Everything You Know About Legalism Is Wrong

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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 Matters

This 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.

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  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    Google provides two definitions of “legalism”. The common one is “excessive adherence to law or formula”. The theological one is “dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith”. Therefore I think that when Christians talk about legalism, they are usually using the common definition, not the theological one.

    Although the common definition sounds related to scrupulosity, I think the two words are distinctly different. The Wikipedia article “Scrupulosity” beings: “Scrupulosity is characterized by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues”. Scrupulosity goes beyond merely following rules perfectly: it is in the realm of morbidity. So if the principal of a school strictly enforces rules of moral conduct, this does not mean that he suffers from scrupulosity. If he has a morbid concern that somewhere in the school a student is in violation of one of these rules, he would be suffering from scrupulosity.

    Regarding “Many times I have heard ‘liberal Christians’ openly declare that God is pleased with those who fight for ‘social justice’ because of their efforts”: If they believe that God is pleased because of their efforts, but do not seek to compel His favor through them, then that isn’t legalism, is it? I think that God is pleased when Christians do good works out of love for Him and their neighbors.

    According to the Wikipedia article “Legalism (theology)”, Christians differ in what legalism encompasses.

  • Michael Dodaro

    Whether the objective of moralistic rigor is to compel God’s blessing or to justify behavior to self, what tends to follow is condemnation of others who see moral obligation differently. In Evangelical churches moral rigor tends to focus on abortion, sex roles, and formerly drinking, dancing, and gambling. In main line Protestant churches the focus is on social justice from a “progressive” slant. Condemnation of white privilege and homophobia in main line Protestantism is legalistic in ways that bring back the fury of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the prohibition era.

  • I looked up “legalism” in several online dictionaries and not one of them included anything about an “inner attitude.” Literally all of them difined legalism as requiring the strict adherence to rules and laws that hinder freedom of choice … usually such legalism is institutional. Churches that have a rule forbiding women to wear pants-suits to church IS a legalism … and a stupid one at that. Also, it seems the author lacks understanding of the difference between permissiveness and liberty.

  • Dean, thanks for sharing your thoughts logically and eloquently. How do I contact you? You may find me on Facebook @discoverministry God bless you!

  • tovlogos

    Dean — I agree. You made perfect sense and remained consistent throughout the essay. This one is a keeper.
    This is not a subject one hears about often to this extent, and it will be passed on to others. Well done and clearly inspired.

  • Dean

    You may email me at dean@deanabbott.com or find me on twitter.

  • Dean

    Dictionaries are not definitive theological resources. I understand the difference between permissiveness and liberty quite well.

  • barry

    “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.”
    ————

    Well, if Luke was inspired by God, then apparently, yes, a sinners can, and sometimes actually have, obtained righteousness by keeping the law:

    5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
    6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. (Lk. 1:5-6 NAU)

  • Dean

    Hebrews explains this.

  • LaGard Smith

    Good, but incomplete. Another correct use of the term refers to an
    emphasis on form over substance. That is, “the letter, not the spirit.”
    Even those who do not believe their moral actions will determine God’s
    approval can be guilty of this form of legalism. Merely consider the
    Pharisees, who were less interested in buying God’s favor through
    rule-keeping than imposing their own authority on everyone else by
    insisting on rule-keeping.

    In Scripture, there is actually precedent for the obedience/reward notion
    of legalism. “If you obey, I will reward,” etc. Far more sinister is
    the other notion of legalism, for which there is no scriptural warrant.
    Which form of legalism are we more tempted to display?

  • Dean

    I think you’ve misunderstood the Pharisees.