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July 4, 2011

Most Christians I know seem to consider legalism to be a major sin. Even Christians who are legalists avoid the label with horror. This is probably because the Pharisees, who serve as Christian boogeymen, are generally thought to have been primarily guilty of legalism. Despite this, I can rarely find a coherent idea of what legalism actually is.

Part of the problem is that legalism is an extreme. Merriam-Webster online offers the definition “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code”. Strict, literal, and excessive are all rather subjective. As a result we see a range of opinions starting on one end where legalism refers only to excessive adherence to the Torah but don’t you dare drink, smoke, dance, play cards, listen to non-Christian music, watch a movie that isn’t rated “G”, or go to a college that isn’t Bob Jones and ending on the other end where legalism is defined as attempting to follow any rules. The most worrisome aspect of anti-legalism that I see is the backlash against morality. For those of you who don’t live in the American south this may not be all that common but around here plenty of churches are attempting to separate themselves from the real legalists and do so by denigrating morality. Of course, most of the time this is followed up by a discussion of moral principles but the idea of morality is considered bad. It’s a form of legalism. The fact that this automatically separates these churches from two millennia of tradition is apparently not an issue.

So could we come up with a workable Christian idea of legalism? To do so we need to discuss law-making first. I’d propose that part of law-making is simplification. Law-making takes some larger abstract concept like “love your neighbor” and puts specifics on it. If your neighbor is starving, give them food. If your neighbor is starving and demands candy, we could make another law: give them nutritious food. We could then define nutritious food in the law. This sounds complex but the complex part is making the rules. Once the rules are established they serve as a system of checklists. No actual understanding is required to navigate them. You merely need to determine that your neighbor is a subsection A case, that your own finances and food stability make you a 2B, and refer to table 16C for a list of items you need to provide your neighbor.

Of course, when Jesus was asked to make “love your neighbor” a bit clearer by specifying who one’s neighbor is (Luke 10:25-37) he didn’t take this approach. He tells a rather famous parable instead. I don’t think this is a condemnation of law-making (otherwise Sinai is a very strange incident) but it points out that law-making is not necessarily the best means to get at an issue. The problem with law-making is legalism. Without laws no one can conform to them excessively. But what’s excessive?

If we buy my first argument, that laws are a way of simplifying a complex concept, laws are always somehow second-rate. They aren’t complete because something has to be taken off to simplify the issue. Legalism, I propose, occurs when the laws become ends in and of themselves. Since the laws are not complete, this is actually a way to fall short. When the laws are taken seriously for what they are, one will go beyond the law. When the laws are taken as the ultimate end, one will grow for a bit while one is far below the standards of the law but eventually the law will also start to hold one back. The letter of the law functions as a stepping stone towards the spirit of the law. Ultimately we hope that the letter of the law is not necessary because one would understand the spirit of the law well enough re-write the letter of the law.

So far this is simply an explanation of what legalism is and why it is a problem. Equally problematic, though, can be the reasons why legalism is attractive. One rather obvious reason legalism can be attractive is that laws are simpler than the alternative. I suspect much of this is behind the constant attempt to make Paul’s extended arguments into clear laws. Understanding the world from Paul’s point of view would be much harder but, I suspect, much more rewarding.

Wanting things to be simple when they aren’t isn’t a terrible motive, although it does suggest that one is not serious about the thing one is simplifying. However, simplifying can also be a way to reject unpleasant truths. Legalism can frequently be a way to match outward appearances without making real changes. In fact, one of the real problems with law is that we frequently focus on laws that can be evaluated easily and that unavoidably means laws that focus on the external. If the law requires you to try and make amends with someone you have wronged, legalism may be a way to make sure that while you meet with them your behavior is such that no amends are made. The forms have been fulfilled but the spirit has not been obeyed. The rules may allow us to keep the spirit of the law at arm’s length. Legalism can easily become the use of rules to verify that we are being or have been good while avoiding actually engaging with goodness itself.

The final step down this road is when the law becomes a substitute for God. The law doesn’t talk back. It doesn’t require interaction, only interpretation. The law is an easier master because there is almost always a way to master it. Replacing God with the law is only the final step in the basic problem, though. As long as the law is regarded as an end in and of itself legalism will be present.

Some time ago I had a short argument with someone who did not believe in nuclear processes. “Matter can neither be created nor destroyed,” they said, quoting their high school chemistry textbook. I responded that, while this was true of the processes one examined in high school chemistry, Einstein’s famous E=mc2 was actually the equation for the energy to matter conversion which occurred in both nuclear and antimatter-matter reactions. My opponent held firm: the high school chemistry text trumped Einstein and a half-dozen upper-level physics websites. This example is much like legalism. Like a high school textbook, the simplicity of laws, and especially their checklist nature, makes them a good learning tool. The legalist, though, is the person who graduates high school and refuses to acknowledge any level of knowledge beyond that simple high school textbook. The law is enough – there need not be any spirit of the law or any giver of it. Indeed, the firm legalist can use the law to fend off the spirit and the law-giver. This is the problem of legalism and the problem isn’t the existence of the law.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. antonio permalink
    July 7, 2011 7:08 am


    sometimes I swear you just read my mind.

  2. Eric permalink
    July 7, 2011 9:24 am

    You haven’t noticed the giant metal skull-probe?

  3. antonio permalink
    July 7, 2011 9:39 am

    Lol. No…

    But it might explain the deep dull headache I’ve had so far this week.

    On a more serious note…

    For a long time I have been grappling with this kinda legalism and its estranged evil twin liberalism. I have also been at odds of late with people who claim that clinging to one extreme (they call it ideal) is better than giving way even just a little to the other. Frankly, I’m at my wits end as to how to strike the balance, but the more I learn the more I am convinced that we are meant to strike the balance and not settle for the easy way out. I’m telling you, it’s not been an easy awakening but it has been an awakening experience for me.

    So thanks again for putting into words what I have been (like Mary) ‘pondering in my heart’ for some time now.

  4. Eric permalink
    July 9, 2011 10:19 am

    Ironically, clinging to one extreme is mentally a lot like legalism. It’s simply easier to be extreme in a concrete way than it is to carefully consider how things must be balanced.

    Of course, this doesn’t really apply to some ideals. It’s not easier to be extreme in love since that doesn’t have some easy application and might very well require that one balance MORE demands, but when the extremism is concrete it’s a lot simpler.

  5. antonio permalink
    July 9, 2011 12:46 pm

    hear hear.


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