Last week we considered the possibility that we may be too quick to call fellow brothers and sisters legalistic because they have a stricter conscience conviction on something. Paul was actually very forgiving of these brothers with overly cautious conscience convictions and even tells us to welcome these brothers. We mainly concluded that we should be as gracious as Paul in those situations. Now we will focus a bit more on self-examination and practical questions to ask ourselves.
We are right to be wary of legalism because the legalism divorces God’s commands from his covenant with His people. It also makes people mean! Legalists are known for being harsh and uncharitable, especially to other Christians. They are judgmental because the rest of us do not meet their standards of Christian living. Yet after his discussion of the unnecessarily cautious brothers (whom he did not consider legalists), Paul calls those in disagreement to strive to “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6). In pursuit of unity, we should be slow to jump to conclusions about someone else’s motivations and actions or accuse other believers of legalism merely because they have a more stringent interpretation of certain commands.
Ironically, the uncharitable, fault-finding attitude we ascribe to legalists becomes our own attitude if we are quick to criticize others whom we (mis)perceive as legalistic. We must be humble enough to admit that we could be misjudging their heart motives.
Focusing on others’ presumed legalism is often misguided and directs attention away from our own failures to examine God’s Word for ourselves and to love fellow believers. It may be helpful to self-examine by thinking through three questions.
1) Do we think we’re obeying better? When we are quick to point out what we believe is needless rule-making in others, we become prideful and get distracted from self-examination. We compare ourselves to others whom we think are “doing it wrong” when it comes to being a Christian. This creates a sense of superiority in ourselves since we think we have the correct view of obeying God’s Word on that particular point. It seems we are free and they are bound! In reality, this insidious pride of ‘better’ obedience is exactly what we are decrying in the person we believe is legalistic.
2) How fast are we to label other Christians? We are often quick to use the blanket term “Legalist“ to describe a person (rather than thinking about specific areas at risk for legalism). I am not talking about Pharisees who mislead others with false religion, but speaking of other believers who trust in Christ alone to save their souls but who have a seemingly strict view on… whatever. Painting someone with such broad strokes as to call them, as a whole, a “Legalist” creates an unfair straw man to attack, as if their whole life is consumed by a pursuit of works-based righteousness. That, however, would actually cast them into the realm of unbelievers. It also assumes you know their heart motivations. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 5 that someone who is angry with his brother has broken the Sixth Commandment not to murder; we have all broken this command. His point was not that we need to label anyone who has ever been angry as a Murderer; the primary issue is that we must search our own hearts using a higher standard of holiness. Slapping the Legalist label on someone who may legitimately be trying to personally apply and obey biblical commands is harsh and prideful. We are talking about a brother in Christ made in God’s image, not a caricature. Why not talk with them to see where they are coming from on that particular conviction?
3) If someone has a stricter observance of a command due to their different interpretation of Scripture, do we assume they are legalistic? On this side of glory we will never all agree on certain passages’ meaning and practical application. Yet, if we disagree with someone’s rationale for some particular practice, we often assume they are “making up rules.” For example, if you believe drinking alcohol without becoming intoxicated is permissible by Scripture, you may find a teetotaler’s view extreme and think they are creating man-made rules. However, many Christians who are convinced they should never drink have come to this conviction based on their understanding of Scripture. It would not be appropriate for the first group to accuse the second group of legalism when both are operating based on what their actual heart convictions are from Scripture. I had a college professor who said he would rather just donate to a fundraiser than participate in a raffle since he viewed raffles as a kind of gambling. Certainly he was not sinning by not participating in raffles so, even if someone else thought this view was “excessive” or unnecessary, we really have no reasonable grounds to judge his personal conscience conviction as prideful or legalistic.
Keep in mind that, like Paul’s example in Romans 14, we are not talking about someone disregarding God’s commands versus someone who actually keeps them. However, since we tend to think we have the “right” interpretation of God’s Word, we are not usually very good at making these distinctions when judging others! We tend to think we have the perfect balance of conviction and practice and someone who is more concerned about “X” than us is extreme. In reality, we all have some areas where we may be either unnecessarily “overcompensating” or, probably more likely, where we are too lax in our obedience to God’s commands.
So now what? If someone has a stricter view of a command (and resultant practical application) than we do, there are three main conclusions we can draw:
- The person is a legalist. (We have addressed this in detail the last two weeks. We should be much slower to jump to this conclusion, particularly if someone otherwise evidences fruit of true faith. We may be ungraciously misjudging them, which we are not given permission to do. If you still have concerns about legalistic or hypocritical tendencies in their life and you have a relationship with them, consider a way to graciously speak the truth in love. Proceed cautiously, with grace.)
- They may be excessively scrupulous or unnecessarily convicted about something, as in Romans 14. Paul says we should not just tolerate this brother but actually “welcome” these fellow workers, for God has already welcomed them (Romans 14:2-3). Even in their cautiousness, they are able to glorify God by thanking and honoring Him in what they are doing (Romans 14:6). We should not flaunt our freedom or browbeat this people to change their mind. They should not train themselves to violate their conscience, which itself leads to sin, but should only alter their conviction if they become persuaded otherwise from Scripture.
- They may actually be correct. We have not looked at this possibility since it is a different scenario than Paul describes in Romans 14 but we should meditate here a moment. At various times I have been convicted of being too lax in my understanding and application of God’s commandments. Yet we should want to know what God wants us to do. Faith in Christ makes demands of us. It calls for change. Jesus says “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we are followers of Christ and are never convicted of sin—of things we ought to have done that we have left undone, or things we have done that we ought not to have done—then we need to ask God to convict of us sin that we might grow in holiness and conformity to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). We should seek to obey God not out of cold obligation, but out of an enthusiastic heart motivated by gratitude and love for God and others. If we are confronted with a commandment that we have not carefully thought through or which others around us (or even throughout church history) have interpreted more stringently, we should diligently look into God’s Word like the Bereans (Acts 17:11) and seek God in prayer to ask how you can best honor Him in obedience.
And now, brothers, let us see to it that we are extending charity and assuming good will toward other Christians who, we hope and pray, are generally truly seeking to obey God’s Word and honor Christ with their lives, even if sometimes it seems they may be taking some “too literally” or “too far” compared to our interpretation of Scripture. We must always be refining our own convictions to Scripture and extending grace to those who find different practical application than we do. Most true brothers and sisters are NOT trying to make lots of extra rules like the Pharisees trying to impress God or others, they are legitimately trying to practically live out lives of obedience to Scripture.
And for that we should thank God.