A Taxonomy of Legalisms
As I have been preparing to preach through the Ten Commandments, I find myself reflecting on this idea. Often, though not always, it is a valid critique. That said, like many such specialized terms, we don't always do a good job of defining what it means. Such a vague charge can cause us to fail to appreciate where churches go wrong in how they approach God's law and fail to recognize the problems we can have in our own hearts. With that in mind, I want to suggest that the word "legalism" can actually refer to a few different things and help us parse those meanings.
First of all, legalism can refer to "works righteousness." This is perhaps the closest thing to a technical definition for the word. Scripture is clear that, as Christians, our relationship with God rests on faith, not on perfect obedience of some moral standard. "[Y]et we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ," Paul repeatedly reminds us. (Galatians 2:16) Trying to get into or stay in Jesus's family by being a good enough person, by our own rigorous obedience, by avoiding certain obvious sins or by any means other than the grace of God is to deny the fundamental hope of the gospel.
The challenge with works righteousness is that it is often sneaky. Few churches teach it explicitly, but many let it creep in around the edges. We don't hear it in naked assertions but in quiet doubts and faulty logic. "If I was just a little more obedient, God would bless me." "How can this be happening to me? Look at the good things I've done!" We must be wary not just of our disobedience but also our obedience, as it gives opportunities for us to begin to trust in our works rather than the cross for our forgiveness and justification.
While works righteousness is perhaps the most technical definition, it is hardly the only way people use the word. Perhaps more common in terms of what actually occurs in the church is a second sort of legalism: "binding the conscience." That language comes out of the Protestant Reformation, where it was a way for the Reformers to express their sense that the church had gone far beyond its proper authority in what it demanded of believers. The idea has its roots in Jesus's rebuke of the Pharisees. His charge against them was that "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." (Mark 7:8) While the first half of that is a problem, so is the second.
The church does have authority to bind us morally, but that authority must not move beyond the contours of the law of God. Our temptation is to add things to this law. Sometimes this comes through the creation of rules out of whole cloth. More often, it consists of making additional rules to try to prevent us from the possibility of sin. It is the reason certain churches historically made a big fuss over dancing or playing cards: such things, they reasoned, might lead to licentiousness.
The problem with such an approach is threefold. First, despite seeming sensible, Scripture makes clear such rules cannot actually help us keep the law. "'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch'... These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." (Colossians 2:21,23)
In fact, they tend to breed disobedience. God has not promised His Spirit to help believers keep such man-made rules, making failure likely, yet people are often told that in failing to keep such human regulations they have violated the law of God, leading them to throw up their hands and violate it further.
Most importantly, such rules are a violation of the church's rightful authority. We are not God, but to add laws to His is to give ourselves equal standing. Such pride is destructive in itself and tends to breed further sin.
Even if we avoid both those errors, sometimes the charge of legalism is a way of expressing an unbiblical harshness. While churches should challenge sin, it should be done in a gracious and patient spirit rooted in the gospel. "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness." (Galatians 6:1) While the goals might seem good, some believers seek to encourage repentance and obedience through the spiritual equivalent of fisticuffs. Threats, shouts, and cruel ostracization are all employed in the name of encouraging righteousness.
Again, the result of such harsh attempts at inspiring obedience is that they actually encourage the opposite. Consider Scripture's admonition to parents: "Fathers, do not provoke [embitter, be harsh with] your children, lest they become discouraged." (Colossians 3:21) While discipline is necessary for a family, the wrong sort of discipline actually discourages obedience. Too often churches indulge in just such provocation while mistakenly thinking they are doing the work of the Lord.
All of these are species of sin which get termed legalism, and all are wrong. That said, there is one last meaning we need to consider, and it is a significant part of why I am working through this discussion. Mixed in with all of these real abuses, at times legalism is a charge leveled against the proper call to biblical obedience. In such cases, it can serve as a smokescreen for the real issue: that our problem isn't with some misapplication of Scripture but rather with God's law itself.
While our relationship with God is grounded on faith, we as Christians are called to righteousness. This fact is unavoidable in Scripture. We will never perfectly attain that righteousness in this life, and it is not the grounds for God's love, but it is nonetheless something we must pursue with our whole strength and heart. When we fail, the biblical response is repentance and diligence in seeking to turn from sin.
Make no mistake: such a calling is difficult. God's commands are difficult - not some easy checklist of rules but a calling to kill our flesh and love God and our neighbor with every act and word and thought. This is why adding any of the earlier errors is so dangerous: to layer further hardships upon the already-great burden of taking up our cross and following Jesus will certainly break us. We need the gospel as a foundation for this calling, the recognition that our righteousness ultimately rests with Jesus and His perfect obedience. Yet we must also be clear-eyed about it. We are called to seek, each day, to make our own righteousness more like His.