Conservative Christians are often accused of legalism. To understand what legalism is, we must first understand what it is not. One common misconception is that legalism is teaching and requiring God’s people to submit to Him.
People take to authority today like they take to a cold slap in the face. Anti-authoritarianism is preached in the cartoons, the movies, the soapies, the talk shows, the magazines, the adverts and the comments on the blogs. One of the inalienable rights of 21st-century man is to do what I want without anyone judging me. Any talk of obedience and, gasp, submission to God-ordained human authorities, produces a stampede toward the fire exits, with screams of “Legalism!” heard as the building empties. Tell some people that there is an authority above them which requires their obedience and submission, and by the time it is goes from ear-drum to brain, it sounds something like, “You must sell your soul to me, so I can manipulate your puppet strings as I wish. (Insert evil, maniacal laugh here.)”
In spite of all this, teaching the commands and prohibitions of Scripture, and insisting that those who call themselves God’s people submit to Him is not, in itself, legalism. Indeed, you can hardly read ten verses of Psalm 119 without detecting the psalmist’s unbridled relish for obedience and discipline. The Sermon on the Mount is actually Law 2.0, the Son of God’s authoritative commentary and update on the Law. Paul, the apostle of grace, has no problem with imperatives either, often rapid-firing them off at his readers. Most tellingly, the apostle of love, John, is quite emphatic that love and submission to God’s authority are precisely the same thing (1 John 5:3, 2 John 1:6). For that matter, the supervision of God’s people by elders, and their submission to them is taught in Hebrews 13:17. Church discipline itself implies that God wants accountability, mutual discipleship and a healthy provocation of one another towards obedience and away from disobedience.
Since the biblical case for submission to God and his ordained authorities seems incontrovertibly part of healthy Christianity, why is it so often called legalism?
Probably because the contemporary view of love is rather twisted. As Jonathan Leeman points out, the two great commandments of modern love are “Know that God loves you by not permanently binding you to anything (especially if you really don’t want to be)” and “Know that your neighbor loves you best by letting you express yourself entirely and without judgement”.1 In a climate where love is setting me free to choose my own path and affirming me as I do so, authentic Christianity seems like a claustrophobic mind-control sect. The reasoning sounds like this: Love is being affirmed and set free to be myself. God loves me, and the church is supposed to represent God’s love. However, this church imposes limits and restrictions on me and actually insists I obey. This church doesn’t represent God’s love. They’re trying to bind me, and that’s – why that’s – legalism!
The problem is a faulty and, I think we can say, idolatrous view of love. For many, love is actually about enjoying my own expression of love, whoever or whatever the object of love may be. Love is without the limits, boundaries or structure of truth. If I am worshipping the idol of my own love, Jesus Himself will seem like a legalist.
To be sure, the commandments of Scripture can be taught legalistically. That is, they can be taught without reference to the gospel, or to the Spirit’s enablement. If biblical commandments or prohibitions are taught in a way that suggests we gain acceptance through the doing of them rather than through the merits of Christ, this leads people back into self-effort and the bondage of leaning on a code for righteousness. Here the problem is not the teaching of submission, but the failure to teach submission in light of God’s fuller revelation. Subtract the Father’s love as the believer’s motivation, the Son’s work as the believer’s position and the Spirit’s work as the believer’s enablement , and you have moralism, and eventually legalism.
The solution is not to withdraw from the preaching and teaching of commands, even on matters where the application is supplied from reason and experience. The solution is twofold: teach what Christian love really is, and emphasise the motive, means and methods of Christian obedience. This isn’t legalism; this is loving God.
- Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offence of God’s Love, Crossway, Wheaton: IL, 2010, p 74. [↩]