Legalism is a dirty word. It causes all sorts of dysfunctional behaviors and it carries with it a powerful undercurrent of rejection for those who use it to accuse others who live differently than themselves. Similar to political mud slinging, moral and religious attacks often sling this dirty little word like hand grenades, spreading random (and often thoughtless) wounds of abuse to silence the opposition who hold to a standard seemingly more rigid than their own.
There is a place for identifying the practices of others as dangerously legalistic, but from my experience, many accusers don’t even know what legalism means.
There is a time and place for everything under the Sun, but those who spew hate with reckless abandon show little regard for upholding the truth. Those who call themselves Christians, but who ignorantly reject others as legalistic, demonstrate the true color of their own heart.
From the muddy trenches of experience on both sides of the legalism fence, I will attempt to highlight the distinctions between biblically valid rejection of Christian legalism and those less informed varieties of fist-packed missiles of mud.
According to the Oxford dictionary, the basic definition of legalism is “excessive adherence to law”. Of course, that raises the question as to who gets to determine what is “excessive”. From a Christian perspective, the Bible ought to be that sole authority, not personal preference.
In spite of its Christian heritage, Oxford presents a less biblically based definition for legalism as it applies to the religious, moral and theological realms. It calls legalism: “adherence to moral law, rather than to personal religious faith”. In other words, obedience to the moral code outlined in Scripture ought to be subject to more personal religious freedom of what each individual believes. Doing what God says is here viewed as a bad thing; as legalism.
At one time, I was very much shrouded in legalism, but I have also tasted this above version of abusive mud. In fact, I have found that this secular definition has infected the ranks of Christianity such that our polished floors of faith are caked from splatters of ignorant mud fights.
Webster’s Dictionary calls it strict adherence to law, giving the impression that diligence in doing what God commands of his followers is a bad thing. The idea that God desires his faithful to obey him is dismissed as restrictive fruit from the tree of our idea of freedom. Such is the popular trend of rejecting obedience, even though Scripture says that following his return Jesus will destroy those “who do not obey the gospel”.
It might be worth noting that the presence of rules is not the problem, even if some of us chafe against such restraint in whatever group of which we are a part. The absence of rules results in anarchy. It is the misuse of such rules, something humans are naturally inclined toward, wherein the problem lies.
And so, legalism has a place in Christian terminology, but only if it is reflective of what is revealed within Scripture. Here are some details of legalism that are compatible with the word of God and are worthy of our consideration.
- When our understandings of some biblical command imposes restrictions beyond what is actually recorded in Scripture, then certainly a concern over the dangers of legalism may be appropriate.
If an authority says to others that drinking alcohol is a sin against God, they have imposed a rule beyond what the Bible states, and that is legalism.
If a minister tells his members that dancing violates the will of God, they speak contrary to the word of God and are legalistic.
However, when someone professes New Covenant biblical commands to Christians like “do no harm to your neighbor”, “repent”, or “show hospitality”, they are not being legalistic; they are promoting truth, even if it seems uncomfortable. Scripture often leaves the how part open to personal choice, and so it is only when a person attaches their ideas on how to obey such biblical mandates that they degenerate into legalism.
- When a religious authority imposes restrictions upon members beyond those similarly defined in Scripture AND presses them upon those members as God’s expectations, then the roots of legalism have found some dark soil.
If a pastor requires that women wear dresses to church, it may be frustrating to some, but it is not necessarily legalistic, unless his reason is that God expects it or if he indicates that other churches should do the same or if he teaches that women should do the same outside of church.
If a Christian father does not allow music in his home or imposes a 9 pm curfew on those who live in his home, it is not necessarily legalistic, unless he defends his rule as demanded by God.
In other words, those who impose rules as applying to those under their biblical authority are allowed to govern and impose rules beyond what Scripture actually states, so long as they don’t violate other passages of Scripture, claim that such rules are God’s will, or attempt to impose those restrictions outside of their scope of authority.
- When believers take a guiding principle within Scripture and hold others to the same display of behavior as themselves, they have crossed the line into legalism.
If a man takes the biblical admonition to run away from the prostitute on the street corner, and he literally starts running when he spots such a temptation, he is not a legalist, unless he expects others to sprint the length of the sidewalk as well.
If a person refuses to buy gas from a convenience store in order to avoid entering places where he formerly struggled with buying pornography magazines, he is not a legalist. He is a wise man who is willing in impose rules upon himself to help restrain temptation in an area of his own weakness—what Jesus called “cutting off your right hand”. He may suggest his own self-imposed rule to others he knows who have similar struggles, but if he tells them that buying gas from such an establishment will lead them to sin, he has become a legalist, at least on that issue.
- Imposing expectations on others beyond our biblically-defined authority is legalism
If a pastor teaches his flock that abortion is a sin, he is not a legalist, but if he tells members that they must not use birth control, he has over-extended his authority of restraining his teaching to what the bible says about not taking the life of another human. The former has clear support in Scripture, the latter is much less clear and ought to be left to expressions of faith by those couples themselves. (This is not a statement for or against birth control, but rather an example of a rule that is not clearly referenced in Scripture and thus should be left with the authority of each person to make their choices before God for their own biblically-deduced reasons.)
Telling a fellow Christian that they should show love to others like we do is legalism. The command is to show love. It is not to do so “like we do”.
- Also, when a command in Scripture is pressed upon those to whom the Bible does not intend for it to apply, such righteous sounding statements are nothing more than degenerate legalism.
Those who say that present-day Christians need to circumcise their male children, avoid eating pork, or keep the seventh day Sabbath, demonstrate that they do not understand the limitations imposed in Scripture regarding who such commands applied to. They also show their ignorance regarding why the New Covenant is incompatible with the Old Covenant and thus take real commands from Scripture and misapply them in a seemingly pious form of legalism.
Here is what I suggest is a more reliable definition of legalism with Christianity:
Legalism is the imposition of expectations beyond those defined by God and beyond our authority.
Legalism is a dirty word, and it is very dangerous. It is dangerous in how it undermines the word of God by those who misuse it to reject the choices of restraint by others, and it is dangerous in how those who really are legalistic impose burdens on others that God has not placed on them. Those who do such things are labeled in Scripture by Jesus as “children of hell”.
The next time you feel compelled to identify another as being legalistic, may I suggest you take extra care in matching your observations to a more biblically-valid definition for legalism. You don’t want to find yourself being labeled by Jesus as anything other than “one approved, who rightly handles the word of truth”.
How have you been affected by legalism?