong on this and may have something wrong in their life.
Another example: we are called to be witnesses. We make a decision to witness when the opportunity presents itself. Many cults require their members to go door to door or put time out in the street to show their love for God and the church. Again, when this is forced by requirement and not acted out because of ones own volition and love it is legalistic.
We can understand what legalism is and is not by this simple reference. Speaking in contradistinction to the law - Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” 2 Corinthians 3:17
The Holy Spirit will always try to help the person that follows incorrectly, not compare themselves to someone else.
Another way is to enforce a certain gift as they criteria for being filled with the Spirit. This is done with tongues, the least of all the gifts. I know many people who are filled with the Spirit and do not speak in tongues, I know others who are filled by the Spirit that do. I also know of many who speak in tongues that are not filled with the Spirit, and they prove it by making this the requirement for one even having the Spirit. This is wrong and brings guilt on precious believers for no other reason than their upholding their own peculiar interpretation in the Scripture.
Legalism are laws that are unscriptural that make ones walk heavy and will make them lose their joy. They become toilsome harsh and inflexible. The Pharisee’s couldn’t show mercy (the heavier matters of the law) because of their legalistic lifestyle. Love and legalism do not get along with each other. love is flexible willing to yield love grace and peace are a family they bring health and growth to us individually and as a family of believers.
In Lk.4:18, quoting Isaiah 61:1 Jesus says, “he has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound” The people were captive to sin but also were in bondage to the Pharisees wrong teaching that led them away from the law of Moses.
When all the apostles gathered to discuss the Gentiles being saved Acts 15:10-11: “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they." These same Judaizers tried to influence the Jerusalem council that the apostles had. Paul writes to the Galatian church (4:9) “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage ?
Consequences of yielding to Legalism are found with Paul using the issue of circumcision to illustrate his point concerning a departure from the liberty in Christ. Galatians 5:1 “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
The Judaizers who claimed to believe in Jesus taught that faith was not enough but one must have some of the law of Moses to be right with God. They taught the Galatian church that they had to be circumcised to be saved, but the apostle reminded them, "If you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing” (Galatians 5:2).
Paul was not condemning the practice of circumcision in and of itself, for he had Timothy (whose mother was Jewish) circumcised in Galatia so that he could have a ministry among his people unhindered (Acts 16:1-3), but he did not allow Titus (a Gentile) to be circumcised (Gal. 2:3). He was not saying that the Galatian believers who were circumcised lost their salvation, Paul was saying that if the Galatian believers allowed themselves to be circumcised for their salvation, they would have no spiritual benefit and promote a false teaching for their salvation.
Paul makes it absolutely clear what they were accepting- Galatians 2:4-6: ‘false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage ), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.” It was the gospel that was at stake in this introduction to the law
Galatians 5:1-3 I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”
Paul warned the Galatian believers of four consequences they would experience if they succumbed to the legalists' demands. First, if they were circumcised, Christ would profit them nothing (v. 2). In other words, those who believed that circumcision was necessary for their salvation or spiritual growth, would be adding works to their faith. By so doing, the believers would be supplementing Christ’s work with human works, thereby making Christ of no profit to themselves (Gal. 2:19-20; 3:3, 12; 4:3, 9; 5:7, 18).
Any believer who embraced the Law by practicing circumcision would be "a debtor (obligated or bound) to do the whole law (v. 3). God presented the Mosaic Law as a unified system, and those living under the Mosaic system were legally obligated to keep all of its commandments; failure to do so put people under its curse (James 2:10). People could not simply pick and choose the laws they wanted to keep; they had to keep the whole Mosaic system if they chose to put themselves under it. But, as Paul taught earlier in this epistle and others, Christians must die to the Law to gain life in Christ (2:19-20). Christ is believed on in vain for those who are trying to be justified by the law.
At the Jerusalem council the apostles stated “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses." Acts 15:5) The issues was not just circumcision but ‘to keep the law of Moses.” V.24 They, “troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, 'You must be circumcised and keep the law '--to whom we gave no such commandment.”
And so it is today with those who try to mix the covenants or make other laws in the church to improve ones holiness or spirituality.
It is an unspiritual person that wants to go back to the shadows of Christ in the Old Testament—the rituals, ceremonies or laws do not help us today. God wrote the laws on our heart, He put his Holy Spirit in the believer so we would have a personal relationship with him.
The legalist will have women wear dresses down to their ankles for their holiness and forbid them to wear pants. Back in the days when the Bible was being written men and women both wore robes (maybe they should not even wash their cloths together!)-- I do not subscribe to women wearing very short skirts, or dress as if they are going to a club as they are not to use their freedom to stumble others). But the church is not allowed to make its own rules outside the Bible to control this. People are to be taught biblical principles to gain understanding so they won’t do this, not just be forbidden by rules
In a legalistic church they cannot go to movies or play games. Men must have their hair short, women long. But men wore their hair longer back in biblical days! A Nazarite was not to cut his hair at all. Women are not fraternize with men by a swimming pool or be baptized with them. They are forbidden to go out with other couples. Much of this gets to be ridiculous. Certainly there are lines to be upheld but there are extremes that damage people more than help them.
There is always a potential misuse of pastoral authority on the part of some pastors. We are not just referring to quirky ideas but teachings that remove people from grace.
Diotrephes(3 Jn. 9-10) is a example of a pastor that lorded it over the flock, demanded unquestioning loyalty and his pastoral authority was abused does not encourage people to test him continually by God’s Word. He even forbade the assembly to be with other believers outside themselves, even the apostles.
One of the marks of a cult is the way people are treated when they question authority (for good reason) and then refuse to follow the leadership. When people are asked to submit to a church without question, submit to the pastor or leadership without good reason there is a problem. Once a person no longer submits to the doctrines of a church or come under the “authority” of a church or the cult’s leadership they are made miserable if they stay. They are mistreated and even asked to leave. It does not matter if the church is large or small, cult-like churches come in all sizes. In fact, it is far easier to have people leave a large church because they will not be noticed they left.
Leadership that controls relationships with friends, your spouse or family members. Forbidding you to spend time with certain people, even you own family because they are either unbelievers or not part of your church. Forbidding you to go to another church service. Chastise you for missing their church service. Manipulation by using the word of God to manipulate and get something “they” want for themselves or the church. Leadership demanding that you “obey” them without explanation why or from a Biblical standard. Telling you to not touch God’s anointed or telling you to judge not, to protect you questioning their leadership are all signs of cultic activity and legalism.
Pastors authority is God-given. God's word instructs the church, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17)
Some people leave a church because they are unable to submit to biblical authority invested in the pastor they do not like his personality. There are church members that think they have just as much right as the leadership to make decisions for the church, some church governments are set up this way.
Some people leave a church because they do not agree with the direction they are going, or that their gifts cannot be used in the capacity they are supposed to.As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10).
Accountability does not go only one way, leaders are to be open to the members of the local church“all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:3,5).
The authority exercised by a pastor or elder is not to be the same as leaders in the secular world. They are not CEO’s, presidents of corporations.They are not supposed to improve your business or make you money but to help you grow spiritually. If your pastor having does not exhibit the qualities of a servant, nor cares for the people then he is not called to his position. He is not to use his position to promote his own vision or designs. There are qualifications for men in ministry “For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; Not Self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre” (Titus 1:7).
The main qualifications for a pastor are found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Many men are unqualified for a pastoral role because of a poor testimony in the community. People are to see the change in them, it is to be tested. Their moral and ethical qualities are to be given time to be developed and be admired. If their wife is worldly, their children are unruly, they are unable to control their own household how can they rule over a church. Their family life is reflective of how their ministry will be.
Some pastors call themselves prophets or apostles of the church and demand to be obeyed in the same way someone would the word of God from the true apostles and prophets.The pastors authority is to minister, he is to be a servant, he is a shepherd, he is not to abuse or control the sheep (Mark 10:42-45; Acts 20:28; 2 Cor. 1:24; 13:10; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 5:2). His office or ministry is to build up and protect God’s people not take advantage of their trust by control over their lives and their giving money.
1 Peter 5:2 explains that shepherds are not to rule “by compulsion but willingly not for dishonest gain.” Paul wrote of how He and the other apostles conducted themselves: “But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
The apostles did not prophecy who to marry or what ministry one is to be in or where one is to move to for their business or ministry. When people tried to follow a certain apostle they were rebuked (1 Corinthians 1:11-12).Today we have a majority of the church following certain men they are convinced are the anointed leaders like Moses, despite their obvious false doctrines and prophecies.
Leadership is to reflect the chief shepherd, “Jesus style” was servanthood. They apostles and shepherds did not dictate what people were to do, personally involved in their lives they presented themselves as examples. Yet we see Paul’s authority could be questioned. Paul “greatly desired” for Apollos to minister at Corinth, yet Apollos had a choice and refused to obey him “he will come when he has a convenient time” (1 Cor. 16:12).
A pastor can tell a person not to date someone because of wisdom or control. If he knows something that would affect you adversely then you should listen to him as you would a friend you trust. You would be thankful for any person preventing you from a large mistake especially if it was your pastor.
The point I’m trying to make is that one must have a record of trust before they submit themselves. You should know a pastors track record. Are they consistent in teaching correctly from the word God, are they striving for excellence in their ministry do they care for your soul by protecting you from what is false or harmful.Christians are not asked to submit blindly to any church leader, but only submit to called men of God who are obedient to the Word of God and love them. A pastor’s authority is found in the Bible. Hebrews 13:7 instructs Christians to submit to those who have a track record of teaching the Word of God CORRECTLY not incorrectly A preacher’s only authority is in God’s Word, not in his own words and position. Paul told the Church to follow him because he was imitating Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). If a pastor or teacher strays from the Bible, his listeners have no responsibility to follow him; he is supposed to be removed from any authority. But we do not do this today, we allow them to continue and their leaven spreads.
He warned the churches of Galatia that even if he or the other apostles were to preach any other gospel, they were to reject them (Gal. 1:8). In light of his stand against legalism, this includes adding laws from the old covenant to be obeyed as if they are instructed under the New Covenant.
We are to submit ourselves to God- and those the Lord has called as pastors who are leading the churches according to the Word of God. To not do so is rebellion. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. Be at peace among yourselves.
Philippians 2:25-30: “Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; He became sick near death and Paul writes- Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem; because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me.”
These are those who we are to esteem, those who show their labor, who are genuine in their faith.“Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:1).
One thing the apostles did not do was exercise control in people’s lives, they did not act as if they owned the people and the people owed them whatever they asked for. 2 Corinthians 1:24 “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy...” are you receiving joy from your leadership? (6:3) “We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed” (7:2) “We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have cheated no one.” Their example was above reproach, although they had authority, the apostles ruled in humility. “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us”(2 Thessalonians 3:7-9). Paul’s example was humility, he followed the example of Christ’s servanthood so no one was abused or misused. They were careful with their leadership and did not use the office of apostle or prophet as a position of contol or holier than thou and take advantage of the people. They remembered what Jesus said “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). God’s economy does not function the same way as the worlds; humility and servanthood are what we are to look for in God’s true leaders. Their authority came with the willingness to serve others. Real spirituality has humility and seeks the welfare of others, false spirituality makes one think they are never spiritual enough until they come under another’s leadership- Nicolaitenism which the Lord hates (Rev.2:6,15).
The apostle Paul explained to the church how he and the other apostles conducted themselves and what their intentions and actions were.1 Thessalonians 2:7-12: “But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.”
Pastors, leadership will always look out for the best interest of the people, encourage them, be a help to come alongside them in their time of weakness or need. They will not belittle a person or threaten them so they do better or obey them, they are treated as family.
John 10:11-13: “The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.”
A true shepherds commitment is to others first and not to themselves, they exemplify Jesus. Philippians 2:3-4 “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
The way to tell a true shepherd from a false one- a false shepherd does not keep watch and protect the sheep from harm. If a pastor truly love God’s Word and His people they will protect the flock and not be so concerned about friendships or their reputation. They only want to do what is right in the Lord’s eyes.“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
We must beware of men who exercise cultic pastoral authority, in any denomination. A pastor does not have the authority to lord over every detail of the people’s lives. They are the Lord’s people, not the pastor’s property. “Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction. ” (2 Cor. 13:10). God’s intent in correction is to restore not destroy. How many have been destroyed because of a pastors harsh words or even threats on them.
Paul gave himself and the others appointed as the example for Christians to follow.
Philippians 3:16-17: “Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule let us be of the same mind. Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.”
Paul wrote, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5). When you hear someone preaching about themselves about their adventures, miracles or visions then they are trying to have you follow them. Legalists will “speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage” (2 Peter 2:18-19). In other words self effort by keeping laws of man are offered instead of teaching people about grace they will be brought back into corruption. They attract people to them by connecting to their flesh not the Spirit.
Galatians 5:13-14: “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
Peter says the same thing- “not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” 1 Peter 2:16-17
And that is the bottom line- “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God.” We are to “comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-16). If you are in a church that is not doing this you should consider looking elsewhere to maintain your spiritual health and growth.