“As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” ~St. Paul
Legalism as the issue
There is a bit of legalism in everyone. As we look at the concept of becoming a recovering fundamentalist it’s important to focus on heart issues and not a strawman. Legalism is a major heart issue to overcome. Often people who flee traditional legalistic churches swing to progressive legalistic churches. It’s the same heart issue, just a different “standard” of what being spiritual looks like. So, be careful and don’t thank God that “you’re not a legalist like those people over there.”
Legalism lacks faith and is really about control. There is a strong desire for us to want to merit Grace. We simply need to trust Jesus. God already showed His love towards us. Apart from Jesus, anything good we do is rubbish. Without faith it’s impossible to please God. We desire legalism because we desire control. Sometimes we even call things legalistic that aren’t because we hate to submit and desire to control. You and I are control freaks. Faith means placing trust in and submitting to God. It means He’s in control and not us.
Gospel plus nothing
Legalism is adding to the Gospel to be saved or sanctified. It’s a false Gospel. The Bible clearly teaches it’s the Gospel plus nothing equals salvation and sanctification. Simply, the Gospel is the “life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Act by placing faith in God. Don’t react by trying to control, you and I are lousy at being God.
I missed the boat
When we think of heresy we think of denying Scripture, the cross, miracles, etc. Legalism is right up there with that list. I often viewed legalism as an issue to be addressed, and not a false gospel to be condemned. Look up what accursed means and you’ll see my point. Paul’s quote above is in the context of dealing with legalism. Fundamentalism would be viewed differently if the movement vehemently stood against legalism as other false Gospels.
To avoid the accusation of legalism people often try to hide it using various terms. Rules, standards, being missional, oh my. Let’s be honest and call it for what it is, it’s legalism. Even the touch of “we do this to honor God” sugar coats the idea. Legalism springs to judgement of one’s spirituality based on a set of rules. It creates a putrid environment whereby people look to please people instead of focusing on pleasing God. If the “standard” is a mark of spirituality it’s legalism.
Legalism is: I visited a church where everyone (infants included) was in a suit or dress. I was one of the few (the only in the coming conversation) not in a suit. As a person was striking up a friendly conversation the tone shifted dramatically when I said I was a pastor. This wasn’t a fluke as the conversation happened numerous times. The eye glares were interesting to say the least. I was wearing a white polo shirt and khaki’s (a friend of mine calls them baptist pants) and brown dress shoes. The temperature was in the upper 80’s. I was on vacation.
Legalism isn’t: Doing open air evangelism in New York city we were told to dress and carry ourselves a certain way, no exceptions. This was a mater of safety and also respect for the cultures we were trying to reach. Do I have the freedom in Christ to wear want I want? Yes. I also have the freedom to give up that right to best meet the spiritual needs of those I’m trying to reach. Standards of conduct do not equal legalism.
Methods and programs
Often legalism set’s itself up in the form of a method or program. We think that a certain way of doing ministry will make us more spiritual or God honoring. We get so tied down with performing a certain way that we look down at (really we’re judging) others for how they do ministry. I’m not anti-program or anti-methodology. Our faith, prayer and theology should come before our programs and methodologies. We should act in faith & the power of the Spirit.
The bottom line:
Legalism is a false sense of control. It’s heart issue we all struggle with and a false Gospel of grace by works. Legalism is one of the great heresies of our day. Act in faith instead of reacting by trying to control. God already loves you. In Christ your salvation is secure. Rules do not mean legalism, but can easily become such.