Friday, May 17, 2013

Labeled a Legalist

If there's one thing that you don't want to be, it's a legalist. If you want to make a blanket accusation toward someone in a public dialogue that almost immediately discredits them, legalism is a good word to use. And if the accused has mentioned obedience, the accusation is likely to stick. That's an almost sure fire way to win a debate these days. Convince the hearers that your opponent is a legalist, and you win because legalism is bad.

Well, maybe you do want to be a legalist. At least some people do. I've heard some people unashamedly wear the name "legalist". I read this article, "Legalism: The Un-Sin" by Steve Klein in the Eastside church of Christ bulletin a couple of weeks ago. And, as an extreme example, Al Maxey posted this image on his Facebook page a few weeks ago (though Maxey certainly was not in agreement with the sentiment of the sign).
I wouldn't be comfortable saying that.
The original source of that image was a well written blog post by Josh Collins. I don't know Josh Collins and I haven't read much of his blog, but I liked that post.

And, to make things more confusing, Anthony Bradley suggests that "radical" "missional" Christians are creating a new legalism. This article makes that point, nearly suggesting that those who try to do big things in service to others are legalistic and narcissistic. I've heard similar warnings about Francis Chan, David Platt, Shane Claiborne and others who suggest a radical commitment to following Jesus. I never thought that the word "legalism" would ever be used to describe the likes of Shane Claiborne or Francis Chan.

But, hey, if you don't like someone, call him a legalist.

So, there are those who insist that legalism is evil, soul destroying, joy robbing. There are others who insist that the only way to please God is to be a legalist. Still others throw it around as a label for people who do extraordinary things. Which is it? I'm so confused.

Let's look at the definition of legalism from
1.strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.
     a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
     b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
So, here's what I think. I think that when people suggest that legalism is okay, they are using definition number 1 (though they would likely disagree with the "letter rather than the spirit" part). When folks are criticizing legalism, they are using definition number 2. So, what we have here is a misunderstanding of the terms. So, this begs the question... How does the Bible use the word "legalism"? IT DOESN'T!

So, what are we to do? If we're going to use the term, I think we have to be very specific in how we use it, and we have to specifically state what we mean. But that's a lot of trouble. So, how about we just not use the term? I don't think that's really the answer, either. It is a word and it does have meaning. I've used it, and I believe it has its place. However, I believe I'll be much more specific when I use the term from now on.

What I've seen happen far too often is this. Someone says, "you're a legalist." The accused may say, "yes, I am and so was Jesus." Then, the two walk away from the discussion not having communicated at all. The accuser thinks that the accused legalist believes in salvation through good works. The accused legalist thinks that his accuser doesn't believe in obeying God's laws. And neither one understands what the other believes.

To be clear, I'm not saying that there is no such thing as legalism (definition 2 above). It is real and I have been guilty of it. I am not above it. There are times that I still trust in my own works. There are times that I think I am better than others because my works are better than theirs. There are times that I make rules that God didn't make and I attempt to bind those rules on others and judge them for not following my rules. That is what I mean when I say legalism. Legalism is real. It's hypocrisy. It's joy robbing. It's evil. But "legalism" doesn't mean "more conservative (or more strict or more demanding) than me".

So, here's what we do. We label anyone more conservative than us as legalists or Pharisees or bigots. We label anyone more liberal than us as digressive or lax or permissive. We label people close to us as good and right. But all too often what we want to do is create a label and stick it on someone and then we'll know what to think about them and we'll know that we're better than they are because they have a bad label. This isn't at all Christ-like.


  1. If legalism is a form of disobedience, then obedience is not legalism...Douglas Wilson