Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Definition of Legalism continued (The Wedding Ring: Is it Worth It discussion continued )

The following comment was offered as a challenge to my understanding of legalism. Please understand, I don't claim to be a theologian. I have a wide range of readers, and I want to keep what is presented here as accessible as possible. My intention is to avoid subtle technicalities and deal with realities, to the best of my understanding, that everyone can relate to.

When I quote a comment in a new post, I am leaving off names. It isn't because I'm not giving credit--you can look at the comment box and see the names--I just want to separate individuals from concepts and look at the concepts without prejudice for or against, on account of source. I wish I were anonymous. :)

A commenter says: (underlining is my emphasis)

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."

My friend,

If I read what you offer as a definition and then ask myself, “OK, accepting this, what is legalism?" I find “legalism” is drawing; it is taking; it is defining; it is trusting; it is knowing; it is looking; it is declaring; it is adopting. This is not a definition. This is a commentary.

Now, as you know, there is no law against writing commentaries. (I'm smiling.) But if you insist on using this as a definition, you do great violence to language. Language is the only way we have to communicate ideas with precision. Language is the principal way God has chosen to communicate with us. (It may be the only way but I don’t want to presume to limit God.) If we allow everyone the freedom you have taken to use as definition what is actually extended commentary, language breaks down, communication becomes impossible, and most tragic, you destroy the power of God’s Word.

One of the greatest challenges facing the seeker of truth is meaning. Think about how twisted one's understanding of God’s message to us becomes if we decide that love = lust.

Notice that if you include in your definition an expression of everything you condemn, you make it impossible for that word to ever apply to you. I protest. This is not fair. This has the effect of stacking the cards in favor of what you already want to say. (I'm making no judgment here of your motives, your relationship to God, your hope of eternal salvation, etc., only your method.)

Law-minded thinking is not a concept that only applies to those you disapprove of. We are all capable of it. And it doesn’t by definition imply many laws, there may only be one.

A person might decide that their entire life will be ruled by the maxim “It is wrong to reject people for any reason.” By definition, this is legalism. We might even want to change the rule a little to, “It is wrong to reject people for any reason other than 'heresy.'” This adds a new dimension, but the mode of thinking is the same.

Paul says in Galatians, “Wherefore serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions…” “…the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ that we might be justified by faith.”


  1. I certainly have struggled with legalism and still struggle to give a clear definition. I grew up in a CHM parsonage with a father who loved me but was a strong disciplinarian. I knew the law. When I came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ I struggled to maintain faith for close to a year, because though I tried my hardest, sometimes I came short of the law. It was miserable. One day during this time of struggling, I was reading Pilgrim's Progress. Faithful was recounting his journey before meeting Christian. He told how Moses met him along the path and commenced beating him. Moses nearly killed him, but he finally got up to start his journey again. Moses hit him again and would have finished him off but another man came by and made Moses stop. Christian asked who it was that made Moses stop. Faithful replied he didn't know until he saw the nail prints in His hands. Right there I (Becky) saw that the law kills but Jesus gives life. Did this make me lax in holy living? Absolutely not! It made me want to please my Savior anyway I could.
    Maybe this is too simplistic for this discussion. It was an experience that changed my life.

  2. Legalism=Christ Plus
    In other words, whenever we believe Christ plus ANYTHING ELSE is needed to gain OR keep our salvation. Galatians is strong to point out that Christ + circumcision was a heresy. In fact, the true gospel says that Christ alone was sufficient to save our souls. Adding anything as necessary to be saved says that the death of Christ was not enough. I would fit in (visibly) at IHC, but every "standard" I adhere to is an expression of my love for the Lord and a submission to what I feel the Word says about His preferences. The way I think of it is to ask myself "How did I get saved?" "By grace through faith." "How do I stay saved?" The answer should always still be "By grace through faith." Anytime the answer has changed, I can rightly be called a legalist.

  3. I wish there was a "like" button on blogs, but actually I love your comment, Charity!

  4. Laura, respectfully, you have atomized my reply -- violently, lol. You have drawn out words and responded to those individual words, but not the clear meaning of the whole. Honesty must come before intellect, my friend.

    Yes, part of my post is definition and part is elucidation [or, as you put it commentary]. But as a whole it is patently clear. It merely takes the legalism that Jesus struggled against and that Scripture speaks against and puts it in a clear package, for the sake of this discussion.

    And as a definition it applies to everyone. Parts of the elucidation do NOT apply to everyone, but I merely offered them as illustrations of legalism in action... applied to CHM. I apologize if that was unfair of me, to place it in that context -- but I thought that's what this discussion was about.

    A definition of legalism that lacks in 1. Scriptural meaning, and 2. Immediate contextual application is not fully accurate -- and can be manipulated.

    I can understand how a biblical definition of legalism might be uncomfortable, Laura -- for it seems that you are apparently denying that legalism is at work in your church, etc. But a definition of legalism that does not have its basis in Scripture and biblical theology is worse than useless -- because it can be used to "prove" that the said church/group is not legalistic -- even when all along it is steeped in it, at its core dependent on it, and destroying people by it, etc..

    Please note: I am not placing myself "above the fray," as it were. I am willing to apply the definition part of legalism to my life and context, etc.

    Anyway, more elucidation, Laura -- via parable: Say a well thought and well-intentioned lady such as yourself accepted the task of speaking to her CHM church on legalism. Now, this excellent lady gives her discussion using a primarily secular definition of the word, lacking in biblical theology and applied religious life... in such she leaves the listeners relieved, "Wow! THAT is legalism!" "So glad we aren't legalistic as a group!"

    Now, continue the "what if" for a moment: This fine lady teacher, after neatly proving to the assembled group that they were NOT legalistic [according to Webster's definition :-)], she then steps into a side room, cuts her sleeves off, cuts her hair, and puts on a ring! As she comes back out to finish her discussion on "legalism," would she then be welcomed as the inspiring teacher who just stepped into the side room? :-) No, she would probably be censured and invited to leave [or would make her way out of the church over the unconscious bodies of the shocked listeners, lol] -- but no one there would be legalistic at all, according to what she just taught them! The reason being, of course, is that it was never a biblical definition in the first place -- even though it alluded to Scripture, and atomized it, it destroyed the context and meaning of religious legalism.

    There may be a large degree of cognitive dissonance at work, when a person admits that if someone wears a ring they will undoubtedly ostracize themselves from full fellowship w. a group, and then turns around and piles up words trying to show that said group is not legalistic!

    Please forgive me for incredulity, Laura. I'm not meaning to be sarcastic and I am grateful for your reply and time... But for the sake of clarity and truth, let me ask you: In biblical and theological terms, do you reject that legalism draws a definite line where God does not draw it? Do you reject that legalism takes the spirit of the law and places it in human terms that can be codified and measured? Do you reject that legalism trusts in a human standard to protect righteousness?

    Please answer without casuistry. These are not unclear terms. And they are straight from biblical theology.

    God bless you, as you wrestle with this very uncomfortable topic!

    Sincerely yours in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,


  5. Loy,
    Wow, you are touchy! And a bit snooty to boot. Seems like perhaps she is getting under your skin a little bit!
    Why make these unfounded assumptions? She MUST think wearing a ring is sin in order to ask the original question, and now she is trying to prove that her church, or the CHM, is not legalistic?!
    Unlike you, she doesn't presently appear to be writing in anyone's defense (it looks to me like the CHM ox may even be getting gored...I remain curious).
    Watching with interest...

  6. Loy,

    For what it's worth, I think you are doing a fine job. Keep up the good work!


  7. To Anonymous at 6:46 p.m. --

    No, not touchy. Maybe a bit mind-blown that such treatment of clear terms can happen... incredulous, not touchy [at least not in a negative sense]. As to Laura getting under my skin, I just have to laugh at that one: If you knew me at all you'd know that I wouldn't be commenting here if I didn't have respect for her.

    As to writing in someone's defense: I am curious as to whom you think I am defending? I am writing for the sake of Laura and dozens of people who follow this discussion.

    And as to me being snooty, I apologize if I strike you that way. I do have a fairly pointy nose, lol. And as to my presentations of assumptions in the original post, can you disprove what I said? Logic is logic, my friend. All statements have a foundation -- some people are aware of their foundations, others are not. And others, because of cognitive dissonance, cannot admit the foundations of their words and actions.

    And lastly, I would just say that I am honest enough to give my name. You'll never see me chipping at someone anonymously...

  8. Laura,

    After thinking about the comments of Anonymous at 6:46, I want to be sure and express my respect for you as a person, as a thinker, wife, mother and Christian. It's true that I can come across as high intensity [and any other word that comes to mind, lol] -- I am used to an academic environment where positions can be critiqued and defended, all for the sake of truth... and at the end of the day, no harm no foul. Please know that I intend no disrespect or snootiness! I may disagree with something, how it is framed, etc. -- and may respond sharply -- but the bottom line is that I respect you in Christ! Always know that, ok?

    And God bless you and encourage you! :-)

  9. Standards, or rules, serve a twofold purpose in most church circles. First, to give direction and guidance for the believers and second, to preserve a heritage. Standards become bondage when an individual no longer has respect or regard for this guidance and/or heritage. At that point they must answer the question, "Is it worth it?"

    My favorite definition for legalism is anyone who has one more standard than you do. When you use this definition, all of us wear the label at one time or another.

    Scriptural meaning - maybe not so much
    Immediate contextual application - absolutely

  10. Loy, you're doing fine. Just fine. I didn't think you sounded snooty at all. Speaking of touchy...Anonymous...? If we can't keep it civil, this very needed "conversation" or "debate" or whatever you want to call it, will suffer. This discussion is long overdue.

  11. Thank you, Loy, and no offense taken. :) I agree, civility is important.

    This is not a ballgame where we pick a side and root for our team. Neither can it be a game of sophistry if we have any hope of refining our understanding.

  12. You were misnamed by your parents. They should have named you Rose as in "Rambling Rose". The more I read your blog the more my head spins. In fact, I am going to stop reading it. And to my bedtime prayers I am going to add -Thank You God for my simple mind!

  13. You were misnamed by your parents. They should have named you Rose as in "Rambling Rose". The more I read your blog the more my head spins. In fact, I am going to stop reading it. And to my bedtime prayers I am going to add -Thank You God for my simple mind!

  14. J. Hales -- thanks for your comment... and thanks most of all for admitting that that working definition of legalism, though helpful, was not biblical. Honesty in advertising, lol.

    God bless you,


  15. Charity said "Legalism = Christ Plus" and your response is "Further, if you treat this as a definition, it appears that “Christ” is at the heart of legalism. Now, I know you don’t believe this, but from the equation “Legalism = Christ Plus,” if you drop the “Plus,” then you get Legalism = Christ, which clearly is not true."????

    It doesn't appear that Christ is the heart at all if you don't try to take Charity's words out of context. You can't take what someone just said clearly, remove a word - in this case the word "plus" - and then say something is clearly not true.

    You also said "A definition separates concepts and allows you to distinguish between or among them." Yes it does, but you don't remove the very word that makes the definition valid and then declare it to be untrue. Go through Webster's Dictionary and start removing the most important word in the definition and soon you'll have a useless book.

    To the anonymous with the Rambling Rose comment, your entire comment was uncalled for and unnecessary. You don't have to agree with anything Laura is saying but there's no reason to attack her and be unkind. There are many reasons people are remaining anonymous, if your reason is so you can make those kind of comments then you are a coward, you may remain anonymous to everyone reading but you certainly aren't to God. There is absolutely no reason why everyone can't remain adult, respectful, civil and Christlike in the midst of the most heated discussions, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the blog writer or a person leaving a comment.


  16. Hi Laura,

    Thank you for your graciousness and not taking offense. I appreciate it!

    I fully agree with that you say --
    that "if we do not recognize legalism for what it is, we can gain no insight for how it works."

    With that in mind, it might be helpful to step back one step, just to help everyone get on the same page.

    So before going farther, would you mind answering the following question? This is at the heart of the discussion, and the answering it will make the whole discussion so much clearer. At least in showing working definitions and assumptions.

    Anyway, here is the question:

    Question: Is legalism at work when a person is barred from fellowship/teaching/full church life for wearing a ring? Why or why not? Please answer yes or no to the question and then tell why it was a "yes" or "no" answer.

    That will help everyone to see your definition of legalism as it works out in real life, particularly relating to the subject raised.

    Thanks so much!

    And God bless you!


  17. Note: Laura, I suppose you could answer "Maybe" to the above question, also -- just as long as you tell us why it is a "maybe," etc.


    Much appreciated.


  18. Charity,

    Thanks for your comment and for emphasizing the importance of Christ. However, while your formulation of “Legalism = Christ Plus” has value as a devotional concept when interpreted in the manner you show, it does not qualify as a definition.

    A definition separates concepts and allows you to distinguish between or among them.

    In your own comments, you note that Christ Plus equals heresy. We could also truly say that Christ Plus equals confusion or a number of other things. What all these things have in common is that they are not like Christ, but they certainly are not equal to each other.

    Further, if you treat this as a definition, it appears that “Christ” is at the heart of legalism. Now, I know you don’t believe this, but from the equation “Legalism = Christ Plus,” if you treat both sides of the equation the same, you can get Legalism minus = Christ, which clearly is not true.

    If we don’t recognize legalism for what it is, we can gain no insight for how it works.

  19. Just call me Rose, folks. :) I reposted the above response to Charity after realizing a major typo left it quite confusing. Sorry.

  20. Loy,
    Thank you for your continued interest in this discussion.

    With regard to your question, as you have freely admitted, you have the advantage on me when it comes to discovering the hidden necessary subtleties of logic flowing out of questions.

    For my part, I think I have been quite generous in supplying a definition for the discussion.

    Help me out here. If I am to be consistent with my definition of legalism, how must I necessarily answer your question?

  21. Laura,

    I think Loy made his question to you very clear. Once again it seems like you are dodging a question. Please, for the sake of those who are interested in this debate, just answer his question.

    To be very honest, I am tiring of all of the circular trips we are making around this subject. If you are not able/ willing to answer questions that are asked of you, then I don't see that this discussion is really worth the time and energy that is being put into it by your readers.


  22. Hi Laura,

    My question was pretty much a test case. I wanted to see if [in your mind] your definition of legalism stood up to a real-life issue... and issue that just happens to be at the center of this discussion.

    With that said, you don't have to answer -- the eloquence of your non-answer speaks volumes. And I don't mean that in a smart-Alec sense at all. It just means that we should probably move the discussion into the realm of hermeneutics, and talk about foundational biblical interpretation. It would probably be a much more positive direction for the conversation, anyway, and move it away from the hot-button topic of "legalism," at least until such time as everyone involved an see what methods of interpretation are being used.

    I for one admire that you have been willing to go this far with the discussion [legalism and ring-wearing, etc.]. So I'm not going to push that question any farther, but I would love for us all to begin a discussion of hermeneutics... and begin asking how a person and group can [in the name of Scripture and holiness] craft a written and unwritten, spoken and unspoken set of rules that governs relationships and inexorably dis-fellowships anyone who breaks ranks with those extra-biblical rules and customs -- and this with no moral failure or doctrinal lack on the part of the persons dis-fellowshiped.

    How can a group claim to be about "holiness" and treat sacred covenantal relationships in such an unholy manner? What hermeneutic is in place that allows such actions -- for good people?

    So I'd love to talk about our principles of biblical interpretation! With your permission. :-)

    God bless you, Laura! I think you are so admirable for daring this discussion! Have such a wonderful night and God strengthen and encourage you!

    Yours in Christ,


  23. I would be considered a casual observer of Facebook. As a friend of a friend I happened on this link and became interested in the many dissertations, disconnects and illogical mindsets. I am for the most part totally unfamiliar with the religious organizations mentioned in the post or comments, so anything I say is coming from a strictly non- religious point of view. I do believe in God , but have never thought about or read of His Character being anything like many of the commenters. That said I would like to address the issue in the original post. My first question would be "Did anyone that commented actually read the post". I searched and am still searching for the commenters to answer the question, "Is it worth it?" For all due respect, however you feel about an organizations rules or structure should not affect your answer to this question. This should be a simple yes or no answer. I make many decisions every day in my business and personal life and whether before the fact or after the fact, that very question, “Is it worth it” becomes a very important factor in determining my next course of action. I would be a fool to not have any concern as to whether a decision I was making was a viable one in light of future consequences. As a business professional and a member of several professional organizations, I carefully reviewed the "laws" of each before I joined and decided "it was worth it" although some of the restrictions and requirements, I did not necessarily deemed as being necessary or of any major importance. But the actual reasoning behind some of those restrictions, were put in place as safety nets or precautionary measures for future concerns. As a member I commit to abiding by the laws and rules of that organization. If at any time I decide the organization is no longer beneficial to me I do not renew my membership with them. How could it possibly make any sense for me to criticize, blame the organization for me “not liking their laws”, report to others how unfair they had been to me because they had a rule I didn’t like, or insist they had “ruined my life” just because “I wanted something my way”. Ms. Laura seems like a very caring individual and voicing her concerns and asking the question “Is it worth it” certainly did not interpret in mind to what is being purported by many of you. I say by seeing many of the angry attitudes, critical remarks and unsavory comments, this CHM organization is probably glad you have moved on.

    1. CEO, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  24. CEO, in case you missed that someone copied your above comment over to the newest post on this blog (It's A Question of Worth) and then someone else responded there to your comment, here is the link. http://fergyfamforum.blogspot.com/2012/05/its-question-of-worth.html