What is legalism? How can we know if someone is being legalistic? Answering these questions requires an understanding of how Christian standards are formed.
Three categories for Christian standards
- Things clearly commanded in Scripture
- Things clearly forbidden in Scripture
- Things permitted (left to free and responsible judgment to the best of our knowledge and conscience).
Categories 1 and 2 (things commanded and forbidden),
These are areas where Scripture offers specific requirements dealing with both actions and attitudes. Christians, for example, do not need to debate the morality of murder, adultery, sexual immorality, greed, outbursts of anger, slander, showing partiality and drunkenness. We can be very clear in many areas of moral decision making. Attitudes like jealousy, bitterness, envy, arrogance, and unforgiveness are clearly forbidden.
Other matters are not as clearly defined. While we can confidently conclude that we are rejecting God’s authority in one of the actions or attitudes just mentioned, we cannot as easily determine right from wrong on matters less clearly defined by Scripture.
Legalism is involved when people demand obedience to standards beyond the specific requirements of Scripture (except house rules which I will discuss later). Christians must not endorse rules and measurements for godliness beyond explicit Scriptural demands.
The Church has always been threatened by legalism. The apostle Paul warned believers about it when he wrote, “let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day — things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).
Before moving to Category 3
We must confess that we have not always done as well as we should in obeying the explicit instruction of Scripture. Consider, as an example, the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:19-21.
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
The apostle listed four categories of sinful behavior. At the end of the text, he declared that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Three of the categories deal with sexual sins, sins of worship (idolatry and witchcraft), and sins of excess (drunkenness). But the largest category is relational sins (hatred, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envying).
What’s the point?
Christians renounce the sexual, worship, and excess sins with loud protest but to often allow an open door for the relational sins. I suspect that many churches would experience a much-needed revival if they opposed the relational sins as vigorously as the others.
The difficult category (3)
Moving to less clearly defined matters, the primary area of debate among Christians is the third category: “things permitted, or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge and conscience.”
When a person establishes a conviction in the third category (which we are at liberty and often responsible to do), the problem arises when the person treats his position as something clearly commanded or clearly forbidden—belonging to categories one or two.
When she does this (and crusades for the issue), she risks violating the clear command to maintain unity in the church. She fails to show deference to other believers (Rom. 12:10;14:3; Eph. 4:1-3).
Scripture does not always demand uniformity of opinion among Christians, but it always requires unity of disposition (see: 1 Peter 3:8; Eph. 4:1-3). Although we will come to different conclusions in category three, we are always to maintain unity of disposition out of mutual respect for one another. I realize that this is the point of great challenge.
It’s understandable when Christians divide over things clearly forbidden or clearly commanded. But in areas of freedom, we are responsible for relating together in respectful deference to one another.
When we treat our personal convictions as absolutes from God, we threaten the unity of the church. When we reduce God’s clearly stated absolutes to matters of personal preference, we threaten the purity of the church.
Stated differently, when we elevate something from category 3 and treat it as belonging to categories 1 or 2 issue, we sin against Christian unity; when we demote issues that belong to category 1 and treat them as belonging to category 3, we sin against the purity of the Church.