Have you ever wondered where legalism comes from? How do you and I get sucked into behaviors that are clearly not biblical and result in tremendous guilt?
How do churches end up implementing incredibly legalistic practices under the guise of “godliness”?
It usually starts small. Really, really small.
The Seeds of Legalism
Sometimes I just want someone to tell me exactly what to do.
Don’t get me wrong – most of the time I go through life with a, “You’re not my mom, so stop trying to boss me around,” attitude. I’m a grown man, and I don’t want anyone bossing me around. If I want to eat fourteen Oreos at 9:00 pm, ain’t nobody gonna stop me.
But it turns out that life is super complicated. Who knew that raising kids could be so confusing? Every day I find myself playing judge and jury for three little girls. I settle disputes about television (“I think you’ve watched enough Daniel Tiger!), disputes about toys (“How could both of you have had it first?”), and more serious disputes (“I think you’re lying to me”).
And it’s not just kids that are complicated. I’m trying to keep my body from totally disintegrating, maintain some semblance of a budget, develop relationships with folks in my church, figure out how to school my kids, and create a career track for myself.
Life is so complicated.
Because life is complicated, there are times when I want someone to spell things out for me. Just tell me what to do. Tell me how God wants me to teach my children. Tell me how I’m supposed to eat. Tell me whether or not it’s okay to watch “Mad Men”. Tell me if I’m supposed to give exactly 10% to my church. Just make it black and white for me.
The problem with this approach is that it almost always creates legalism.
Legalism = Principles Turned Into Laws
Legalism begins when we take a true principle and codify it into a mandatory (or strongly recommended) practice.
Legalism happens when good things get reduced to a very particular set of rules and statutes.
I’m all about spending time with God through Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, fasting, and fellowship. Scripture is full of exhortations to read the Word of God (Psalm 119), pray (Ephesians 6:18), and make time for fellowship with other believers (Hebrews 10:25).
To have a, “Don’t tell me what to do,” attitude toward Scripture is both insanity and disobedience.
The problem arises when we take this good principle and start spelling out exactly how this should work. Legalism happens when a particular practice leeches onto a beautiful principle. When spending time with God is mutated into having to rise at a particular hour, no matter what your circumstances may be.
Reading the Bible is something every Christian to do. Commanding a mother of young children to rise early may eventually suck the life out of her.
Legalism happens when Biblical principles get boiled down into a list of inflexible practices.
Every parent is responsible before God to train up their children in the way of the Lord (Proverbs 22:6). But to prescribe a set of spoken or unspoken rules regarding the how, what, and why of schooling creates an oppressive, legalistic environment.
Should every parent be involved in how their children are trained? Of course. Should every parent homeschool / private school their children? No, and to insist that a parent do so will drain the life out of them.
In the early days of medicine, bloodletting was a common treatment for many ailments. Physicians thought that draining a person’s blood would staunch infections and promote vitality. The physicians thought they were doing a good thing when in reality they were actually weakening their patients.
Legalism is like bloodletting. It seems like a good thing. Creating a set of rules to follow seems like it will promote morality and keep people on the straight and narrow. Legalism feels like the safe thing to do. It gives us a feeling of being in control of our lives.
When we create rules, we don’t need the Holy Spirit to do the work of convicting people.
The reality is that legalism slowly drains people of life.
I find the words of Charles Spurgeon to be very helpful: