It’s not legalism…until it is

I was browsing some of the Christian blogs on WordPress the other day and came across one entitled “I’m not being legalistic. I’m just being real.” The author, Chris, talks about how he decided not to watch certain TV shows and movies because they were “complete filth” and seemed inappropriate for him to watch as a Christian. He said that because of his decision, some people were accusing him of being legalistic – more concerned with adhering to a ‘biblical’ standard of purity than exercising his freedom in Christ.

On this point, I disagree with his detractors. Deciding for yourself that something is inappropriate to watch based on personal convictions is not legalistic. As the Apostle Paul famously stated, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23b). If you don’t find The Walking Dead edifying, then by all means, turn it off. I won’t complain.

But then Chris continues by describing practices that he engages in to keep his ‘flesh’ in check: like parking far away from the front of a store and walking, even when closer spaces are available. He explains that the flesh is lazy and likes to be pampered, which is a desire that stands in direct conflict with the Spirit. So trekking across big parking lots is one (small) way he keeps his flesh in subjection and makes more room for the Spirit.

Now we’re beginning to enter legalism territory – mainly because Chris has confused flesh (the fallen state of man) with his physical body. Wanting a shorter walk to the store is practical, not sinful. And while you can certainly choose to get more exercise by parking further away from the door, it doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase of the Spirit.

The idea of flesh vs. Spirit is found in Galatians 5. This is what it says:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in loveFor the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (verses 13-21).

But here’s where Chris jumped straight into legalism with both feet: he implied (ever so subtly) that other Christians who do not share his mindset are, perhaps, not taking their relationship with Jesus seriously enough. Because a Christian who opts to watch The Walking Dead or park close to the store might be gratifying some fleshly desires, and shouldn’t they be more concerned with mortifying the flesh/pleasing God/being spiritual? After all, Chris says, “Jesus paid a high price to reconcile us back to the Father.”

This is how legalism works. It starts when a person chooses to focus on a particular scriptural concept (like “train up a child“). He or she interprets what that means for themselves (like homeschooling their kids). Then he or she starts to believe that other Christians should interpret and apply the scripture in a similar way (i.e., everyone should homeschool their kids). And when other Christians don’t, he or she views them as being “less faithful” to God/Jesus/the Bible.

In my experience, legalism has very little to do with what the Bible actually says. It’s all about how one can prove they are living the most faithful, authentic Christian life. This is how I ended up with so many rules to follow as a child: ‘Real’ Christians don’t wear shorts, or get tattoos, or swear, or swim with the opposite sex, or ‘have moods’, or go to the movie theater, or challenge authority, or date, or…[fill in the blank]. For those who can adhere to the script, there’s all these ‘promises’ of God’s favor and blessing. Those who can’t are ‘lukewarm‘ or on a slippery slope into sin.

Obviously, everyone has a right to abide by his or her conscience. But to take a personal decision made in conscience and call it a spiritual standard to which everyone should adhere is legalism. And make no mistake: legalism is both a distraction and a pride issue. It caters to the fleshly desire to be viewed as preferred to or “better than” others. It creates hierarchies in which “the faithful” are praised and “the backsliders” are shamed. It justifies harsh judgment against those who won’t conform. It suggests that God’s love and favor can be earned.

In short, legalism isn’t about pleasing God or following the Spirit, but rather about keeping up a certain kind of outward appearance.

Legalism doesn’t allow much room for love, which is why it’s so dangerous. The Bible says love fulfills the Law. Love requires that we focus on others – how well we serve and respond to them. But legalism is focused on the self: how one can best adhere to a set of rules and ‘prove’ how much they love Jesus. The cruel truth is that for all the energy some people put into following such rules, it does nothing to fulfill God’s Law.

Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Anyone can deny being legalistic and call it being real. But changing the words doesn’t change the facts.

10 responses to “It’s not legalism…until it is

  1. If being a Christian was all about behavior, pretty sure I wouldn’t make it, since I do wear shirts, watch some R-rated movies, drink, etc. That’s just adding to the gospel. I find I can’t do anything right around people who believe that stuff.

  2. “The Bible says love fulfills the Law. Love requires that we focus on others – how well we serve and respond to them. But legalism is focused on the self: how one can best adhere to a set of rules and ‘prove’ how much they love Jesus.”

    So well articulated! Thank you 🙂

  3. I find that fear is running the show when I start making idols and rituals around my behaviors….trying to work my way into heaven, instead of relying on grace which is the answer to me. I am a work in progress, a human being that would love rules for operation. Instead, I am covered by grace, after etching the laws (ie don’t lie) on my heart ( as Jesus said we are to be like him and he is the fulfillment of the law) and need to be “in the moment” as best I can, listening, listening to God’s voice so I can be of service…or because I am human, throwing it all over and hanging out at the beach or buying a new outfit. To me there is only the relationship between me and God, ephemeral, liquid, working my way to living in love.

  4. I’m not here to debate and argue with you. That’s the problem within Christianity today. What strikes me as sad is that you, and the people commenting, don’t know me at all, but now you have this view of me that is not even close to the truth of what I’m about. That’s okay though. My identity doesn’t come from you or anyone else. It comes from Christ. My value and worth were determined long ago when I was created in His image. We are here to love people, no matter what.

    So now Beth thinks I’m adding to the Gospel, and I would judge her for watching R rated movies and whatever else. That is so far from the truth, and not at all what I said or have ever said, but your article here has already made up her mind.

    My post was about me, and where I am right now in my walk with Christ. If I’m convicted of something, it doesn’t mean everyone should be. We are to love God and love others. That’s the Gospel. I urge you not to take one post from my blog and build a belief system about who I am. Jesus said to deny ourselves, and follow Him. Self is the biggest deterrent to our walk with Christ. It’s the hardest thing to put aside. Satan planned it that way.

    Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to read my article and posting a response. I hope you have an awesome day in our Lord. God bless.

    • Chris,

      Thank you for coming here and sharing your perspective. You are absolutely right: I don’t know you or your walk with Christ. I am sorry that my words have caused some to judge you personally. That really was not my intent.

      Honestly, I considered writing this post without linking to your article or mentioning you by name. I changed my mind because I thought that would be rude, dishonest and cowardly. My readers have a right to read your words for themselves and draw their own conclusions. At the very least, they would keep me accountable by pointing out where I misinterpreted something.

      The purpose of my blog is to point out bad interpretations of scripture or misleading messages within American Christianity. And the reason I reacted so strongly to your post is that it was not the first time I’ve heard someone say, “I’m not being legalistic; I’m just being real.” Many of the people I heard this message from were the same ones telling me it was a sin to wear shorts or get my ears pierced. Almost no one in my fundamentalist community would have ever admitted to being legalistic. But they were.

      And the legalism shows in the language they chose to use. “Real” in this context can be interpreted in different ways. It could mean “realistic” or “authentic” or “faithful to my personal convictions,” etc. But the first implication is that the person thinks that their particular stance makes them a Real Christian (TM), which, also by implication, makes those who disagree false Christians. Even if you go with a softer interpretation of the word “real,” the implied dichotomy is pretty much the same. And this is why people (like Beth) who hear this statement automatically feel judged.

      I probably could have structured my post in a way that would have reflected more on the message and not you, the messenger. I’m sorry that I failed to do that. I plan to visit your blog and get a better sense of who you are through some of your other posts. And I promise I won’t devote my blog to critiquing them. 🙂

      • It’s all good. When I said real, I honestly didn’t mean anything other than I was being honest and transparent with my own beliefs. I can see though how that could come across differently.

        It’s really none of my business what other people do, wear, or how they live. My purpose on this earth is to love others. Period. I don’t judge.

        Thank you for your reply, and I would love for you to check out my blog. I commented on your post about the ethnic Jesus. That was a good one.

  5. Yes. Works or legalism isn’t about what we are doing but why we are doing it. Someone can have a lot things they do and they aren’t legalistic and another can be doing less with legalism. The solution isn’t to do less or do more but change the heart motive behind it.