Inside: legalism and its effects on the Church
“What is your story?”
That’s the question the Pastor posed to the congregation last Sunday during his sermon.
As a Christian, hopefully, you can look back on your life and clearly see how God was at work directing and guiding you through life’s difficult moments. I know I can look back on parts of my life and confidently say, “Yep, that was God.”
But, do you know something else about my story?
There are parts of it littered with legalism and its nasty effects.
Legalism ain’t it, yall, and here’s why.
What is legalism?
Some of my readers may be very familiar with the term “legalism.” But, if you’re not, I like how Laura Petherbridge puts it: “Legalism — a perversion of holiness that masquerades as morality — can look and feel godly, respectable, virtuous, and beneficial.”
In other words, legalism is strict adherence to the law.
In many church circles, though, that does not necessarily mean strict adherence to just the Word of God. Instead, in some movements, it includes following a list of extra-biblical standards.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, extra-biblical standards might look like:
- Women never cut their hair
- Women only wear their hair up or down, depending on the church
- Women only wear skirts, never pants (and there are restrictions on the types of skirts, too, in some churches. Knee length or longer. No splits.)
- Cannot wear athletic skirts with leggings longer than the hem of the skirt
- Never wear the color red
- Not wearing t-shirts with logos or writing on the front, especially in the pulpit
- Not wearing watches or jewelry
- Not wearing a wedding band or engagement ring
- Not owning or watching a television
- No cosmetics
- No facial hair on men
- Not attending sporting events or other “worldly” functions, like going bowling or the movies
- Strictly only reading the KJV Bible
- Not associating with people outside of the Church
- Not remarrying after divorce, even if there is a biblical right to do so
When a person follows strict lists like these, it may look like “holiness” and “righteousness”, but is it really?
Or is it just performing to stay in the good graces of the lawgiver (which, usually isn’t Jesus)?
Sure, there might be some biblical backing for some of these extra-biblical rules. But, more often than not, the scriptures used to back up these standards are often a stretch or sorely misinterpreted.
Reader, let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with personally following these rules yourself.
However, it becomes a problem (otherwise known as legalism) when leadership enforces these types of rules on a congregation and implies salvation is tied to how closely someone can follow those extra-biblical standards.
Why is legalism harmful?
Let me say this again for good measure: if you feel like you must live by these rules to stay on the straight and narrow, that is fine.
But, when these rules are enforced, used to control the congregation, or are used as a measuring stick of one’s salvation, we’re stepping right into the bounds of legalism.
Oftentimes, if a member of a legalistic congregation is not following the standards as they should, according to leadership, or they happen to disagree with a standard after careful study of the Word, they are threatened with removal from their ministry position and referred to as a “compromiser”.
And, that, my friend, is harmful because it is not compromising if scripture does not back it up.
Not only is it harmful, but legalism also breeds perfectionism, superiority, and judgment.
I know what you’re thinking, reader, especially if you’re well aware of extra-biblical standards. “But, we’re supposed to be perfect like the Lord. The Word says that. And this helps keep us separate from the world and in line with Christ.”
Friend, yes, scripture does say in Matthew 5:48, “Therefore ye shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But, that scripture does not mean you will be made perfect by following extra-biblical standards. In the context of Matthew 5:48, it means you will be perfect if you reflect the attitude of Christ and love your enemies and your neighbors. (See Matthew 5:43-48 for further reading.)
Giving up more things and living more strictly to appear holy and perfect is not how one receives or keeps salvation. Friend, that is straight-up legalism and it’s exhausting.
Legalism can also bring about an attitude of superiority, too. For example, those who pride themselves on strictly following extra-biblical standards may feel as if they are superior, or better than, other Christians who do not follow those standards.
Even worse, they may look down on someone who so desperately needs to hear about the Gospel of Grace simply because they’re different or dressed differently.
How will we ever reach the lost, if we feel this way?
When it comes to legalism, superiority and judgment go hand in hand.
If one feels superior, they’ll likely take on the role of judge and jury, too. Meaning, they will harshly judge and criticize someone else’s salvation for not strictly adhering to the same rules they do.
This can look like claiming other churches (whether in the same denomination or not) are preaching falsities and are on their way to Hell because they do not follow the same list of standards.
Or, it can be excluding a new congregation member from a ministry position because they have not adhered to the standards quickly enough, even though they clearly love the Lord and are trying their best.
This kind of judgment will squash the enthusiasm of a new heart in Christ faster than anything else. And, if we’re not careful, it can turn a heart from Christ completely.
What does Jesus say about legalism?
I really cannot stress this enough: holding yourself to a higher standard is fine if your heart is in the right place and you’re not requiring others to follow or judging them for not doing so.
If we don’t watch out, legalism can give us a false sense of salvation– holy on the outside, but downright rotten on the inside.
Jesus even warned us against this in Matthew 23:25-28.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but the inside they are full of robbery and self indulgence.
You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.
So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”Matthew 23:25-28 (NASB)
Friend, when we follow a list of extra-biblical standards, it’s easy to judge, shame, and criticize others who do not.
I know this because at one point in my life, I strived to be the perfect Christian. I took the phrase “You are the only Bible some people will read” to heart. Even while trying to be the perfect Christian and following the standards as best as I could, oftentimes, it still was not enough. There was always some other standard or expectation I was not meeting, in one way or another. On the flip side of that, I became critical and judgemental of others who were not following the same extra-biblical standards as I was. Surely those people weren’t real Christians, right?
But the thing about Bible is this: it is a collection of stories about perfectly imperfect people.
Jesus still loved them enough to die for their sins and God still used them, even when they failed miserably.
Stepping away from legalism
I am learning now that there is no grace in an attitude like that. There is no freedom, only condemnation— of others and of myself.
Salvation is not condemnation.
After this post, I am sure there will be comments of “She’s a compromiser” or “She’s backsliding.” But, that’s just not the case at all.
I am learning to look to the scripture for all things. And, I have learned being holy does not necessarily mean following a strict list of extra-biblical rules or requiring others to do the same. Instead, it means following the Word of God and loving others as He has asked us to do. That includes loving others right where they are, no strings attached.
Galatians 5:13 tells us, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love.” (NASB)
And Romans 8:1-4 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (ESV)
Love, not legalism
Friend, we are not called to judge others by our own set of standards. Stripping others of opportunities to work in ministry, serve the Lord, or even come to better know Christ because they have chosen to follow the Word and not extra-biblical standards is essentially booting God off the throne and putting ourselves right in the judgment seat.
And, my friend, that is not our place.
We have to do better– for ourselves, our friends, and most importantly, for those who do not yet know Christ.
There’s really no way around it.
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