Legalism has always been a problem for man. It’s a problem for men who seek to skirt around the Word of God in order to justify sin. They apply their lawyerly skills so that repentance doesn’t happen and more people go to heaven. Like it or not, they end up espousing the “sin more that grace may increase” thing even if they don’t use the same words. It’s called “cheap grace”. This is one extreme of legalism. This legalism fails to communicate or grasp what we know that grace does not cover the unrepentant soul.

Legalism is also a problem when men have an unhealthy view of their works and their righteousness by applying stringent rules to behavior not even imagined in Scripture. This is the other extreme of
legalism. It says if you wear the right clothes or if you meticulously tithe down to the smallest of your possessions, you are righteous. It says if you follow the dietary and purification traditions of the Pharisees you will be righteous. It exceeds the boundaries given in the Word of God. This kind of legalism becomes a real problem when the individual preferences are suddenly placed on others who are required to observe the same. God’s word calls for Christians to dress modestly, for example, but it can’t be established that women must wear dresses or that men must wear suits and ties. Demanding such specifics threatens to be legalistic. We may find it prudent to follow certain cultural norms in areas of dress, but these things cannot be bound as law on individuals. In such areas, the individual has the freedom to make up his or her own mind.

Legalism can crop up in many places. The extremes of too lax or too strict interpretations on God’s Word lead to controlling of individuals. Passions can rise, as an example, when the church is making a big decision to purchase property and build a meeting place. The Scriptures say to assemble without clear guidance on exactly where. One thing is for sure though that wherever the church assembled, it had to be a place that wouldn’t prohibit normal worship and fellowship. It doesn’t matter if the church meets in someone’s basement or if the church members pool their resources to purchase land and a meeting place. A primary concern should be that nothing be selected that would hinder the church from accomplishing what God intended when the church assembled.

The first century church was “devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

It is not possible that the first century church would choose to meet where it couldn’t do what it was devoted to. One area of concern in the building of buildings has revolved around whether to have a kitchen. This concern arises because of Paul’s admonition to eat at home because the Corinthian church was perverting the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11). But Paul did not say that Christians could not eat together. He said they weren’t to turn the Lord’s Supper into a gluttonous feast. Legalism arises when people decide they can erect a meeting place for worship but not a meeting place for fellowship activities like eating. If the church can build a building, then it can eat in that building. Eating a meal with Christians is appropriate as long as it is not mingled together with the Lord’s Supper and the worship. The eating of a meal must be something that is done separate and apart from the worship of God.

I read of a congregation that decided to have a building and one of the members spoke against having a nursery in the building. He said, “Show me in the Scriptures where a nursery is authorized.” Someone else said, “It’s right next to the verse that authorizes the construction of the building.” In jest, another person quoted the following from 1 Corinthians 15: “we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed,” (1 Cor. 15:51). Overlooking the fact that the verse is used out of context, it’s still funny and maybe best answers the folly of the legalist. Practicality says that if the church is to assemble, there will be diapers to be changed. If the church met in a member’s home, would there be authorization for the children to be changed in the home? Of course. So who wants to suggest that the church can build a place where normal Christian activity won’t not be allowed? If it were true, it would be the bes argument ever against the church possessing a building for any reason. The church needs to be wise and prudent about the money being spent, which goes without saying. And maybe there isn’t money to build an expansive kitchen and dining hall and nursery. Fiscal issues must be considered. But don’t try to suggest that these things can be dismissed only on the basis that worship will be made unacceptable. Our own congregation meets four hours a week in a rented building that has many rooms in it. There are two kitchens in the building we rent. There are many bathrooms in it. There is an area where parents can go to to calm noisy children and change diapers. All of this is “legal” Scripturally and does not hinder our spirit and truth worship. The same things could be done if we met in a large home or if we built our own facility and met there.

I want to offer to God worship that is in spirit and truth (John 4:23,24). Indeed, I must. It is the legalists who jeopardize spiritual worship by pushing the extremes of either relaxing the limitations involved in bringing “truth and spirit” worship to God or by pushing the other extreme of unnecessarily placing limits that cannot be justified in Scripture. Both extremes make their traditions and presumptions the law that is bound on the church. The middle ground, is where grace and faith meet, when we speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where it is silent.

Bringing musical instruments into worship is legalism that misuses God’s Law by applying Old Testament patterns to the New Testament. It is essentially no different from the Judaizer who justifies circumcision based on the Old Testament. Or the same legalist turns to the symbolical language of the Revelation letter and insist that the “harps” be narrowly understood as authorization for worship in the New Testament church. These people don’t apply the same narrow interpretation to other symbols. The down and dirty is that these people want musical instruments, or they want to be accepting of those who use musical instruments, and so they bring their legalistic skills to interpreting Scripture. It is not legalism to say that the church sings spiritual songs to God and that that is well-pleasing to God. But to authorize more and force it on the church is unadulterated and unabashed legalism. The other extreme of legalism is brought to bear on worship song when rules begin to be made on the simplicity or complexity of the song lyrics. The Scriptures don’t give guidelines here beyond calling for “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”. If the song is from the 18th century of the 22nd century it does not matter as long as the Scripturalness of the song is given proper attention. This is just one example of this type of extreme legalism, but this kind can be just as destructive and prohibitive to the church accomplishing it’s mission.

The person who is led by the Spirit, by a desire to be pleasing to God, will avoid these lawyerly exercises which disguise a failing of the flesh in the individual. The church must avoid both extremes of legalism.

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Legalism is not the strict adherence to God’s word

Categories: Legalism

53 replies

  1. Legalism….this blog…nuf said.


  2. I prefer to be Legal, you prefer to be Illegal. Thanks for the input “anonymous”.


  3. Leave Quintin alone – he's done good work for years – maybe not in the way you would see fit. Think Julia Child… on steroids. He's probably learned to open his mind a bit.


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