Legalism and Scripture 3: We’re All Legalists

Inside every one of us lurks a little legalist, clamoring to get out.  So we keep him in chains and prison until someone breaks one of our rules or in some way violates “the code.” Then, our fire-breathing legalist comes charging out, finger-wagging, pontificating.

Let’s face it, we all love rules.  Especially rules for thee (though not necessarily for me).

So far, we have pointed out the struggle of defining legalism from the Bible since no equivalent term is found anywhere in Scripture.  Legalism isn’t a Scriptural category, though I deny that there is such a thing.  I have argued that we throw the term about too casually and that it poisons any discussion of standards.  Our fear of the charge of legalism has a way of preventing a Biblical consideration of standards. 

We pointed out that, though legalism is almost always associated with the Pharisees, legalism is not the sin Jesus rebuked in the Pharisees.  Jesus didn’t charge the Pharisees with being too scrupulous about the law.  He criticized them for not being strict enough.  He condemned them for disregarding the law in favor of their traditions.  He rebuked them for a blatant double standard.  And He urged His disciples to be more righteous than the Pharisees.

We also examined the legalism Paul spoke against in Galatians (which I think is closer to the idea of legalism that Christians should try to avoid – an attempt to increase personal holiness by embracing external standards and law-keeping).  Whether or not Paul’s arguments against extreme self-denial in Colossians should be applied to legalism or not is a good question.  Paul shows that being subject to ordinances (touch not; taste not; handle not) is a vain attempt at sanctification.  But Paul allows strictness in diet and so forth.  He tells the Colossians, “Let no man therefore judge you;” “Let no man beguile (disqualify) you” (Colossians 2:16, 18).

This brings us to the next important point:

To some extent, “legalism” is inescapable.

Though some legalism is more overt than others.  But the question is not whether you have rules or standards you live by and are perhaps a little uptight about.  We all do.  This is not a matter of whether we are sometimes wound a little tight about rules, but which rules we are wound a little tight about. 

If “legalism” amounts to law-keeping, if “legalism” is a commitment to or loyalty to a standard, everyone is a legalist.  Because every Christian holds to a set of standards which they also believe to be faithful to the requirements of Scripture.  And unless we carefully guard our hearts, adherence to a standard will produce a sense of superiority about the standards we hold.  We tend to view those who share our standards as allies while resisting and repudiating those who differ, whether stricter or laxer.  Call it human nature; our fallenness lived out loud.  But it is often the case.  Furthermore, we tend to call everyone to the left of our standard “licentious” and everyone to the right “legalistic.” 

I wish the discussion didn’t center on “legalism.” It is a hot charge that makes actual debate and discussion difficult.  I wish instead that we could discuss what the Bible teaches regarding dress and entertainment, along with the best way to honor God’s Word in our clothing and entertainment choices.  That, in my opinion, would be the more fruitful discussion. 

It isn’t as if there is no legalism on the left amongst those who would be closer to evangelical or neo-evangelical.  Quite the opposite.  On this note, I would suggest that the Recovering Fundamentalist Podcast has displayed more than a bit of legalism in repudiation of the IFB. 

While on vacation, one of our church families visited a Nevada church several years ago.  They did a cursory investigation of the church on the Internet before visiting, and from what they saw, the church seemed to fit with the kind of church they would want to visit.  The husband told me that the moment they stepped in the door, they realized that the church was not what they thought.  First, they were highly overdressed for this church.  The man and his sons wore a shirt and tie; the wife wore a dress.  They were the only ones.  The husband told me that the pastor became obsessed with what they were wearing from the moment he spotted them in the auditorium.  Several times throughout the service, the pastor repeated that God doesn’t care what you wear to church, and you don’t have to wear a suit to worship God. 

Photo by George Webster on

Another family in our church visited a church with family members while on vacation.  The church had the whole rock band contemporary worship going.  He didn’t find this especially enjoyable, and apparently, he wasn’t much good at hiding it.  The pastor became obsessed with his lack of enthusiastic participation.  He scolded him in front of the congregation as if the man were somehow “hindering the spirit” by his reserve. 

Now, if the IFB has a problem with legalism, so do these churches. 

How about we all be honest about a couple of things?  First, we are most comfortable with our own traditions and don’t see why anyone would want things any different.  Second, unless we intentionally show grace to those we differ with, we all have the internal capacity to become a little legalist when confronted with someone who doesn’t honor our standards – or worse, who dishonors them.  And third, the way we growl at those who differ has more to do with human fallenness than it does with legalism. 

Undoubtedly, most people have had one of those “If I were king, I would make everyone…” moments, giving voice to the legalist within.  Isn’t that how we are?  

Legalism is not defined by a set of standards.

It just isn’t.  Sorry to say it, but rules are a part of life, and the fact that different places have different rules has no bearing on whether or not they are legalists.  In my college days and early marriage, I worked for a variety of businesses.  Some employers had long orientations and intensive training, with long lists of rules and thick handbooks.  Others had none.  I worked for a telemarketing company (I know, I know… but the money was good) in my early ministry when I was bi-vocational.  They had a week of training, eight hours a day, where they went over a very defined set of rules.  Yet, when I finished my training, I knew what was expected and could function well without getting into trouble.  Contrast that with the mom-and-pop gun shop where I worked as a college student.  They had no orientation, no handbook, no rules, at least on paper.  Yet, the boss was yelling at me nearly every day.  I did this wrong and that wrong; I lived on the verge of getting fired (and, in fact, eventually did – because when someone grabbed merchandise and rushed out the door, I didn’t pull my gun). 

Now, I understand that we aren’t talking about workplace rules here.  The legalism discussion has more to do with the rules and standards taught and upheld in churches.  And I am arguing that we can be legalistic about our standards no matter how rigid or relaxed they might be. 

Most Christians don’t use the Bible to define legalism.  Most Christians define legalism in terms of themselves.  Whatever is to the left of me is too liberal and licentious; whatever is to the right is legalistic.  And – can you imagine – the Biblical balance just happens to be exactly what I believe and where I stand.  Much of this sort of thing occurs in the current “music wars” among Fundamental Baptists.  I am not saying that we don’t have a rising problem with music among otherwise good Fundamentalist churches.  But I am saying that very quickly, the standard for acceptable and unacceptable music depends on a particular man and his standard rather than on the principles in God’s Word.  “My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” This sort of thing leads to all kinds of hostility and in-fighting and bickering and sniping and ungodliness. 

God as my witness, I try to preach standards I believe come from the Bible.  I will grant you that I could be too strict on this and not strict enough on that.  But I try to apply the principles I find in Scripture as faithfully as possible.  When I raise a standard and hold it up, it is because I believe that standard to be a faithful application of God’s Word.  But I am not afraid I might be a legalist because I am raising the standard.

Many in our brave new world believe that the only Scriptural standard is no standard at all.  Why do we even preach standards?  If you preach a standard at all, some consider you a legalist.  And believe me, that standard (against preaching standards) can be wielded in a legalistic way as much as any other standard.

Legalism is not defined by a particular set of standards.

Legalism is an attitude.

I will grant you that the attitude gets on us more when we have more rules or when those rules become central to our ideal of holiness.  In fact, I would argue that the “higher” your standards are, the more you must guard against a legalistic spirit. 

Whatever standards we hold, we must hold in humility.  God gives us all different perspectives and sensitivities.  So it shouldn’t be hard to recognize that some will see things differently than we do.  We should be able to give people space (and grace) when they differ.

After my initial offering on legalism, a friend asked me if the people who wear head coverings or refuse to have a Christmas tree condemn me because I disagree.  “Do they preach/teach you need to shun those that don’t believe the same things you practice?” This really is the heart of the issue. 

So, let me propose a different definition of legalism than has been offered by influential evangelicals like John Piper. 

Legalism is a prideful spirit that uses rules or standards to promote the self, to glory in the self rather than in the Lord. 

Legalism says, my standards are higher than yours, so I am a better Christian than you.  Evangelicals, ecumenicists, and neo-evangelicals should not think that they are immune from the kind of pride that springs out of legalism.  And neither should we.  Instead, we must guard our own hearts against spiritual pride.

Whatever rules or standards I believe and preach, I want to think they are true to Scripture.  And, as things go, if I am right, someone else is wrong.  So what am I commanded to do if they are wrong?

 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.  Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.  For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.  But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.  For every man shall bear his own burden.  (Galatians 6:1-5)

Paul packs a lot of freight into that tiny passage.  If you believe that a fellow Christian’s standards jeopardize his sanctification, by all means, seek to recover your brother.  But guard yourself against spiritual pride.  Love your brother and hold your own view in humility.  And especially, recognize that your brother’s difference with you might not amount to a denial of the faith – every man shall bear his own burden, and we all stand before God for how we carry ourselves in this world.  Thus, Paul gives some careful instructions about these kinds of differences.

Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.  Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant?  to his own master he standeth or falleth.  Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.  One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike.  Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.  He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.  He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.  For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.  For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.  For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.  But why dost thou judge thy brother?  or why dost thou set at nought thy brother?  for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.  (Romans 14:3-10)

We have an astonishing capacity for legalism – spiritual pride that revolves around the rules we have and the standards we hold.  This is true across the spectrum, and we must avoid it.  I do not wish to be misunderstood here.  I hold to several standards that would get me mocked by anti-fundamentalists.  I am not ashamed.  But pride has a way of creeping into even the best things about us – maybe I should say, especially into the best things about ourselves.  Guard against it, friend.  I have observed that the rules/standards we hold do not drive people away nearly so much as the attitude with which we hold those rules and standards.

I trust that you will know what to do with this.

4 thoughts on “Legalism and Scripture 3: We’re All Legalists

  1. Dona Rogovsky

    Enjoyable read but I do have a question I would like your take on why it’s important what we wear to church. I personally would not wear anything but dress clothes be it pants or a dress. In Fl and other places I have seen jeans, shorts tee shirts. God says come as you are and is that all they have to wear? I don’t usually judge but have seen women old and young dressed in sundress without undergarments that are undoubtedly not appropriate. How do you approach that without offending the person or driving them away. I had friends that were in a church that had openly gay members and there response to me was we’re not here to judge when I asked about their beliefs. I struggle with not being able to find a good church here and get involved because David takes up a lot of my time and even when I read and start Bible studies I get interrupted way to much to absorb. So each morning is devotionals which I really enjoy to start my day.


    1. Hi Aunt Dona, I always appreciate your feedback. God doesn’t say come as you are anywhere that I am aware of. Churches that say this are trying to seem welcoming, but I think they are welcoming more than they should. Clearly, you are recognizing this as well. “Come as you are” implies “stay as you are,” and that is contrary to the gospel.

      We should give God our best, and that includes what we wear, especially for something as sacred as worship. This is why I preach and believe that “Sunday best” is still right for worship.


  2. Pingback: Legalism and Scripture 4: Pastor, Preach Standards – The Village Smithy

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