“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:11-14 ESV)
Legalism is not just the abstract teaching that we are saved by rule-keeping, as though such teaching could be disembodied by itself. Legalism, in all its sinister danger, is a social byproduct. It results directly from people-pleasing. Often it is relational before it is theological.
We covet the approval of the “influencers”—whomever they be—and so we subject ourselves to their rules, without arriving at their conclusions through our own study of Scripture, in our own churches, surrounded by our own pastors and elders. For Cephas, it was the Judaizers. For us, it could be any tribe inside or outside the church.
Coveting their approval, “good and necessary consequences” become justifications for a host of traditions not necessarily drawn from Scripture—psychological tools through which consciences are bound. As a result, we, like Peter, stop fellowshipping with our real church communities—made up of a mixture of backgrounds and sets of convictions, whom we are called to love in the Lord, to whom we view now view ourselves as morally superior—and we retreat to the tribe. We’re “in”; our old crowd is “out.” We live by the rules of the tribe instead of the freedom of Christ, because we want to be well-regarded.
This is not in step with the gospel (v. 14). For freedom Christ has set us free (5:1). Rule-keeping can not justify us before God, and neither should it form the fabric of our fellowship.
The fundamentalist spirit (using that term in the pejorative; I recognize that there is a positive use of the term as well) can infect any denomination, stream of theology, or church. It isn’t just a Baptist thing or a conservative thing. It can be a Presbyterian, Pentecostal, or postmillennial thing. It can be a woke thing, an anti-woke thing, a covenantal thing, a dispensational thing, and so on—because the problem isn’t just ideas; it’s our own Pharisaical hearts.
I’m not saying that there are no good and necessary consequences in theology. I think there are. I have reached several of these conclusions myself, inferring from Scripture what is proper and logical. But the way we use the Internet even as Bible-believing Christians feeds our toxic tribalism.
We should have our convictions, but we must also regard as true brothers all those who genuinely name the name of Christ and affirm the biblical gospel.
We need to love the people in the pew next to us more than we love our tribe online, even though our flesh-and-blood neighbors probably haven’t read the same books or listened to the same podcasts as us. And when we get to Heaven, chances are we’ll learn we were wrong ourselves about a number of things.
“[Y]et we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. …For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:16, 19-21)