Legalism is a complicated subject. It stirs emotive responses from many Christians. If you’re in it, it’s hard to get out. If you did come out of it, it’s easy to overreact and go to some dangerous places. In this two-part series, I’m going to attempt to identify some of the problems while offering biblical solutions.
Listen to the podcast
You may want to read:
- How to Overcome the Fear of Others
- How to Make a Decision about Anything
- Christian Legalism: People-Pleasing and Performance Traps
Christian legalism does not imply a “work righteousness” because true Christians know they are saved apart from their works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But there is a type of “legalism” that stifles and suffocates authentic believers from the unspeakable joy that comes with their inheritance.
I was sitting with a friend a few years ago in a parking lot just after lunch. We were chatting. He was sharing with me about how contemporary Christian music was “worldly.”
I found it instructive that he could discern worldliness by external observation. I decided to draw him out about how he could know what “worldly music” is by listening to it, which is why I asked him to define worldliness for me.
He stated that it was the style that made it worldly. He believed modern music was “worldly,” and he located worldliness as something “out there in the world” rather than something in our hearts (James 1:14-15; 1 John 2:15-16).
His perspective made me more curious, so I asked him about drums. He said that drums were worldly too, but not in all contexts. To have a drum in your home is not necessarily worldly, for example.
A Christian living in Africa playing drums in a church meeting is not worldly either, but to have a drum in a church building in America would be. His interpretation of worldliness for all Christians depended on context and culture.
It reminded me of my first Greek class during my undergrad program. My professor told me about a rule in Greek and said that it was always the same in every case, except in “this” particular case. Then he talked about this other rule that applied all the time as well—except for certain exceptions.
I thought, “Greek is going to be impossible to learn. Why can’t they make one rule that applies universally?” After a few minutes with my friend, I was thinking similarly about worldliness.
He believed that a woman who wore pants to a church service would be worldly. But she could wear pants while camping or working in her backyard. She could also wear a swimsuit to the pool or beach, but she needs to cover her body in other places like while shopping or going on a picnic because it would tempt men to sin if they saw her immodesty. (I silently wondered if men don’t lust while near an ocean.)
My friend would not go to a public movie theater but would watch a movie on his television. He would not look at a woman in a swimsuit, but view a similarly attired woman on the television doing gymnastics or ice skating.
He had an extensive list to live by, and it changed by the setting, context or situation. What I did appreciate was his honesty and transparency, and particularly his desire to live a Christian life before God and others. In that way, he was refreshing and inspiring.
His Christian mentors trained him to base worldliness on stylistic issues, personal preferences, and community expectations. I agree with him in a sense: Christians should be discerning about how we live in God’s world. We must be disciplined while always pursuing righteous ways (Ephesians 4:22-24). Holiness matters.
But a significant point in which I differed from my friend is how he defined worldliness. He could look at a person and determine if that person was “worldly” based on external observations. Perhaps you can do that, too. I do not have that gift.
I have found it nearly impossible to look at a person externally and accurately judge them as being a lover of Christ or a lover of the world. The length of a person’s hair or their personal music preferences are shaky assumptions to determine the spiritual condition of an individual’s soul.
My Worldly Jesus
It would be challenging to pick Jesus out of a crowd of Israelites because He was so much like them (Matthew 26:48). He looked like everyone else. Others accused Him of sin because he hung out with unsavory people (Matthew 19:14; Luke 7:37–39). It becomes confusing and subjective when style preferences are the criteria for discerning worldliness. Jesus hung out with His world, He ate with His world, He drank with His world, and He dressed like His world. But Christ was not worldly.
My friend’s approach to discerning worldliness was precarious because he was judging external appearances while missing the motives of heart (Luke 6:43-45). It elevated his preferences to conscience-binding authority, e.g., drums in an African church are okay, but not in an American church. Is this the bible speaking? Or is it white, American, conservative Christian-speak?
It tempts Christians to compare “my list with your list of standards.” In my friend’s system, each Cristian would have different lists depending on their interpretation of worldly. A “comparative religious culture” is not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12). This perspective is why Christian communities draw more attention to their stylistic distinctions that make them look different than the culture in which they live.
The Gnostic Christians
Though “fruit inspection” is a Christian expectation, there must be wisdom and humility when doing it because external observations do not always tell you all that you need to know about a person. Christians who are “externally-centered” tend to embrace a “Gnostic approach” to discerning folks—albeit they would never say they have a “Gnostic worldview.”
Though the Lord calls you to be a fruit inspector, you must challenge your assumptions with humility, wisdom, and charity.
The Gnostics believed—in part—that the world was terrible and knowledge was good, the earth was corrupt and the “spiritual” was good. They put an accent on the internal—the “Gnosis” (knowledge). They stayed away from earthly things because it would defile them. Legalism borrows from this worldview.
The legalist figures out what is wrong—primarily through external observations—and stays away from those things. They also stay away from those who associate with anyone who participates with the supposed bad things. This posture keeps them from contamination. As a double-measure, they do not associate with anyone who associates with the person who does “evil stuff.”
There is a contrived theology that communicates this methodology. It is called the “doctrine of separation,” which can domino into multiple iterations that (1) separate from the person who associates with the person (2) who associates with the person (3) who associates with the evil thing. It can become quite convoluted and confusing for the novice legalist.
The Doctrine of Separation
The New Testament Pharisees were proficient at living out this separated and structured lifestyle. They had Gnostic tendencies, which Jesus was not shy about condemning. (Read Matthew 23:1-39) The Pharisees’ doctrine of separation led them to hold the Law up as the epicenter of life, and then they placed “hedges” around those 600+ laws.
There was a fear that they would break the Law, so they erected safe barriers (doctrine of separation) to keep them from messing up the Law. The sad consequence is that they were noted for their “spirituality” by the number of hedges they set-up, all of which was extra-biblical. Their severe asceticism led to a breakdown in their theology—spiritually, logically, practically, and relationally.
As the generations passed, the succeeding followers forgot the intent of the hedge, and due to their ignorance, they elevated these tertiary practices to the place of the Law. Thus, the Law expanded into a strict traditionalism that bound people in their consciences to maintain something that God did not demand.
As you might imagine, there are many dangers to ascetic practices. I have seen three recurring ones, which are fear of others, erratic lifestyles, and cultural irrelevance.
Fear of Others
Legalism is a “fear-based culture.” Being afraid is one of the strongest temptations for external rule-keepers. They live in a culture that is rife with insecurity. It is a “list culture.” Everyone has a list to live by, and seemingly no one lives according to the same set of “rule-ish preferences.” Because they hold their standards at the “level of the conscience,” the list becomes a matter of authority for a legalist.
But it is worse than that. When these legalistic Christians interact with other legalistic believers who do not practice things that they do, there is a temptation to judge them uncharitably because the assumption is that they are sinning—according to their legalistic list of rules to live by to be right with God.
These legalists are always awkwardly (if not dogmatically) explaining why they do “this or that” or why they don’t do what others do. They are painfully careful about what they say within their circles because harsh and punitive judgments are real. They don’t want to be known as a compromiser or “liberal,” according to how others within their rule-based community interpret their “beliefs.” It’s not just a fear-based culture, but it’s an exhausting one, too.
God does not call us to instability or double-mindedness (James 1:5-7). And He is not calling us to create a culture that draws more attention to our styles and preferences than our Lord. It is not wise to develop choices for statement-making—even if that was not your intent. Drawing attention to yourself through immodesty or over-modesty is not necessary or prudent.
The Lord is not the author of this type of confusion. Imagine if you gave your permission to a friend to go to a movie theater, but your other friends believed it was a sin to do what you did. But these same friends would watch a video at home. Because they live in a fear-based culture to where the majority controls what they do or don’t do, this scenario is a picture of erraticness, e.g., you can’t go to a movie, but you can watch one at home.
What is worldly here? The movie? The building? The event? I know some Christians who travel to another town to watch a film so their Christian friends would not see them at a movie theater. They would say that being seen at a theater would be a stumbling block to their Christian friends. And they are correct? Yes, in a sense. (Paul explains why they are correct, but a primary key here is that you don’t want to leave your legalistic friend in his bondage.)
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. – 1 Corinthians 8:1
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. – 1 Corinthians 8:7
Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. – 1 Corinthians 8:13
How to Make a Decision about Anything
Ironically, my buddy who was watching a movie in another town was more concerned about hiding from the Christians than the non-Christians. Our life is sideways when we’re shielding ourselves from the Christians but have less concern about what non-Christians see, think, or say about us. Suppose you met a pagan in another town while attending a movie and led him to Christ.
- What would you do when your new Christian friend invited you to a movie?
- What would you say?
- Would you say it was a sin to watch movies in a theater, though you do that?
- Would you go with him?
- Would you ask him to go to another town because it is wrong for you to watch it in a locale where you are known?
- Do you know how not to be a stumbling block while not leaving a legalist in bondage?
Jesus was a relevant man. He always connected Himself to His culture. He intentionally embedded Himself within the milieu of His day. Jesus was not a white, blue-eyed, pristine robe wearing, purple sash bearing, halo-supporting kind of guy.
Christ was not out-of-step with His community. People didn’t look at Him and feel odd for His “external separatist’s ways.” He blended with the people. He was different, but the differences were not culture-centered style choices.
Ironically, He had more anti-religious rules than anti-cultural ones. He would work on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-2). He would trash a “church building” (John 2:13-16). He condemned religious people (Matthew 23:1-39). He hung with a harlot (John 8:1-11). Though He was out of step with the so-called holy people, He was not out-of-step with His community.
He had a “gathering ability” when it came to the culture. They flocked to Him. They wanted to be with Him, not because He was externally different, but because He was like them, albeit a much better version of them. The fundamental difference was that He was internally different.
The legalistic Christian has created a sub-culture that is rife for insecure people with a bent toward rule-keeping. In this way, they are anti-Jesus by separating themselves from their culture.
And their culture has separated from them because the legalistic Christian is weird and not compelling. But this Christian sub-culture believes they are bringing glory to God by not engaging the folks that Jesus came to save. Their separation creates and perpetuates isolation and irrelevance.
Continued in Part Two…