Are You a Legalist??

willywonkalegalistHave you ever met an anti-legalist? They’re like the legalistic sort of church folk, only they take things to the opposite extreme. The legalists like Christian movies? Great, let’s hate Christian movies! Legalists don’t read Twilight? Read all the vampire stories!

If you by some miracle haven’t encountered an anti-legalist, go read some random Christian blogs that rant about the dangers of purity rings, or find an online support group for kids whose parents didn’t let them watch PG-13 movies. That should give you the general idea.

So here’s my thesis: Legalism and anti-legalism are twin forms of idolatry. Why is that? Because both lifestyles are based on people’s opinions and our own desire to leave an impression, rather than on God’s will for us. And why is that? Well, that’s what the post is about.

We need to start by defining the terms. What are legalism and anti-legalism, and what’s wrong with each one?

The problem with legalism is that it is contrary to the Gospel. No one can (or should) question that. In essence, legalism takes good and beautiful choices, and uses them to become standards that all Christians should follow. It assumes that we and our perfect homeschool families and flawless courtships (complete with a first-kiss-wedding) can and must earn the approval of God. Anyone who doesn’t do worship services and potlucks exactly the way we do just isn’t as awesome as we are. Our way is the right way, and theirs is the wrong one. God forbid we should ever be associated with those people!

But guess what? Anti-legalism is also contrary to the Gospel. It operates under the premise that moral standards that are not specifically commanded in scripture are a threat to our freedom in Christ. It assumes that Josh Harris and God’s Not Dead 2 must be spurned and ridiculed; Harry Potter is the only way to prove that we are truly free in Christ. Anyone who even tolerates the idea that kids shouldn’t date until age 18 just isn’t as awesome as we are. We must fight legalism and the judgmental attitudes of others! Our way is the right way, and theirs is the wrong one. God forbid we should ever be associated with those people!

Do you see what’s so tragically laughable here? Legalism and anti-legalism are, at their root, exactly the same concept taken to two different extremes. In both cases, decisions are based less on what God is asking me to do, and more on how I see myself and how others will perceive me. It’s just like boys and girls throwing mud pies at each other on the playground because the opposite gender hypothetically has cooties- never mind the actual mud on your own clothes.

Now, to be clear: calling your relationship “courting” instead of “dating” does not make you a legalist, and reading a book by Suzanne Collins does not make you an anti-legalist. The problem is not the action itself, but the motivation behind the action. Both forms of legalism happen when we take the focus off of God and put ourselves and our works in the spotlight. The mindset in both cases is one of “people need to see what I’m doing for God, not what God is doing in me.” Legalism and anti-legalism are both idolatry because the ultimate standard is how I appear to others.

I have to look perfect at church. 

I dare not look too perfect at church. 

I have to save my children from a life of sin.

I have to save my parents from a life of judging lest they be judged. 

People, it’s time to wake up! We simply have to stop putting that pressure on ourselves. God didn’t assign us the responsibility of being perfect; who are we to assign it to ourselves? If gaining the approval of man through my own behavior is my motivation, then there’s no room for God. And a life without God is the most dangerous life I can live.

So what’s the point? Well, here’s a quote. I don’t care if you like Doctor Strange or not (based on what I’ve seen, you probably don’t), but the Ancient One aptly summed up the truth everyone is missing:

It’s not about you.

God is the center. People are not God, and we never will be. It’s not our job to live perfect lives in front of others, nor to prove to others that we have the truth about living perfect lives. If that was really the case, we of all people should be most pitied. It would mean that Jesus’ death doesn’t really matter after all, and God has forsaken us. It would mean that it’s up to humanity to save itself. That sounds blasphemous, yet it’s exactly what we proclaim when we live to create an impression on others. And we can do that just as easily when we’re reading Harry Potter as when we’re listening exclusively to Christian music.

Sure, it’s okay to hate Christian movies, just as it’s okay to skip the Divergent trilogy. But what’s your reason for disliking either? So often, we make decisions based on how we appear to others. If I refuse to spend money at Starbucks, will people think I’m legalistic? If I wear this, will people think I’m making myself cheap? Sure, we should have a care about how we treat others, but here’s the thing: people are always going to judge us. Remember the farmer, his son, and their donkey. If we build our lives based on other people’s perceptions, we will end up dissatisfied and depressed. It’s impossible to create the perfect impression forever, and God didn’t make us to live like that anyway.

The thing we need to change is our motivation. We should really be making our decisions based on what God asks us to do. That’s the life He created us to live. Where does God want me to spend my hard-earned money? Does my clothing reflect the honor that God has given me as His son or daughter? And yes, people will still judge us or think ill of us, and sometimes that will hurt, but it doesn’t matter as much when we know we’re doing what God would have us do. It’s truly amazing how the earth grows strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.

It’s all about God, anyway. What right have we to add to His commandments?

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20 thoughts on “Are You a Legalist??

  1. I’m Sssooorrryyy I don’t really have a problem with the Doc Strange movie, it’s just the character himself I have a problem with. Don’t hate me… okay that half joke aside (I don’t think you hate me, unless you do 0-o) I really liked this post! (not saying that your other post are fun. I like reading all of them) and in all honesty when I was a kid I was a legalist.
    Don’t worry I did grew out of legalism, and boy was that freeing. I didn’t have to try and earn Gods grace by keeping “commandments” that didn’t exist. Now I didn’t become an anti-legalist, which often happens to reformed legalist, but I did see a lot of that as well. It’s kind of funny how many pits we can fall into when we rely on our own understand isn’t it?

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    • If you don’t like exactly the same things as me, you aren’t allowed to read my blog. 😏
      Seriously though, it’s amazing how we can get out of one thing just to fall into another. Reminds me of The Screwtape Letters and how it’s easy to make the human proud because, by Jove, he’s so humble! I guess it’s a reason to rely on God all the more- we can’t even ‘be good’ without being bad.

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      • Aww man, Looks like I’m getting kicked out ●︿● Good bye fun blog o(╥﹏╥)o you know you should really put that as a disclaimer.
        I know right! We got ourselves into trouble the first time by relaying on our selves. But hey it will work the second time right? I can just see the devil siting on a hill and watching like “Hey demon. Watch this, that guy there is climbing out of a dich he got himself into. guy finally gets up He’s up! guy slips on his own feet and falls into the dich on the left Aahahaha did you see that! And I didn’t even do anything! Mission accomplished”

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        • Yes, I can put it on my header: this blog is only for me.
          That mental picture is humorous in a disturbing sort of way… But thank God for his mercy! No way we would survive without it.

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        • Yes thank God for His hrace and murcy on us! I’m sorry i didn’t mean for it to be disturbing. I meant it as a funny analogy of how useless we are when left to our own knowledge

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  2. I had no idea that legalists and anti-legalists were a thing! I knew there were people like that, but didn’t know there were terms, haha. Anyway, this was a really enlightening post. Even though I’m not legalist or anti-legalist, it’s still hard for me to maintain the middle ground. I love the quote from Doctor Strange you put in (also: LOVE that movie :D) because yes, it’s not about you. That’s what it all boils down to. And you’re right when you say people are going to judge us whether we like it or not, whether we try to avoid it or not. I have to keep reminding myself of that too, because sometimes I judge myself by being self-conscious of what other people think of me.
    Anyhow, fantastic post!!! 😀

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    • Oh, yeah, I don’t even know if anti-legalism is a real term… But it captures the idea pretty well. I think everybody is a legalist sometimes and an anti-legalist other times. It’s not about us, nor about other people- God is the point, and it’s so freeing to believe that!

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  3. I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum, and it took me a long while to realize both extremes are rooted in pride. Unfortunately the church culture (at least in the U.S.) often encourages these extremes. As humans, we like to know where the boundaries are. What we do with the boundaries once we find them varies, but we want to know specifics.

    “Can I wear this? Should I watch that? Is this food okay?” All of these kinds of questions fall under what I call “pinhead theology,” because the exploration of such questions might be intriguing, but in the end, looking for that kind of specificity in Scripture is like expecting the Bible to tell you how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    God does give us guidelines, of course, and occasionally specific rules, but He also stresses we are individuals made in His image. That doesn’t mean we’re meant to act like carbon-copied, cookie-cutter versions of some ideal. Even if Adam and Eve hadn’t taken nutritional advice from a serpent, we’d all have different personalities, and we’d even disagree at times; we’d just disagree without trying to chew each other’s head off.

    Part of the beauty of following Christ is the freedom we have. In my experience with legalistic churches, they subconsciously (or sometimes overtly) attempt to hold themselves up as God’s mouthpiece for their congregations, and they consequently limit that freedom. “Yeah, sure, the Bible says you shouldn’t be drunk, but we expect you to never drink alcohol at all.” On the other side, there are those individuals whose faith is based in some contrarian mindset, as if “being a Christian who bucks it all” is somehow righteous.

    Both sides fail to realize their pride, and both lose out because they want to make everything into some kind of religious issue. What political zealots do with politics, legalistic and anti-legalistic people do with religion. In the end, it’s all missing the point of a natural relationship with God, whose plan for us includes allowing us to partake of the freedom he gives us. What we end up with is what I call the First Baptist Social Club–because I was raised as a Southern Baptist–where you’re expected to meet certain, extra-biblical standards to be considered “a good Christian.”

    There’s no such thing as a good Christian or a bad Christian. There are followers of Christ, all of us broken, damaged, or defective in some way. Yet God loves working with us, turning that damage into something useful, beautiful, and unique. That’s why Philippians 2:12 says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Remember who God is, and who you are to Him. From there, heed His voice above all others, and live abundantly in the freedom He gives.

    Sorry, brevity isn’t in my wheelhouse.

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    • Good thoughts! I wish I could write/type as fast as you… XD I used to live in the rather agnostic northeast US, so I’ve also picked up on a lot of those legalistic patterns in the Bible belt. In a culture where everyone is a “Christian,” it’s so easy to set up God-plus-something-else as a formula for salvation.

      I like how you expressed the truth: “There are followers of Christ, all of us broken, damaged, or defective in some way.” We answer to God, and we don’t always do it perfectly, but he gives us freedom to follow him even when we mess up.

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  4. I never even considered that people against legalism can go into the other extreme. I guess since in my family we’ve never adhered to any sorts of legalism but rather have been trained to recognize right and wrong in accordance to the Bible, I don’t have any scars from the past to make me go completely anti-legalistic. Good post.
    (Also wait there’s people who don’t like Doctor Strange? waaaat.)

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    • Yeah, it surprised me too, but some people (though of course not all) tend to lash out against legalism in that way. And I think the way you learned is the real right way- following God according to what he asks you to do.
      Apparently so! I’d say about half of my friends who watched it didn’t like Stephen’s character at all. O.o

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I guess coming from another culture helped my parents see American Christianity and its effects from the outside.
        Huh, weird. Honestly of all the Marvel characters his personality and arc are most compelling to me.

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        • Yeah, I can even see the difference between the northern and southern states. I didn’t know that you lived in a different country. That’s cool! Where are you from?
          It was the same for me! I saw a lot of my own traits and quirks in him, so I liked him from the start.

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