What’s The Biggest Problem with Legalism? You. And Me.

I once belonged to a prayer group that prized ecumenical unity. We came from a wide variety of Christian traditions. We sang, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Then we split down the middle due to ruptured relationships among our leaders.

We formerly prided ourselves on our exceptional unity; then our leaders attacked each other. We were embarrassed and a bit humiliated. Our highly prized treasure—good relationships in the midst of very strong differences—had slipped from our grasp.

Here lies Sam WilliamsonA fellow member heard of a Christian leader in a neighboring city who had committed adultery and raided the group’s bank accounts. Sitting next to me in a prayer meeting, my friend shared the story and then whispered, “At least we’re not that bad.”

“Great!” I thought, “that’s just what I want chiseled on my tombstone:”

Here Lies Sam Williamson

At least he wasn’t as bad as them

What’s the real problem?

Criticizing legalism is popular today. It should be. But our critiques miss the point. We think of legalists as fussy, prudish, authoritarian, rule makers. They turn the tiniest commandment into a drudgery-filled dictionary of rules for joyless living.

Legalists remind us of the severe, unsmiling Pharisees. But that’s unfair to the Pharisees. Pharisees began as the good guys. They cared for the common folk and protected them from false religion. They taught the Bible and opposed the snobbish, priestly class.

Legalists don’t begin as joyless, fastidious, rigid dogmatists. That’s just the way they end up. Sure, legalists are rule-makers; but they create rules to make themselves feel good.

The result of their rules is the real problem. Their rules create a cultural sense of superiority. Somehow—because of their rules, or understanding, or man-created culture—somehow something about them is better.

If we limit ourselves to two simple rules, “Love God and love your neighbor,” we’ll feel more spiritual than those fundamentalist, killjoys. If we only make one rule, “Never make rules,” we’ll somehow feel better than those rule-manufacturing, stuffed shirts.

At least we aren’t as bad as them.

Besides, manmade rules aren’t strict enough

A religious lawyer tells Jesus that the Law can be summed up by two commands: Love God and love your neighbor. Jesus replies, Good job, now go and do it. The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbor?”, but he asks, “in order to justify himself” (Luke 10:29).

The lawyer doesn’t ask how he can do the impossible (that is, love unlovable people). No, his question asks, “What is the absolute minimum behavior I can get away with?

He wants rules he can handle. He says:  Give me rules that I can observe; tell me just to love neighbors within fifty yards, or to love only like-minded believers in my circles.”

The problem with rules made by legalists is that they aren’t strict enough. Rules made by God drive us to him because we can’t possibly accomplish them on our own; rules made by legalists drive us to performance, self-identity, and superiority.

It’s counter-intuitive, but rules made by legalists are never created to make life difficult. They are made so we can live up to these standards and so feel good about ourselves.

That’s why Jesus answers him with the Good Samaritan parable. We can’t be that loving. We need God to change our hearts. And that’s the point. God’s rules drive us to him.

What’s the hidden problem?

Let’s admit the secret problem with legalism’s superiority: We are all guilty.

  • Charismatics scorn (in their spirits) the Frozen Chosen;
  • Academic theologians sneer (in their intellects) at devotional writings;
  • John Eldridge fans pity (in their hearts) believers who won’t admit their wounds;
  • Lay people scoff (in their ignorance) at those egg-head, doctrinaire hairsplitters;
  • And anti-bigots are bigoted (in their tolerance) against bigots.

Everyone feels superior. Reading this article, some will think: I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not as bad as those self-deceivers who won’t admit their own imperfection! Our deep-seated need for applause compels us to affirm ourselves at the expense of others.

Everyone’s guilty. Everyone’s a legalist. Except you and me (and I’m not so sure about you.)

Who lives beyond fifty yards of us?

My ecumenical prayer group had Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics. We felt a [right] conviction to be known as Christians because of our love (John 13:35). We wanted to show it is possible to love other believers who greatly differ from us.

But our “rule” of ecumenical-loving was a standard we could obey. We were a group of like-minded believers who shared an ecumenical value. We could achieve it. We came from the 60’s and 70’s generation that sang, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer out love … all over this land.” Denominational hatred was naturally anathema to us.

Our parents’ value of theological primacy was simply not as important to us as it had been for them. Our ecumenical miracle wasn’t as miraculous as we prided ourselves. It was a neighbor within fifty yards.

Then a difference of opinion arose that was important to us; we argued and we divided.

We once felt superior to our parents who failed to fight for ecumenical unity. When we faced our own battle for unity, we too failed. We ended up realizing we were “just as bad as them.”

And that is a very good place to start.


P.S. I still highly value love across all Christian traditions. But if we succeed, let’s not feel superior. For some, ecumenism isn’t that difficult (it was our parents’ battle not ours); for others, ecumenism is still hugely difficult today.

Let’s prize unity. Let’s express it beyond ecumenism. Let’s also love when we disagree over mission budgets, worship styles, and various Christian movements. The world will know we are Christians if we still love even—maybe especially—when we disagree.

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What do YOU think?

6 thoughts on “What’s The Biggest Problem with Legalism? You. And Me.

  1. Unity has become too important. It appears to have eclipsed the growing of the kingdom in our value system. My experience leads me to believe that if we stay focused on the “Great Commission,” we will not have time for much of what gives rise to a lack of unity. Men and women who have thrown themselves into the work of saving souls and helping disciples grow spiritually, should have far less problems with unity issues.

    • Hi Jim,

      Great comment. Thanks (and sorry for this late response).

      I’m not sure where unity fits in the overall balance of all we should do, but it ranks very high. Jesus did say that the world will know us because of our love; and in his closing night with the disciples, he prayed that we would be one even as he and the father are one.

      Part of the Great Commission is learning to love even when we disagree.

      I’ve seen and heard of too many missionary (and ministry) problems where there is great love for the non-believers, and outreach is paramount; yet they fight and bicker among themselves.

      Thanks for your time and thoughts,


  2. You know Sam I wish I wrote like you and I envy your ability to prose, but I am not as guilty as your needing to be guilty so in effect that makes me less a self-righteous bigot because the very tenet that I would say such makes me indeed better than most and clearly better than this. 🙂 See I get the gist, I think!

    Seriously though your writing is tremendous and speaks to our inability to relate to God in grace and understand that indeed this is how he and the only way he relates to us. For we can only relate to God in grace as much as we relate to others through grace.

    Often the passage of Galatians 6:1-2 is touted, and it is discussed that we should point out when our brothers are stumbling, neglecting the fact that Paul said in effect that to not point the finger, but to carry the brother in his time of weakness. However, good ole Paul never leaves any doubt in any of his writings how we are to do such things. The verse that is often left out is verse 3 which is how Paul tells us that it is not about pointing out the offence, but carrying the burden which only happens when we stop trying to be someone. Thanks Again for reminding us of this truth my friend.

    • Pat,

      Yet one more great comment from you. Thanks.

      Yeah, that carrying each other’s burdens is huge, and most of us (at least me) fail most of the time.

      Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

  3. Sam,
    Where I had my career, United Grocers, we loved the old adage – “Any organization with united in its name isn’t!” And they weren’t united most of the time or even civil some of the time.
    And I attended a church that used the slogan “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty” and that seemed to work well – but it boils down to the fact that unity among believers is harder to come by when the ego quotient of the group rises. That didn’t sound right, but I’m at an age where my group all have decades of Christian study under their belts, and it’s easy to get sideways over a point, more often than not a small point.
    I like how Paul laid it out for the Ephesians (chapter 4, vs 2,3) “lowliness, meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love. Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” and vs13,14 “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God……….That we henceforth be no more children”
    I think that Paul’s simple solution is to “Grow Up!” More Christ, less man, more grace, less ego. If it just weren’t so darned hard!

    • Lyman,

      I love your closing line, “More Christ, less man, more grace, less ego.”

      If only it were that easy, and if only it weren’t so darned hard.

      Our real need is simply to look to and see more of Jesus. The rest will come.