My Thoughts on Legalism

Today, I want to touch on a topic that frequently gets ignored in my circles. Partially, because it tends to be prevalent in my circles. 🙂 I want to talk about legalism. This is a topic that has become increasing concerning to me over the past couple of years, and I want to do my best to talk about it with objectivity and not in a judgmental way. I come at this certain brand of legalism with my own biased opinion that has been formed from past experiences, and as time goes on, it only builds. So, I apologize if it comes across to some as bashing legalists or is read in an overly negative context. I find it important to think about, however, and here are my thoughts concerning it. Legalism is defined as “pertaining to law”, and the kind of legalism I want to discuss is that which we Christians have adopted.

Allow me to give my background. The church where I actually began to grow in my faith was very legalistic. (It still is.) It is strictly KJV-only, pants on women are frowned upon, and CCM (contemporary Christian music) is portrayed as being wordly and against scripture, although no scriptures were ever suggested to support this. Having said this, I am incredibly grateful for what this church did for me, at least the first year of my attendance there. As those of you who have followed this blog for a long time know, I was not heading in a good direction when I first began attending, and this church pointed me onto a better path. I needed to hear what they had to say when I first started going. So please, don’t think that I’m trying to bash that church. I still love the people that I knew there, and it really helped me to grow.

However, as time went on, and I began to develop my own faith and foundation, I began to find myself disagreeing with small things in the teachings here and there. Those small things grew until I found myself consistently aggravated by certain teachings and proclamations of “truth”. I was most irritated by the way in which these “truths” were delivered. While some of these things are not doctrinally critical, there was an attitude of spiritual superiority that made them harder to swallow.  For example, the KJV is the only inspired version, drums are evil, homeschooling and courtship are the ONLY way, and that is the way it is. No one questioned it or looked to the Bible for confirmation.  I completely understand and respect a church’s right and decision to not allow certain things into the church.  I even see the need for that.  And I’m not even saying that I disagree with all of these things.  But, I am very opposed to presenting one person’s opinion of what is right as a scriptural truth when, in fact, some of those opinions are not biblical, and even sometimes open to the leading of the Holy Spirit through personal conviction.

As a result of this experience, I find that I now struggle with heading down the path of completely rejecting all legalistic rules and attitudes. I don’t want to do that, but I find that it’s my natural response to legalism. In a strange way, I’m forming my own brand of legalism. I’m insisting that I’m right, that they’re wrong, and in truth, I’m not really any different than the legalists that I’m condemning when I do that. I’m being legalistic about my own standards. And I don’t want to do that.

My dilemma lies in the middle ground. I do believe that it’s possible to not be at either end of the spectrum, but I haven’t quite reached that yet. I still explode whenever someone proclaims that CCM cannot honor God, for example. However, I think the middle ground can be obtained. (Just for the record, I don’t usually like finding middle grounds or basing things off of personal conviction – it makes it seem like I’m just finding an excuse to believe whatever it is that I want to believe. I don’t mean any of this in that context, however.) For example, I do listen to CCM. I don’t think that CCM, in general, is wrong. As I’ve stated before here, I don’t think that all CCM is God-honoring, but there are some amazing, convicting songs that I believe very much so honor and worship Him. But at the same time, I do love some hymns. I play hymns on the piano; I listen to them on my computer. I listen to both of these types of music, which one is proclaimed wrong and one of them is proclaimed to be right. There is a middle ground for these things. I just struggle with reaching that.

I am naturally a very (verrrrrry) stubborn person. My natural response to legalism is usually to shout/scream, and verbally explode to certain friends and family members. (Did I ever mention that I’m also really dramatic?) I’m not joking. And I know that this is extremely wrong. I struggle with having a graceful response to legalism. But I know that I have to find a way to deal with it in a God-honoring way.

My consistent dilemma is that the type of peer group that appeals to me most is often associated with the type of legalism that I find so offensive.  I had some very dear, close friends at that church that I went to, and all but one of them had embraced this legalistic thinking. They supported the church’s teachings on CCM and KJV.  (I use those two particular examples because they were two of the most outspoken ones that aggravated me.) When it came to doctrine, we were all pretty consistent, and there wasn’t much conflict there. I still loved them and we all got along perfectly fine, but I always knew that I could never talk with them about certain things because we were not in agreement.

So, what do I do? The kinds of circles that I want to be involved with have, to all of my experience and knowledge, that legalism that makes me go crazy. But at the same time, the churches that are more in line with my thinking produce  peer groups and atmospheres that are not conservative enough for my preference.  And I frequently find that the people in those circles don’t match up with what they preach or proclaim to hold to. I honestly can say that I feel like a one-of-a-kind, special edition of person in regard to the beliefs that I hold. I’m pretty sure that only my mother agrees with me on the things that I struggle with. (Although she doesn’t explode at legalism like I do, good for her!)

The most important thing for me to remember in light of legalism is not to take the defensive, offended side and retaliate against legalistic teachings/mindsets with sharp words of retribution. How does that show the love of Christ? How would that make a difference? I’ve admitted, and I’ll mention it again, my natural response is not very God-honoring. I need to work past that. My immediate reaction is to point out why the other person is wrong, usually a little too bluntly and without any grace or understanding. My personality doesn’t work that way. But if I’m going to try to combat unbiblical legalistic teaching, my response cannot be to strike a blow with the same rigidity that they uphold in their own teachings.

Does anyone else struggle with legalism? How do you respond?

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8 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Legalism

  1. This was a really good post! Got me to thinking. Legalism is a hard problem. I don’t feel very legalistic, but I do feel anti-legalistic. I find it really hard to keep my temper when people tell me that KJV is the only version and things like that, because I do not feel that that’s correct. I don’t really mind if they think that, but I hate that they try to shove it on me. It makes me never want to read the KJV. But I’m really trying to work on respecting other peoples convictions.
    We’re in this together.
    -Mikayla-

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    1. I have to attribute part of my anti-legalism to my stubbornness, which I think we both have more than our own share of. 😉 But when people try to shove stuff down my throat as the definite truth, when it’s either not or is just their opinion, it really gets on my nerves. So I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one. Passively accepting everything that you hear is something that gets to me, but I also acknowledge that I might be slightly overly analytical and cynical of stuff. :/ I know we’ve had our adamant disagreements in the past as well, and I think I’ve apologized for those, but that’s an example of ways that I was exercising my own form of legalism, in stubbornly pushing my thoughts. Anyway, thank you for your comment and for assuring me that I’m not the only one who struggles there. 🙂

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  2. Yeah, I do. I can’t find the middle ground either, although I don’t explode at legalism. It’s aggravating to me, but I typically try to reason it with either 1.) my own beliefs, or 2.) with “I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that”. Both are wrong. Thanks for the post.
    P.S. You have never before mentioned on your blog that you’re dramatic. 😉

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    1. Hmm, I usually use my “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that” when I’m trying to avoid an angry outburst, like when I hear the pastor say that drums are of the devil – but usually, I accompany that statement with the popping of my eyes, pulling my hair, and running in crazy circles. 😉 I do have to admire your trait, though, that I haven’t seen you explode at legalism in some of the ways that I have that aren’t very God-honoring. You don’t accept false teachings without viewing them analytically, but you don’t start screaming at it either. So kudos to you. 🙂

      P.S. Well, you never had to have anyone tell you that I was dramatic. You already knew it. 😛

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  3. Well, Lauren, you know me. 🙂 I’m stubborn too (I could give you half a dozen examples from this week alone), and I will admit that that often results in an improper response to legalism as well. For me personally, it shows itself through rebellion against each and every rule I see as legalistic and going out of my way to protest what I see to be a binding Christian heresy.

    One thing to remember: fighting legalism, even attacking, isn’t wrong. Paul didn’t pull punches in Galatians when he was dealing with the issues in the Galatian church, going so far as to call them “bewitched” because they had fallen into works in chapter 3.

    You’re doing the right thing in watching for those same attitudes in yourself, but there are two different ways to fight legalism that come across completely differently. 1.) Attack the people, the standards, the ideas, everything. Full-on charge! This is where our anti-legalism, our stand against extra-Biblical rules can actually become extra-Biblical rules!

    But 2.) To attack the attitude behind the rules, while accepting the people and the standards they hold to. Our problem should never be that there are people who think CCM is not good. Our problem (and disagreement) comes when they proclaim it as gospel truth. That changes the mood and purpose of the debate from preferences and personal convictions (which are fine and probably shouldn’t be debated) to defense of Scripture (which is actually an important topic).

    So yeah, we shouldn’t have a problem with people who enforce stricter standards on themselves. But when those stricter standards begin being enforced as “the only Biblical” way, then once again, we return to the Word of God and do battle from there. Not loveless, cutting battle, but legalism is one of the most damaging heresies in the church.

    Balance… hard to find, isn’t it?

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    1. Definitely agree that fighting legalism is not bad. (Otherwise there would be a lot less blog posts here…) Not gonna argue with that one, ’cause I think that’s one of the pretty good ways to think analytically about things and compare it to the Bible when it’s in a legalistic setting, is by fighting it. Agree, and agree. 🙂

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  4. I despise legalism with a flaming passion! I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, I’m Jewish. I came to know Jesus as the Messiah twenty-seven years ago. Life is great as a result but I’m very careful which Christian groups I affiliate with. I stay away from those that believe a truly saved person can lose his/her salvation. I also, flare up when I hear extra-Biblical rules rampant in parts of the church. One example, I was told about twenty years ago that I’m in the wrong for listening to music for enjoyment. I love music and have been collecting records since I was three. Now these people are telling me all of a sudden I cannot listen to it. Basically it’s okay to collect it but not listen to it. That’s ridiculous! I defy that thinking. Another example is, my home church serves free coffee in the main lobby in between services. The leadership allows everyone to bring their coffee, tea, and bottled water into the main sanctuary. They just request everyone to use a lid on their cups. A couple of people are very vocal about the idea that no one should bring their drinks into service. I don’t see anything wrong with having their drinks with them during the services.

    There are a couple more but I won’t share them all. The only other one I’m vocal about is in the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. I am very for the gifts of the Spirit being for today, but I don’t appreciate how many of them take it personally if I don’t have my hands raised into the air during worship. Another is that they take it as a personal loss if one person doesn’t speak in tongues (read Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:30). I find that to be controlling.

    My bottom line is that if someone has a particular conviction about something, that is between that person and the Lord. I will do everything I can to respect their conviction. The only thing I want is to not have their convictions pushed onto me. The only think I would ask the legalists is, “where is the relationship with God in all those “strict” rules? Food for thought. Thanks for letting me share and vent.
    T.G.

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