However, at that stage [before coming to Christ] you didn’t know God, and so you were enslaved to beings that, in their proper nature, are not gods. But now that you’ve come to know God — or, better, to be known by God — how can you turn back again to that weak and poverty-stricken lineup of elements that you want to serve all over again? (4:8-9)
Most who study the background of Paul’s letter to the Galatians agree that the Christians addressed in this book were originally Roman pagans. Before Christ they “didn’t know God.” They worshiped “beings that . . . are not gods,” though the Galatians would have thought they were. They worshiped “elemental spirits,” some translations say, that is supposed spiritual powers that were tied to the elements of nature. These Galatians were likely those converted in Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium. Remember, when Barnabas and Paul arrived in Lystra they were first thought to be Zeus and Hermes respectively (Acts 14:8-20), a reaction that makes sense when we consider their paganism.
Now, at the behest of the Judaizers, the Galatian Christians were adopting a form of Christianity that practiced Jewish ritualism. In fact, the Jewish laws and customs had become their real source of confidence, not the grace of God made available through Jesus. Though this passage above says the Galatians were turning “back,” almost all agree they were not returning to paganism and that Paul is saying that their adoption of Jewish ritualism is really just turning back to a system that is akin to paganism is fundamental ways.
We could diagram it this way:
How was Jewish ritualism so akin to Roman paganism that Paul would see this as turning back, as if we have a boomerang effect like in the diagram above? How could Jewish ritualism be closer to Roman paganism than to the gospel of Jesus?
The answer in one word was slavery. In Paul’s mind both Roman paganism and Jewish ritualism enslaved a person. Yes, they did this in different ways and their rituals and beliefs were radically different, but they ended up enslaving the worshipper just the same. Whether one was offering a long line of seasonal sacrifices to the deities of Rome or one was doing the same to God, the result was the same. The worshipper always had to do more, always had to curry favor with the gods or God, always paid off a debt, and always had to keep the angry gods or God happy. There is no end to that “weak and poverty-stricken” system of slavery, whether done in Rome or Jerusalem. On the other hand, true freedom could only be found in the grace of Jesus. In Christ there is no more slavery (3:28).
I would like to assert that this same dynamic happens in Christian circles today. We too have the boomerang of legalism.
It is easy to point out religious legalism when you see it. This would be a legalism that says there is a highly religious routine or ritual that has to be done in order to achieve acceptance with God. Religion is the way to salvation. One is right with God because they have done particular religious rituals, as if the communion elements or baptismal waters have magical powers to cleanse. One earns brownie points with God as he attends the prescribed worship services, serves in a public way in the correctly-performed church service, and gives a set amount of money to the church. In religious legalism there is a correct set of beliefs and pattern for worship, and it is of utmost importance to discover and conform to these if one wants to be considered a true Christian. Of course, the problem with religious legalism is the attitude with which these things are done, not the actions themselves. Religion legalism trusts in human action. It says the power of salvation rests in the efforts of the person to think and act correctly. As futile as it is, religious legalism only leads to slavery.
For many of us religious legalism was an early trap we were able to escape from long ago. It was our first religion, so to say. But I see another legalism, though, that develops later that is just as enslaving. For lack of a better term, let’s call this one progressive legalism (can you think of a better name?). Let me stipulate that I would describe myself (and many would agree) as a progressive Christian, though I try to avoid legalism. Nonetheless, I have seen how the practice of spiritual disciplines can become another list of things that must be done by good Christians in order to curry favor with God. I have seen in others and experienced in myself a sense of self-satisfaction (or guilt and despair) in a list of benevolent efforts done for the poor. There is within some progressives a set of required beliefs too, and those who do not hold these are considered inferior. And that is when the slavery begins — to lists, earned favor, human actions, an expected way of thinking, an air of superiority, and the never-ending need to keep doing.
Though we might be tempted to place religious legalism and progressive legalism on the opposite ends of a continuum, in reality they are too alike for that. This is the boomerang effect again, as we realize they are plagued by the same flaws. Both are ritualistic. Both rely on human actions. Both are impotent and cannot change human beings. Both rob us of freedom.
As Paul reminds us at the end of chapter four using Abraham and the mothers of his two sons as examples,
We are not children of the slave-girl, but of the free. (4:31)
Freedom is only found in Christ.