One pervasive cultural phenomenon in American society is the predilection to be averse to law, restriction, and limitation. “Freedom” gradually has come to be conceptualized as freedom from restraint. Those who do not embrace a lax, casual, and open attitude toward moral value and ethical behavior are labeled “intolerant” and “mean-spirited.” Even within Christian circles, stressing the need to conform strictly to the will of God in all matters of faith and practice can cause one to be labeled as a “fundamentalist.” He is set aside as an immature and pharisaical misfit who simply has never “grown” to the point of grasping the true spirit of Jesus. He is “negative” and lacks “compassion.” And, yes, he is a “legalist.”
Listening carefully to the majority of those who fling about the term “legalistic,” it is soon apparent that they understand the term to refer to too much attention to legal detail. In the 1960s, Joseph Fletcher, the “Father of Situation Ethics,” pinpointed the popular notion of “legalism”:
In this ethical strategy the “situational variables” are taken into consideration, but the circumstances are always subordinated to predetermined general “laws” of morality. Legalistic ethics treats many of it rules idolatrously by making them into absolutes. In this kind of morality, properly labeled as legalism or law ethics, obedience to prefabricated “rules of conduct” is more important than freedom to make responsible decisions (1967, p. 31).
It would be difficult to underestimate the cataclysmic consequences of this depiction on the moral fiber of human civilization. Typical of the widespread misconception that “legalism” has to do with giving too much attention to complete obedience, is the illustration given by a preacher, college professor, and prominent marriage and family therapist in a university lecture titled “Getting Ahead: Taking Your Family With You:”
I found out when you’re dialing numbers...you have to dial about eighteen numbers to get started, and then you have to dial eighteen more—you know what I’m talking about? And if you miss, what? If you miss ONE—just ONE—you say ugly things to yourself, don’t you? Because you know you blew it again. It is amazing how legalistic the telephone company is (Faulkner, 1992, emp. added).
The very idea that obedience to God’s laws would one day be viewed as negative by those who profess adherence to Christianity, and then for this obedience to be denounced as “legalism,” is utterly incomprehensible. Such a posture should be expected to shake the very foundations of a nation’s standards of morality, stimulating a corresponding widespread relaxation of moral behavior. Yet is this not precisely what has happened to American civilization in the last forty years?
What exactly is “legalism” according to the Bible? Is “legalism” to be equated with too much concern for obedience? Is “legalism” equivalent to ardent determination to keep God’s commandments? One who possesses such a view would naturally tend to gloss over “details” of New Testament teaching, relegating to the realm of minimal importance various matters that he or she deems are not “weightier matters of the law.” In the words of one rather permissive preacher, “We don’t sweat the small stuff.”
It may be surprising to some to learn that the term “legalism” does not actually occur in the Bible. However, numerous extrabiblical words have been coined to describe biblical concepts (e.g., “providence”). In its classical, negative usage, “legalism” entails trusting one’s own goodness. Legalism pertains to one’s attitude about his own person (i.e., having an inflated sense of self-importance—Luke 18:11-12; Proverbs 25:27; Romans 12:3) and practice (i.e., thinking he or she can earn or merit salvation on the basis of performance—Luke 17:10; Romans 3:9-18,23; 11:35; 1 Corinthians 9:16). Legalism does not pertain to the propriety of the practices themselves. God always has condemned the person who is proud of his obedient actions, who trusts in his own goodness, and who expects to receive God’s grace on the basis of those actions (cf. Luke 18:9ff.; Romans 9:31ff.). But He always has commended the person who maintains absolute fidelity to the specifics of His commands (e.g., John 14:15; Romans 2:6-7,13; 6:16; Hebrews 5:9). The difference between the former and the latter is the attitude of the individual—a factor that only God is in a position to perceive (Luke 6:8). How presumptuous it is for one Christian to denounce another Christian simply on the basis that the latter exhibits meticulous loyalty to God’s Word—as if the former is able automatically to know his brother’s motive, and thus somehow read his mind. Purveyors of religious error often redefine otherwise good terms, placing their own spin on the word, and thereby subjecting unsuspecting listeners to their false doctrine. Those of a liberal persuasion have redefined “legalism” in such a fashion, shifting the meaning from the attitude of being self-righteous to the action of conscientious obedience to all of God’s Word.
As proof of this, consider the classic example of “legalism” in the New Testament: the Pharisees. Why may the Pharisees be classified as legalists? To answer that question, one must examine wherein Jesus found fault with the Pharisees. He reprimanded them for three central failings. First, they were guilty of hypocrisy. They pretended to be devoted, and went to great lengths to appear righteous, but they did not actually follow through with genuine, loving obedience to God (Matthew 23:4-7,25-28). Second, they gave attention to some biblical matters, but neglected others of greater importance (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). Jesus referred to this tendency as straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). (Of course, He was not, thereby, advocating nor endorsing gnat-swallowing). Third, they misinterpreted Mosaic law (Matthew 5:17-48), and even went about binding and enforcing their fallacious interpretations, elevating these human traditions, laws, and doctrines to the level of scripture (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13). Jesus repeatedly upbraided the Pharisees for these three spiritual maladies. But with these three shortcomings in mind, notice that the “legalism” of the Pharisees did not have to do with fervent attention to fulfilling the “letter of the law.” The Pharisees were not condemned because they were too zealous about strict obedience to God’s will. They were condemned because “they say, and do not” (Matthew 23:2).
As a matter of fact, God always has been vitally concerned that those who wish to be pleasing to Him give great care to obeying the details and particulars of His instructions (e.g., Leviticus 10:1-3; 2 Samuel 6:1-7; 1 Chronicles 15:12-13). Jesus even equated this crucial sensitivity to obedience with love for Him (John 14:15; 15:14). Many who possess a flippant, blasé attitude toward rigid obedience, think that they are avoiding a “legalistic” syndrome, when they actually are demonstrating lax, weak spirituality and unfaithfulness.
“Faithfulness” is, by definition, obedient trust or loyal compliance with the stipulations of God’s will (James 2:17-26). “Righteousness” is, by definition, right doing (Acts 10:34-35; 1 John 3:7). Abraham understood this (Genesis 26:5; Hebrews 11:8). Moses understood this (Deuteronomy 4:2; 6:17; 10:12; 11:8,13,22,27-28). Joshua understood this (Joshua 23:6,11; 24:14-15). John understood this (1 John 5:3). So did Paul (Romans 6:16).
In reality, outcries of “legalism” can serve as a convenient smoke screen to justify departure from the faith, and to cloak an agenda that seeks to introduce unbiblical worship innovations into the body of Christ. Make no mistake: there are hypocrites in the church, as well as those with critical hearts whose demands for conformity arise out of self-righteous arrogance. But the major threat confronting the people of God today is the perennial problem of humanity: a stubborn, rebellious propensity for deviation/apostasy—i.e., an unwillingness to submit humbly to God’s directives (e.g., Genesis 4:7; 1 Samuel 15:22-23; Ecclesiastes 12:13; Micah 6:8; Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 3:10-12; 6:16; 10:21; 2 Thessalonians 1:8). That is precisely why, after rebuking the Pharisees for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law” (i.e., justice, mercy, faith, and the love of God; cf. John 5:42), Jesus reiterated: “These (i.e., the weightier matters—DM) you ought to have done, without leaving the others (i.e., the less weightier matters—DM) undone” (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42, emp. added). This also is why Jesus declared: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19-20). He meant that careful attention to all of God’s commandments—including those deemed “least”—demonstrates a conscientious regard for pleasing God. Whether under Judaism or in the kingdom of Christ, seeking to obey God with an humble attitude is paramount. Those who relegate some doctrinal matters to a status of “less importance” (e.g., worshipping God without human additions—like instrumental music, praise teams, choirs, and baby dedications), and who teach others to participate in these unscriptural innovations, thinking that God will not be “nit-picky” over such “minor” things, will find themselves facing eternal tragedy.
Yes, we must avoid “legalism.” A smug sense of superiority and spiritual self-sufficiency will cause a person to be lost eternally (e.g., Luke 18:9-14). But who would have imagined—who could have anticipated—that the day could come when God’s demand for obedience would be circumvented, derided, and set aside as “legalism”? Those who advance this viewpoint are, in actuality, advocating “illegalism”! We dare not mistake “legalism” for loving obedience to the will of God in every facet of our lives. Instead, we must carefully “do all those things which are commanded” (Luke 17:10), recalling Jesus’ words: “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). We must stake our lives upon the grace of God, but then we must love and obey Him, remembering that “this is love for God: that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
Faulkner, Paul (1992), “Getting Ahead: Taking Your Family With You” (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University Lectureship).
Fletcher, Joseph (1967), Moral Responsibility (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.).