How to Handle a Legalist

phariseeslegalistsI am loving the discussion in the comment section on the previous blog (scroll down and read it if you’re interested).

I’d like to add some fuel the fire.

SITUATION: Titus, a pagan Gentile, has turned to Jesus Christ. He is on the fast track to leadership in the church…

COMPLICATION: …but he isn’t circumcised. Most people don’t care, but some do. The “Judaistic agitators” make a big deal about Titus’ status.  If he’s going to be a leader in the church of the Messiah Jesus, he ought to at least be circumcised, right?

CAVING IN: In the interests of peace and love, a lot of Christ-followers were going along with the pro-circumcision agitators.  “Why not get circumcised and we’ll all just get along.”

HECK NO!: Enter Paul, with fire in his belly:

“And this occurred because of 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.” Galatians 2:4, 5, NKJV.

MORAL OF THE STORY:  In my humble interpretation of Scripture, we are commanded to defer to younger believers who might bruise their conscience or might slip into sin by copying our liberty.  We yield to our truly weaker (i.e., younger, newer-in-the-Lord) brother and sister.


RATIONALE: To quote Paul, the truth of the gospel is at stake!  Don’t yield to legalists. Don’t waste your breathe, your time, your emotion, your energy.  Tell them to go wind their hair buns and leave you alone.  In Christian love.

Sorry for shouting.


14 thoughts on “How to Handle a Legalist

  1. AMEN!!! Actually, thankyou sooooo much for this post. Flip has recently had a…shall we say “gutteral” response to a similar situation recently and I tried to rationalize for the legalist in order to avoid a direct confrontation. I was uneasy and grieved when we left as I wondered if I should have just kept silent and trusted more in God’s grace. I thought I was trying to love this brother and sister in Christ when in hindsight a more loving response would be to honestly confront them with God’s amazing truth and grace.

  2. Bill…

    You may know that Paul had circumcised Timothy after he (Timothy) was saved (Acts 16:1-3). The circumcision of Timothy may make absolutely no sense, considering the comments in Galatians 2 regarding Titus, who was not circumcised.

    Here is my question: Do you think that Paul and Timothy caved in to pressure from legalism in Acts 16, or do you think that they were trying to reach out to the unsaved Jews? In other words, does 1 Cor 9:20-23 have any bearing on this topic of “legalism”?


    • Joe, Paul’s circumcision of Timothy was a big mistake, and I think he regretted it. We become all things to all people to win some (defer for evangelistic purposes) BUT THAT DOESN’T APPLY TO RELIGION. We are not to legitimize any religious system that shoves Calvary to the sidelines, and makes performance/ritual/etc central. If Paul could do it over again, I think he would do w/Timothy exactly what he did w/Titus: not yield for even an hour.

      I know Timothy would be happier.


  3. Bill…

    I am with you.

    As you know, the Galatians 2 episode (No circumcision for Titus!) can be found in Acts 15. What seems inexplicable is that Paul had circumcised Timothy in Acts 16, when they both began what was to be Paul’s second missionary journey.

    But actually, here is something our discussions on legalism could include, and I hope that this quick summary will provide edification and encouragement to all readers.

    As just noted, Paul made the controversial “Galatians 2:5” (No circumcision for Titus!) case before the Peter, James, and the Jewish brethren in Acts 15:1-5, and the outcome — believe it or not — was that both Peter and James exonerated Paul in Acts 15:10-11 and Acts 15:19, respectively. Peter acknowledged, “We are [all] saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:11).

    The hot potato (where Paul openly confronted Peter before other believers) occurred AFTERWARD in Antioch per Acts 15:30-35. The hot potato was the legalistic tone of the Jewish believers who did not want to eat, associate, or fellowship with the Gentile believers (Galatians 2:12). There was no forcing anybody to do anything – instead there was this exclusion from Christian fellowship (even perhaps from participating in the Lord’s Table together?). The Jewish spiritual elites excluded Gentile believers from their fellowship, since they had no Jewish pedigree or Law of Moses.

    Okay… Now here is my point… please stick with me here!

    The subsequent controversy shifted to the deliberate, broken Christian fellowship in Antioch, which Jewish believers had precipitated by interpolating the legalistic distinctions between Jew and Greek from the Mosaic Law. This broken fellowship not only degraded the Gentile believers associated with Paul, but also damaged the collective Christian testimony to the unsaved.

    This is why we have Paul’s Jew/Gentile conundrum monologue with Peter (Galatians 2:14). This confrontation was not in a manner that was disrespectful and humiliating to Peter’s role and gift as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul appealed to Peter in terms of the confused signals transmitted to the unsaved, who would be seeing us as destroying one another (cf. Galatians 5:15). My point is that Paul did not attack Peter (shaking the fist that Titus will not be circumcised), but Paul presented his case in terms of an absence of love among the brethren. Paul called Peter a hypocrite, but in terms that were not disrespectful and humiliating to Peter’s position. The point was that their testimony to the unsaved world lacked love in their fellowship.

    What I am trying to do is place the Galatians 2 episode in its context with the Book of Acts, and thus provide some possible edification along the way… The Titus episode and the Peter episode almost appear as one contiguous event in Galatians 2. The so-called waving fist of defending Titus was accepted (yes, Paul was right!) during meetings in Jerusalem, but the real rub was broken fellowship in Antioch, and of course Paul’s subsequent approach of restoration of that fellowship.

    What is my point? Legalism is carnality, and we cannot let this carnality drag us down into our own defensive form of carnality. Does that make sense? The legalists are very, very, very, very ugly people, and I am saying is that we should not let this ugliness make us ugly. Let’s stand for grace. When the sparks fly (between Christians), let us appeal to our testimony to an unsaved world. Grace is why the prostitute gets saved, not legalism. Does that make any sense!?

    You know, for whatever reason, no matter where these discussions go theologically, we always seem to go back to agape (do you remember that Paul concludes Galatians with the “Fruits of the Spirit” discussion?). Spirit-filled agape is a good lens through which to approach our study and understanding of Scripture, especially as the controversies affect our collective fellowship (not to mention our testimony before the unsaved world).

    GRACE (in caps!),

  4. It seems to me Mike was just relating his experience with the theology of legalism and how it stifled his upbringing instead of freeing him. In that case, it was legalism vs the unbelieving. Once he was saved by grace, he still had to decide to live by grace instead of legalism which caused a conflict in his growth. I fail to see how the discussion took the turn to Paul/Peter, Titus/Timothy and a bashing of the legalist by the grace follower. Legalism is DEATH to the believer (not really, but close to it!!), so it should be stood up against very strongly. When the Christians are fighting about it, yes, the unbeliever thinks we’re all nuts and to be avoided – but that only proves how damaging legalism can be among believers. Bottom line is the LOVE we are to share between ourselves showing the world it IS better to be under grace than outside God’s family.

    I’m right there beside MIke in that being reared in legalism I can certainly understand the adverse effect it has on growing strong in the Lord. It drains the very breath out of you and discourages growth or testimony. We become wasted and useless. Praise God for His grace and truly understanding what that means to us as His children. It’s that JOY which shows unbelievers it’s better to have Christ than not. So, grow up and grow deep!

  5. Here’s I conversation I had over breakfast with some men at a men’s retreat.
    The guys at the table are all serious, devout men. A couple elders. The recent sermon series on the 10 Commandments had just ended. During the “Thou shalt not steal” week, the pastor said that the elders had send him a list of 50 ways to steal from your employer. One of the elders was mentioning that list when I sat down.

    Me: how is this different from the Talmudic expansion of the law? Why do we have to dig so deep to figure out if we’re sinning or not?
    Other guy: Otherwise, how would we apply that commandment to our lives?
    Me: Why does it have to apply? I you’re not stealing, maybe it doesn’t. And besides, didn’t Paul tell you to not worry if the meat was offered to idols? Just chow down, right? Isn’t that an indication that the focus of our spiritual lives should be on knowing Christ an not on sin?
    End result: 9 guys think I’m off the reservation.

    My conclusion:
    Your perspective on sanctification drives your spiritual life. What is it that makes God pleased with you? Is it your lack of sin? And what is it that the world seeks from us? Is it our relentless pursuit of sinlessness? or is it our grace? What is it that God desires of us? If the answer is “personal holiness,” how is it that an adulterous murderer was, “a man after God’s own heart?” How do we grow spiritually? Is it by changing our behavior, or by changing our mind?


  6. Jean…

    Here is the paradox (and why I wrote to such great length).

    The agape love of the believer (defined as filling/control of the Holy Spirit in our lives) actually results in the fulfillment of the Law. The carnal believer pursues legalism (in a personal quest for piety), and the result is an absence of agape love.

    In a nutshell, that is what I was trying to say — it is just that when it comes to opening God’s Word, I get excited. (smile)


  7. Gotcha Joseph! No better Book ever!! Very good for you! I’m excited you’re excited!! Yeah!

    Gotcha on the love angle too. I think you and Dr. G are basically saying the same thing, in just different ways. Agape is God’s love in us and can only be spread outward to others by HIS power in us as well. Legalism is trying to please God in our own strength/power and will never succeed – just makes huge messes!!

  8. Why didn’t Jesus show love for his enemies in his encounters with certain Pharisees, etc. (at least according to what is mentioned in the gospels)?

    Was his contempt for them loving, turning the other cheek?
    When one is walking in legalism, does he or she need more condemnation, or the love and compassion of God that penetrates a hardened, already judged heart?

    Had Jesus given up on these people; was it the way to their salvation?

  9. Paul declared himself a former legalist when writing alongside Timothy to his fellowship in Philippi. In 3:6 he states “…as for legalistic righteousness, FAULTLESS” (caps mine). Paul not only dabbled in legalism, he excelled in it. It is noteworthy that you can be a religious legalist and NOT BE a believer.

    And what blows my mind is that in his day, being legalistic was a WORTHY ENDEAVOR! You’d get Attaboy’s for it! (not that you still don’t in some quarters).

    Paul said that his faultless behavior, piled up with all the other credentials and accomplishments, amounted to so much BLAH-BLAH-BLAH (rubbish), to be jettisoned that “I may gain Christ and be found in him”; what Paul valued as “surpassing greatness”. And the likeness of his death, fellowship of his sufferings, power of his resurrection was for Paul not so much an act of “Dear God, look at what I’m doing for you” as it was an outpouring of love for the people he knew.

    Paul wanted Jesus’ eyes to see the fields white unto harvest, the crowds as sheep without a shepherd, a heart of compassion and boundless love – like Jesus, he WEPT! Faultless legalism had led him to roadside blindness; loving grace had freed, restored, and transformed him.

    Paul knew legalism from the inside out and while loving the sinner, he hated the sin. Paul’s cry to the guys he had spent the formative years of his life rubbing shoulders with, debating with, and competing with was “LET IT GO!”.

    Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, went where directed to minister. Isn’t it reassuring to know that the Father sent him to people who not only had a need, they KNEW they had need of a savior?

    May we likewise gain Christ and be found in him,

    Mike P

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