Included in faulty ideas of what legalism is are the notions that it is interpreting Scripture literally, making applications for modern living, exhorting submission, and judging various cultural phenomena for their meaning.
Now it is obvious that legalism cannot be all of these things. In fact, when examined closely, legalism is not any of these things. For Christianity to be robust and relevant, it has no choice except to call the people of God to submit to Christ’s authority by interpreting His Word accurately and applying it to the times and culture that Christians currently live in.
If these things are not legalism, why are they so often called such? At least two reasons can be offered.
First, for some, legalism has come to mean a vague kind of protest for one’s own independence within the local church. It’s obvious to us that when we humans, with our deceitful hearts, want to get away from accountability and submission, we will not say as much. We will rather say that those we were under were authoritarian, abusive, controlling, unreasonable and narrow. If you can make the authority seem illegitimate, then it legitimises your actions. Your actions were not acts of rebellion; they were brave fights for Christian freedom. Legalism functions as a pretty handy word to get yourself out of a tight spot.
Second, the things necessary to a robust Christianity can be wrongly implemented or unwisely used, and thus justly earn the title of legalism. Unfortunately, this tends to tar the good as well, leading to a pendulum reaction in the other direction. By way of explanation, let us consider how the three areas examined previously in this series can be warped into a kind of legalism.
1) While legalism is not applying Scripture to contemporary life, it is possible to make applications that could be called legalistic. As we have considered, making an application with little warrant is the equivalent of asserting one’s own authority as the basis for obedience. If the warrant is tenuous, and yet a code of obedience is built up around such a tenuous warrant, it is hard not to see Christ’s injunctions against the Pharisees from Matthew 23:4 applying here. To add to the obligations of believers with little to no warrant from Scripture or truth from life certainly does not lighten their burdens. When a thoughtful, attentive and submissive believer cannot in good conscience see how a matter mandated from the pulpit is one of obedience to Christ, some kind of legalism is probably present.
2) While legalism is not requiring the submission of God’s people to Him, such submission can be taught or enforced in a legalistic way. Legalism is conveying a kind of leadership that is coercive and not persuasive, that manipulates and browbeats, that bullies and shames, so as to gain conformity of opinion and action. In such a situation, it is not uncommon to be taught that certain actions on your part will gain you merit and favour from God, for salvation or sanctification.
Strictly speaking, legalism is what Paul wrote against in his epistle to the Galatians. Legalism adds to the grace-alone gospel, and calls on man to perform certain works besides trusting in the completed work of Christ. While legalism is an attack on justification, it can also raise its head in the area of sanctification, since the two are so closely related. Sanctification is also by grace through faith, as the believer absorbs the mind of Christ, puts off the old and puts on the new, by the work of the Spirit. Here legalism dispenses with mention of the believer’s position in Christ, or the love of God as motivation, or the power of the Spirit. It suggests, by word or by deed, that certain works must be performed for the believer to remain in good standing with God.
Once again, Christ’s words in Matthew 23:13-15 seem to condemn such rapacious leadership, which uses God’s Word as a means to control and exploit. Matthew 23:23-28 speaks against gaining outward uniformity while ignoring inward devotion and piety. This would be warping biblical submission into a kind of legalism.
3) While legalism is not judging culture, it is possible to make judgements about cultural phenomena that promote or enhance legalism. Like unwarranted applications mentioned earlier, this would be making glib or uninformed judgements that ignore the opinions of tradition or authorities, and making such judgements binding on the consciences of other Christians. It would be inventing idiosyncratic responses to culture that serve more as a sign of loyalty to a group or leader than as a conscientious response to the meaning of things in the world. To invent judgements about culture for these purposes surely falls under the sweep of Christ’s indictment of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:16-22.
In summary, you are not legalistic for interpreting Scripture literally and making applications, but you can be. You are not legalistic for requiring submission to Christ and His authorities, but you can be. You are not legalistic for judging the meaning of culture and applying Scriptural principles, but you can be. It depends how these things are implemented and articulated.
One solution to this difficulty is to look for wisdom and maturity in those we appoint into positions of spiritual leadership. Spiritual, emotional and intellectual maturity are needed in those who teach and lead. The human heart is perverse enough without poor leadership adding fuel to the fire. Only when Christian leaders model Scriptural interpretation with integrity, leadership with winsomeness, and intellectual judgement with thoughtfulness will we navigate the narrow path between legalism and licentiousness.