Church Growth, Ministry

Cannibalism in the Church: The Deadly Effects of Legalism

March 10, 2017

According to Webster’s dictionary, the definition of the word Cannibal is as follows: a person who eats the flesh of human beings or an animal that eats its own kind.* “Eating your own kind” may seem like a good survival strategy in dire circumstances, but over the long haul, such an approach to living results in extinction. In the cannibalistic culture, eventually there is no one left to devour but yourself.

Devour.  It is a word used by the apostle Paul to describe the legalism that infiltrated the churches of Galatia.  He said it like this, “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Galatians 5:15).  In context, Paul was speaking about the believer’s liberty in Christ.  Liberty from the law of God was not a license to lascivious living, rather it was a call to the grace of God which produces good works (Ephesians 2:10). Paul’s teaching on grace, however, was challenged by the law-toting legalists of his day. They had it backwards: Instead of the grace of God producing “good works,” they wanted their “good works” to produce the grace of God. They failed to “taste the Lord to see that He is good.”  So, instead, they started devouring one another.


Cannibalism is Self-Defeating

It’s a rather grotesque sight, is it not? We cannot imagine the desperation that would lead someone to such an act, but the truth is, there are still legalistic cannibals in the church. In such a setting, the group devours their own. Relationships are not built upon trust, love, community, or Christ. Instead, relationships are looked upon from self-seeking, self-centered, self-advancing viewpoints. A cannibal may try to fatten you up, but I assure you, there are wicked intentions behind it.  The danger of such works-based religion is that eventually the entire group is obliterated.  Paul said, “take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.”  The natural course of legalism is the same as cannibalism: Everyone is devoured until everyone is gone.

“Touch not, taste not, handle not” is the clarion call of the legalist. He measures righteousness by rules, restrictions, and regulations. The problem with such a system is that it makes everyone compare his life with the success and failures of others. In legalism, someone will always be a little better, and someone will always be a little worse. The infrastructure is built in such a way that those who cannot live up to certain expectations are eventually cut off. Over time, everyone is cut off.


Distinctions Made

Allow me to clarify one thing: When I say “legalist” I do not mean those who have different standards than you. I believe we have confused our terms in these last days. A legalist, strictly speaking, is someone who believes works is necessary for salvation. So, just because someone has different standards than you does not mean they are a legalist. They become a legalist when those standards are used as a means to salvation, or they validate the salvation of others by those standards.

Further, I believe in biblical separation. I believe we should be salt and light. I believe we should be different. I believe we are to come out from among the world and be ye separate. These statements are scriptural mandates for those who have experienced the grace of God. However, if we are not careful we can place extrabiblical standards and preferences and tout them as doctrinal truths. This happens in all circles of Christendom. From the halls of fundamentalism to the classrooms of liberal theology, cannibalism is a widespread epidemic.

When everyone is eventually consumed, the last cannibal standing typically looks at himself as being the strongest. What he does not realize, however, is that he is slowly killing himself. He separates himself over, and over, and over again…but only to his own death.  One by one, everyone is cut off, rejected, refused…but such a strategy does not promote his existence, it actually extinguishes his life. Vance Havner used to say that some of the brethren in the church had separated so many times they couldn’t even live with themselves. This is the result of performance-driven faith.


Cannibals Need Bread

What does God offer to cure the insatiable hunger of the legalistic cannibal? His own Son. The only death that God is satisfied with is the death of Christ; we cannot add self-righteous works to the atoning work of Christ. In the mind of the legalist, the righteousness of Christ is not enough, they need to weave their own righteousness into the garment of grace. But such a cloak is no better than Adam’s attempt to cover up his own nakedness with fig leaves. One must “put off the old man” entirely if he is going to “put on Christ” completely. That is why Christ had to die, and this is why life is only discovered in being crucified with Him.

The cannibal is eternally changed, the legalist is everlastingly different when he lays down his own life and tastes of the grace of God.  Jesus said it like this, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-55).

It’s time we stop devouring one another to death, and start consuming the bread which came down from Heaven!


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