Why Would You Want to be a Legalist?

It has been a while since the following article was written, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit it.

As you may have noticed, I call myself a “recovering legalist.” You may or may not understand the reason, so a little clarification could help. After all, that is the whole reason I started blogging in the first place.

Let me know what you think. Leave a comment. Do you think these are good reasons to be a legalist?

Well, that’s a good question! The question could also be asked another way: what makes a person want to be, or remain a legalist? This, essentially, was the question recently posed by a friend on Facebook. Assuming we know what a legalist is, what makes a person attracted to this way of thinking? Let me respond with five possible answers.

But before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. What is a legalist? Here are a couple of really good, all-round definitions of legalism. The first one is from GotQuestions.org (which I recommend). I would advise reading the whole piece on their website. The following is an excerpt:

The word “legalism” does not occur in the Bible. It is a term Christians use to describe a doctrinal position emphasizing a system of rules and regulations for achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Legalists believe in and demand a strict literal adherence to rules and regulations. Doctrinally, it is a position essentially opposed to grace. Those who hold a legalistic position often fail to see the real purpose for law, especially the purpose of the Old Testament law of Moses, which is to be our “schoolmaster” or “tutor” to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). http://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-Christian-legalism.html

The second is a definition found on Wikipedia. Believe it or not, it is a pretty in-depth article. Again, here is portion of that article:

Legalism, in Christian theology, is a sometimes-pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigour, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption…Legalism refers to any doctrine which states salvation comes strictly from adherence to the law. It can be thought of as a works-based religion. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legalism_(theology)


But to be fair, most people that I would label “legalists” are not people who believe that salvation is earned by works of any kind, at least if they are Baptists. The vast majority of legalists to which I refer, and of which I used to belong, use a system of rules and regulations to determine spirituality, spiritual growth, and favor with God and other believers. They believe, as a whole, in the redemptive work of the cross, but set a universal standard which defines holiness for all who claim Christ, regardless of cultural or societal considerations. To the legalist, anyone who behaves or believes differently than the legalist’s perceived standards must not be “right with God.”


So, back to the original question:

“Why are Some People Legalists?”

One reason could simply be that they do not know any differently.

When I was growing up, I did not know anything different than what I was exposed to in our little churches, missionary conferences, revivals, or Christian schools. Even though I believe that most of what I was taught was doctrinally sound, I was not encouraged to examine different viewpoints, even those of other Baptists, specifically if they were anything other than “Independent, Fundamental, etc.” I was not allowed to explore the true nature of a life of grace and freedom. Many are still in this situation. Tragically, they are content with their ignorance. They refuse to consider the fact that they may be wrong on a particular point. Even when Scripture is plain and simple, because of the secluded nature of these groups, they would rather stick their heads in the sand than risk being wrong. Being wrong might make someone else, even another denomination, right about something. Heaven help us!

A second reason could be that they came from an unholy lifestyle and now seek to redeem themselves (or their consciences).

Some people are so ashamed of their past that they go overboard in trying to live a life of holiness. They see in their past a link between so-called “worldly activities” and their fall into depravity. In an effort to show they are no longer the person they used to be, and in order to avoid temptation, they strictly avoid certain activities deemed “worldly.” Sadly, even though they mean well, they project their own weaknesses onto others, therefore expecting others to abide by the same level of austere living, or be seen as worldly. However, in many cases, appearances are not what they seem. The very ones who are so legalistic in some areas of life wind up being the ones with the biggest weakness in that area. Their overbearing attitudes, in many cases, may only be the big doors hiding skeletons in their closet.

A third reason could be the desire to be controlled or told what to do.

As strange as it may sound, some people don’t like to think for themselves, nor do they like being responsible for their own choices. It is sort of like people whom I have seen that were once under a totalitarian government. When they no longer had a dictatorial system telling them what to do, they either lost all control, or had no motivation to do any good. Legalistic churches provide the lazy or immature Christian a list of “do’s and don’ts” so that he/she doesn’t have to search the Scripture for guidance. It is much easier this way. If the pastor says something is wrong, and that God would not approve, then that’s it – end of discussion. Having a list is safe and doesn’t require much thought. They prefer being a marionette to being mature.

A fourth reason, which is among the more sinister, is that they want to control others.

Freedom is dangerous. Freedom allows for movement and change. Freedom allows for the individual to be led by God in a specific direction that may or may not be God’s will for another. Freedom takes power away from those who would want to control others for their own edification or gratification. Legalism keeps the sheep under strict control by encouraging tattling and fear of being ostracized. There are pastors, well-intended men, who would rather their people live under a specific set of guidelines than question long-held, man-made traditions. These leaders are afraid to lose their congregations to the world, but also to other churches. They may even find comfort in controlling others due to their own inadequacies. Much like emporors and dictators, they manipulate weak Christians in order to maintain their little kingdoms. Rarely do they admit weakness. Often ,they micro-manage every aspect of ministry. They have to be in control.

A fifth reason could be that some people are more afraid of God than in love with Him.

So many people that I know and used to be like were more afraid of losing their relational standing with God than anything else. As a matter of fact, by being legalistic, one could be assured that God was pleased with him. I wonder how it really was for Enoch as he walked with God. Many modern preachers are quick to make the application of Enoch’s walk with God to the way we act in this world. They make little of the relationship implied by the narrative (Genesis 5:24). In reality, very few lists would even be needed if one had an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. To the legalist, God is not a friend; He doesn’t laugh; He speaks in Old English; and He holds a grudge because of what it took to buy the sinner’s salvation. When you think of God as always looking for an opportunity to send judgment, then being legalistic is the safest way to go. You’d hate to be hit with a lightening bolt.

There you have it. I am sure there may be other reasons, but this is a good start.


Filed under legalism, self-worth

10 responses to “Why Would You Want to be a Legalist?

  1. Much of the characteristics you mention in your post, I would agree with; except I would not use the terms legalist and legalism since some of the characteristics you describe are those of weak conscience Christians described in Rom. 14:1-15:7, 1 Cor. 8:1-13, 1 Cor. 10:23-33.

    Let me apologize for such a long comment if you are one of the blogger types that dislikes long comments. On this topic, I feel it is impossible for me to make an accurate short snippet response. If you do not like the length of my response or have extreme disagreement with my thoughts on the definition of legalism and a legalist, you can delete the rest of my comment. I understand and will not hold any animosity toward you. However, if you want to discuss my thoughts further and express your disagreements or agreements, I would like to hear your thoughts. Sorry for a few cuts and pastes from my much, much longer article.

    I am not a fan of using the pejorative term of legalism since the modern Christian theological definition of legalism covers the characteristics of weak conscience Christians that Paul referred to in Romans 14 and 1Cor. 8. Over the years of my Christian life it seems like almost 80 to 90 percent of the time when I hear a brother and sister in Christ refer to another Christian as a legalist, they are calling a non-blasphemously-judging weak conscience Christian a legalist and/or a blasphemously-judging weak conscience Christian a legalist. I believe the modern Christian theological definitions of a legalist and legalism have deliberately been made illogically broad and relative in order to be able reclassify weak conscience Christians into another critter called a legalist in order to escape God’s admonitions (Romans 14) for strong conscience Christians to bear the burden of weak conscience Christians and not despise them.

    Here is my view of what I think has happened in the history of the Evangelical and Fundamental movements concerning modern broad and relative definitions of legalism and a legalist. In the late 1800’s, if my memory is correct, I understand that some US Christians and some Canadian Christians (I will call them Proto-Fundamentalists) began leaving apostate liberal church organizations, and later a faction became known as Fundamentalists (not sure if the very early group actually called themselves Fundamentalists). I think, some time in the late 1800’s this group formulated a short set of beliefs that they called the fundamentals of the Christian faith in opposition to the apostate beliefs in the apostate liberal churches they were leaving. I believe as time passed, a faction of this early fundamental type group began to add to this list of original fundamentals of the faith some non-essential items including doubtful-things; and more and more Christians that had weak consciences gravitated to that faction. Eventually, this early group began to split apart. A faction began to separate because they did not want to add non-essential items (such as non-sinful doubtful-items) to the list of fundamentals of the faith and also wanted to maintain ecclesiastical relations and connections with the apostate Christian denominations; and they formed their own organization, which used the name evangelicals. The other portion maintained the name of Fundamentalists, the ones that were adding non-essentials and doubtful-things to the original list of Fundamentals of the faith. I believe as time passed, the Fundamental group’s leadership became almost totally dominated by weak conscience Christians, that believed a lot of doubtful-things things were sin in themselves. Eventually, a faction of the Fundamental group’s leadership became dominated by domineering leaders which used abstinence from doubtful things as a billy-club to dominate and manipulate weak conscience Christians. Fundamentalism had now split into at least two factions of weak conscience Christians (each still referring to themselves as Fundamentalists), the extreme faction which was dominated by domineering leaders (which disobey Paul’s admonitions in Romans 14) that used doubtful-things as billy-clubs, fell in to the sin of blasphemously judging strong conscience Christians. Parallel to this split in Fundamentalists, the Evangelical group split in to at least two factions. I believe that as time passed the evangelical groups started and developed the now modern theological definitions of legalism and a legalist to justify not following God’s admonition in Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8 for strong conscience Christians to bear the burden of weak conscience Christians. An extreme faction of the Evangelical movement also became dominated by domineering leaders that contemptuously and spitefully used the illogically broad and relative definitions of legalism and legalist as a billy-clubs to dominate and manipulate strong conscience Christians. This modern illogically broad and relative theological definitions now allowed them to harshly rebuke and treat (like the Bible does false gospel teachers) weak conscience Christians and also harshly rebuke the Conservative Evangelicals faction that encourage bearing the burden of weak conscience Christians in the area of extremely-doubtful-things. Ironically, this illogically broad and relative theological definition of legalism and a legalist has now been accepted by all branches of modern Christianity, including the Fundamentalists. I am one of the few that does not accept the modern illogically broad and relative theological definitions of legalism and a legalist.

    Years ago after my four year hitch in the Army, I started attending civilian churches and continued studying the Bible with other Christians in those churches. To my amazement I found that a high percentage of Christians were calling other Christians legalists if they were abstaining from some doubtful things that they did not abstain from. After a few years, it became obvious to me that the theological definitions of a legalist and legalism held by the majority of modern Christians, including fundamentalists and evangelicals, had deliberately been made very broad and relative because they include all the characteristics of and/or both the common characteristics of the Pharisees, of the false gospel teachers described in Galatians (Galatianists), of the false gospel teachers described in Colossians (Colossianists), of the weak conscience Christians described in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, and any characteristic in other Christians that to them had the appearance of strictness. In all my years of studying the Bible, I have never found the terms legalism and legalist or equivalent terms in the Bible. Those broad and relative theological definitions were very perplexing to me, especially, since they included the characteristics of weak conscience Christians in the definitions when they are significantly different from the false gospel teaching Pharisees, Galatianists and Colossianists in the Bible? The Apostle Paul described the characteristics of weak conscience Christians in detail, but he never used all-inclusive pejorative terms like the modern imaginary jackelope type theological concepts of legalism and a legalist. The false gospel teachers described in the Bible included abstinence from doubtful-things (non-sinful-things) as part of their false gospel of salvation by faith plus works. The bible never describes weak conscience Christians as teaching a false gospel of salvation by faith plus works; they believed in salvation by faith apart from works and just believed some things were sin that the Bible never calls sin (doubtful-things). Like most groups of humans, some of these weak conscience Christians in Rome (Romans 14) became proud and considered themselves as “the judges” and blasphemously judged (Rom. 14:16) (a sinful form of judging which Paul rebuked, Romans 14) the strong conscience Christians. Also in Rome, some of the strong conscience Christians became proud and despised the weak conscience Christians and spitefully judged (a sinful form of judging that Paul rebuked, Romans 14) the weak conscience Christians. Modern Christianity is one big-time-repeat of the problems in Romans 14.

    Here is a shortened list of some of the theological definitions for legalism and a legalist that I have encountered over the years since I got out of the Army.

    1. “Legalism is the belief that a person must act a certain way so that God will bless, help, and prosper him. Legalism tells why one does or does not do something.” —— By Tod M. Kennedy. The full document can be found at http://associateship/ministry_files/The_Reading_Room/Outlines_1/Legalism.
    2. “Legalism is a religious system that teaches that a person can do something to earn or merit salvation or blessing from God. — It is legalism.” —– The full document can be found at http://reapportionment/~would/ice/legalism.
    3. “Legalism is that idea that one earns or merits salvation by their obedience.” —— This quote is from a document titled “Keeping The Commandments Of God” and can be found at http://chickenhearted/cont rib/exec_outlines/NT/NT_05.ht.
    4. “The term legalism commonly denotes preoccupation with form at the expense of substance. While it is now used metaphorically in all areas of human life, it appears to have had a theological origin in the seventeenth century, when Edward Fisher used it to designate ‘one who bringeth the Law into the case of Justification’ (The Marrow of Modern Divinity, 1645). No equivalent term existed in the biblical languages. However, the idea is found in both Testaments.” —— From “Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology” Edited by Walter A. Elwell — Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
    Only one of the above definitions confined the definition to a type of false salvation plan, where works are involved in earning salvation. Note, that in the “Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology” they admit that the original concept was confined to a false method of salvation,“one who bringeth the Law into the case of Justification”. Definitions 1, 2 and 4 above indicate that the modern theological definitions of legalism and a legalist are very broad and relativity.

    Here are some definitions I found in some English dictionaries.

    1. In the (Webster’s New Collegiate), (Webster’s Clear Type Dictionary) the definition is: Legalism (n) — strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral Code.
    2. In the English dictionary (American Heritage Dictionary) the definition is: Legalism (n) — strict and literal adherence to the law.
    3. In the (Oxford English Dictionary) definition is: Legalism (n) — The principles of those who hold a theological position of adhering to the Law as opposed to the Gospel; the doctrine of Justification by Works, or teaching which savours of that doctrine.
    4. In the 1994 (The Merriam Webster Dictionary) the definitions are: Legalism (n) — 1) strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral Code. 2) a legal term.
    5. In the 1972 (Second College Edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American language) the definitions are: Legalism (n) — 1) strict, often too strict and literal, adherence to law or to a code. 2) Theol. The doctrine of salvation by good works.
    6. In the 1828 Noah Webster’s First Edition of An American Dictionary Of The English Language the word “legalism” is not listed, but the words “legal” and “legality” are listed and do have theological definitions as follows:
    Legal (adj)— 1) According to law; as a legal standard or test; a legal procedure. 2) Lawful; permitted by law; as a legal trade. Anything is legal which the laws do not forbid. 3) According to the law of works, as distinguished from free grace; or resting on works for salvation. Scott. Milton. 4) Pertaining to law; created by law.
    Legality (n) — 1) Lawfulness; conformity to law. 2) In theology, a reliance on works for salvation.
    7. In the 2001 (Webster’s New World College Dictionary) the definitions are as follows:
    Legal (adj)— 1) of, created by, based upon, or authorized by law. 2) in conformity with the positive rules of law; permitted by law[a legal act]. 3) that can be enforced in a court of law [legal rights]. 4) of or applicable to lawyers [legal ethics]. 5) in terms of the law [a legal offense]. 6) Theology a) of the Mosaic law. b) of the doctrine of salvation by good works rather than free grace.
    Legalism (n) — 1) strict, often to strict and literal, adherence to law or to a code. 2) Theology – the doctrine of salvation by good works. — legalist (n) – legalistic (adj) – legalistically (adv)
    Legality (n) — 1) quality, condition, or instance of being legal or lawful 2) legal aspects.

    In the past, many English dictionaries usually gave two or more definitions for the word legalism (See definitions 5, 6 and 7 above). Note, in the 1828 Noah Webster’s First Edition of An American Dictionary Of The English Language the word “legalism” is not listed, but the words “legal” and “legality” are listed. One definition is a non-theological definition that defines legalism as “strict, often too strict and literal, adherence to law or to a code.” Another is a theological definition that defines legalism as “the doctrine of salvation by good works – a reliance on works for salvation.” Note: this theological definition is defined as a type of false gospel plan of obtaining salvation. It has always intrigued me as why they give two definitions, one a theological definition and the other a non-theological definition. The non-theological definition “strict, often too strict and literal, adherence to law or to a code”, is a very interesting one, since it does not give any detailed explanation (interpretation) of what the phrase “strict, often too strict and literal, adherence” means. By not giving a detailed explanation of the phrase “strict, often too strict and literal, adherence”, they have left the determination of the exact meaning of that phrase up the whim of each individual person who is judging someone else as to whether or not that person is a legalist guilty of legalism. Because of this very broad and relative definition, some folk actually judge everyone else, except themselves, to be legalists since everyone else is stricter than themselves. This is often the case for many hardened criminals. Non-Christians, especially atheists, agnostics and irreligious people usually with much despite apply this first non-theological definition to true faithful Christians (even strong conscience Christians), which in their eyes are always strict and too strict compared to themselves, and call them legalists. Modern day Christians have followed their example and combined the same broad and relative idea of “strict and often too strict and literal, adherence” concept to the defining of the theological definitions of a legalist and legalism. Some of the modern authors of modern English dictionaries have been so heavily influenced by this wholesale redefinition of the theological definition of a legalist and legalism by modern Christians that they no longer have two definitions of legalism (that is, a theological and a non-theological), but have actually replaced the two definitions in their dictionaries with one very broad and relative definition of a legalist and legalism (See definitions 1 and 4). This combined definition usually is as follows: “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral Code” (See definitions 1 and 4). Modern Christians lap up this definition from modern English dictionaries “like flies to cow manure”, and use it in a circular reasoning fashion to help justify their illogical, broad and relative theological definitions of a legalist and legalism, which they originally developed using illogical reasoning, of the variety that is used to develop the imaginary critter called a jackelope.

    Non-Christians — especially atheists, agnostics and irreligious people, usually with much despite — apply the dictionary non-theological definition of a legalist and legalism to all true faithful Christians (including weak and strong conscience Christians) because in their eyes all true Christians are always strict and too strict compared to themselves.

    I believe it would be wise for Christians to just use more Biblically accurate terms and phrases that more accurately describe other Christians that are not following Scriptural principles and admonishment, such as the weak conscience Christians that fell into a sinful blasphemously judging mode that Paul admonishes in Romans 14, instead of using the modern illogically broad and relative pejorative terms of legalism and legalist.

    Strange, in modern Christianity, I observe weak conscience Fundamentalist Christians calling other weak conscience Fundamentalist Christians legalists, Evangelicals calling all Fundamentalists legalists and non-Christians calling all Christians legalists.

    Oops, my babble generator is out of control and the word count is getting high. I better shut it off for now.

    I have an extremely long article on my blog covering my thoughts on this topic.

    David Geminden

    • Sorry, I need to make a correction to my previous comment. In the first paragraph, the phrase “Much of the characteristics you mention in your post, I would agree with;”, should be replaced with “Much of the bad characteristics you mention in your post, I agree are bad;”

      • David, believe it or not, I read your whole entry. Now, considering the fact that it is 11:04 pm and I have to drive a school bus in a few hours, it would probably not be wise to address your comments in much detail. Wouldn’t you agree? As a matter of fact, I was almost asleep when I heard my cell phone notify me I had an email (I should turn it off at night). So, that being said, here are just a few, written in the dark, on my iPhone, remarks.

        First, thank you for taking the time to respond so passionately. I appreciate your concern.

        Secondly, I can see where you are coming from, but I still think we may only be talking semantics, as opposed to an oversimplification of a general, “unbiblical” term. In reality, “legalism” is
        a term applied to other religions besides Christianity. As a matter of fact, as I see it, it is the appeal of legalism within Islam that causing it to mesh with legalism within other cultures. Specifically, I see legalism in America as the fertile soil in which the seeds of Islam are growing.

        I chose to apply “recovering legalist” to myself because that is exactly what I am – recovering. There are still times when I struggle to live a life of grace. There are still times I struggle with being judgmental. There are times when I still struggle with what constitutes a holy, separated life. But for the most part, I constantly strive to weed out the thoughts in my life that are contrary to grace and the freedom which Jesus secured with His blood. Hopefully, my writing will encourage others to do the same, much like the intent of Paul in his letter to the Galatians.

        However one camp defines what is legalistic compared to another is really secondary to me. I am aware there is much debate (if not finger pointing) in that area. But for me, the key issue is that no man’s set of expectations can be designated as a gauge for what is spiritual. That is reserved for only that which is specifically spelled out in Scripture. Anything else is simply the arbitrary, fluctuating, culturally relative desires of men to designate or define what is holy. Legalism, as I see it, is the camouflaged elephant in the room – everyone knows it’s there, everyone sees the destruction it causes, but everyone sees it as something else.

        Thanks, again, for your comment. I would hope, even though our definitions may differ, our hearts are the same.

  2. I’m still a recovering legalist – at first I never knew what it meant. But looking at its fruit over the years…it’s destructive, instead of freeing. That is why I agree with your points. I dislike legalism, but too bad I’m going to have to live with it.

    • Cookie Groover

      Wow it was so great that I found your site somehow through a tweet on twitter! I too am what I like to call a recovering nerurotic legalistic Christian which being a Christian and Legalistic to me now are oxy morons! Christ see us free from having to do ANYTHING and that why HE sets us free and I have to remind myself of this all the time cause I am still human. Being a Christian isn’t based on anything we do but what Jesus did for us. While we are yet STILL sinners Christ died…Now that is good news!
      And a huge burden lifted off us even though in our human self hard to accept. Thank You so Much for reminding me we are in this together and bringing Grace to the forefront where it was always meant to be in Jesus only…You rock! P.S. Steve Brown is one of the great people God put in my life to help me see that The Lord loved me unconditionally I am now honored to do volunteer work at his ministry Key Life…Cookie

      • Cookie,

        First, you are only the second person I have ever known named Cookie. The first one now eats vegetables.

        Second, thank you very much for your kind and encouraging words. Not many people tell me I rock; they just throw them.

        God bless!

  3. Pingback: What to Wear to Church? | The Recovering Legalist

  4. Very well said. I think some people just like to argue. No more lightning bolts for me!

  5. Pingback: What to Wear to Church? | The Recovering Legalist

  6. Pingback: What to Wear to Church - South Soddy Daisy Baptist Church

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