If there is one thing people in most evangelical settings fear it’s being a “legalist.” You hear it all the time: “You don’t want to be too legalistic” or “She came from a very legalistic background.” Whatever “being legalistic” is in these circles, it’s clearly the opposite of what the serious Christian life should be. In fact, many evangelical institutions would prefer to welcome someone who calls the basic tenets of their faith into question than someone who is “too legalistic.”
This situation is rife with problems. Not the least of these is that most people who are concerned about the negative influence of “legalism” seem to have no idea what “legalism” is. In the vernacular, “legalism” means something like “being very strict about morality”, or “insisting that absolute moral laws are, after all, absolute.”
The adverb gives it away. When people talk about someone being “too legalistic”, the implication is that the right amount of “legalism” is good. As if some “legalism” is a mark of Christian maturity while too much indicates a lack of faith, a controlling nature, an underlying fear or anger from which the legalist should repent. None of this is correct. Legalism is neither moral strictness nor a belief that absolute moral injunctions apply absolutely.
What Legalism Is And Is Not
Rather than referring to either of these, legalism has a specific definition that most overlook.
Legalism is an inner attitude of the heart that seeks to compel God’s favor on the basis of one’s ability to keep the moral law.
That’s it. Any behavior or attitude that doesn’t seek to compel God’s favor through lawkeeping isn’t legalism. Establishing and strictly enforcing a dress code at your Christian school? Not legalism. Insisting that abortion is wrong or that people shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage even if they really love each other? Not legalism.
Given the correct definition of legalism, we can see that not only conservatives are apt to fall prey to it. Many times I have heard “liberal Christians” openly declare that God is pleased with those who fight for “social justice” because of their efforts. This is “progressive” legalism: the claim that God’s favor can be earned by being an advocate for the oppressed and tweeting snarky insults at conservatives.
Why This MattersThis matters because legalism, wherever it surfaces, is a spiritual snare. However, in contemporary American evangelicalism, very little true legalism exists. When evangelicals evince extreme concern over some small moral matter, the height of a girl’s skirt for example, they are displaying scrupulosity, not legalism. Scrupulosity is often a destructive force, but because it is not anchored in the desire to compel God’s favor, it’s not legalism.
Many people react to the scrupulosity of others, which they mistake for legalism, by careening into permissiveness. When people in evangelical settings argue against being “too legalistic”, they typically aren’t advocating for developing a right understanding of law and gospel or a deeper grasp of the real basis of God’s grace. Rather, they are arguing that evangelical churches and other organizations should simply be more permissive.
The subtext of their argument is that unwavering insistence on upholding the moral law is somehow “legalistic” and at odds with being “loving”. One can easily insist on the absolute nature of the moral law without believing that doing so compels God’s favor, so doing so is not necessarily being legalistic.
Yet, the forces opposing “legalism” almost always prevail in evangelical institutions. They win, but not for theological reasons. It turns out that not being “too legalistic” reduces the number of times conflict comes up. When an evangelical institutions decides not to be “too legalistic”, they decide to be more permissive. Permissive environments don’t require as many tough conversations and, not coincidentally, keep people flowing in.
The misunderstanding of “legalism” and the attempt to counter it by being more permissive is a large part of how evangelical institutions move left. Other dynamics also contribute to leftward drift, but seeking to resist “legalism” is a major one.
For this reason, evangelicals should always question whether accusations of “legalism” are accurate. They should ask if the one accused of legalism truly believes he can earn God’s favor through lawkeeping. If not, then perhaps there is a case of unnecessary scrupulosity at play. When neither of these conditions are met, those accused should resist being shamed as “too legalistic” and insist instead that when put to its proper use the law is, overwhelmingly, beautifully, good.