• Entangled in bondage: Some people seek to identify the church by pointing out an array of legalities that must be obeyed and catechisms that should be honored. In other words, some seek to go back under a system of legal obedience similar to the Sinai law in order to construct a church that can be legally identified by either a specific name, institutional governance, or some ceremonial assembly of the adherents on Sunday morning. But if we do this, then we are ignoring some fundamental truths that are revealed in the New Testament when the Holy Spirit addressed the dysfunctional behavior and beliefs of some early disciples, especially Jewish disciples.
Some of the Jewish Christians sought to go back under the bondage of meritorious law-keeping in order to be the church of God’s people of whom it was written, “for by grace you are saved through faith” (Ep 2:10). Those who sought to walk by meritorious law-keeping failed to understand the grace by which the church is defined. And so, they walked directly into the Holy Spirit’s defense of those who had been set free from the bondage of meritorious law-keeping by the grace of God. The Holy Spirit subsequently warned those who were being influenced by these meritorious law-keepers: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gl 5:1). This bondage in the Galatian letter was not in reference to sin, but a direct reference to meritorious law-keeping.
Christians should be cautious about establishing a legal identity of the church. They must not fall back into such bondage because we are not justified before God on the basis of our meritorious law-keeping, but by His grace (See Ep 2:8-10).
• Freed by grace: In seeking to walk in the bondage of perfect law-keeping, one of the basic fundamentals that identifies the church is violated. Legalistic “churchiologists” often ignore the nature of the church that is revealed in Romans 6:14: “For you are not under law, but under grace.” In other words, Christians are not under any system of law that they are obligated to keep perfectly in order to be justified before God, and thus, legally identified as the disciples of Jesus. The fact is that there is no system of law that we could keep in order to justify ourselves before God. This is true simply because we are all lawbreakers (Rm 3:23). We must remember that when we fail to keep law perfectly – and we always do – we can thank God that we are under grace, not a system of perfect law-keeping.
We must confess that those who have for years moved the identity of discipleship of Jesus into a violation of the principle of Romans 6:14 find it quite difficult to understand what the Spirit meant in this verse. So we must dig deeper.
Christians are not under the bondage of a legal system of meritorious law-keeping that they would establish to supposedly justify themselves before God. It is simply self-deception and self-righteousness to supposed that we can keep any system of law perfectly in order to be identified as the church, since we as the church are identified by our response to the gospel of Christ, not through our perfect behavior in keeping a system of law. It is certainly self-righteous thinking to assume before God that we are supposedly saved on the basis of an assumed perfect obedience to “church law.” It is Christ who saves, not His church. The church is the saved, not the Savior.
If it were possible to establish some religious system of self-justification – and it is not – then we could pick and choose an assortment of doctrinal points in the New Testament in order to construct some legal definition of the church. We could then in practice of such a legal system of identity claim that we have restored the “true church.” This is exactly what some Jewish Christians in Galatia were trying to do by intimidating others, specifically Gentile Christians, into going back under the bondage of salvational law-keeping, which was actually, according to the Holy Spirit, back into “another gospel” (See Gl 1:6-9).
The “other gospel” is the simple gospel of God’s grace through Jesus, plus numerous added catechisms and codes by which we would seek to meritoriously justify ourselves before God.
• Bondage builders: Some have gone so far as to extract favorite “proof texts” out of a biblical context in order to establish some legal system of bondage to which all adherents of a particular sect must adhere in order to be identified as faithful members of the body of disciples. In other words, there are groups that believe in the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus, but they have also added their own meritorious religious rites, ceremonies and traditions that must also be obeyed in order to be considered faithful disciples. Or, they have used the Scriptures to establish a legal system to identify the church through their own performance of self-imposed “laws.”
Again, this is precisely what some legal-oriented Jewish Christians were doing in Galatia. In doing such, they were walking contrary to the Holy Spirit’s mandate of Galatians 5:1, as well as revealing that they did not appreciate the principle of Romans 6:14. It was in this context that the Spirit reprimanded them: “I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you into the grace of Christ to another gospel” (Gl 1:6). Notice carefully that Paul said they were “turning away from Him [Jesus].” They were not turning away from some legal identity of the church. They were turning away from Jesus by turning to themselves and their ability to be justified before God through their personal performance of law.
By encouraging those who were faithful to Christ, Paul continued to rebuke the Galatian law-performers by stating that “there are some who are disturbing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gl 1:7). By perverting the gospel of Christ through a legal system of law-keeping by which they supposedly thought to justify themselves. In this way, some Jewish Christians were taking the Gentile disciples back into the bondage of trying to keep some system of law perfectly in order to be identified before God as His people. Unfortunately, this legal attempt of justification was a perversion of the gospel of Christ, which gospel sets us free from perfect law-keeping (Gl 5:1).
In our search for an identity of the church in the New Testament, we must be very cautious not to violate the very principle of Paul’s definition of the “other gospel” in the document of Galatians.
[From a forthcoming book. Check out indepth Bible study books at www.roger-e-dickson.org ]