Recognizing and responding to legalism
Destroying a barrier to Christian unity
Legalism involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone and insisting on certain behavior in order to please God. Both Christ and Paul identified legalism as a serious sin that can destroy a congregation. In this article we look at how to recognize and respond to legalism. Several signs may be associated with legalism. If many of these are recognizable in the behavior of a person or a congregation, then it is likely that the sin of legalism is present.
Overemphasis on Customs and Traditions
As believers endeavor to act godly, our behavior as individuals or congregations should involve expressing Scriptural principles in the circumstances we face. Legalists develop systems of rules and regulations based on human commands and teachings; they emphasize the human circumstances and neglect the Scriptural principles. They demand strict adherence to traditions and view these as being important, while neglecting major aspects of the Christian faith. This is adding to the Bible as traditional customs and practices are viewed as being equivalent to scriptural principles. Legalism places standards of conduct upon Christians that do not exist in Scripture.
For example, the apostle Peter and the missionary Barnabas were influenced by legalists to follow the Jewish custom of not eating with Gentiles (Gal. 2: 11-14). Also, some teach that baptism, confirmation, church membership or good deeds are necessary for salvation or that Christians need to keep certain Old Testament laws, such as the Sabbath, in order to please God. Furthermore, some think that Sunday is a “holy day” or a replacement of the Jewish Sabbath, but this has no Scriptural support. According to Paul, legalists are enslaved by their customs and traditions (Gal. 4:9; 5:1).
Many legalistic believers make the error of demanding unqualified adherence to their Biblical interpretations and traditions. For example, there are those who feel that to be spiritual one must avoid tobacco, alcoholic beverages, dancing and movies, etc. The truth is that avoiding these things is no guarantee of spirituality.
Overemphasis on external things
Legalism is an external religion. It emphases externals more than internals and people learn that appearance is more important than what they are on the inside and one’s life becomes a performance for those who may be watching. Legalists want to impress others, whereas we should be serving God (Gal. 6:12). The Pharisees thought they were honoring God by following the Old Testament law, but Jesus said they were hypocrites as the inner motives and desires of the mind were more important than external behavior (Mt. 15:1-20).
Criticize and Judge Others
The Pharisees looked down on others that didn’t satisfy their expectations. They added extra rules about the Sabbath to those in the Old Testament (Mt. 12:1-2; Lk. 13:14; Jn. 7:21-24). They even criticized Jesus Christ, the only one without any sin in their life! They made false accusations and were aggressive (Mt. 27:59-68; Mk. 3:22). This led to them judging Him to be a criminal and having Him executed because He claimed to be the Son of God (Mk. 8:31; Jn. 19:7).
Legalists criticize believers that are not like them. This criticism often concerns a disagreement about matters that are not mentioned in the Bible or that are mentioned very little in Scripture. It makes people feel guilty when they shouldn’t feel that way. This leads to the situation where emotions are to be controlled and personal opinions must always be carefully evaluated before being expressed for fear of being criticized or punished.
Although they may appear to be strong, according to Paul legalists are weak (Rom. 14:1; 15:1). They have a weak conscience with respect to debatable matters.
A legalist teaches or implies that their rules and regulations are “biblical” and others must adhere to them in order to be “godly”. They take a leadership role and expect others to comply with their viewpoint. Self imposed rules are fine, but putting them on others is legalism.
Legalism is about control; it destroys our freedom in Christ. It demands obedience and involves force: Paul said that Peter was forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs (Gal. 2:14). Legalists make life difficult by putting onerous oppressive requirements on others and forcing them to follow their customs slavishly. Conformity is demanded with the reason given that it is essential in order to please God. They use Christianity as a tool to control people, forgetting that Scripture teaches unity, not uniformity.
This leads to fear amongst those coming under the influence of legalism. For example, Peter “was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (Gal. 2:12). This pattern is like that experienced in domestic abuse where the perpetrator controls the victim and the latter is fearful. In this case the legalist is the perpetrator and those being influenced are victims.
Favoritism and Isolation
The Jews thought that God was only the God of the Jews (Rom 3:29) and they brought this attitude into the early church. Likewise, legalists often separate from others based on nationality or customs, instead of recognizing that the Bible teaches equality amongst believers in the kingdom of God (Gal. 3:28). Instead of accepting one another (Rom. 15:7) there is prejudice, bias and bigotry.
Legalism encourages isolationism. The Pharisees wouldn’t eat with tax collectors and those they considered to be sinners (Mk. 2:16). Legalists separate and withdraw from those who do not conform to their views. They don’t want their followers to know that other Christians love God as much as they do and generally respect the bible as much as they do. For example, Diotrephes refused to welcome other believers and excommunicated those who disagreed with him (3 Jn. 9-10).
Although having little interest in true evangelism, legalists work zealously to convert others to their point of view. They tend to split over non essential matters and only fellowship with those who agree on doctrinal details, rather than those who show their Christian faith in love for other believers.
Be aware of unwritten creeds and of thinking that we merit God’s favor because we are in a particular denomination or Christian group.
Although we are all susceptible to pride, legalists have an attitude of superiority over other Christians. The Pharisees wanted to be considered important and sought honor and recognition. They had a self-righteous attitude and looked down on others (Lk. 18:11-12). Diotrephes was probably a legalist as he loved to be first (3 Jn. 1:9). A legalist thinks they are accepted by God because they keep certain rules and regulations, whereas they think that those who don’t live like them can’t please God.
Although we are all susceptible to hypocrisy, legalists tend to impose strict standards on others but fail to practice these themselves. The Pharisees appeared to be righteous, but were full of wickedness. Jesus called them hypocrites because they prayed in order to be seen by others and they were always trying to trap Him (Mt. 6:5; Mk. 12:15).
A Lack Of Joy
Because of the critical attitude of legalists and the ensuring conflict that accompanies them, legalism is associated with a lack of joy. This is heightened when things don’t turn out as they expect. For example, the elder brother was angry and refused to attend the party when his father celebrated the return of the lost son (Lk. 15:28-30).
Sins such as legalism are faced in every generation. The risk of legalism comes from within the church: it is a major reason for differences and conflict between Christians. Legalism is a barrier to Christian unity.
We should recognize that we are all legalistic at times. For example, we may judge someone’s spirituality by the version of Bible they read, the clothes they wear, the way they wear their hair or anything that doesn’t fit within our boundaries of acceptability. Some proactive and reactive responses to legalism are given below.
Proactive Responses To Legalism
Because legalism was dangerous, Jesus warned the disciples to be on their guard against it and Paul warned believers to watch out for it (Mt. 16:6; Phil. 3:2). This means that we need to teach each other about the dangers of legalism and know how to recognize it.
As believers we should remind ourselves of scriptural truths that can protect us from legalism. Our salvation is by faith in Christ and not by any works on our behalf. God’s love and mercy to us is unconditional. Under the new covenant we have access to God through Christ because of His redeeming work. Because of this we are liberated from the law and legalism.
The old covenant was a legal document with many commandments and regulations, whereas the New Testament is comprised of incidents in the life of the early church. Teach that the laws of the old covenant have been replaced by God’s new covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-11). This means that laws such as the Sabbath were transitory and looked ahead to the coming of Christ and so do not apply to believers today who look back to Christ (Col. 2:17). Emphasize that a Christian should not be condemned “by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). Rules and regulations about these are legalism. Note that nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament to train believers, but there is no requirement to keep the Sabbath or any other day. Instead, believers are to follow the teachings and example of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21).
We should be careful to speak where the bible speaks and be silent where the bible is silent. In particular, don’t equate customs and traditions with biblical truth. Customs and traditions are necessary, but they can change. Remember most Christian activity is practicing a scriptural principle. How we do it depends on our customs and traditions. If we treat the methods and customs as though they are Scriptural principles we “go beyond what is written” in the Bible (1 Cor. 4:6).
Don’t force your personal views on others and don’t criticize others on “disputable matters”, which are things that are not excluded by the bible or inconsistent with it (Rom. 14&15; 1 Cor 8; 1 Cor 10:23-33.). God is the judge of these things, not us. He knows our motives. We are not to look down on other believers because they have a different opinion on these topics, but accept each other as Christ has (Rom. 15:7). The things that legalists are concerned about are unimportant (Gal 5:6). Don’t waste time on minor and debatable aspects of Christian life such as practices and methods of implementing scriptural principles, or majoring on one truth at the expense of others. This applies to those who teach that baptism, confirmation or church membership are necessary for salvation or that Christians need to keep certain Old testament laws, such as the Sabbath, or promote certain ways to praise and please God. Of course, while we need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over disputable matters, we cannot accept heresy.
It’s also good to check our motives for doing things so as to detect instances of pride and hypocrisy. Don’t allow others to set your personal convictions and stop trying to please others; instead seek to please the Lord.
Reactive Responses To Legalism
Paul urged believers to avoid legalism, which means not being involved in the kind of behavior listed above (Tit. 3:9-11). Don’t discuss with legalists matters that are not fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as this can lead to quarrels (Rom. 14:1). Instead, accept one another as true believers and respect one another (Rom. 14:3).
Beware of supercritical people so as not to be influenced by their critical attitudes. Don’t get hooked trying to win them over because this can almost never be done. Don’t allow them to provoke you to anger or to influence your view of yourself. Avoid trying to gain their approval as you will feel controlled.
However, when legalism is affecting other believers, Paul said that it should be opposed (Gal. 2:11; Tit. 1:10, 11). This may involve gently showing someone that they are acting in an ungodly manner (Gal. 6:1-2). In more serious cases it may require confronting and warning the person that this behavior cannot be tolerated within the congregation. Unfortunately, legalists usually don’t realize that their behavior is sinful: Jesus said that the Pharisees were blind (Mt. 23: 16-26). If they do realize the sinful behavior, then there is a possibility of confession and repentance. But if there is no improvement in the situation, this could lead to excommunication from the congregation, which is like an operation to remove a cancerous growth.
Let’s continue to promote the gospel of God’s grace to humanity, not the false gospel of works (Gal. 1:6-9). Let’s also live as those who have been liberated from the law and legalism.
Written, December 2007
– The sin of legalism
– The sin of liberalism
I feel like legalism isn’t the most precise term for what you are fighting against in this article. It is true that legalism can be seen (especially by its critics) as being over-reliant on tradition, but it is also seen by many (particularly its proponents) as representing the concept of sticking to principle before making up new arbitrary laws to ‘fit the new situations.’ Surely Christ taught principles which are timeless, which, as the legalists would argue, are unchanging and ought not be thrown out the window at the first sign of ‘new circumstances.’ On the other hand, as you have said, self-righteous legalists will try to make up new law and pass it as ‘timeless principle’ when it is really arbitrary. I guess what I am trying to say is that you are fighting against pride, which can manifest itself in legalism just as any other philosophy, but, I think, most particularly, in legal realism, which I think is a better candidate for your argument’s attention, which argues for new laws for every circumstance, and that principle is only an illusion used to oppress the masses. To a legal realist, Christianity could be the greatest and most oppressive illusion of timeless principle the world has ever seen.
March 15, 2011 at 1:13 pm
Ahh, I see now that there is a ‘religious’ version of legalism, which is used to describe the mindset of the Pharisees and Sadducees. I am familiar with the legal terminology more than the religious terminology. In my mind, the sin of the Pharisees and Sadducees was the abandonment of principle, and the making up of arbitrary laws to fit every contingency, expanding the law far beyond its natural and truest bounds. In legal terms, this is a product of a legal realism mindset, although the pharisees would happily call it ‘legalism’ in order to dress it in the sheep’s clothing of principled moral authority, when it is really a ravenous wolf of ‘realism.’ In this sense, legalism was twisted then, as it is today, to come to represent, in the eyes of the people, a dogmatic and arbitrary tradition. However, I would still cling to legalism as opposed to realism, if I had to choose, because realism is devoid of any principled approach, and because I believe there is a pure legalism, which simply recognizes the existence of higher moral truth.
March 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm
Jared, thanks for the replies. I appreciate your comments on “legalism” and “legal realism” and realise that we are using different definitions for “legalism” – yours is from legal terminology and mine from New Testament terminology. Also, my article largely addresed the behavior of Christians towards one another, and not the laws of civil government.
My Biblical definition of “legalism” included:
– Adding to the message in the Bible,
– Applying Old Testament laws to the Christian church (these were not timeless like Christ’s teachings),
– Adding the need for good works to the salvation that came through Jesus Christ, and
– Adding the need for good works to obtain God’s favor.
I see that legal realists emphasise the subjective nature of the civil legal system and advocate that it should change constantly in order to adapt to changing conditions. Your comments on the Pharisees and Sadducees in this respect are perceptive.
I agree with your viewpoint re civil legalism/realism. Moral laws do not change, because human nature does not change and God has established moral absolutes to protect us. Otherwise, one is left with relative morals, which are arbitary and without foundation.
March 15, 2011 at 9:42 pm