Legalism is an issue that has troubled me for a really long time, and I want to address it in this post.
I’ve used the word “legalism” before when talking to my non-Christian friends, and they had no idea what I was talking about. So let’s start out by defining legalism.
On Dictionary.com, legalism is defined as, “strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit,” “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works,” and “the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.”
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a terrible concept to me. Yet so many people are drawn to it and even enjoy it.
I was fortunate enough to have grown up around Christians who weren’t legalistic, but then YouTube became a thing and I was suddenly introduced to all these strange beliefs. I also personally believe that legalism is more ingrained in a lot of American Christian culture (I suppose we can blame the Puritans for that), and you will even see a lot of legalism in Christian books here. Just think about the topic of modesty or dating, for instance.
Lately I’ve felt very overwhelmed and discouraged by all the different views out there on how Christians should live their lives. What we should do, what we shouldn’t do. How we should dress. How we should act as women. It can all give one a headache.
People pleasers like me are even more vulnerable to this kind of doctrine. I’m someone who could very easily get sucked into legalism. I’ve watched videos of Christians talking about how Christian women should wear head coverings and have genuinely wondered if I’ve been failing as a Christian woman. There are a lot of weird teachings floating around on the internet.
When you’re someone who wants to obey God and wants to do the right thing, it can be really easy to get sucked into all of this legalism stuff. To think that you have to wear a head covering, that you can’t have short hair, that you can’t wear shorts, that you can’t wear makeup, that women can’t be leaders, that women have to “obey” men. I feel like women are especially vulnerable to legalism because of the centuries of sexism in the church.
It can sound really convincing when some uptight, holier-than-thou Christian gives you a lecture on how you should live as a Christian woman.
Of course there are many other areas in which one could be legalistic, many of which have no bearing on gender.
People can be legalistic about music, for instance. This could mean absolutely no secular music, or it could even mean that certain genres are off limits for Christian artists (like rap and electronic, as they can be perceived as “worldly”).
People can be legalistic about sexuality, making sex something dirty and taboo, claiming that the main purpose of sex is procreation and that we shouldn’t view sex as a good and beautiful thing, or even claiming that birth control is wrong.
People can be legalistic about alcohol, claiming that having a glass of wine with dinner is a sin and that any alcohol consumption is flat out wrong.
People can be legalistic about politics, claiming that you have to vote for the candidate that claims to be a Christian and is against abortion, disregarding the myriad of other political issues.
People can be legalistic about church, saying that church is a building and that you have to go to Sunday services or you’re not a Christian.
People can be legalistic about aesthetic things such as fashion and home decor, claiming it’s “shallow” to have a creative eye and to appreciate beautiful things.
People can be legalistic about clothing, saying you’re not allowed to show any skin at all and that you should be ashamed of your body, which will “cause men to stumble.”
People can even be legalistic about Bible translations, claiming that the King James Version is “the only true word of God.” I am utterly confused as to how that opinion ever got so popular, but these weird, made up rules spread like wildfire.
These are just a few of the many ways that people can be legalistic.
I’ve put a lot of thought into this topic, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that people are drawn to legalism because it’s easier than living a life of surrender to God.
It’s easier to focus on outward things, because then you can feel like you’re being really holy without letting God touch your heart.
It’s easier to have a list of do’s and don’ts to check off than it is to surrender every part of yourself to God.
And it’s certainly much easier to judge than it is to love.
I’ve also noticed that legalistic people are usually very bitter, unloving people who clearly feel condemned and don’t feel loved themselves. These people are incapable of extending love and grace to others because they’ve never fully experienced it themselves. They’re also imprisoned by the law and their legalistic beliefs, and they therefore hate to see others in a place of freedom.
Now I am not at all saying that Christians should be able to do anything because of grace. I’m saying that it seems ridiculous to make rules that were never even in the Bible or to focus on outward things that really have no effect on our relationship with God or others.
One of my favorite Bible verses is 1 Samuel 16:7:
The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
It’s so much easier to make all these arbitrary rules about how Christians should dress and how much makeup we’re allowed to wear and how sexual we’re allowed to be and what we’re allowed to drink and what we’re allowed to watch and listen to. But they’re pretty meaningless in the scheme of things, because subjective rules can’t change hearts.
This is what Jesus was getting at when He said,
Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body… What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. |Mark 7:18-23|
We can create a bunch of outward rules or prohibitions for ourselves, but those won’t change our sinful natures. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.
The Church shouldn’t be some weird, sheltered, socially unaware group of people with a special dress code. We should be the freest and most joyful people around. We shouldn’t live like ascetics, sucking all the life and fun and humor out of every situation imaginable. God didn’t ever intend for us to live like that.
Certain people may get convictions about certain things, and they should listen to those convictions. But we should never force personal convictions upon other people.
If you feel called to dress a certain way or to avoid certain music or to be a teetotaler, so be it. That’s great. Just don’t impose those things on other people.
If only Christians spent all our time focusing on inward holiness rather than avoiding certain things or obsessing about wearing certain things. If only we cared about the things that really matter rather than the things that have no real bearing on eternity.
At the end of the day, we have to look at the fruit of an ideology. Does legalism really help people to become more like Christ, or does it just make people more prideful and critical of others, and even hateful?
What we always need to remember is that legalism does not equal holiness. In fact, all you have to do is read about sects and cults to know that legalistic groups often have the most depravity, such as child abuse and sex scandals. Legalism doesn’t do anything good for anyone.
Legalism may sound really persuasive, but it’s not a good path to go down. It may be tempting to focus on outward rules, but these rules can’t save anyone or change anyone’s heart.
Christians should be free. We should be living lives that make other people wonder what we have that they’ve been missing all their lives. No one thinks that about legalistic people. I can’t say I’ve ever looked at legalistic Christians and thought, “Gee, I really want what they have.” When I think of legalistic environments, they sound like hell on earth. The gospel isn’t about control. It’s about freedom.
At the end of the day, we need to live how we believe God has called us to live, and we need to be unapologetic about our convictions. We need to make sure we don’t let people guilt us just because we don’t live like they say we should.
Let’s care about the things that really matter. Let’s be a people known for all the amazing things we do, not all the things we’re not allowed to do. Let’s be a people known for our love.
Here are some Bible verses about legalism:
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. |Romans 7:6|
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. |Romans 14:13-14|
Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. |Romans 14:16-19|
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. |Galatians 5:1|
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. |Galatians 5:18|
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. |Philippians 3:8-9|
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. |James 2:12-13|