Church Legalism

by Shane Idleman

Today we might judge others in regard to women wearing head coverings, homeschooling, alcohol, Sabbaths, festivals, entertainment, make-up, certain translations of the Bible, attire, and so on. For example, a legalist might say that salvation is dependent on such things as keeping the Sabbath or celebrating the Jewish festivals.

Is it wise to take a day of rest and honor God? Can people still celebrate the festivals and benefit from their observance? Absolutely, but they are not tied to salvation. The New Testament tells us not to let others judge us in connection with the festivals or Sabbaths, or for us to judge em. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (Colossians 2:16).

The underlying attitude of “legalism” is arrogant and hyper-spiritual. I’ve even had a few people tell me I’m not a “real” pastor because I don’t wear a “suit-and-tie”, and have never been to “seminary.” God help them. Although education is vital, I’m more concerned about a degree from the “Master” than a master’s degree. Leonard Ravenhill often said, “You can have thirty two degrees and still be frozen.”

Legalism also says, “Unless you belong to ‘our’ church and are baptized here, we can’t assure you of salvation.” Is church membership wise and baptism important? Absolutely, but “salvation” is not contingent upon them. We are in error any time we add something to Christ’s finished work on the cross. Actions should stem from a heart of love and grace (“the spirit of the law”) and not as a legalistic expression that can lead to bondage (“the letter of the law”).

Most of Galatians was written because early believers added rules to grace, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (3:1-3).

As another illustration, some will even dismiss this article because I did not use their “version of the Bible” when quoting scripture. This can also be a subtle form of “legalism.” Don’t get me wrong, I have devoted my life to the truth…I take bible translation very seriously.

I often differentiate between formal (word for word) and dynamic (thought for thought) translations when speaking, and I have enjoyed studying the differences between the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus (e.g., where the oldest manuscripts originated).

There are many reliable translations, and some we should avoid, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Take entertainment as another example. Legalism says, “You can never go to the movies or own a television.” But wisdom says, “The choices of entertainment that build me, and my family, morally and spiritually are very minimal; therefore, it’s wise to avoid what we can.”

Jesus was clear in saying that we should remove things from our lives that draw us away from God. For this reason, I speak out against ungodly entertainment often: “it is seducing legions of Christians away from God and into carnality. But this stance isn’t legalism; it’s wisdom.”

Are you “overbearing and legalistic”, or are you an “anything goes under grace” liberal Christian? In any case, in order to walk in love and holiness and grace and purity, you may need to “repent” of destructive attitudes. We’ve all been guilty of either extreme; myself included.

Repentance releases the “shackles of bondage” from either extreme.

Pride Is At The Root Of Legalism and Compromise  

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