"Legalism, in Christian theology, is a usually pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigour, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law at the expense of the spirit."
I think it is worth thinking through different types of legalism that exists in various degrees in different Christian circles.
Common ConditionsFor a legalistic system to exist there needs to be a leader, or group of leaders who define the rules or laws, and enforce compliance in some way. When people break the rules or laws of the system, some form of shame, guilt, or exclusion from the group is applied.
Legalism of Actions
Many religious systems will have a written or unwritten list of actions you must do, and others you must avoid. Some actions increase your inclusion with the group, other actions will bring on you some level of shame, guilt, and exclusion.
Examples of external action rules can be around
- what food, beverages, or other substances to consume
- what words should be spoken, and what words should not be spoken
- where to be on certain days and where not to be on other days
- where, how, and frequency of prayer
- what to read, and what not to read
- where to give and how much money to give
- what clothing to wear
Legalism of Thought
Religious systems will also have a set way of thinking. The leaders of the system will promote certain schools of thought. There will be some common beliefs that hold the group together. Questioning these beliefs publicly will bring some level of accusations, conflict, and exclusion.
I won't try to create a list of examples for this. The list would be too long. Different religions and their leaders have compiled enormous lists of things they believe. Beliefs around who God is, what He has done, what our response should be, authority of certain books, authority of certain people, and what the future will hold for different sets of people. Included in this list would also be questioning any of the action rules listed above. Publicly re-thinking any of external rules in some cases may be considered worse than simply breaking the rules.
Degrees of Legalism
I think the degrees of legalism can be measured by the severity of response by those ruling the religious system. Throughout history there have been different responses by those in power.
When we study church history we note when religious leaders have also held enough political power, many people who publicly broke the rules of acceptable thought were publicly executed. In other cases breaking the rules resulted in public shunning. In other cases more grace and compassion may be applied when the rules of action or though are broken.
I find it interesting to note that some of the harshest religious suppressions in history were around legalism of though more than around legalism of actions. I think religious leaders have killed more people for differences in beliefs than they have for differences in behaviors.
Some Scripture to ConsiderIn Jesus' day the Pharasees, Sadducees, and other teachers of the law played a role in the legalism that Jesus frequently opposed. The religious leaders succeeded in having Jesus killed, thinking this would be the best way to preserve their legalistic system. However we believe Jesus came out victorious.
In Mark 7:1-16 we see that some of Jesus' disciples broke the rules regarding how to wash your hands before eating. The Pharasees and teachers of the law question Jesus about this, and Jesus goes on a lengthy rant related to their legalism.
In Mark 2:23-27 we see Jesus' disciples picking and eating some grain on the Sabbath. This story again highlights the difference between the way of legalism and the way of Jesus.
Romans 7:6 (NET)
"But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code."
Galatians 4:5 (NET)
to redeem those who were under the law, so that we may be adopted as sons with full rights.
1 Corinthians 15:56-57 (NET)
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
2 Corinthians 3:6 (NET)
who made us adequate to be servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:17 (NET)
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom.
Luke 6:37-38 (NET)
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use will be the measure you receive.”(Similar in Matthew 7:1-5)
1 Corinthians 4:4-5 (NET)
For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God.
I wanted to highlight that there are different types of legalism. If we look at church history we see both types at play. The degree of legalistic suppression can be viewed by the degree of authority a group of leaders has had over others, and the degree they feel responsible to be the judge and jury over those under them.
I am not suggesting that having rules is all bad. Jesus said he didn't come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. Having rules in society is good. It is also good to work towards correct thinking. There is just something we see in the example of the Pharisees we want to avoid. I think it is clear we need to be careful when we assume the role of judge or jury. I recognize this is as much of a challenge for myself as it is for others.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.