I recently conducted a survey of my Facebook friends. It was open to anyone who wanted to respond. Most, but not all of my friends would claim to be born-again Christians, so I assume that many of the participants are Christians. Of course, I have no idea who responded and who didn’t.
A huge THANK YOU to everyone who took part in my survey. I believe we can glean some valuable concepts from your answers.
Q In your own words, define “legalism.” What does it mean to you?
A We could group the answers into three basic responses:
- Working to earn salvation or favor with God.
- Teaching works or acts as if they were the Word of God—when they’re actually men’s rules.
- A list of rules made by men by which they judge others.
- “For me, it’s when rules are above love and understanding, or they are rules that don’t have a clear biblical basis. So people live as if you can’t ask questions. It’s like you have to fully obey the law in order to please God.”
- “Legalism is the belief (either vocalized or played out in actions even if denied) that obeying rules give us a right standing with God either in salvation or in making us more holy.”
- “It is the imbalance of rules, taken to the extreme without taking into account either the spirit of the law or the concept of mercy.”
- “A Pharisaic approach to Christianity, one that defines Christianity as following rules made by man rather than following Christ by immersing oneself in the Word.”
- “Though often misused and/or misunderstood, legalism is the belief in a set of rules or standards to which one must adhere in order to obtain or preserve salvation. Answers to #8 would all be yes if stated as necessary for salvation. A church must have standards for leadership; especially for paid leadership. These standards should be Biblically based and agreed upon before a person accepts a leadership position.”
- “Rules based upon personal preference rather than biblical truth that appear to make one holy and more acceptable to God. While such standards can be set with good intentions, they can cause confusion in children and new believers who might not be able to discern the difference between a personal interpretation of scripture and its present day application and actual biblical truth.”
- “The idea that my standing with God is dependent on what I do, not in what He has done on my behalf.”
- “Demanding that others follow the same standards as you do.”
- “An atmosphere where the "Christian rules" influence you more than the Holy Spirit's leading. Needing to be a certain way to appear like a "good Christian" in front of others. When it becomes more important "What will so-and-so think, instead of what does God think. Conscious-binding.”
- “When a leader (or even a small faction of the "elite") especially in a church or 'religious' group, make rules for everyone to follow and many of them are ridiculous or just nit picky (wearing wire rimmed glasses, hair on a man cannot touch his collar.) The rub is when they publicly embarrass one of the group for the sake of their own control, especially when that person has been faithful in other areas. Just sad . . . .”
- “Sets of extra-biblical rules that watchdogs look for people to break.”
- “Legalism is sticking to a set of rules no matter what. Even if they are not founded completely in the Bible and holding everyone else to those rules no matter where they come from.”
- “In the strictest sense, it’s when keeping the law becomes part of salvation. In a broad sense, it’s when rules replace relationship and people are judged from the outward appearance (whether good or bad) to be spiritually in tune with God. The word (legalism) is not in the Bible, so there is no clear biblical definition. I find both to be a problem scripturally, but the problem is with the heart, not rules in and of themselves. A lot of the rules on the bottom (of the survey) are not my personal standard, but I don't have a problem if others have that standard. I don't believe it's right for me to judge their standard any more than for them to judge the ones the Lord has led me to. (The wording of must/should is the clincher for me. If you "must" for salvation or to prove you are saved, then it's a problem.)”
- “Legalism as applied to Christianity is doing or not doing a list in order to ‘earn’ heaven. It is salvation by works, which is not Biblical. It has nothing to do with salvation by grace through faith.”
- “Legalism is putting man's requirements on God's free gift of salvation.”
Q Do you view the Ten Commandments as legalistic?
A 100% did not.
Q Do you think standards of behavior should be written down or completely left up to each individual’s discretion? (Should a society have rules?)
A 97% Yes. 3% No.
Q Do you believe in standards of modesty?
A 68% Yes. 32% I believe modesty is relative to the culture. What’s modest in one culture may not be in another.
Q Do you believe in civil laws?
A 100% Yes.
Q Do you believe in any set of moral laws? (Check all that apply.)
A 72% Yes. 3% No. 93% I think the Bible teaches moral laws.
Q What kind of legalism turns you off? (Check all that apply.)
A 55% A list of dos and don’ts
13% Anyone telling me what to do
81% When I see hypocrisy—“Do what I say, not what I do.”
19% Strict interpretations of the Bible 19%
Q Which of the following sentences seem legalistic to you? (Check all that apply.)
A 36% You must read your Bible and pray every day.
61% Don’t wear a dress above your knees.
43% You must not smoke or drink alcohol.
86% Women must wear a head covering in church.
11% Women must not teach men in a church meeting.
11% Do not tell a lie for any reason.
0% Treat your parents with honor and respect.
46% A divorced person may not marry again.
0% A Christian should try to follow Christ.
7% It is wrong to curse and gossip.
93% Children must be at least twelve years old before they can make a decision for or against Christ.
4% Christians should be baptized after they are saved.
86% Pastors should wear ties every day.
Now that you’ve seen the answers, let’s try to come to some conclusions based on biblical truth. I think, by the responses, Christianity has a few issues distinguishing between man-made rules and God’s clear instructions.
Let’s just start at the beginning, with Question 2. No one saw the Ten Commandments as legalistic, even though these are ten rules of moral behavior including two dos and eight don’ts.
For Question 3, all but one participant said society should have rules.
In Question 4, about modesty, most believe the Bible has a specific standard and some believe that modesty is relative to culture. Of course, both are true. God says women are to be modest (1 Timothy 2:9-10), and in some cultures, it’s more important to cover certain parts of the body than in other cultures. The Christian woman anywhere should seek to please God and be modest—whatever that means where she lives.
Question 5 asked about believing in civil laws. Everyone said yes.
Question 6 was about moral laws. Only one person doesn’t believe in them, but everyone else believed in biblical morality. God’s moral law, of course, can pretty much be summed up in the Ten Commandments and in Jesus’ “two greatest commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Question 7 was about what kinds of legalism turns people off. Overwhelmingly, my participants hate hypocrisy. They also don’t like a list of dos and don’ts. If you re-read the definitions of “legalism” that they wrote, you can clearly see what bothers most people. Nineteen percent do not appreciate “strict interpretations of the Bible.” I'm not exactly sure what they meant. I’m assuming they mean making the Bible say more than it actually says and harsh interpretations, but again, I’m not sure.
Question 8 had several parts. I’d like to take each statement one by one.
- You must read your Bible and pray every day. This seemed legalistic to over a third of our participants. As one said, if it said “should” instead of “must” it would be more of a biblical concept. Yes, we should pray (1 Thessalonians 5:18) all the time, and we should meditate on God’s Word. Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word (Psalm 119:11, 16). The problem arises when we say people have to do this or that. As someone else said, it’s when people take the place of the Holy Spirit in another’s life that it becomes legalistic.
- Don’t wear a dress above your knees. 61% of our participants thought this was legalistic. Let’s face it; it is. Why? Because the Bible doesn’t exactly say where a dress length should be. (It does seem to indicate that a woman shouldn’t bare her thighs in Isaiah 47:1-3, calling it a shame.) The better question is whether your clothing is modest or not. When you sit down, does it ride up? When you look in the mirror and ask God to guide you as to your clothing choices, what is His answer? God does ask women to dress modestly and with moderation (1 Timothy 2:9-10).
- You must not smoke or drink alcohol. Almost half of the participants thought this sounded legalistic. I was a little surprised, as the Bible indicates we shouldn’t do anything to our bodies that doesn’t glorify God or that would hurt our “temple.” Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19). Maybe the problem word again is “must” instead of “should.”
- Women must wear a head covering in church. 86% of participants think this sounds legalistic. Why? The concept of a head covering is debatable. Some believe that 1 Corinthians 11:13-15 is saying the woman’s hair is her covering, and others believe she must wear a covering over her hair. The conclusion of the issue is, But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16).
- Women must not teach men in a church meeting. 11% think it sounds legalistic. The Bible is pretty clear on this one. The biblical context of this next verse is conduct in church meetings: But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence (1 Timothy 2:12). There are two other Bible verses that say that women should be silent in church: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
- Do not tell a lie for any reason. 11% think this sounds legalistic, even though the Bible clearly prohibits lying in the Ten Commandments. (It’s the ninth commandment.) Jesus said that lies come from the devil: Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (John 8:44).
- Treat your parents with honor and respect. No one thought this sounded legalistic. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.
- A divorced person may not marry again. About half of my participants think it sounds legalistic. Why? Maybe it’s because it doesn’t allow for the “adultery exception” (Matthew 19:9). May a divorced person—in the case of adultery—marry again? Good men differ on this one.
- A Christian should try to follow Christ. Everyone was okay with this statement. The Apostle Paul says, Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
- It is wrong to curse and gossip. Seven percent found this legalistic. The Bible says in the Ten Commandments it’s wrong to take God’s name in vain. Gossiping is frowned upon, too. And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not (1 Timothy 5:13).
- Children must be at least twelve years old before they can make a decision for or against Christ. Overwhelmingly, my participants thought this sounded legalistic. It is a ridiculous statement, of course! Jesus Himself said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:14). Jesus also said, But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:6). Jesus wants children to come to Him.
- Christians should be baptized after they are saved. Four percent saw this as legalistic. This is a biblical concept. In the early church, there were no non-baptized believers. The Bible indicates that they believed and were baptized (Acts 8:12-13; 18:8).
- Pastors should wear ties every day. 86% of my participants think this is legalistic, and it is! What a goofy thought—that a strip of silk makes any difference in the eternal scheme of things! Did the Apostle Paul wear a tie? (I’m kidding, of course!) Consider the country of the Philippines, where fancy dress has much more to do with the material of the shirt and nothing whatsoever to do with a tie! What does the Bible teach? By principle, those who serve should take their office seriously and dress accordingly. In the Old Testament, they were offering sacrifices to cover sins until Christ came. They had carefully prescribed garments. In the New Testament church, Christ had already paid the price for sins with His blood. New Testament preachers’ clothes aren’t even described, except for John the Baptist, who wore raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins (Matthew 3:4).
So, what is legalism, and how can we avoid being legalistic?
If we define legalism as adding to biblical principles and commands and imposing extra-biblical lists and standards on others, I think we’re getting to the heart of the matter.
If we know what the Bible says (i.e. The Ten Commandments and other clear biblical principles) and are willing to allow for a difference of opinion on standards that aren’t spelled out (like marrying after divorce, length of skirts, head coverings, ties, and others we looked at), we’ll become more balanced in our approach to the Christian life.
The legalism problem is certainly nothing new. When the Jewish believers in the early church wanted to make the gentile believers follow the Old Testament Law, it lead to the Jerusalem council. The Apostle Paul, by inspiration of God, said: Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they (Acts 15:10-11).
What should we do? Go to the Lord in prayer about our own actions and to the Bible for direction. That way, we’ll do right. Help others understand clear Bible principles and extend grace to those who differ with you about the gray areas.
May God bless you!