What is Legalism?
So I’m a bit more careful about charges of legalism now than I used to be. There was a time when, on hearing that someone had experienced “legalistic leadership” in a previous church, I’d have sympathised immediately and shaken my head in a pastoral mixture of sorrow and disbelief. These days, I am more careful to ask what they mean by that word: whether they actually mean that leaders were teaching that we need to do certain things to add to the finished work of Christ, or whether they were merely exhorting people towards godly living on the basis of Scripture. You might be surprised how often it’s the latter.
Scot McKnight posted on this recently, and made some very helpful comments:
After years of teaching Galatians and pondering legalism in Paul’s mind, I’m convinced many get confused about what the word “legalism” means. Thus, folks say “That’s legalism!” So some rubble needs to be cleared out first. Recently I’ve seen the word “legalism” referred to the commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as if giving a commandment is tantamount to legalism, and on top of that as if the Torah of Moses is just a big bold case of legalism itself. Far from the truth. Time to think about legalism again.
Legalism is not believing in the importance of law or rules or authorities; it is not rules themselves; legalism is not even following kosher laws. More often than not, this sort of definition of legalism — equating it with rules — often comes from someone who has been told to do something they don’t want to do. (As a teenager telling her parents that a 10pm curfew is “legalism”) ... Legalism is any practice or belief that is added to the gospel that compromises the sufficiency of Christ as Savior and jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance. Secondarily, then, legalism demands that one adopt a group’s special markers in order to be fully acceptable to God.
Let me put this on the table: one can “add” something — say adopting some church’s special markers or church membership or Sunday school attendance or not drinking Belgian beers or a stipulation about what time for a teenager to get home at night — and not at all be compromising Christ or jeopardizing the Spirit. So, it’s not simply about having rules or laws or regulations.
Scot points to a number of indications that legalism is present. Legalism always ends up adding something to the gospel; it is often noted by an overemphasis on performance that, in some way, calls into question the sufficiency of what Christ has done and what the Spirit can do; it always erects boundaries between people who are designed by God and called by God to be at one; it creates an atmosphere that is pervaded by judgmentalism; it is nearly always concerned with good things, but it takes these things to the next level and calls into question the sufficiency of our acceptance in Christ and the adequacy of the Spirit’s power to guide us; it often goes beyond the Bible in order to protect the Bible; and finally, it often has a reverse logic: if I don’t break the law, then I am righteous. I found that a very helpful summary. Although “legalism” is not a biblical word, these comments reflect the things that Jesus and Paul, in particular, were angry about, and provide a helpful matrix for sifting whether something is truly legalistic, or whether someone is saying that it is because they want to avoid doing what God says.
So if someone tells you that they have just come to you from a “very legalistic church”, it might be worth checking whether they actually were. If not, they may well end up leaving yours a few months later, and saying the same thing about you to the next guy.