A legalistic attitude will destroy Christian fellowship.
This attitude is vividly pictured in the way the religious leaders looked at Jesus. It makes its way into a church when leaders or individual Christians judge others by their personal preferences and traditions. Those who do this often support their legalism by applying general commands from the Bible in specific ways and then openly or subtly using their applications to measure the spirituality of others.
They wrongfully place their applications of general commands on the same level as the authority of Scripture itself. And they show their true legalism, when they judge as unspiritual all who fail to live by their standards.
Why is this an ongoing problem?
Consider six reasons (to help explain why legalism remains a challenge for Christians)
1. The desire to please God
When a person becomes a follower of Jesus Christ, he experiences a powerful inner transformation. Before knowing Christ as his Savior and Lord, his primary concern was to please himself. After turning to Christ, he is compelled to live in a way that pleases God. But this is not an easy transition. The new believer is faced with many questions about what pleases or displeases God. He soon learns that there are some areas where the Bible gives clear direction and others where Scripture is silent. How can he please God in areas of behavior and decision where God has not specifically spoken?
2. Difference of opinion among Christians
Things become more confusing to the new believer when he learns that on matters not specifically addressed in Scripture equally sincere believers have come to different conclusions about right and wrong. How can he as a new believer sort out the variety of opinions he observes among other Christians and Church leaders? Is there room for difference of opinion among equally sincere believers in areas where Scripture is silent? This presents a real challenge to the Church as a potential threat to the unity of believers. This is also why teaching about how to handle differences is so important.
3. Crusaders in the Church:
The new believer then begins to meet the crusaders. These are often people who have been through the four “C’s” Process: Convinced, Crusade, Condemn and Compensate
This is an example of how legalism begins. A believer becomes convinced about a particular issue. She has found what she considers to be solid biblical support for her position. She cannot give you a direct statement of command, but plenty of biblical principles that obviously (in her mind) affirm her opinion. She then begins to crusade concerning the issue about which she is convinced. It’s not enough for her to personally arrive at such a conclusion as a help in her own life. She feels a need to make sure everyone knows the truth she has discovered, so she crusades her viewpoint to “help” others. Subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) the crusader begins to condemn those who do not see it her way. “How could they be so indifferent?” she asks. The crusader feels superior for having attained a higher level of obedience. Consistent with legalism, I have often observed another “C.” The convinced crusader who condemns others is very often compensating for some area of inconsistency in her own life—an area appearing equally obvious to others.
Have you ever witnessed the four “C’s” process? This process has been used on many debatable issues—participation in Halloween, methods for schooling children, watching television, drinking an occasional glass of wine, dancing, etc…
Christians too often cause in-house fighting over matters of preference. This divisive attitude and behavior is mostly motivated by ignorance mixed with sinful pride not sincere and humble devotion to God (see Philippians 2:3-5; 1 Peter 5:5-6).
4. The Former Kingdom Factor
Another reason Christians develop strong convictions on debatable matters is related to differences in pre-conversion lifestyles. At the moment of salvation, God takes the believer out of the kingdom of darkness and transfers him into the kingdom of His Son (Colossians 1:13). During membership in the kingdom of darkness, unbelievers develop lifestyles conducive to that kingdom. But after coming to Christ, it’s common for believers to repudiate practices associated with their former lifestyles.
The trouble begins when those believers meet Christians who do not seem as concerned about the issues they have repudiated from their former kingdom time. Sometimes, for example, believers who in their pre-conversion days were very involved with rock music and dancing are horrified to hear about a Christian dance with music sounding similar to their former music. They cannot identify a direct statement of Scripture on the subject but feel sure it must be wrong before God. Sometimes they will even question the salvation of those who participate.
I must emphasize that the desire to please God and to avoid practices that lead us away from devotion to Him is important. The Scripture teaches that God works in His people to promote such a desire (Philippians 2:13). Some believers, however, have difficulty understanding why different perspectives concerning what pleases or does not please God exist. Legalists are just unwilling to allow room for such differences.
5. Applying General Commands
When legalists look to settle matters once and for all on debatable issues, they usually base their opinions on more general rather than specific commands of Scripture. Consider, as an example, the fourth commandment of the Decalogue. “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy…in it you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:8-11). Violation of this command was a very serious matter for God’s people (see: Exodus 31:13-17). In trying to obey this more general Sabbath law, one might ask, “What kind of work is forbidden?” The Scribes offered detailed application for the general law forbidding work. But their applications went beyond both the intention of God and the ability of man. We know this because of the confrontations Jesus had with the religious leaders over Sabbath conduct (Matthew 12:1-14; John 5:1-17; 7:14-24). While the motive behind their detailed Sabbath rules was partly to guard against any possible infringement of the law itself, good intentions do not justify legalizing every personal application. The abuse of Sabbath law offers a clear example of the possibility of overextending general laws. Many of God’s commands for Christian living are given in more general terms.
Consider some of the well-known general commands:
- Matthew 6:33 “Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness
- Matthew 22:37 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…and mind.”
- Romans 12:2 “Be not conformed to the world.”
- 1 Corinthians 10:31 “Do all to the glory of God.”
- 2 Corinthians 6:14 “Donot be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”
- Ephesians 5:11 “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness”
- Ephesians 5:16 “Make the most of your time”
- Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
- 1 Thessalonians 2:12 “Walk in a manner worthy of the God who called you to His kingdom and glory”
- 1 Peter 1:15-16 “Be holy in all you do”
- 1 Peter 2:11 “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.”
- 1 John 2:6 “Be Christ-like.”
- 1 John 2:15 “Love not the world…” (Eph. 4:28-32; 1 Cor. 6:18-20; Eph. 5:3-11)
These commands are important for guiding us to live in a way that pleases God. Christians should examine their lives in light of each one. But different applications will be made from these more general commands. Always remember that legalism becomes a destructive force when leaders or individual Christians apply general commands in specific ways and then place their applications on the same level as Scripture by judging others based on them.
6. Misusing God’s Commands
Sometimes people misuse the commands of Scripture. For a popular example consider 1 Thessalonians 5:22, “Abstain from all appearances of evil” (KJV). The popular application of this verse suggests that it teaches us to avoid anything that looks like evil. Yet this is not what the verse means in context. “Evil” in verse 22 is contrasted with “good” in verse 21. “Good” is used with reference to prophetic utterances (mentioned in verse 20) which upon examination (verse 21) are found to be genuine. In this light, “evil” likely refers to counterfeit prophetic utterances. It’s very important that we examine the immediate context for the intended meaning.
Far too many things have been condemned by using this verse as an isolated injunction commanding us to abstain from anything that looks like evil. The New Testament commands us to “abhor (or hate) what is evil and cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9), but this is an example of a general command of Scripture. Defining evil should be based on explicit biblical commands naming what is evil.
The danger of misapplying I Thessalonians 5:22 becomes even more significant when one remembers that Jesus condemned the Pharisees forjudgingbased on appearances. ]They were quick to label and condemn people based on superficial evaluations of external appearances. On one occasion, Jesus exposed this tendency saying, “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33-34). Jesus rebuked pharisees saying, “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15, NLT).
Long ago, this tendency was rebuked by God when He told Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). It’s much too easy to allow this form of Pharisaic judgmentalism to enter our hearts! We must reject the tendency of hastily arriving at judgmental conclusions based on superficial evaluation of outward appearances.