Legalism as defined by wikipedia: Legalism, in Christian theology, is a usually pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigor, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law at the expense of the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the preeminent principle of redemption.
Having attended a somewhat legalistic church in the past, and having fallen into the temptation to “warn” everyone of all the areas where what they are doing fall short of true biblical Christianity, I now am very sensitive to legalism when I hear it.
Legalism happens when we see the speck in someone’s eye, we feel true sympathy for them, and we just want to point it out. We want to warn them that they may be led off track, because “if it’s not exactly ‘ABC’, then it’s ‘XYZ,'” even if it’s really just ABCD.
But here’s the thing I have learned. While pointing out someone else’s speck, I often times can’t help them because I’m too busy banging them in the head with my plank (Matthew 7:3-5).
Two examples: one from our perspective, one from our view of another.
From us: I try to encourage my daughters (even though right now they are very young) to wear “modest” clothing. [I put “modest” in quotations because modesty is different to everyone.] But we have certain expectations for what they will wear or not wear.
So, our rules are our rules. But the way our children sometimes interpret them is “Wow. Look how immodest that person is.” And when they’ve done that, they’ve delved into legalism. So we try hard to explain to them it’s not about a “legal rule,” it’s about honor. We explain to them, “God doesn’t love you more because you are being modest. He loves them the same. He died for them the same.” Our purpose is not to tell others how to dress or not dress, but to follow our own consciences about how we look and the messages we portray. If we delved into thinking of ourselves more highly, or looking down on others, or trying to tell others what they should or shouldn’t wear (outside of say “school dresscodes”), we would be delving into legalism.
From looking at another point of view: I have many friends who I think are genuinely concerned with certain “Christian” authors or preachers or TV personalities. However, in some cases, I know that these friends read certain books we wouldn’t read, watch certain TV shows we wouldn’t watch, and wear “that which we wouldn’t wear.” (In other words, they have planks.) And that is where legalism comes in. Legalism draws a big ol’ line around what you are doing or watching or reading, but makes that line straight and sharp when it comes to what others are doing or watching or reading.
But see, that is legalism at its finest. If you are totally convicted that a certain evangelist or preacher is taking you off track, don’t listen to or read them. But when you feel that no one should read or listen to them, that it’s your duty to warn the masses, that’s when you have delved into legalism. Legalism is especially obvious when you won’t listen to any argument against your perception, when you shy away from healthy debate. There are websites out there that expose heresy and cults, but I’ve learned that those same websites refuse to change an article even when there is a factual error in it, even when it wouldn’t change the overall message they were trying to convey. Refusal to acknowledge any error is a sure sign of legalism.
I admit I’m sensitive in this area, because even when I belonged to a church where the personal doctrines of not only certain preachers or authors, but of other denominations, were studied to determine if they were really Christians (these were CHRISTIAN denominations and CHRISTIAN authors we were analyzing!!), I couldn’t stomach the books by an author whose sole purpose it was to attack another Christian author. (I’m purposely try to avoid names here, as there are several you could fill in for each example.)
I remember a conversation with a friend, a sweet, sweet friend, whose husband read a book that many in my old church would agree was not biblical. But the author is a proclaimed Christian (Jesus – son of God, died for my sins, raised from the grave – you know, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4) who just wrestles with certain aspects of Christianity. And like those of us who are compelled to blog or journal our wrestlings, this Christian author wrote a book about his questions. And my friend’s husband was chewed out because he read it. And she just said, very sweetly and sincerely, “Why can’t we all just realize that we are Christians, but that none of us has it all figured out?” This family are devoted followers of Christ, true servants of the homeless and disenfranchised, and they were chewed out because they read a book that didn’t defame Christ or detract from the “gospel,” but that questioned some of the secondary aspects of doctrine, that dared to raise questions that are most probably unanswerable from this side of heaven.
Which is why legalism probably nags at me so much. Because I know what it’s like to question Christianity. I know what it’s like to see 2 sides of the doctrine (calvinism versus arminianism, literal 5-day creation versus 1-day is like 1,000 years to God, etc.). And the most conservative voices usually are the loudest to proclaim that they have it figured out and can prove biblically that they are RIGHT. But to those of us who actually are living here on earth as aliens and trying to live out our faith, sometimes both sides are reasonable and can prove it biblically. Sometimes, you just have to accept that it can be either or, and find which either or gives peace to your soul.
But the legalists won’t see it. They just want that speck removed, for your sake.
I learned long ago, through my reading of C.S. Lewis (who is on the list of authors I shouldn’t read, by the way), that there are certain things that bring us unity. Why must we focus on the areas that differ? Why can’t we realize, as I learned in Community Bible Study years ago, that the primary message of Christianity is “grace alone through faith alone through Christ alone.” All other matters are secondary or tertiary. If the secondary doesn’t match, even if the primary lines up, legalism demands that true biblical Christianity is not present.
Red, blue, yellow – primary colors. Mix red and yellow and you get orange. I use more red and you use more yellow. 2 different colors. But mixed from the same primary colors. Doesn’t that make the world more beautiful? Why demand my orange be exactly like your orange? Because of legalism.
So go ahead, continue to bang us on the heads with your boards while trying to get out our specks. But please know that we are living by grace, free in Christ’s work for us, experiencing His peace and abundance, and we won’t let your plank bother us. We’ll trust the Holy Spirit to warn us when we’ve ventured into an area outside of His will. We’ll take what we read and what we listen to back to the scriptures and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.
Lovingly, from one Christian to another.