Why Some People Are Legalists

Every once in a while I think it is important for me to get back to the whole reason I started this blog: legalism within the Church. There are plenty of other people talking about Bruce Jenner, don’t you think?

In the following article I will attempt to:

  • define legalism, and then
  • give five possible reasons one might want to become, or remain, a legalist.

Defining Legalism

Before we look at why a person would want to be a legalist, let’s make sure we understand what legalism actually is. Below are a couple of good definitions.

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).

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

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. 

But to be fair, most people that I would label legalists do not believe salvation is earned by works of any kind (at least if they’re Baptists). No, the vast majority of legalists to which I refer (and to which I used to belong) use a system of rules and regulations to determine spirituality, spiritual growth, and favor with God and other believers.

Legalists 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 his perceived standards must not be “right with God.

So, what would make a person want to be, or remain, a legalist? The following five reasons are ones which I have observed throughout the years.

5 Reasons for Being a Legalist

1) Some people don’t know any different.

When I was growing up, I did not know anything different than what I was exposed to in our small churches, missionary conferences, revivals, or Christian schools. Even though I believe that most of what I was taught was doctrinally sound, I was not allowed to examine different viewpoints, even those of other Baptists (specifically if they were anything other than “Independent, Fundamental,” etc.) 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 certain groups, legalists 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 forbid!

2) Some 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.

3) Some desire to be controlled, to be 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. Essentially, the legalist would rather be a marionette than mature.

4) Some may 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. On the other hand, 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 emperors and dictators, they manipulate weak Christians in order to maintain their little kingdoms. Rarely do they admit weakness and often micro-manage every aspect of ministry. Legalistic leaders have to be in control.

5) Some people are more afraid of God than in love with Him.

So many people that I have known (and used to be like) were more afraid of losing their relational standing with God than anything else. Legalism tends to give some the assurance that God is pleased with them.

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, but 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.

angry godTo 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 one thinks of God as always looking for an opportunity to send judgment, then being legalistic is the safest way to go. No one wants to be hit with a lightning bolt, you understand.

So, are you a legalist? Why, or why not? Are there any reasons I missed?


Filed under baptist, legalism

9 responses to “Why Some People Are Legalists

  1. Good stuff there Bro Anthony.

    # 2. Yep. Occasionally guilty as charged on that one. Not so much in actual actions of words, but I find my thoughts meandering that way and it takes prayer and reflection to not act on the thought in my mind and feeling in my heart.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. Melissa

    This is a fascinating post that is on track to what the holy spirit has been whispering to me about. I’ll be linking back to you shortly!

  3. legalists 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 forbid!

    Fascinating post indeed which highlights, once more , the divisions and divisive nature found within christianity.
    I have included the quote from the piece as you have stated that at one point you realised you deserved Hell.
    Although your understanding of this doctrine is completely different from my understanding and that of many other Christian denominations, could you please explain your personal understanding of hell: the place and the doctrine, and how you came by this understanding?
    Also in the years i have studied Christianity i have never been able to pinpoint where Jesus teaches this?
    Which verses on the gospels do you consider Jesus is speaking about an actual Hell?

  4. Pingback: This is about you | Work for the Cause not the Applause

  5. Great breakdown, sir. I look back to my “fire-filled” youth as a Christian… well, as a young adult who decided to fully follow the faith I grew up in and claimed all my life. I see a kid who meant well, and couldn’t understand why all these other Christians-so-called just didn’t get it. I mean, DUH, it’s all right there in Scripture, plain as day. Just ask me, I’d tell you, since obviously you must not be asking God, or else you’d know by now (and thus agree with me).
    Yeah… some embarrassing moments when I look back and think about how I acted in ignorance or arrogance (or both).

  6. Reblogged this on Truth in Palmyra and commented:
    This evening I am sharing a great post on legalism in the church. Great points here and a great read.

  7. Most of the legalists I’ve known (and almost used to be like) have fallen under #1 and a variation on #5. In my experience, they were not afraid of Him, they were so in love with Him that they didn’t want to disappoint Him. To them, straying from doctrine feels like disloyalty.

    That “love” and loyalty can get ugly though. When I questioned some man made doctrine and pointed out that it didn’t jive with Jesus, the women in my Bible study hated me. We ask the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us into all Truth as we study our Bibles and then, when He does, the person who shares what the Spirit revealed is hated, squashed, silenced. Called a heretic. (Which is okay, because Jesus was considered a heretic, too.) Maybe there is fear there. Not so much fear of God, but fear of being accused of heresy, fear that their whole house of cards will crumble.

    As I always say, Jesus died for people, not doctrine. There will be no doctrine in heaven, just an up close and personal look at the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and a whole lot of awe.

  8. Pingback: “Why Some People Are Legalists” 7/24/2015 by Anthony C. Baker | God's group

  9. Jason A.

    This is fascinating topic. And also a very slippery slope. What qualifies as “legalistic” is purely subjective. It falls on a spectrum, like many other Biblical topics and behaviors and can range from the “eat these things only, dress this way only, read these things only or else” mentality to the barely-a-Christian “grace is a get out of jail free card” sermon attender who sneaks in and out at the mega-church. We humans are terrible at being centrists in anything – religion, politics, etc. Having a balanced viewpoint is difficult as it requires constant self examination, introspection and willingness to adjust as times change and knowledge grows. So we tend to either carry legalistic views out of desire for clarity or we just throw our hands up and bow out with a God will deal with it attitude. There really IS comfort in rules, though…ya know? Many who appear legalistic are really just good people trying to do the right thing for God. It’s hard to know that is right and wrong in a world where even fellow Christians disagree on most everything. While not an excuse, having legalism and rules helps take the guess-work out of it and gives us at least some kind of measurement of what is acceptable.

    I don’t have the answers. I have been in churches that were at polar ends of the spectrum. Both were spiritually dysfunctional and damaging. But as much as I point the fingers I am equally as guilty. I am guilty of many of the things you listed – and your transparency of these attributes was spot on. I guess the best we can do is try to be honest with ourselves and realize we are a broken people in a broken world, and to not beat ourselves up too much, while also holding ourselves accountable and to a higher standard. It’s a tough one.

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