Legalism is a term commonly thrown around in the Western Church; we want to avoid legalism at all costs and focus on Christian liberty. We want to interpret Scripture ourselves and not be restricted by someone else’s idea of how we are supposed to obey biblical commands. As a result, many of us have a highly-sensitive Legalist radar. Any time it seems someone is adding unnecessary rules to Scripture, we are quick to point this out and label it as legalism. However, while legalists may very well be the “rule police”, I fear many of us have become self-appointed “legalist police.”
In this post and the next, we will look at conscience conviction and extending charity to those whom we view as legalistic. True legalism is, indeed, full of deadly poison. It promotes self-righteousness and downplays the grace of God. One type of legalism is externalism, which is rule-keeping for the sake of rule-keeping; it is just cold obedience to rules. It loses sight of our calling to love God and others and serve with a heart of gratitude. This may lead to keeping the “letter of the law”, but forgetting the spirit behind it, like the Pharisees who said Jesus shouldn’t heal on the Sabbath (Matt 12:9-14). In reality, the Sabbath command limits ordinary daily work—it certainly does not prohibit protecting life or restoring health, as Jesus pointed out. Another form of legalism adds man-made rules to Scripture and treats them as if they are divine precepts. This leads to seeking to bind others’ consciences to these restrictions which are not actually required of us by God. (Note the difference between “I do not feel I should watch movies” versus “none of us must watch movies.”) Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for trying to regulate others’ behaviors this way, “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7-8).
The form of legalism which adds rules to Scripture and attributes them to God is probably the most odious form of legalism to most of us. We can’t necessarily see if someone’s heart motivations are right as they externally obey commands, but we are quick to sniff out what we perceive as self-righteousness because someone is “holier than thou”, going above and beyond Scripture by following rules they have devised.
My concern is that we are so quick to spot what we think are “extra-rule-makers” and are quick to misapply the ungracious “legalist” term to fellow believers. However, we’re actually not very good at this because often we’re unlovingly chasing down the wrong thing. Looking to a couple examples from Paul may help us recalibrate our legalism radar and help us to extend charity to other believers.
First, in Romans 14 Paul describes a situation (similar to one in 1 Cor. 8) where he explains that some with a weaker faith may be overly cautious with some conscience convictions, such as by abstaining unnecessarily from certain foods which were not actually prohibited for New Testament believers. Those with a stronger faith knew they could eat anything without sinning. However, even having this accurate knowledge is no point for boasting or looking down on those with doubts because no one should “think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3, emphasis added). Since even faith is a gift assigned in a certain measure to us by God, they could not lord it over the brothers who, at least at that time, had a weaker faith and doubts about what foods were permissible.
Interestingly, Paul emphasizes that people on both ends of the spectrum of conviction on that matter (those acting with more liberty and those exercising excessive caution) should not judge each other, for they were both seeking to honor Christ in what they do (Romans 14:6). It is clear no one was sinning in this situation; it was mainly a matter of extra caution on the part of those who abstained from certain foods. This is important because to us this would seem the “cautious brother” is adding restrictions beyond what Scripture requires in order to please God. Yet Paul is much more sympathetic to those who are acting on their own personal conscience convictions. He doesn’t condemn those with doubts about certain foods—he actually says those brothers should be welcomed. This should give us pause when we think someone is legalistic because they do something we think is unnecessary for obedience to God. If that is their conscience conviction, it is appropriate for them to follow it until they are convinced otherwise from Scripture. We cannot judge their heart motives.
Far from condemning the scrupulous brother, Paul cautions those who (rightly) know they have more freedom. In 1 Corinthians 7:8-13, he warns that if you deliberately flaunt your freedom in front of those with a tender conscience, you are sinning against them and against Christ (vv11-12). Paul never feels this is letting legalists off the hook. He just calls everyone to love the “cautious brother”.
Another apostolic example relates to circumcision. If we heard of someone who said circumcision was a necessary part of being a Christ follower, similar to baptism as commanded by Jesus (Matt 28:19), we would be quick to say they were legalistically binding others with unneeded requirements… they are “Judaizers”! (And, indeed, those who taught that circumcision was required for salvation were denounced, as in Acts 15.) Yet Paul, who said circumcision was not required for Christians, knew some of these men and did not make it a point to criticize them or say they were destroying the Gospel through weak faith or, worse yet, toxic legalism. On the contrary, he wrote, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me” (Col 4:10-11, emphasis added). These men whom most of us would be tempted to say were “adding rules” to God’s commands were probably continuing circumcision to ensure they were not violating God’s command or their own consciences. Rather than judge them harshly, Paul values them as fellow kingdom workers.
Having negative presumptions against the “stricter brother”, especially if we are drawing that conclusion with limited information or minimal personal relationship with that person, does not engender warm brotherly affection. It only fosters suspicion and mental accusations. Stricter conviction does not equal legalism. Paul makes this clear.
So, before we jump to assuming someone is a legalist because their conscience is bound on things we feel are not bound by God in Scripture, let us remember Paul’s wide mercy for those with a tender conscience and his reminder that we should not violate our own conscience nor flaunt our freedom before others (Romans 14:20-23).
We should pray for our brothers and sisters and thank God that they are fellow kingdom workers.