Legalism is particularly seductive in an age of lawlessness.
Shirley Temple movies were popular in the early part of the 20th century because they contrasted so sharply with the harshness most people were experiencing at that time. In that era, people fled the spiritual and material dreariness of their lives by immersing themselves in something very different. Likewise, legalism appeals to those who want to flee the lawlessness of modern life into something radically different.
Many people experience the radical freedom of modern life, not as exhilarating, but as frightening.
When everything seems to be falling apart, they are attracted to leaders who “run a tight ship.” Legalism reduces the anxiety that pervades secular society by offering hard and fast rules for everything (e.g., NT Pharisees had 39 stipulations for Sabbath observance).
For church members, legalism (under positive guises of “sound doctrine, searching for the ancient paths, contending for the faith,” etc.) can be a source of pride, safety, and comfort. “Raising the bar” by making legalistic demands and taking legalistic positions is a proven method for church growth and an effective way to minimize certain kinds of immorality.
On the negative side, legalism promotes an overriding concern for being right. It approaches Christianity in terms of rules rather than principles and relationships. But in Scripture, relationship always precedes rules– “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt (relationship). You shall have no other gods before me (rule).” But if a relationship with God doesn’t first exist, rules are irrelevant.
Legalism obscures the true nature of sin. Sin makes its appearance by the breaking of law. The cure, however, is not simply to avoid legal infractions. Everyone has probably heard the joke about the patient who says to his doctor, “Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this (raising the arm).” To which the doctor replies, “Well, don’t do that!” The point is that the answer to sin is not simply to say “don’t do that.”
Legalism focuses on the performance of deeds instead of their meaning. To the legalist, Paul legislated against women speaking in church, not against wives who may have been humiliating their husband by instructing them (asking them questions) in public.
Legalism is anti-intellectual, recoiling at new ideas and new ways of doing things which cast doubt on past knowledge and performance. It produces people who are correct, but not necessarily good. Legalists subvert law to suit their own purposes. Legalism evokes a callousness to “people concerns.” It avoids honest self-evaluation by searching for flaws in others. It reinforces itself by continually critiquing outsiders. In the absence of external targets, legalistically-minded groups turn inward and self-destruct. Legalism leaves no room for transcendence. It reflects misplaced confidence in one’s own knowledge and performance. It represents a minimalist approach to godly living. It is a spiritual disorder with the legalists themselves being the greatest victims (e.g. the Prodigal Son’s elder brother).
No one defends legalism. It is always the other person’s problem– never one’s own. Legalists always see themselves in some other light. Legalism is insidious– catching us and them unawares. It is chronic, like the common cold– no one ever quite gets rid of it once and for all.
Legalism elevates “being right” (a lesser concern) to an ultimate concern. And as might be expected, the results are not righteousness, but unrighteousness (the same way over-emphasis on diversity produces racism). Being right is not unimportant, but it is not the highest good– the greatest good is the glory of God. All things, even innocent suffering find their proper place in terms of God’s glory– the beheading of John the Baptist in prison was not a growth experience for John but it did glorify God. God is not glorified, however, by people who trust in their own righteousness. God does not stay up all night worrying about whether His people are correct in every point of law. But he does brood over broken relationships– relationships that are often broken by legalism.
Note that much of the thought in this series is better expressed by Dr. Michael Weed of the Austin Graduate School of Theology. For example, see his article, “‘And They Were Silent’: Reflections on Legalism,” Christian Studies Journal, Issue No. 15. 1995/96.