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3 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Legalism

  • RJ Thesman Contributing Writer
  • 2017 20 Nov
3 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Legalism

During the turbulent 1960’s, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Team settled into our small town. They produced a film and wanted to train counselors for the Gospel invitation at the end. As a high school student, I signed up – hoping to reach some of the teens in my town.

The training – over a period of several weeks – was intense. How do you lead someone to believe in Christ? Do you know how to give them the resources they might need? We practiced role plays, received critiques from our supervisors and eagerly looked forward to the premiere showing of “The Restless Ones.”

At the end of that week, I had made new friends, led several teens to Christ, helped another teen find a church to join and worked side by side with members of the Graham organization. Yet when I showed up for the youth meeting in my church, one of my “friends” confronted me.

“How could you do that?” she said. “Don’t you know you’ve ruined your Christian witness?”

She was upset because in my church, a conservative fundamental denomination, going to the movies was a sin. No matter what the motivation, we were never to go inside a movie theater. The reasoning? Movie theaters were dark and who knew what kinds of immoral behaviors happened in the dark.

Other prominent sins included:

  • Boys and girls could never swim together – even at church camp – because they might touch each other under the water
  • Absolutely no form of alcohol or tobacco
  • Girls wore no makeup because the Bible said we were supposed to have the inner beauty of a gentle heart
  • Never, ever date anyone who was not a Christian. If you married an unbeliever, you could never escape the marriage – no matter what kind of abuse you suffered.

These were just a few rules of Legalism 101 in my church. Although I loved the people who attended, I can now attribute several lies perpetrated by this legalistic attitude and the strongholds of baggage they caused. Everything was based on how “good” we should be to earn God’s acceptance. It has taken years of therapy to realize God loves me, no matter what I do. 

The additional danger of legalism is that for every rule we were taught, a Bible verse was connected to it. The leaders of my church knew how to create a doctrine for every law. It was a form of spiritual abuse, all the more dangerous because it set us apart from others and kept us from building relationships with “sinners.”

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of legalism is “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.”

From my experience, I would add to that definition the desire to control a people group through the use of fear and spiritual dominance. Not only did my peers and I grow up in a controlling atmosphere, but we completely missed the spiritual fruit of joy.  

One of the biblical examples of legalism is recorded in Matthew 12. Jesus saw a man with a shriveled hand and healed him. But the religious authorities, the Pharisees, accused Jesus. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” 

Jesus reminded them how they would help one of their sheep if it fell into a pit. Siurely a man was more valuable than a sheep. From that moment, the Pharisees plotted how they might kill Jesus.

This example segues into the usual results when a progressive thinker like Jesus confronts the legalists. If leaders humbly listen and are willing to compromise, a church can grow stronger by iron sharpening iron, by fellow Christians working through some of the deeper questions about faith.

But if leaders refuse to consider another viewpoint, when their motivation stems from fear and control – their response is to kick out the prodigal believer. And in the case of Jesus – nail him to a cross. Legalism is threatened by freedom.

To be fair, my former denomination has learned a few things since the 1960’s. Although still governed by ultra-conservative beliefs, they have opened their minds to a few concessions. The list of sins has changed; in fact, the use of film and video is encouraged during worship, and the youth group often goes to movies as a way of building relationships.

How can we avoid the trap of legalism and the resulting spiritual abuse produced from it? How can church leaders follow the example of Christ when faced with denominational questions?

1. Look at the motivation behind the rules. Jesus was more concerned with healing a man than with obeying the rules. His motivation came from compassion and love rather than forced slavery to the traditions of the Torah.

A quick scan of social media reveals condemnation and vitriol by so-called believers, hoping to convince the world in cyberspace to agree with their politics. Legalism demands agreement. No compassion for other viewpoints. Rather, an embarrassing deletion of Christian love.

2. Underscore relationship instead of religion. Various denominations include a Statement of Faith on websites and require new members to follow their creeds. Yet blanket conformity results in wooden puppets who may know multiple Bible verses yet lack compassion for the tattooed-visitor in the next pew. Are we truly known by our love? How do we show it?

3. Keep it simple. Learning a list of rules and why they are important is not how we live the abundant life. Jesus focused in and merged the entire Torah into two commandments: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

The operative verb in these two commands is love. Rules lack emotion. Yet as we love God and love others, we reflect who Jesus was and how much he wants to hold us close.

To bring the issue into a contemporary venue, let’s consider again the Sabbath question. Several people I know refuse to eat out on Sundays. In their viewpoint, “If we eat out, then we are forcing someone else to work on the Sabbath.”

However, since Sundays usually bring in larger crowds, the single mom who works as a waitress depends on those Sunday tips to feed her children during the week. By refusing to be a customer, we are short-changing what she needs to survive.

Would we not reflect more of the love of Jesus by sharing a meal with others after Sunday services, then giving a hefty tip to the waitress and encouraging her with kind words?

My faith has changed through the years, and I have experienced more joy in the abundant life by avoiding legalistic rules; instead, I try to build relationships. In fact, I recently enjoyed attending a movie – in the dark theater.

One of my friends recently lost her husband. This was her first attempt to watch a movie without him. She needed support, so I joined her. We ate supper together, shared a few hugs and enjoyed the evening – without worrying about denominational standards of legalism.

Father Rupertus Meldinius would summarize, “In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”


Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/STUDIOGRANDOUEST

RJ Thesman is the author of 9 books and 700+ articles. She is also a certified writing coach who helps other writers birth their words. Thesman writes from the heartland of Kansas where she lives with her adult son and an elderly cat. You can follow Thesman at: