When the church fails to remain close to God in humility and servanthood, the authority that He has given us soon gets twisted, and His church falls into error. Increasingly, we can see two different extremes within the church, each as damaging as each other, the extremes of legalism and lawlessness.
Legalism is the attempt of man to implement God’s rule upon the earth but without His Spirit. It is man establishing by the strength of his own flesh and without God’s grace. It lacks any direct connection to what God is actually doing. Legalism takes the correct roles that God has assigned, such as pastors or teachers, and removes that intimacy with God from them. Without remaining close to Him, and without remaining humble before Him, the things of God when in man’s hands, soon get twisted, and instead of being used to glorify God, they become tools used by men to advance themselves and to control and abuse people. Legalism is the misuse of God’s authority upon the earth. In Galatians 5:1, Paul refers to the Galatians as putting on a “yoke of slavery” when they went away from a life in the spirit to a life of operating in the flesh. This is the fruit of legalism.
It is in man’s character to try to do the works of God without God. This is a part of our sinful nature that finds it easier to build out of our own strength, and to rely upon our own intellect. The original sin was eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It gave man the ability to weigh up what is right and wrong outside of God. Although this may seem like a reasonable thing, outside of Him and His truth, our view of good and evil soon gets distorted.
There has been a massive amount of damage done by legalism within the church. In a legalistic church, abuse of authority will be widespread. This may be by the manipulation or control of people, or it may be by trying to keep the people spiritual prisoners within the church to satisfy the insecurities of the leadership. Certainly, a legalistic church will have little spiritual freedom, and little spiritual growth. It will use the name and the systems of Jesus, but have none of His life or power. The legalistic church tries to maintain a godly appearance but without His Spirit. When we attempt to make ourselves holy without Him, what we create is often more damaging than that which we are trying to separate ourselves from.
One of the reasons that the church holds no respect within society, or indeed is increasingly disdained, is that the people look at what man has made God’s church, and despite not being believers themselves, they recognise that there is little of God within the legalistic church. The world is looking for truth and hope, and yet when it views this side of the church it sees nothing but abuse of power, empty words and oppressed people.
There has been, quite rightfully, a growing move away from legalism as people walk away from abuse of authority and empty and religious Christianity. This movement, alongside a general movement within both society and the church against all authority, has led increasingly to another extreme in the church, that of lawlessness.
The lawless church has grown out of the “me” culture of the last few decades. Whereas the legalistic church misuses God’s authority, the lawless church reacts to this by abandoning authority altogether. The lawless church is based very much on what feels right to the individual at any one point of time. It is characterised by a lack of stability, because there is little faithfulness to God. It very often appears super-spiritual, but there is seldom much depth to what is done. The lawless church abuses the concepts of spiritual freedom and grace. Both freedom and grace are vital and beautiful parts of God’s character, but the lawlessness would replace the freedom the grace that we have to operate in God and to serve Him, and instead twist the message to one of doing what we feel is correct. The concept of serving both God and His servants is often abhorrent to the lawless church, because it is seen as controlling (often a reaction that comes from years of having been damaged by the abuse of authority in the legalistic church.)
Whereas the legalistic church is based upon bondage, the lawless church is driven entirely by its own desires. It gives the appearance of freedom, yet it is not freedom rooted in Jesus, but in self. It will do the things of God for as long as it suits, for as long as the person gets something out of it for themselves. Because it is based upon our own feelings, the lawless church is very transient in what it does. When something no longer feels good or right, it will move onto the next things that satisfies them. This sort of Christianity has very little character in it because as soon as God wants to try to develop character within a person, they move onto something else. Without developing that servant heart we will never grow in Him or be changed, because we will always be seeking what feels good. The root of lawlessness is actually witchcraft:
“For rebellion is as the sin of divination.” (1Sa 15:23.)
In the early 1900’s witchcraft, as popularised by Aleister Crowley, defined an alternative set of commandments. In fact, there was only one commandment given as an alternative to God’s Ten Commandments and that was simply, “do what you want shall be the whole of the law.” Witchcraft is based upon the idea that there are no commandments, and that we should simply do that which seems right to us. This same principal is becoming increasingly popular within the church itself. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, Satan Himself is described as the “man of lawlessness.” When the Antichrist comes, he will be loved by many. In the same way that much of the church rejected Jesus when he came, so much of it will embrace the Antichrist, because he will come with a message that pleases the people, a message that would appear to give freedom, and promote self.
In a genuine walk with God, He sometimes commands us into the hard places in order that we may be changed. Many of the people in the Bible, including Jesus Himself, were actively led by the Holy Spirit into wildernesses, with the sole purpose of being tested and refined. God is much more concerned with changing us than He is with changing our circumstances, because it is we who are His treasure. When we are lawless, we will always follow that which makes us more comfortable or satisfies our flesh. One of the hallmarks of a genuine servant of God is that they will move at God’s command and remain there faithfully, in spite of the circumstances, because they understand that God’s heart is to change them, not their circumstances. The servant of God looks only to the voice of God, not to what they see with their physical vision or feelings. We must learn not to trust our own feelings or heart, because that can be deceptive, (Jer 17:9,) and instead trust Jesus alone.
God is the perfect father, and like all good fathers, He will say “no” to His children out of love. In fact, He probably says “no” far more than “yes,” because we are so often driven by what our hearts want, whereas God is all about what is best for us. When we are in true relationship with Him, we will hear the word “no” and be faithful to that. The lawless church only ever hears (or “feels,”) the word “yes,” to everything they want. This is a sign of lack of parenting. A child who has only ever heard the word “yes” is a child who grows up to be self-absorbed and unable to function correctly. This is not the sort of child God raises, this is the child the world would raise. So many of us in church never hear the word “no” from God due to a lack or relationship, and are also unable to take the world “no” from a person of authority, because we are so used to getting our own will done. God makes it clear that all of His promises are “yes” in Him. That is not the same as our desires always being made “yes” by God. God always agrees with that which He is doing, not that which we are doing. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2Co 1:20.)
There have been a number of occasions when people have asked me to mentor them, or they have declared their faithfulness to a ministry I may run. Some of these people have lasted until the first time that they hear the word “no.” As soon as I say “no” to something, very often over something very trivial, I never see them again. This is the heart of so many of us. We see something that we want, but are not prepared to humble ourselves that God may do the work He wants to do in us. As a result many people remain un-parented, un-discipled and unchanged. My physical children have no choice but to remain in my house as my wife and I raise them. They have to do what I say when they hear the word no, despite the fact they may protest. As a result, over time their character grows and develops. In the church we always have a choice, and this is right because, as I said earlier, God looks for servants, not slaves. Given this freedom of choice, where there is no legalism forcing us to choose the correct things (which is equally as damaging as making the wrong choice,) most of us choose the easiest, most satisfying to our feelings option. Lawlessness is all based upon our feelings. Our feelings become God, and anything that contradicts them is automatically assumed to be evil.
“…And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mat 24:12-13)