Symptoms of Legalism
Does your church impose rigid external standards like dress code and possession restrictions? Do they teach Pastoral lordship? Do you feel trapped by these rules and regulations imposed by your Church? Does the leadership have an expressed version of the Bible that is contended as the only acceptable one? Does your church separate or divide on questionable or debatable issues? Have you witnessed the prideful and condescending attitudes toward other denominations who have different persuasions? Does membership sway from one church to another, depending on which is providing the teaching most appealing to the sect?
"See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ." [Colossians 2:8]
Legalists always exhibit certain characteristics. Among the many, they exhibit periods of great highs and lows based upon their performance, frustrations with trying to become more holy, contentious, condemnatory towards others who don't do as they do, a lack of patience with others growing in holiness, and usually like to control others to think as they do. Legalists have feeling of being the minority right, of possessing the correct way, or being superior to those outside the group. Heavily polarized “us-them,” adversarial thinking, projection of one’s own shadow qualities onto others, making of distinction of how others are wrong (“they” are “bad” and “we” are “good”).
Cults like the Jehovah's Witness and Mormons hold to some type of rigid outward performances as they "work" out their salvation. Legalism - even in its smallest dose - cultivates spiritual arrogance when self-branded holiness doctrines are imposed upon its members. Sadly, those who do not hold to the same level of "holiness" as their elite counterparts are usually treated with unwarranted disdain. Legalist leadership often strive to suppress dissents, doubt, critical thinking, sincere questions, discussion or independent judgment. Accept their standards without contest or move along is the criteria, which often brands the one departing as a spiritually blinded heretic.
Legalists have a craving for followers; seductive recruiting strategies or heavy-handed tactics of proselytizing or conversion (including “love bombing,” that is, showering prospective recruits with friendly, but strategic attention). If a church body is authentic and its members are radiant with Christ's virtuous qualities, sharing geniune love in the Holy Spirit, new people will be attracted to the church intuitively, spontaneously, and naturally. The church won’t need to pursue any attendees with strategic methods to secure membership.
To understand legalism, it is helpful to understand the purpose of the Mosaic Law. The purpose of the law was to teach man that righteousness could not be obtained by human effort. The Apostle Paul had this to say about the Law, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24) Not only is the law incapable of bring us into right standing before God but trying to be justified by the works of the law actually makes matters worse. “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound” (Romans 5:20) The Law was put in place that we would know that righteousness cannot be achieved by works or human effort, that by the law we might be brought to the end of ourselves and our efforts and clearly see our desperate need for a Savior. If righteousness could be attained by keeping laws or rules, then there would have been no need for Jesus to have died on the cross in our place.
"If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence." [Colossians 2:20-23]
The believer's responsibility is to live in the world and not become a part of it. The child of God is to live his life in fellowship with the Spirit of God and please God and God alone. A God honoring life has a clear conscience which makes him impervious to opinions of people. "But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For "who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?" But we have the mind of Christ." [1 Cor 2:15-16]
Paul warned about an ascetic legalism that was attacking the first-century church in Colossians 2:18-23. He said that one could be cheated out of their reward in Christ by four things. These four things were (1) false, or voluntary humility, (2) worshipping of angels, (3) not giving Jesus His proper place as the Head of the body of Christ, (4) and “subjecting one's self to human commandments and doctrines which teach that there is a spiritual benefit in abstaining from perishable created things which are not inherently evil.” (Segraves, Daniel L, Collected Writings (Stockton, CA: n.p., 1992 - p. 74) These things do have an appearance of true wisdom, but it is merely a self-imposed religion that is not able to help a person overcome their sinful nature (v.23). The humility and worship that these ascetics were performing were not from God, but came from their own human will, contrary to what Jesus taught concerning the worship of God. He said worship was to come from one's spirit (John 4:24), not by external adherence to man-made rules or obligatory traditions that mimic the "appearance" of godliness.
Peter summed up the problem with legalism in the conference between the church at Jerusalem and Antioch. "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" [Acts 15:9-10]
What kind of legalism is attacking the faith today? The most common form is that which leads the believer away from absolute reliance upon Christ toward a self-confidence based on his ability to do or to abstain from certain things not specifically commended or prohibited in Scripture. Concerning this type of legalism , Segraves comments:
But the second form of legalism is more subtle, more difficult to detect and resist, and more apt to find acceptance among believers of every age, because it adapts itself cleverly to any culture and time. This is the system that makes one's interpretation or application of Scripture equal in authority to Scripture itself. Every ascetic practice can, for example, be defended by general scriptural calls to devotion, commitment, and holiness. Even resistance to technological advances can be justified by appeals to disassociate ourselves from the world. This can be witnessed among the communities springing from the Anabaptists traditions which repudiate zippers, electricity, automobiles and other modern inventions."And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw nigh unto me , and with their mouth and with their lips to honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which hath been taught them." [Isaiah 29:13]
The "commandment of men" is the religious teachings that make adherents think they are honoring God by submission to man-made requirements. They think they honor God by observance, but God rejects the legalistic submission as "hearts far from me".
The contrast between legalism and the Biblical standard of Christian living is the regulations and standard of men versus the 'walk' of the believer by means of the Spirit of God. Legalism takes on several distinct forms. First of all, there are traditions that are in direct conflict with Scripture and yet they are elevated to a mandatory Christian practice and obedience. Some examples of this are baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, manifestation gifts such as tongues or strict observance of Sabbath day worship.
A second variety of legalism is the rigid enforcing of personal convictions as a requirement or developing conclusions drawn from the Bible, even though the Bible is silent on the subject. Some examples are the reading of only the King James Version; no guitar or drums during service; required home-schooling or no birth control. The problem here is simply that their convictions or conclusions are an addition to the freedom in Christ, and this creates an artificial black and white standard that the Bible never sets forth directly. Furthermore, these are formed from personal discretions and tastes, not from the explicit teaching in the Word.
A third sort of legalism is the enforcement of personal standards as a universal practice for all Christians at a 'higher' level than the Bible. This kind of legalism results in the sin of self-righteousness, a critical spirit toward those who have non-compliant convictions. With this intent, their standard of living is higher than the Scriptures, thus supplanting it. The classic examples of this is that women cannot cut their hair, women must wear a head covering, men and women cannot wear jewelry, women must abstain from make-up and hair dyes; mothers must breast feed; mothers must birth children naturally; never buy on credit; never kiss a fiancée until you're married; women cannot wear pants or shorts, no mixed swimming, no dancing or never listen to secular music. There is certainly value in any of these, as to abstain from worldly association and pursue purity. Overall, the Bible goes to the heart of the matter regarding life, its message does address modesty, motivation, and morality. However, legalism attempts to develop a 'higher standard' by an itinerary of rules that enforce external codes of conduct and fashion. The problem lies in the enforcement of external standards less a changed heart, as if forced external conformity results in pleasing God. Forced conformity normally assures the adherent does not address the important matter, the abase and corrupt condition of the heart.
A short study of Galatians 4:9-10 is imperative here. “But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known by God: how turn you again to the weak and needy elements, which you desire to serve again? You observe days, and months, and times, and years.” (Douay-Rheims Version) How turn you again “Back.” “How is it that you are returning to such a bondage?” The question implies surprise and indignation that they should do it. “To the weak and needy elements” - To the rites and ceremonies of the Jewish law, imposing a servitude really not less severe than the customs of paganism. Weak, because they have no spiritual power to strengthen us; Needy, because they have no rich promises like the gospel; Elements, because they belong to a rudimentary condition, to an undeveloped state to the childhood of the race. “which you desire to serve again” - As if you had a wish to be under servitude. The absurdity is as great as it would be for a man who had been freed from slavery to desire his chains again. If the Galatians were turning again to them, it is evident that they had been once addicted to methods of external works righteousness. External works or adaptations can become a moral addiction to any person or sect!
A fourth area of legalism is to promote personal views in gray areas as a standard for all believers. The result of this is a mechanistic type of Christianity which is inconsistent. This category of legalism is formed from the subjective intimations of what is right before the Lord. This form of legalism is manifested when one says one must pray at a certain time every morning; Scripture memory is the only way to learn the Bible; attendance at a prayer meeting is a sign of spirituality; one should not buy grape juice because people will think you are drinking wine; or one should not buy items from stores whose corporations have made donations to pro-abortion groups, homosexual causes, or are owned by some cult or different religion. While the choice of any of these are not wrong in themselves, it is the imposing of these on others that propagates legalism. Equally, to judge anyone as ungodly who would fail to meet the standard of any personal criteria is again one bound by legalism.
"But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?" [Galatians 4:9]
The New Testament believer is under the 'law of Christ.' [Gal 6:2] Paul is referring in this passage to the principle of love which fulfills the second table of Mosaic Law. This is the point that Paul made in his letter to the churches of Galatia. 'For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."' [Gal 5:14] Jesus stated the same thing in Matthew 22:39, "And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" The law of Christ produces a spiritual fruit not by compulsion of an external code, but through the indwelling power of the Living Spirit.
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit." [Gal 5:22-26] This raises a question as to what is included in the 'law of Christ.' Paul said in Colossians 3:1-4, "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory."