Conservative Christians are not strangers to the charge of legalism. Begin tinkering with the sacred cows of worship music and Christian culture, and you will attract the title legalist like running past a hive with honey on your head attracts a swarm. As a pastor, one of the most painful things that can be said of you is that you or your church is legalistic. After all, Christian pastors are ministers of the gospel of grace. To be a Christian pastor and be called a legalist is really like being called a traitor. Instead of ministering grace, you are said to be bringing people into bondage.
Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon to hear people throw this charge around, particularly toward those who hold conservative principles. I sometimes half-wonder if any pastor who simply expounds the Scriptures has not been called a legalist by someone, somewhere. Nevertheless, there is a real perception that Christians who seek to conserve the best expressions of biblical Christianity are probably legalists. At least two factors make it likely that Joe Christian will associate conservative Christianity with his current perception of legalism.
First, authentic Christianity calls man to submit to God in every area of his life. Our era is one that is deeply suspicious of authority, and hates dogmatism. If a church begins applying Scripture to real-life situations, resisting certain cultural trends, and calling for obedience to the Scriptures, it is not unlikely that people used to autonomy and independence will feel constricted and begin to struggle. Many call this sense of constriction legalism. For such people, a church is “grace-filled” as long as it keeps its messages broad and generalised, as long as it does not try to bridge the cultural and time gap from Scripture to today’s living, as long as it accommodates current popular culture, as long as it does not mention the duties and obligations of a Christian too much, and as long as the leaders of a church do not act as if they have any real spiritual authority. We should expect that conservative Christianity is going to collide head-on with this kind of thinking, and we should not be surprised when the occupants of the crashed car get out and start blurting out, “legalism!”
Second, on the other side of the coin, we know that real legalism has often found a favorable host in churches ostensibly regarded as conservative. I would argue that such churches are conservative in name only; however, the generalization has some truth to it. Pastors are sinners too, and not every pastor or Christian leader properly understands or always properly communicates what it is to be under grace. Horror stories of spiritual abuse are a dime-a-dozen. Some churches in the evangelical and fundamentalist tradition have been guilty of binding the consciences of God’s people to matters without Scriptural warrant. They have been guilty of creating the perception in God’s people that certain acts, or a certain level of conformity would commend them to God or grant them meritorious status before Him. They have been guilty of ruling God’s people with force and cruelty. While self-identified progressive churches can be just as guilty of legalism, it is often those churches that are nominally conservative that are guilty of these things.
In other words, while many are confused as to what legalism is, real legalism is a serious problem. Legalism is an attack on the gospel and on biblical sanctification, and every Christian should be very aware of what it is, and how to avoid it.
But that’s just the problem: little consensus exists on what legalism really is. Legalism has become a kind of pliable word that is used by disgruntled Christians to express distaste or disapproval of a church or ministry, or by theological opponents who wish to tar their enemies. All too often, it becomes a kind of smear-word to dismiss the arguments of conservatism before they have even been heard. The word seems to have been vacuumed of clear meaning, and is now used in all sorts of ways. And if a word can mean anything, then a word actually means nothing.
Conservative Christians believe they are conserving authentic Christianity. Since all would agree that authentic Christianity is not legalistic in nature, conservative Christians ought not to be guilty of legalism. We may be falsely labelled as such; we should never be so in practice.
If we are to avoid true legalism, we must strip away false connotations of the term. Once we have done that, we can see what Scripture insists we do and do not do as true ministers of grace.