5 Reasons for Being a Legalist

1. Ignorance

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. Indignation

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. Immaturity 

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. Inadequacies 

Some 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. Insecurity

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? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Filed under legalism, Theology

10 responses to “5 Reasons for Being a Legalist

  1. As a former Pharisee I still struggle with number 5. Great post Anthony!

  2. Ah…#2 smacked me right in the face. Legalism appeals to me for that reason, as well as the fact that like things around me to be in place, preferably with me having been the one to assign their places.

    I have had this on my mind lately, so this was very timely.

  3. And, ironically, I would add one more: Arrogance. We can become so sure of the truth that we assume we know the best way to do everything. Therefore, everyone should do things the same way.
    This is similar to 3 and 4, maybe even a combination of them, but I have known enough people (ahem **raises hand**) who would fall into this category … at least from time to time.

  4. Number 5 is mine! Fear of God’s rejection is one of the “big three” fears I have been delivered from! And what freedom that is. Really knowing and embracing God’s love, understanding it, applying to my own heart, is absolutely crucial to living the abundant life He offers. It is foundational.

  5. I was caught in legalism for a while – I became Torah-observant for nearly a year because I thought that was what was necessary. Before that I had had a huge amount of guilt about my failures as a Christian, though wasn’t particularly legalistic, just very critical and self-righteous (still struggle with that). My legalism came from not understanding about Christ fulfilling the law and that His righteousness is now mine, and that I can never achieve it through my own efforts. When I finally understood what Jesus had done for me, and I gave my life to Him whole-heartedly, my whole life changed. That was about five years ago – I’m so thankful to God to what He has done in my life since then. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!

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