NLQ FAQ: Why Do You Call Quiverfull Legalistic?

by Kristen Rosser ~ aka: KR Wordgazer

People keep saying Quiverfull is “legalistic.” But it’s not! We don’t live the Quiverfull lifestyle as a way to win God’s favor or to earn our salvation. We do it because we love Jesus, and Jesus said that if we love Him we will keep His commandments. So long as your reason for doing what you are doing is not to earn God’s love but rather as a grateful response to His love for you ~ then it’s not legalism. Aren’t people who call us “legalistic” just being negative?

It’s true that legalism is often defined by Christians strictly in terms of whether a person is doing “works” to attain salvation or win God’s favor. As Paul said in Galatians 2:21, “I do not frustrate the grace of God, for if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” But Paul, and Jesus Himself, had more to say about legalism than this. Legalism means more than seeking to be justified by works of the law. You can love Jesus with all your heart, and you can believe that you are doing everything you do out of love for Jesus, and still be walking in legalism. In fact, a person’s very zeal to go the extra mile for God can make them especially vulnerable to legalistic practice. It’s very easy, when you want to serve God with your whole life, to listen to the myriad of voices in Christianity that say, “If you really love God with all your heart, you will do A, and B, and C. Those who don’t do these things aren’t really on fire for God.”

I know this from personal experience. When I was in college I was in a campus ministry group that became well-known for its coercive religious teachings. Our hearts were right, but many of our practices amounted to what Jesus called “binding heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and laying them on men’s shoulders.” (Matthew 23:5.)

For example, this group forbid all music, television, movies or books that did not meet its high standards of spirituality, based largely upon verses like Psalms 101:3 – “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes.” Many of us went even further and threw our television sets away or burned our books and recordings. But does “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes” actually mean, “throw out your TV”? Or was the Psalmist describing how he expressed his devotion to God, in terms of where he put his focus? In fact, the Bible itself is full of all kinds of things that, if you applied the Psalm as we did, we shouldn’t have been reading about at all! Murders and rapes and warfare and adultery are all things that come “before our eyes” when we read the Scriptures. So is just reading about these things, or watching The Ten Commandments on TV, “setting” wickedness before our eyes?

In fact, my group was going way beyond what the Bible texts actually said, to impose on ourselves all kinds of restrictions and “oughts” and “shoulds” that weren’t really there. And then patting ourselves on the back and looking down on others for not measuring up to our standards.

So what is legalism, if it’s more than just seeking to earn God’s favor through works?

Colossians 2 and Galatians 4 both talk about legalism in terms of bondage to the “rudiments” or “elements” of the world, such as “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” All of these sorts of things, Colossians 2:20-22 says, are “ordinances of the world“ which are “to perish with the using.” Verse 23 goes on to say that such things “have indeed a shew of wisdom in will[ful] worship and humility, and neglecting of the body,” but are of no real spiritual use. Galatians 4:9 calls following the “elements” of the world “bondage,” and gives as an example (v. 10) the observance of “days, and months, and times, and years,” as if these observances were what following Christ were all about.

That word translated “rudiments” or “elements” in Colossians 2 and Galatians 4 is the Greek word “stoicheion,” which means “first things from which others. . . take their rise; an element, first principle.” (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine, 1966 Ed., p. 22.) When used in conjunction with God‘s word, it refers to the first principles of God’s truth (Hebrews 5:12), but when used in conjunction with “the world,” the word usually means the basics of the physical nature of the earth or of the body. Legalism, then, means living in such a way as to be in bondage to physical, time-bound, earthly principles. These would include rules about eating and drinking, observing special days, and how we treat our bodies (especially, as Col. 2:23 says, neglectful or harsh treatment of our physical bodies as a way to show worship or humility). Jesus even said that marriage was of this physical world (Mark 12:25), and Paul said it’s easier to focus on spiritual things when you‘re not married (1 Cor. 7:7, 32-35) — so being focused on marriage and childbearing, as if these were what Christian living was about, could become bondage to earthly principles as well.

So even if you love Jesus, and consider all your physical, earthly actions as a way to show devotion to Christ, it is possible to still be legalistic. Colossians 2:20 says we should consider ourselves “dead with Christ” to earthly “rudiments,” considering them to be of lesser importance– because we are “complete in Him” according to verse 10. Christ is the “body” or substance of a reality of which earthly things are only a “shadow.” (v. 17), and we are therefore to “let no man judge you” regarding how we handle the rudiments or elements of the world (v. 16). Outward acts of devotion are not wrong; they can even be good– but they can also turn into bondage for us in the way we practice them.

So what are some characteristics of legalistic practice?

1. Making something in the Bible about physical living on this earth, which is not set forth as a commandment, into a commandment. Ways of living that people practiced in the Bible become prescriptive rather than descriptive– we are all supposed to live our lives the same way they did in Bible times, because that’s the “biblical way.” Or we take something the Bible is silent about, and read that as a reason to consider that thing suspect. “The Scriptures speak only of parents training their own children, so any other influence on our children– even Sunday School– might be bad for them.”

2. Taking a real or perceived commandment in the Bible to a level of restriction or obligation that goes beyond what the Bible actually gives. The Pharisees had a way of doing this with the law of Moses. The law said, “Don’t work on the Sabbath.” The Pharisees said, “Healing someone is work, and therefore you can’t heal someone on the Sabbath.” The law said, “Don’t eat what is unclean.” The Pharisees said, “You must follow the traditions of ceremonial hand washing in addition to not eating foods that the law calls unclean.” Jesus angered the Pharisees by refusing to follow these over-and-above rules. But when we take a verse in the Psalms like “children are a blessing,” and take that to mean that we should never restrict our family size– even when our bodies are weak and worn out from constant pregnancies– we are coming very close to that neglectful or harsh treatment of our bodies in “bondage” to the “rudiments” that Colossians 2:23 warns against. (Note: 1 Corinthians 9:27, where Paul says, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection,” must be balanced with his warning against willed harsh treatment of the body in Colossians 2:23. In 1 Cor. 9, Paul is speaking of keeping himself free of fleshly self-indulgence, and likening this to the physical discipline of training for a race. This passage in no way commands us to ignore our bodies’ warning signs and push them beyond their limits when it is within our ability to protect them, such as through family planning).

3. Setting a standard that, though it gives nominal freedom of choice (“this is only what God‘s speaking to me. You don‘t have to do it if God‘s not speaking it to you”), effectively and in a practical sense, eliminates that freedom. “The Bible doesn’t actually command you to live like this, but if you really loved God with your whole heart, you would hear Him speak this to you, and you would come to the same convictions I hold.” Or, “The Bible says to love and nurture your children. But the very best way– God’s way– to express love for children is to not limit your family size; and the very best way to nurture your children is to ‘dare to shelter’ them from contact with anything potentially ungodly– though homeschooling and family-integrated worship. If you don’t do it that way, how can you be sure you’re loving and nurturing them as you should?”

4. Confusing the meaning of a text with the application of a text, and making that application universal. “Application” refers to how the meaning of a passage applies to our own personal lives in the here-and-now. Any one passage of Scripture can lead to a variety of personal applications, and no one application constitutes the meaning of a passage. This is what my religious group was doing with Psalm 101:3, when we treated the text as if it actually meant, “No TV, no non-religious books or music,” to be followed by any Christian who was serious about serving God– when in fact, we were choosing a certain sacrificial lifestyle as a means of applying the meaning of the text, and not very accurately at that!

Legalism is not just thinking you can be justified or earn God’s favor with your works. It’s living in terms of elemental physical principles instead of spiritual freedom. It’s imposing those terms on both yourself and others, in order to (as Galatians 3:2 puts it) “be made perfect by the flesh.” It’s thinking you can become part of God’s extra-special people (“God’s Green Berets,” my religious group used to say) by choosing a “sold-out“ lifestyle. There were all kinds of things we did– all kinds of sacrifices we made– not to earn favor or salvation, but to be more holy.

Yes, Jesus said that if we love Him we will keep His commandments. But He also said, “Learn what that meaneth: I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13.) He was talking about living life in terms of what is within instead of what is external– a heart of mercy and love taking precedence over outward acts of “holiness.” It is mercy within that God considers the most holy. Outward acts are not wrong– but we must keep them in their proper place and not enter into bondage to them. We must not treat them as if they were the substance of Christian life. That means holding mercy in our hearts both for ourselves and for others. When we do that, our “moderation will be known to all” (Phil 4:5), and we will not bind heavy burdens and lay them on anyone’s shoulders to carry.

Not even our own.

Discuss this post on the NLQ forums! Comments are also open below.

[Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based.]

Read all NLQ FAQs

Read all posts by Kristen Rosser / KR Wordgazer

  • chaidrinkingfool

    I was recently challenged by a family member to define “legalism”. I couldn’t come up with an answer I was entirely happy with at the time, and I look forward to digging into the scripture around your writing.

    The loosey-goosey definition I’ve come up with since that challenge is that when following rules becomes more important than loving your neighbor, that’s legalism.

  • http://tuckedintohim.blogspot.com/ Karen

    Wonderful post! I appreciate that although this blog is not for Christians specifically, you still address Christian topics. And in a way that is gracious. Thank you! Kenneth Boa says that the balance between legalism and license is LIBERTY, and your writing inspires me to seek this, liberty.

    Resting in Him,
    Karen

  • http://thecommandmentsofmen.blogspot.com Lewis

    You’re making waaay too much sense here, Kristen;) Great article.

  • http://rechelleunplugged.com Rechelle

    The bible is a very silly book and just that – a book. It is sad to me that people especially women, would subject themselves to it – no matter the interpretation. Slaves obey your masters, wives submit to husbands, split open the pregnant women who aren’t part of your tribe, kill the babies, kill the children, but save the female virgins for the victors – all these things are in this book you so liberally quote to try and make your point. Why not just discard the bible and read something that makes sense and doesn’t enslave you to some horrible and completely imaginary god? I’d start with some Jane Austen and work forward from there.

  • http://fromthepew.blogspot.com Steve Scott

    I have a personal example where two groups of legalistic Christians had contradictory conclusions of applying “scriptural” principles and I was in the middle. It had to do with men wearing a suit to church. I was young in the faith and simultaneously attending two churches for a time. One church looked at it this way: The world lusts after making itself look good through the vanity of fashion. So, wearing a suit to church means you’ve wasted your money on the vanity of self-promotion. God doesn’t look on the outside, but at your heart. You’re showing that by spending all that money on a suit, your heart is in the wrong place. Besides, that money could have been used to print gospel tracts so that people could become saved.

    The other church looked at it another way: The church is God’s house and we need to be respectful to our Lord. In our culture, the best way to show respect is by wearing a suit. Why WOULDN’T we wear our best clothes on Sunday? Failure to wear a suit to church means that you aren’t giving God your best on Sunday. It’s a reflection of your heart attitude toward God.

    I had never owned a suit because I never needed one, but at that time I was unemployed and didn’t have the money to buy one if I wanted to. I could feel the judgment week to week by wearing a shirt and pants to church. Between those two churches I was literally damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. They had numerous other things where they both agreed, and others where they contradicted each other. It was a real eye opener to somebody young in the faith.

  • http://nolongerquivering.com Vyckie D. Garrison

    I wrote this on the forum, and wanted to share it here too:

    With regard to legalism, here’s how I would have explained my QF practices when I was still in the mindset:

    When you are in a relationship with a wonderful man ~ and he loves you and would do anything for you and you can always trust him to care about and provide for your needs ~ it is not out of fear or because you want to win his favor that you go to the extra effort to prepare a home cooked, candlelit dinner for him (as opposed to heating up a frozen dinner in the microwave or telling him to grab himself some sandwich fixings from the fridge) ~ you do it in response to his love and as an expression of your devotion and appreciation for him.

    If you’ve ever experienced or witnessed new love ~ you’re familiar with the way the two lovers will knock themselves out to do all these special, behond-the-call-of-duty things for one another ~ and they do not feel coerced, abused or taken advantage of. They are happy to make the extra effort ~ !!

    That’s how it was in my relationship with the Lord. I was so grateful to Jesus for saving me out of a chaotic life ~ so thankful and full of love for my Lord ~ of course, I wanted to do whatever I could to express my love and to bear witness to His goodness to me.

    I did not have my babies, or grind my own wheat flour, or submit to my husband, etc. out of duty or fear or because I thought it would put me in better standing with God. I KNEW that God already loved me unconditionally ~ and there was nothing I could do that would make Him love me any more or any less. My spiritual standing with God was firmly settled at the cross ~ Praise the Lord.

    What I was doing ~ even at great cost to myself ~ was all done in response to His love for me and as an expression of and testimony of my love for Him.

    This is why I have bristled at the charge of “legalism” ~ and I know that Cindy McDonald & Co. feel the same way ~ the mindset permeates her “Jesus Full” piece ~ and I could identify because I never felt that I “had to” have a single baby. Only ~ why wouldn’t I?

    After reading KR’s expanded definition of “legalism” ~ which includes more than simply man’s effort to obtain salvation or special favor with God ~ I can accept that my QF life was indeed, legalistic ~ not because I wanted to earn brownie points with God ~ because QF was never about that.

    This is what I love about KR ~ and the reason she is such a valuable asset to NLQ and the Take Heart Project ~ because she actually listens to what QFers are saying and takes time to figure out what they actually believe and then addresses those beliefs with respect from a faith-based perspective.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Rachelle, I have read all of Jane Austen’s novels. Many of Jane Austen’s observations about the human condition, many of her characters’ responses to the big questions of life, were inspired by her own Christian faith. To dismiss the whole Bible as silly, senseless and evil is to dismiss everyone who has ever been inspired by it or given courage to face hardship, incentive to reach out to help one another, and idealism to fight oppression, through its pages. You’re welcome to believe whatever you like about it, of course– but the Bible has also been instrumental in shaking and unseating oppressive human bastions of power. The Abolitionists believed that the Bible supported the brotherhood of all humanity, and took courage from it to fight the institution of slavery. The earliest Christians took the Bible as their reason to abandon the Roman practice of exposing unwanted infants to die– and not only refused to expose their own infants, but took in the infants that those in the surrounding culture exposed.

    It’s true that this text has also been used as a justification to oppress, to divide, to hate. Religion, like most things in humanity’s hands, is of a two-pronged nature. Anything that can be used can be misused. Anything that can be understood can be misunderstood. But you’re not going to be able to reach people who strongly believe they have encountered this “imaginary god,” by ridiculing and dismissing a book that has been a source of comfort and help to them.

    If one takes into account the mindset and limitations of the ancient peoples through whom these texts have been received, it might be possible to see that though much of their understanding of how to serve God was “horrible” by today’s standards, there is more to it than that– that there are reasons why the person of Jesus, to whom Christians believe all the rest is subordinate, is still considered worthy of respect even by many who don’t consider themselves part of the faith he founded.

    So believe what you like– I didn’t say any of this in an attempt to convert you or anyone else– but there are other ways of looking at this too, and some people might find what I have said helpful. :)

  • Kristen Rosser

    Oh, and thanks, everyone, for your kind words. Vyckie, that was so sweet of you to say!

  • http://kats-brain.blogspot.com/ Kat

    I think what frustrates Rechelle, and a lot of other nontheists, is that everything in the Bible that is supportive of love, mercy, and respect for all humanity is entirely applicable to everyday life without having to be in a Christian context. We can love our neighbors whether or not Jesus ever existed. We can be merciful to the weak and the sick without ever reading a single verse of the Bible. It is the implication that these principles are exclusively biblical, or that they are only “right” if applied by a believer, that makes us want to bang our heads against the wall. Christians debate and battle it out over who is right in their interpretations and applications of biblical verses, seemingly without ever giving any thought as to why The Bible and Christianity is the only possible path to begin with (to be fair, this critique is applicable to all religions.), and that is what casts doubt on the ability of religion to be a force for good in the minds of many non-believers.

    I don’t think we should disregard the efforts of those who have used the Bible as their justification for doing great things to help humanity, but the fact remains, love and respect for humanity is entirely possible to have without needing a justification for it in the questionably translated writings of an ancient people.

  • Kristen

    Kat, I would certainly be among the first to agree that love, mercy and respect for humanity are entirely possible without Christianity or the Bible. I am sorry that you have encountered so many Christians who act as if this were not true.

    As for the idea that we “seemingly give no thought as to why the Bible and Christianity are the only possible path to begin with,” the reason it seems so is that, except for some Christians who were raised in the faith and never questioned it, we have already considered other paths and decided on this one, and see no need to re-invent the wheel every morning, any more than a non-Christian re-considers the validity of the Bible every morning. For me, and many others, it isn’t so much about the Bible as about what the Bible points to– a spiritual connection with Something greater than ourselves which we have come to trust in. It is certainly possible to be inspired in other ways towards love, mercy and respect for humanity, but this is the way we have chosen.

    Given that, and given that I am only one voice here on NLQ, whom the site owner has asked to speak to a particular audience (those readers who want to accept the Bible as having spiritual bearing on their lives), I might suggest that those who do not consider themselves part of that audience, either skip over blog posts where I am listed as the author, or read them with detachment, like you’d read a letter addressed to someone else. I really am not writing any of these blogs to insult anyone with my starting assumption that the Bible is going to be considered as if it had bearing on people’s lives, nor to try to convince anyone who does not already believe that, of that point of view.

    I hope that clarifies where these FAQs that have my name on them, are coming from.

  • Keshet Shenkar

    This is a very interesting discussion–I’m Jewish so it’s certainly fascinating to see my beliefs discussed from “the other side!” Needless to say, this is not an accurate understanding of what Judaism was or is, but rather how Christianity saw it.

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  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    If anyone wants to quibble about what is “Legalistic” and what is not, here’s the definition a friend of mine came up with while I was trying to describe Islam:

    Legalism: A religion that puts great importance and extreme emphasis on Following the Rules.

    • Kristen

      It was Maranatha Campus Ministries, actually. But good guess!

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I know this from personal experience. When I was in college I was in a campus ministry group that became well-known for its coercive religious teachings. — Wordgazer

    Let me guess — Navigators?

    (When I was at Cal Poly in the late Seventies, the Navs had a reputation for extreme strictness and the highest burnout/flunkout rate of any campus ministry.)

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  • Dennis Teel

    i don’t see people as being legalistic if they want to follow the law by the letter,as long as they don’t preach to others that it’s necessary for their salvation./if that be the case,there’s a lot of christians who ,having conditions like bipolar or depressive diorders or other conditions rendering them unable to be as committed to sacrifice as others that are considered as normal and don’t have the same emotonal problems.all those people with such conditions would be automatically doomed to hell simply because they can’t live as sacrificially and yet under no fault of their own.this is why the lord judges us s individuals regarding how we respond to the law.

    • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com KR Wordgazer

      Dennis, I appreciate your input, but I do disagree. I think the New Testament teaches that Christians are to follow the spirit of the law, and not to get bogged down in “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” Even if they’re not doing all this to secure salvation, they’re still focusing on externals rather than walking in the Spirit of love.