Monday, April 30, 2012

What I Mean By Legalism: the most prominent mode of thinking (Is It Worth It: The Wedding Ring Discussion continued)

As I have stated already, the response that has unfolded from my original post, The Wedding Ring: Is It Worth It? was not something I anticipated. My intention all along was generated out of sincere concern and a passionate desire to do something about the losses we’re experiencing. My prayer is that each of my readers will be drawn closer to the heart of God through this discussion.

In response to those of you who have insisted loudly that I committed grievous error and therefore should have remained silent, my response is “No, silence is not better.” Private notes, along with the public comments, continue to pour into my email box. It is clear from these that there is much we need to talk about, and how much better it would be if we would talk about things before we part ways.
I’ve been accused of speaking like I know the answers. The ideas I present are not original to me. If it sounds as though I am fully persuaded of them, it is because they have worked in my life. I’m not pretending to have all the answers, and I’m not looking down on anybody. If what is expressed here is helpful, I’m grateful. If not, in all kindness of spirit, I ask you not to continue reading. Many things I share with you have literally changed my life.
Surely, it is clear that there has been confusion over my use of the word legalism. I’m using this word very literally. I do not intend it as a pejorative label or a stereotypical caricature of anyone. I won’t consciously do that.

What I share with you in the rest of this post is based on studies with my local church family over numerous years. Much of it comes from notes taken during those study sessions.

From Webster we have: legalism- “strict adherence to law or prescription.”

In particular, my interest concerns the mode or method of thinking people use to come to the conclusion that something is right or wrong, how they justify behavior to themselves and (of course) to others if questioned.

Think with me for a minute of some of the possibilities. I’m trying to survey them from neutral ground at least initially…

How do humans justify their actions?

One way we might justify our behavior is on the basis of whether it brings us pleasure. We see this expressed in “If it feels good, do it.”  We might even muster a semblance of accountability and ask the empty chairs of our mind, “So what’s wrong with feeling good?” to which is answered, not a word, and so we feel quite justified. (I couldn’t stay neutral very long on that one!) This would be the hedonistic mode.

Another possibility goes like this. “I do what I want when I want because I want to… do you have a problem with that?”  Here, the only thing controlling behavior is my will—there are no other constraints. This would be the despotic mode. (Despot: ruler with absolute unlimited power)

The legalistic mode of behavior justification then is simply: the pattern of thought in which behavior is justified and truth is determined by strict adherence to laws, principles, rules.

Now read the definition again before you go on and ask yourself, “Does this apply to me?”

If after reading this definition you quickly note it says, “strict adherence” and since “I don’t believe in ‘strict adherence’ of rules, it doesn’t apply to me,” you are experiencing the impulse to legalism. You might read the sentence I just wrote and want to respond with “OK, I didn’t even notice it said ‘strict,’ so I am not that way.” Or in that same sentence you might pick out “quickly note,” since you didn’t “quickly” note the word “strict,” this is about someone else.

Legalism is distinguished by a tendency to emphasize the “letter” of the law rather than the intent of the giver. “It says what it says.” There may be considerable discussion of what it says, even interpretation of what it means, but at the end, the result is universal, necessary, and certain… the end of the story.

The tendency to legalistic thinking is natural and strong. It is reinforced by many years of childhood and adolescence in which our conscience is formed and our will is regulated by rules. (There is no avoiding this; of course, a child with no rules quickly develops modes of thinking that are hedonistic or despotic. Sadly, it is one of the “triumphs” of modern psychology that many in society think it wise to celebrate despotic children.)

I have determined to avoid applying the label legalist to persons in this discussion. Rather, I will talk about legalism as a mode of thinking for justifying and defending positions. Whether a legalistic mode of reasoning justifies a label or not, labels don’t promote understanding, so I think if we are to use it at all, it should be reserved for those who willingly endorse legalistic methods as proper.

When I say “I am not a legalist,” I mean “as a follower of Christ, I reject it as a means to understanding God’s will,” which is not the same thing as saying there are no rules in my life.

In case raw definitions are hard to relate to, let me give you an example.

If you have children, you’re surely well-acquainted with what it means to think legalistically. Suppose you tell your son that it is time to clean his room and that you don’t want to see anything left on the floor that doesn’t belong there. After a while, he comes out to announce that he is finished. You go to inspect. Indeed, nothing is on the floor that doesn’t belong there. But then you realize that there are army men in the underwear drawer. There is a combination of unmatched and dirty socks in the toy box. You turn to him; the question on your face is obvious. He says, “But you said, nothing on the floor.” And you know what, he’s right—legalistically. The first time this happens, you might argue, well, children just don’t get it. And so, they might not. But if he were being honest he would readily admit that he knew enough about your intention to know that what you wanted was everything put in its proper place. But he can still say with total literal truth, “I did what you said.” However, he may well not be honest, and so in order for his behavior to be properly molded, you have to modify the laws that he is under. So now the law becomes, clean up your room and put stuff where it belongs. Notice that the behavior will change to match the new law but the heart may or may not change.

Legalistic systems have an intrinsic problem when they are based on a set body of law, because history and technology introduce ever new possibilities for human behavior. What do you do when your belief system is based on a set of laws which is thousands of years old, and now you are dealing with TV,  iPads, Internet, and Virtual reality?

There is probably no system of legalism more fully developed than Rabbinic Judaism, the dominant form or Judaism since the time of Christ. For the Rabbi’s, no detail of Jewish life is beyond the reach of Jewish law. For them, law is a dynamic living thing. When history and technology change the issues, they simply adapt and reinterpret. Something seemingly as remote as whether it is lawful to ride an elevator on the Sabbath is an issue of concern because to start the elevator you push a switch which creates a small spark which could be considered equivalent to kindling a fire on the Sabbath, and kindling a fire on the Sabbath is prohibited.

Now, at first to us this would seem to be a horribly restrictive way to live. But actually there are elements of this approach which we human beings find very attractive once we see the deeper issues. At first glance you might ask, why would anybody submit to that? But suppose you are an earnest follower of God. Have you ever felt a yearning deep in your heart to please God in every part of your life? Have you ever wondered, “Why doesn’t the Bible just spell everything out so I can know exactly what I’m supposed to do?” Imagine if you could know at every moment of every day exactly what is lawful.

You see, legalism does have an appeal. However, Christianity reveals that a legal mode of thinking cannot bring a person to a place of being just before God. “...the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ...but...we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” “...therefore by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight...” “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness...”

If you read all that Paul writes about law, you begin to realize that he rejects not just the law of the Jews but law as a category, law as a mode of thinking, thinking which says, “I am justified because I did everything you told me to do.” Paul offers a distinct alternative to this type of thinking.

Now, there is an incredible thing that happens when you reintroduce legalism into Christianity. Remember with Judaism you’re never in doubt because law is reinterpreted to cover everything? But in Christianity, which isn’t a legal system, you constantly have issues for which there is no law, especially as technology and culture change. Those who insist on forcing legalism on Christianity usually try to make it work by doing one of two things. Either they create law where there is none, or they take the position that since there is not certain and specific law on an issue, we are free to do as we please.

Free to do as we please?! Who would ever have dreamed that law-mindedness could lead a Christian (one who is like Christ) to feel justified in insisting that the only input of any weight on an issue had to come in the form of a command, otherwise, we are under no constraint at all.


  1. I have no problem with a good healthy debate. I do have a problem with naming specific families in those debates.

  2. Hi, Laura! I have read through quite a bit of your posts, and it seems to me that several of your commenters think what the CHM needs to do is lighten up...allow rings, etc... For one thing, if we begin to let up here, let up there, we could no longer call ourselves CH. What I have witnessed over and over is that when one begins to let up a little, there seems to be no stopping point. Soon, it seems like nothing is wrong. There are no lines drawn anywhere. While I am no radical, and have been labeled a liberal by some, it has blown my mind what some folks do and still call themselves a christian. Not meaning to be judgmental, but come on. After a point it is a no brainer. Jewelry, short hair, make-up, that sort of thing is not a big deal to me. What I absolutely detest is immodesty. I am sick of visiting the "liberal" churches and seeing daughters of church staff and members (who should know better) revealing breasts and thighs. It seems to me so many people who"go liberal" throw the baby out with the bath water. Ok, so put on a ring if the bible does not forbid. But do you have to become downright indescent? It's like if they give up one thing, there goes everything...they don't even stop to think about it! I was thoroughly disgusted to see a preacher's wife's picture on FB in a two-piece bathing suit! They have a CHM background, yet this is what they have become! How is that modest? So, please don't tell us the CHM needs to loosen up, because who knows where people will stop.

  3. Laura,

    I agree with your position that legalism is manifisted by those who try to "create law where there is none". I am somewhat confused, though, by your statement that "they take the position that since there is not certain and specific law on an issue, we are free to do as we please". Does that mean that you are a legalist? Let me try to explain what I mean. I am sure that if you have been in the chm for any length of time, you have heard preachers preach against wearing short sleeves. I am assuming that you do not feel that there is scriptural backing for this preaching. Since you do not feel that there is a "certain and specific law" on this issue, you have decided it is okay for you to wear short sleeves. Are you not by your actions saying that since the scripture does not give a specific command concerning short sleeves, you are free to do as you please? Is this not legalism according to your definition?

    By reading your post, I cannot tell how one can avoid being a legalist. According to my understanding of your post, if we make laws where there are no laws, we become legalists and if we feel that since there is no "specific law on an issue" we have the Christian liberty to choose the stand we should take on any given topic, we are also guilty of legalism. If this is the case, then what in the world do we do to avoid falling into the trap of legalism?

    I am not trying to be difficult, I am simply trying to understand your way of reasoning.


  4. Religious legalism = drawing a definite line where God draws none [often done out of good intent, but with necessarily deadly results, spiritually speaking]. It is taking the spirit of the law and defining it in human terms that can be codified and measured. It is trusting in a human standard to protect righteousness; which then, by default, eventually defines that righteousness.

    In practical terms of CHM, legalism is "knowing" who is "worldly" and who is not just by looking at their outward appearance. Or looking at someone's adherence or non-adherence to actionable standards [e.g. ring-wearing or not] and then declaring them as worthy or non-worthy.

    Religious legalism is adopting a standard for personal and family life which can be measured in externals -- a standard which CANNOT be definitely termed biblical, but appeals to tradition and sub-cultural mores; and, since it cannot be definitely defined as biblical, it uses inculcated sense and unspoken group pressure to maintain its existence.

    Legalism is a [hypothetical] mother who has two daughters who both passionately love the Lord, but she is grieved and heart-broken, often moved to tears because one of the daughters, in following Truth, decides that she is called to wear a wedding ring, cut and style her hair, and wear a sleeveless dress, etc.

    Legalism cannot appeal to Scripture alone as its final authority of faith and practice. It always must add a sub-cultural and/or traditional lens as the final arbiter of what is right or wrong, or "desirable."

  5. We all have to walk a fine line between legalism and antinomianism, (living as if there is no moral responsibility). While Paul denounced the law as a means to salvation he recognized the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2) The context seems to indicate this is the law of love. I have come to understand and experience holiness from early Methodism and the Scriptures as love for God and humanity. It is living out the two great commandments and is described in the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Cor 13 as well as many other places. My own personal contention with my background was it's inability to answer several honest questions, it's departure from Wesley while calling itself Wesleyan and the failure of many of its leaders to live out what they professed. I thank God I met a few whose lives convinced me that God wanted something more for us than forgiveness of sins and an escape route from hell.
    The New Testament standard in my present understanding is this: Every person needs to be born of the Spirit. This is the entry point into the kingdom. From that point on, "My sheep know my voice." and are to be lead of the Spirit through the Word of God in all the particulars of life. One of the ways this is accomplished is through the inner manifestation of peace which God gives to those who are forgiven. Once established in peace, Paul says, "Let the peace of Chrsit rule..." Any action which violates peace or disturbs peace ought to send me to prayer and the Scriptures until I determine what is going on. If I am willing to do the will of God he will show me the do's and don'ts in life. Some things may be wrong for me because God knows me and my own personal weaknesses. I would call that a personal conviction and feel no obligation to expect that of others. (I remember a preacher preaching against the wearing of ties years ago or the color red.) I would assume now that this person probably battled with pride and God gave him a few boundaries to protect him. But to take it to the pulpit was not wise and should be rejected by all who feel no compulsion from the Scriptures or conscience to conform. I think the Holiness movement got into trouble along this very line. I still consider myself to be ardent for a holy life and heart. I have the peace of Christ. I will not do things that I feel clear to do around those who are weak in understanding. I will not be brought into bondage by the rules of man who seek to control me for their own ends. I have avoided the IHC because I do not love contention. I do not desire that my presence be a distraction when doing so serves no real purpose for good. I am grateful for my heritage and feel that I have taken the best from it and left the rest. I plan to do this wherever I go for the rest of my life. Blessings to you all
    Mark Horton

  6. Laura,
    Well thought out post on legalism and encouraging. Some of what you wrote sounds much like a conversation that my mom and I had on the phone this past week as I was talking through your blog posts and responses.

    I listened to a sermon a couple years ago in St. Louis when Lauren and I were home from some time off from Ft. Bragg, and I thought it was a amazing exposition of this very issue.

    He said basically what you wrote but he couched it in terms a little different. He referred to it as "tension." And he was speaking on a bit of a somewhat macro level as it relates to a local church congregation. And he was talking about how a church needs to experience and live in a place of tension, to truly be in a place that is remaining true to Christ and to His calling.

    There are two extremes when it comes to a type of church. One one end of the spectrum a church may be very "fundamental." Which I would normally think of as having coded more standards than most (e.g. you have to read from a certain translation of the Bible, you have to wear a certain type of bathing suit, you can't drink alcohol, you must give 10% or greater of your income, etc). One the other end of the spectrum of a church would be what we may call "liberal" or free. Here there is an emphasis on Christian liberty (what you should or should not do is rarely talked about or coded).

    On the surface, both of those extremes face very little tension. To avoid tension, they either set standards for an entire culture, or eliminate standards. It's easy to practice church discipline in both churches because either there is a standard or there isn't a standard. Of course I'm generalizing somewhat, but this is generally true.

    So I believe, and this is what the psator was communicating, that as a church we need to be willing to live in tension. Not looking for tension. And this is where I completely agree with what you were saying, that while the law Jewish Law (and I would add the law of CHM, Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian Churches, etc) on the face may seem painful and difficult to follow, it actually makes life much easier because you don't worry about tension. You can go to a manual, or an elder board, and find out what you should or shouldn't do. Naturally we all want to avoid tension, but we're called to a place of tension.

    If God's plan were the same for each of us, he would have codified every aspect of life for us in His word. Instead he sent each of us his Holy Spirit. It's our lifeline for communication. When it comes to a discussion of philosophy or ethics, I fall into the category of "moral absolutist," so I still believe that there are certain things that we're called to legalists toward. I may disagree with you, (I'm not sure what your stance is) but I hold that there are absolutes in Scripture and on those things I am a legalist, not in my motivation, but in my unwavering stance on. (cont'd in next comment)

  7. For instance, God cannot lie, therefore I hold that lying is always wrong (again, I'm a moral absolutist). I don't commit adultery because Christ reaffirms that law in Matthew, but again he takes it even farther and indicates that even beyond the legal position there is a heart issue underlying it all, and that is, "even if you lust you've committed adulter" /a heart issue.

    And what I love so much about the body of Christ is that he hasn't called us all to the same decisions and choices. I love the old hymns, piano and organ of the worship I grew up in, and now the worship of our church here with the drums, guitar, piano, tamberine, and loud volume (so I can sing at the top of my lungs in praise to the Lord and no one has to cringe at my horrible voice!:) I love enjoying a glass of sweet white wine as the sets on our balcony that overlooks the Northern Virginia skyline. I know that there are other folks that God has convicted or given them a taste that is for only a ancient hymns and an abstinence view on alcohol, and I honestly think that's beautiful too, because they are passionately living out the Holy Spirit's calling on their lives, and because we arne't called to legalism in those things, we can enjoy friendship, learn from one another, and enjoy our diversity. And if either of us will cause the other to stumble, we are sensitive to one another in those things. I wouldn't offer wine or beer to a person who struggles with alcohol or doesn't believe it's biblical. We embrace the diversity of the body, if we accept that God calls different people to different things.

    Now, the challenge is to co-exist in one local church. The early church only had one church per city. That's the whole reason Paul has to address weaker/strong brothers on certain issues, because they were all together.

    Laura, this is why I don't quite understand the previous posts regarding a wedding ring, in light of your views on legalism, which it seems I wholeheartedly agree with. I think it's either a theological or maybe just a practical issue of me not understanding because I"m not in that culture or environment. But it doesn't matter, I think you explained well a Christ like view on the law.

    The law was great, in that it was established by God and showed out inability to keep the law. Not all of the law, but the LAW (torah). And Christ FULFILLED THE LAW, he didn't destroy it. I marvel today in Christ's finished work in my life. That he paid the price for my sin, both past and future and he calls Saint. The Greek word for saint is "hagioi" which is the word "holy" in the plural. In English it doesn't make sense to make "holy" plural, but Greek it is rendered "holy ones." When we think about ourselves, we have trouble thinking of ourselves as holy, because of course we sin every day. But positionally before God we are holy because of his redeeming work in our lives.

    Thanks be to God, that my holiness is not based on my righteousness, but His.

  8. Chaplaindice -- just want to say how much I've appreciated your feedback and wrestling w. the subject from a biblical point of view. Kudos!

    And Mark: Excellent. Thanks for the post.

    And D. -- well thought out post, also.

    And to the Anonymous that said that the point is lightening up -- that isn't the point, I don't think. I think the point is basing the reason for existence on something other than tradition and personal experience -- letting Scripture be central to life, once again the final rule of authority and practice [living in Word and Spirit, as the Reformers put it].

    God bless you all!

  9. Excellent comments! I am finding this to be thought-provoking and valuable.

    Having wrestled with this topic myself, and having counseled wounded people from all types of religious backgrounds, I recently made a new discovery (for me)...

    And that is this - no matter your religious background or upbringing, one of the end results of toxic faith is legalism. As much as some resist "rules" and "law", our nature resists the absence of "law." In the face of living by faith, we crave structure, direction, law and we often gravitate to legalism while searching for "freedom."

    And it's possible to be just as legalistic about not following "law" as it is the other way.

    Here's to living by the "Law of Love" - which is often (always?) harder than following the letter of the law (or not)...

  10. Anonymous D says, "By reading your post, I cannot tell how one can avoid being a legalist. According to my understanding of your post, if we make laws where there are no laws, we become legalists and if we feel that since there is no 'specific law on an issue' we have the Christian liberty to choose the stand we should take on any given topic, we are also guilty of legalism. If this is the case, then what in the world do we do to avoid falling into the trap of legalism?"

    I’ve asked the same question. Since ultimately this is about inspiring all of us to think, as you look at the scripture, do you see any possible answer? I get my insight from the Apostle Paul. He condemns a legalistic mode of thinking. What alternative does he offer?