One of the worst things that you can be accused of in the modern church is legalism. Legalism is, of course, a terrible thing, and yet often the fear of it has created a sort of hyper-sensitivity that skews our thinking on the subject. Many today do not rightly understand legalism and think any form of accountability is synonymous with the dreaded L-word. The fear of legalism, however, can keep us from genuine Christian community.
Our understanding of legalism is more driven by modern culture than Biblical truth. In much modern thinking, calls to holiness and accountability become oppressive expectations that undermine grace. So, if I should confront you on sexual sin, or expect you to contribute to the church, or encourage you to spend time in prayer and Scripture then I would be accused of being legalistic. Of course, it should be stated that how we do these things (the approach, frequency, tone, and spirit) matters. It should also be stated that the relationship we have matters. Yet, even if all these things are taken into consideration, it is often argued that any form of behavioral expectation is an attempt to put believers under law instead of grace. This, however, is not how the Bible treats the subject of legalism.
It helps if we define our terms Biblically. The Bible helps us to understand that legalism is about making our relationship with God dependent upon our performance, as opposed to His grace. So, God loves me when I obey and do good. God is angry with me when I disobey and do bad. I am closer to God when I keep His rules, and I am further from God when I don’t. In numerous places the Apostle Paul contrasts works of the law with grace. His point is always to demonstrate that “no one is justified by works of the law” (Rom. 3:20; see also Gal. 2:16; 3:10-11, 20-24). Yet this same Bible, in fact this same Biblical author (Paul), also regularly commands and expects holy living on the part of believers. The law does not save, but God still expects that those who love Him obey Him (John 14:15). There is an expectation put on us and we are to pursue ever-increasing holiness in our lives.
A fear of legalism will, however, keep us from growing in community. If we cannot talk to one another about areas of weakness, if we cannot receive criticism and constructive feedback, if we cannot be held to God’s standards, and helped to work out weakness and sin then we cannot exist in community. We all say that we want community, but when community comes with accountability then we run. In fact many of us say that we want “authenticity,” we want people to be real and raw. We want to share the gritty details of our lives with others, to confess sin and weakness, to bemoan our struggles together. Yet, when those whom we have invited deeper into our lives confront us, challenge us, or otherwise seek to help us grow and change we are appalled. Such activities, however, are part of the Bible’s description of healthy Christian communities. Christians help one another to look more like Jesus. If we chalk all instances of correction, rebuke, and confrontation as legalism then we will never be able to settle into Christian community.
Legalism has to do with our striving to save ourselves by our own performance. Calls to holiness are not legalistic. Some can make them legalistic, no doubt. They can impose standards on others that the Bible does not, and they can suggest that individuals can’t be Christians if they don’t perform certain duties. Yet, the general call to live a holy and godly life is not legalistic, it’s straight from the Bible (2 Peter 3:11). A fear of legalism will keep others at arms length and drive us away from the Christian community we all desperately need. Be aware of legalism, but embrace community.