By Bruce Mills
In Part 1 of this series, I examined the problem of legalism in American evangelicalism and arrived at the conclusion that legalism is modern day Phariseeism; that is, it is the reduction of Christianity to a set of rules to be followed rather than a personal relationship with Christ. In this post, I want to look at how we got to where we are and why legalism always falls short of its intended goal. Much of this post is based on an article by Truman Dollar which was published many years ago, but which is just as valid for us today.
The History of Legalism
The scribes were the original legalists. God’s great moral law, along with the ceremonial and dietary laws, was not enough for them. Burdensome as the law already was, they developed another 365 rules, one for each day of the year. These rules, as part of the oral law, became even more important for the scribes than God’s commandments. It is unfortunate, but some modern fundamentalist evangelicals have actually become the successors of the scribes.
The development of legalistic systems follows a fairly consistent four-step pattern. Let’s look at the development process carefully, using the observance of the Sabbath to illustrate each of the four steps.
First, God lays down a principle. Exodus 20:8: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Second, man reduces God’s great principle into a complicated set of rules. Those rules always (1) become burdensome to keep, and (2) remove individual responsibility for making choices. It was certainly true of Sabbath-keeping in the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud. They had an answer for any question about observing the Sabbath.
Third, man quickly learns how to circumvent the rules. The Jews devised incredible legal fictions to elude the laws of the Sabbath. For example, since the Talmud forbids walking more than 2,000 cubits on the Sabbath except between one’s possessions, the Jews purposefully dropped shoes or food on their proposed route on Friday before Sabbath. Additionally, a plethora of other methods were employed to circumvent the rules. Man is very creative in designing ways to get around rules.
Fourth, man elevates rule-keeping to a mark of spirituality. The principle that God laid down originally is usually overlooked or forgotten in this whole process. The Jews completely forgot that the Sabbath was to honor God, and they contrived man-made Sabbath laws. The Sabbath lost its meaning, and its divine purpose was frustrated.
This contrived system of Sabbath-keeping continues today. When I was in Israel a few years ago, we stayed at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. We arrived on a Friday evening, shortly before sundown and thus, the beginning of the Sabbath. All of the elevators in the hotel were set on an automatic “Sabbath” setting which caused them to go up and down constantly, stopping at each floor on their trip. This was so that a rider could go from the lobby or restaurant on the lower levels to their room on an upper level without having to push the button in the elevator, because to do so would be work, and therefore, a violation of the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. With a simple phone call to the front desk, hotel guests could request that the lights in their rooms be set to automatically turn off at 9 p.m. because turning off the lights in the room would be “work” and a violation of the Sabbath. Many of the hotel guests were Jews who came to the hotel for the Sabbath so that they could have the Arab and Filipino staff who worked that day prepare and serve their meals, turn down their bed, and do everything possible to keep the Jewish guests from violating the Sabbath.
The New Testament also contains principles that modern legalists have taken, gone through these four steps, and created incredibly complicated systems of legalism which, if followed, supposedly indicate one’s spiritual “health.” For example, James 1:27 says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Following the same four-step pattern, the principle stated in the last phrase of that verse has been used by legalists to justify a whole host of rules, regulations, and prohibitions against certain kinds of entertainment, education, food and drink, and even the ownership of certain material items.
A Motivation for Legalism
The chief motivation for legalism is the fear that if God’s principles are not replaced with rigid rules, men will ignore what God said and run wildly into sin. The rules are an effort to force men to do right.
However, the whole system of legalism is an expression of unbelief. Some legalists act as though they do not believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to direct men into right living. The reality of the Christian life is ignored. The attitude of some is “We must interpret God’s principles for them and then force them to obey for their own good.” A local church in my area used to have signs posted on its property prohibiting anyone—both men and women—from coming onto its campus while wearing shorts. That prohibition was based on that churches’ interpretation of what Scripture means by modest dress, and the leadership then forced everyone to comply.
The Focus of Legalism
Often legalism focuses upon the institution, not the individual. Rules protect the institution and its image. Legalism is neither compassionate nor forgiving. It forces compliance and conformity.
When I was in El Salvador a few years ago, our mission team discovered that there were two local churches whose members were prohibited from associating with one another over the length of shirt sleeves. The men in one church wore long-sleeved shirts to church because doing so was considered the “correct” way to dress when attending church. However, the men at the other church felt that they had the freedom to wear short-sleeved shirts to church. The long-sleeved shirt church was desperate to protect its image as people who were separated from the ungodly short-sleeved shirt church, and so the leadership prohibited the people from associating with one another.
But there is a serious misunderstanding among believers about rules. Some seem to think that if you make people obey rules for many years, you have improved them morally. Not so. Most likely, the only thing you have done is succeeded in teaching them to conform. Many people feel that “rules build character.” That old maxim is not necessarily true. Rules without reason build rebellion.
The Failure of Legalism
Legalism has failed. Rules have not made individuals more spiritual. Instead, it generates a great deal of frustration. Many educators and pastors expect a set of rules to elevate moral conduct within their school or church. But let’s examine why legalism fails.
First, a system of rules does not provide or encourage decision-making experience. Every day of our lives we face a new set of moral circumstances. God’s principles do not change; life situations do. Legalists continually seek to design new rules to meet every circumstance, saying, in effect, “We will make decisions for you. Here’s what you can do and here’s what you can’t do.” But God never intended others to make your decisions for you beyond your formative childhood years. God wants each believer to mature to the place where he can examine God’s principles and apply them to each day’s new and changing circumstances.
While it is frightening and painful, parents must allow their children to make wrong choices as they move toward maturity. The exception to that principle involves decisions that may bring bodily harm or moral danger to the child. You obviously do not let a child make a wrong decision about drugs or premarital sex. Also, the younger a child is, the more decisions you must make for him. That must gradually lessen and finally end as a child matures.
Children must learn how to make decisions. It is painful. As my children were growing into adulthood, I often wanted to rescue them each time I saw them about to make bad choices. After all, I know better. I’ve even made some of those same mistakes. So I don’t want them to make bad choices. But I know I will not always be there. What if, when all the wrong choices are made, I am a thousand miles away? I would rather be present when some wrong choices are made so I can encourage and re-teach. I want to be there to lift them up when they’ve fallen.
Most rules focus on the external. That very focus often encourages believers to neglect the inner man. Unless the Christian faith and lifestyle are internalized, the believer never grows.
The moral law of the Old Testament is still in force. Jesus insisted that it still applies. But He refused to let men believe they pleased God because they kept the letter of the law. Jesus insisted that even the Ten Commandments were a matter of the heart. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:27-28).
I grew up in a church where much of the Christian life was reduced to a rigid set of rules that believers were expected to adhere to if they were to be considered to be “good” Christians. I did so without complaint, knowing the rules had nothing to do with my salvation, but unconsciously measuring my spirituality in terms of my compliance with them.
I felt very holy and safe with the rules. They were so deeply ingrained in me that I find that although I have overcome my legalistic outlook toward others who have the freedom to participate in certain activities, I cannot bring myself to participate. My background in legalism was so deep and pervasive that in regard to certain issues, I still have a profoundly difficult time accepting my freedom in Christ.
I did not smoke, drink, dance, curse, or miss church. Whenever I heard a characterization of worldly or ungodly Christians as a child, it was almost always in terms of these habits. I rarely heard covetousness, gluttony, strife, or envy condemned from the pulpit. I also never heard any discussion of inward qualities that needed to develop in my life. Learning, demonstrating, and applying the spiritual fruits of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, and gentleness were all foreign to my theological education. Oh, we memorized the verses; but that’s all we did. We didn’t examine in detail what those things look like in the life of a believer.
As I have pointed out, the rules of legalism are easily circumvented. People can always find a way around a specific rule. However, principles cannot be so easily overlooked or twisted. We must teach people God’s principles, how to make decisions based on Scripture, and how to have a personal relationship with God and His Holy Spirit. We must lead believers into a victorious Christian life. Rules will not accomplish that.