A legalistic attitude poisons Christian fellowship. It’s the attitude that the religious leaders took against Jesus. Legalistic people “watch others” instead of “watching out for them.”
Legalists use pet issues for judging others. They typically fail to see the logs in their own eyes while looking for splinters in the eyes of others (Matthew 7:1-6).
Legalists judge others for not living up to their personal preferences and traditions. They support their views by applying general commands from the Bible in specific ways and insisting that their applications be viewed on the same level as the authority of Scripture. Legalists use their applications to judge the spirituality of others.
Legalists fail to respect the category of debatable matters (Romans 14:1-3). A debatable matter is an area of behavior, doctrine or tradition on which Christians disagree because a specific biblical absolute does not address it. It’s a matter of personal preference, not divine command. These matters belong to the category of Christian freedom or liberty.
Guiding principle for debatable matters
When a behavior, doctrine or tradition is not addressed in Scripture by a specific moral absolute commanding or forbidding specific action, it belongs to a category of freedom. In areas of freedom, Christians are encouraged to establish their own convictions but are not permitted to judge or ridicule others for not sharing their conviction (Romans 14:3).
Consider six reasons behind the struggle with legalism
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. (Go here for a resource)
3. Crusaders in the Church
The new believer then begins to meet the Crusaders in the Church. These are often people who follow 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 believes has found “solid biblical support” for her position on the matter. Although she cannot point to a direct statement of command, she fortifies her position with biblical principles that (in her mind) obviously affirm her opinion. She then begins to crusade the issue about which she is convinced. It’s not enough for her to personally arrive at such a conclusion, she feels a need to make sure everyone knows the truth she has discovered! But she only crusades her viewpoint to “help” others.
Things begin to deteriorate when the crusader begins to condemn those who do not see it her way. “How could they be so indifferent?” she wonders. Subtly and dangerously the crusader often feels superior for having attained a higher level of obedience. But, 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 equally obvious to others.
Have you ever witnessed the four “C’s” process?
This process has been used on many debatable issues—like participation in Halloween, methods for schooling children, boycotts of businesses, drinking wine, dancing, styles of dress, tastes in music, etc…
In-house fighting over matters of preference threatens both the unity and testimony of the local Church. These divisive attitudes and behaviors are mostly motivated by a combination of ignorance and 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 their 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, we followed lifestyles conducive to that kingdom. After coming to know Christ, believers desire to repudiate practices associated with their former lifestyle.
The trouble begins when believers meet other Christians who don’t seem as concerned about the issues repudiated from their former kingdom life. A common example is the believer who was deeply involved with music and dancing becoming upset to hear about a Christian dance with music sounding similar to their former-kingdom music. They cannot identify a direct statement of Scripture on the subject, but feel sure it must be wrong before God. Sometimes a legalist will go so far as to question the salvation of those who participate in things they feel are wrong.
Let me be clear about the fact that we are called to please God and to avoid practices that lead us away from devotion to Him. The Scripture teaches that God works in His people to promote such a desires (Philippians 2:13). Some believers, however, have difficulty understanding why there are different perspectives concerning what pleases God. Legalists are often unwilling to recognize such differences.
5. Applying General Commands
When legalists look to settle matters once and for all on debatable issues, they often base their opinions on 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 in the Old Testament era (see: Exodus 31:13-17). But, in trying to obey this more general Sabbath law, one might ask, “What kind of work is forbidden?”
The legalistic Scribes imposed detailed applications 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 never justify legalizing personal applications. The abuse of Sabbath law is a clear example of overextending God’s general commands. Many of God’s commands for Christian living are given in more general terms.
Consider some 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…” (Ephesians 4:28-32; 5:3-11; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20)
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. Legalism becomes a destructive force when Christians apply general commands in specific ways and place their applications on the same level as Scripture, even 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 before jumping to applications.
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 specifically naming evil.
The danger of misapplying I Thessalonians 5:22 becomes even more significant when one remembers that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for judging based on appearances. They were quick to label and condemn people based on superficial evaluations of appearance.
On one occasion, Jesus exposed this tendency by 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 the 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).
God rebuked this tendency long ago when He said to 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.