How You Should Handle Legalists When They Hold Back the Mission

Flock of sheep
We must protect our congregations from legalists and false teachers. (Flickr )

Every great movement of God invites a challenge from sinful people. I wrote about this recently in a post titled "How to Stop a Church From Growing," and Pastor Titus S. Olorunnisola, who is planting Bethel Gospel Centre near Melbourne, Australia, asked the magic question: How, then, do we handle the legalists?

In the case of the early Jerusalem church, the problem was complex. Non-Jewish people all over the region were coming to know Christ, but some deeply legalistic Jews, known as the Judaizers, were demanding that all these new believers go through the rite of circumcision and keep the ceremonial law in order to be both Jewish and Christian.

Paul, Peter, James and others were of the viewpoint that salvation for these newcomers was by grace alone through faith alone, but the vocal minority raised enough of an issue that the elders had to gather for a discussion. They finally emerged from this first church council with some wisdom for churches everywhere.

Their decision was rendered as follows:

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"'Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from strangled animals, and from blood. For Moses has had in every city since early generations those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.' Then it pleased the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men from among them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas called Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers" (Acts 15:19-22, MEV).

As I walk through this passage, I think there is some key wisdom to be applied all these centuries later in a more modern context.

We are charged to defend not only the faith of the gospel, but also its fruit. That is, we must uphold the content of the gospel as well as protect its ability to reach new people. To claim to hold to an orthodox view of Scripture while allowing nonscriptural viewpoints to be interposed in our doctrine—resulting in the alienation of those who need Jesus most—isn't faithfulness to the gospel.

Let me put it more practically. Our role as pastors is to protect the flock from wolves and from false teachers. But it's also to remind our flock that there are sheep who haven't joined the fold yet and we must do everything in our power to take the gospel to every last one of them.

There are battles that aren't worth fighting. When it comes to our preferences over style and approach, we are called to make allowance for differences of opinion.

And then there are battles that absolutely are worth fighting. In fact, there are battles worth risking everything over. The vision, the mission and the purposes of God for His people are worth being stubborn about. The cause of evangelism and the pathway to discipleship are well worth working for and defending from error.

But how? How do we handle the Judaizers and joy-suckers and complainers who would rather keep their preferred religious systems to the detriment of evangelism? I think we handle people the way the early apostles did.

1. Get godly counsel. The elders consulted with one another. James probably could have handled it himself, but he chose to invite input from other godly leaders.

2. Be bold in your calling. The elders stood with confidence, believing God had called them to lead through this particular moment with clarity and conviction.

3. Stand with and for the lost. They made it clear that we should not make it any more difficult than it already naturally was for non-Jewish people to come to know Jesus.

4. Fight against anything that competes with discipleship. They kept the pathway clear and asked people to make voluntary sacrifices for the benefit of others.

5. Point to Jesus. They pointed people back to the gospel—the Good News that Jesus Christ alone saves by grace alone through faith alone.

So when confronting legalists and traditionalists who would ultimately stand in the way of spiritually lost people coming into God's family to protect their own preferences, always choose to stand on the side of the Great Commission and Great Commandment.

I often pray for God to give me the boldness of a lion. Granted, sometimes I choose to have the boldness of an angry chinchilla, but I'm a work in progress. I'm still learning to love everyone—even the legalists and traditionalists—while being mean about the vision.

Brandon Cox is the lead pastor and church planter at Grace Hills Church in Bentonville, Arkansas. He is also the editor and online community facilitator at Rick Warren's as well as a coach to leaders, pastors and church planters and author of the book, Rewired.

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