Legalism is too often an ugly aspect of evangelical or fundamental churches. At its extreme, legalistic churches reduce the gospel to praying the sinner’s prayer and conforming to a list of do’s and don’ts. In a legalistic system, someone determines what is acceptable based on an often arbitrary interpretation of Scripture.
In thinking about legalism, I came up with three root causes for it.
- Lack of faith
My observation of legalistic systems is that they lower the bar to a standard that can be met through self-will and determination. The motivation behind the bar lowering is often pride. There is a drive in all of us to appear better than we really are. There is great danger in arranging a system that promotes rather than inhibits pride. It is ironic that the most legalistic people I have ever met seemed to be some of the most proud people I have met.
Legalism can result from fear that people will make bad choices and need help to make good ones. In a misguided attempt to provide guidance, the legalist attempts to provide a rule for every situation.
Lack of faith
Ultimately, legalism results from a lack of faith in God. If I feel pressured to provide rules for others, it is because I do not trust that God is big enough and strong enough to bring those others through whatever they face.
The lack of faith is grounded in a failure to understand that God does indeed love us as we are. If I feel pressured to earn God’s favor, it is because I really don’t grasp the extent of God’s love for me. I do not have enough faith to believe Jesus’ statements that the weary and heavy laden are welcome in his embrace.
The result of legalism is that those who are in the system cannot become what God intends them to be. Rather than a deepening understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, legalists are satisfied with rule keeping.
Rule keeping undermines the ability of the legalist to allow himself and others to be open about his shortcomings and failures. Church meetings become like a masquerade ball where the real identity of the people in the room is hidden. The legalist cannot be himself, because he knows that he does not live up to his own standard and he doesn’t want anyone to discover this.
Usually, the only thing you can do if you find yourself in a legalistic system is flea since it is unlikely that you will change the system. Perhaps God will use you to affect change, but this is usually not the case. Find a group that accepts you for who you are and will encourage you to become what God wants you to be.
How can you identify whether a group is legalistic or gospel-centric? The easiest way to tell is by whether people are leaving as a result of being hurt. Legalism destroys true spirituality and those that are really seeking Jesus will always be hurt by the legalists because the legalists are not seeking him.
The good news is, those who really are seeking Jesus will be more than happy to share him with you. They will come along side as fellow seekers and pick you up when you fall and allow you to do the same for them. They provide an environment where pretense is diminished and honesty is rewarded.
It is to a community like this that you should flee. I did and am the better for it.