Matthew 23:24 “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
Have you, as a christian, ever been accused of legalism? If so, it’s a serious accusation that should cause you to stop and ask yourself if this is true.
Jesus gave many scathing rebukes to the Pharisees in His day, their practice of adding additional regulations or changing the original intent of God’s laws aroused some of the greatest anger from Jesus during His ministry.
Often misrepresented in the church, many who express a viewpoint without listening to reason or giving regard to another perspective can be defined as being legalistic when they are actually just narrow-minded. The narrow-minded will typically have their minds made up on a matter regardless if new information is presented and can even come across as prejudiced.
Legalism, on the other hand, is much more egregious in nature since it involves God’s standards instead of man’s. Moving the law of God from its original context and purpose into a man-made purpose can be detrimental to the person who practices these traits, it places them in a position as lawmaker.
Matthew 23:2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.”
The position of the Pharisees was one that was God ordained. As overseers, they were given the privilege of applying the law of the Lord, just as Moses had done many years before. God had revealed His laws to Moses as an administrative guide in leading His people, the laws were meant to be adhered to very closely and the consequences for breaking them was serious.
Sadly, the Pharisees were quite willing to hold God’s laws over the people but forgot they were subject as well. Hypocrisy is a universally hated position, regardless if you are a christian or otherwise, I have met very few people who are not disgusted by hypocritical behavior.
One of the side effects of hypocrisy is pride.
Matthew 23:5 “But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.”
The end of the Law
“Some people seem to be preoccupied in the Christian life with obeying rules and regulations, and they conceive of Christianity as being a series of do’s and don’ts, cold and deadly set of moral principles. That’s one form of legalism, where one is concerned merely with the keeping of God’s law as an end in itself.”R.C.Sproul
There is a reality T.V. show called “Breaking Amish”, which I do not suggest watching. Because of my in-laws fascination with this culture I was interested in seeing what these people experienced when deciding to leave the culture. The young people involved go radically into the New York culture that turns into a foolish exercise in continuous alcohol consumption, illicit relationships, and foul mouthed tirades. One aspect of the show relates the very legalistic way the community controls the people, whether it is approved entertainment or clothes it seems everything gets labeled a sin when not adhered to and the result is often rebellion. Sadly, the young people involved trended quickly into the same depression, anxiety, and isolation that anyone partaking of these lifestyles experiences.
It seems that those who oversee the Amish community are determined to maintain their lifestyle and so attempt to apply God’s laws in a way that reinforces their viewpoint.
“The legalist isolates the law from the God who gave the law. He is not so much seeking to obey God or honor Christ as he is to obey rules that are devoid of any personal relationship.”R.C. Sproul
I’m not saying the Amish are devoid of a personal relationship with God for that really is between them and God alone. When God’s laws are applied in a way that lacks love then you see a separation occur that becomes man centered in application and God is only used as a means to enforce those laws.
The Spirit of the Law
A second type of legalism separates the letter of the law from the spirit of the law. This approach hyper focuses on the way the law is written without giving consideration for why it was given. The intent of God’s laws served specific purposes, when those purposes are ignored then the intent is narrowed down to simply obedience without understanding the love or purpose behind them.
Psalm 19:8 “The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;”
The result of God’s laws being exercised correctly is one that causes the follower to rejoice. You can see the good of God’s intent when you follow them purposefully, you can sense His love and protection, and you see His character revealed through them as they draw you closer to the Lord.
The third type of legalism adds our own rules to God’s law and treats them as if they were God ordained.
The Amish culture teaches that showing any appearance of representing the culture apart from their culture is a sin. By taking their appearance and applying it to a standard of Holiness by which God will judge every person is to build a doctrine that is counter to God’s Word.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.”
Jesus was continually breaking down prejudice by the way He approached others without hesitation. Healing the leper, witnessing to the Samaritan, or having dinner with sinners, Jesus was more concerned about expressing love and forgiveness than appearance.
Whether it is being in a position of narrow-mindedness (which I believe leads to legalism) or practicing legalism outright, we must all be guarded that we don’t incorporate a practice that is contrary to the One we represent. Unity of the body is important in so many ways, reflecting God’s love to the world by worrying less about our preconceived notions and more about introducing the gospel in purity is the standard by which we are called.
Remember….it’s not our standard we represent, it’s God’s. Understanding His intent is to build up, strengthen, and protect should ultimately be our intent as well. Applying God’s moral law correctly takes wisdom and discernment and that comes by way of the Holy Spirit.
The fruit of legalism is oppression, anger, and bitterness. The fruit of God’s laws is peace, joy, and security, while they convert the soul from sin and lead the godly in righteousness.
What fruit is being produced in you?