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"Believing in Fairy Tales: Dispelling Falsehood in the Christian Church": Part 3 - Legalism

Updated on August 6, 2013

Defining Legalism

I’ve been blessed in my Christian walk that this particular problem has not been a consistent problem that I’ve encountered. I have experienced this though.

Legalism has always been a “sacred cow” of sorts in certain Christian groups. And many, perhaps all, cults have this same “sacred cow” – legalism. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were the legalists he dealt with primarily. And the Judaizers were the legalists that Paul contended with when the Church was still in its infancy.

Some say not much has changed.

Before we get too far, it’s important to define the term legalism. What is legalism? And what isn’t legalism?

Legalism is the creation of, or focus on, man-made rules as being necessary to Christian life. These man-made rules are not found in the Bible as commands of God. Legalism can also be the perversion of God’s commands, or the overemphasis of a Biblical practice beyond what is commanded or encouraged.

In other words legalism is the intense focus on external works, putting the practices and traditions of men above the commands and teachings of God.

Legalism IS NOT the clear teaching of the word of God with authority. Legalism is not the expectation that Christians (ourselves and others) should trust and obey the commands of God from the Bible, and repent when we fall short. And legalism is not stressing that pure doctrine be taught, preached and understood by the local body.

Jesus and the apostles did and taught the latter. And they vehemently opposed the former. And today many Christians are still confused.

Jane Small, by Hans Holbein

This portrait highlights the simplicity of the young woman's clothing; reflecting her relatively modest status.  This wonderful 17th century work of art displays vividly the difference between modesty and modern moral confusion.
This portrait highlights the simplicity of the young woman's clothing; reflecting her relatively modest status. This wonderful 17th century work of art displays vividly the difference between modesty and modern moral confusion. | Source

What is Legalism Really Like?

As an example, I know of one local assembly in my area that teaches that women who wear jeans are wicked and promiscuous. This assembly and a select few others insist that all women wear dresses and that they be down to the woman’s ankles. That’s legalism!

The Bible does not give a specified dress code. What it does say is that women must dress modestly (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3-4; Prov. 7:10; Prov. 11:22).

That is not legalistic. There’s a difference and we would be wise as brothers and sisters in the Lord to know that difference.

The verses above offer dual protection for both the sister and the brother in Christ. And they also speak to an attitude of the heart; values that are born out of our faith in the Lord.

Another example would be a young Christian man (zealous in his love for Jesus and the Church) being asked by a local congregation to not play basketball on their property or with their young men because he had a tattoo. This man had this tattoo from long before he became a believer. And further, if the church body felt it was a problem, shouldn’t they have offered to pay to have it removed if he was willing instead of banishing him?

There are plenty of others that involve things such as clothing styles, dancing, where we watch movies, what kind of cars we drive and other similar practices. These are such peripheral issues.

I even once heard of a church that required their congregants show their pay stubs to prove they were tithing enough! The Biblical model of tithes and offerings has always been between the believer and God; not requiring the approval of any other group.

The legalist at heart would howl to know that the Bible does not flat out condemn alcohol. In fact, some verses encourage the drinking of it (Dt. 14:26; 1 Tim. 5:23). And others imply or explicitly state that Jesus consumed some (Matt. 11:18-19). When Jesus created wine (John 2), it was just that, wine! What the Bible condemns is drunkenness (Eph. 5:18; 1 Tim. 3:8; Is. 28:7; Gal. 5:21, etc.).

Faith and Repentance Leads to Forgiveness and the Righteousness of Christ

The woman caught in adultery is an excellent case of someone who had clearly thought and done something that made her unclean; yet was made clean by Christ.  The Pharisees were caught in their hypocrisy.
The woman caught in adultery is an excellent case of someone who had clearly thought and done something that made her unclean; yet was made clean by Christ. The Pharisees were caught in their hypocrisy. | Source

I Never Thought I'd See The Day!: Culture at the Crossroads

Jesus and the Pharisees Over Tribute Money


Turning Towards Integrity

What Actually Makes a Person Unclean?

Jesus dealt with this very plainly in Mark chapter 7.

Mark 7:1-23 (KJV)
“Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.

And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable. And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.”

And in Matthew 23:23 Jesus says “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

In these verse Jesus makes it clear that the attitudes of the heart are what make us wicked, unclean and perverse. And he makes it clear that there are many matters that are peripheral in terms of their importance.

Pulling the "legalist card"

Quick Answers About: Church Legalism

A New Face For Legalism?

What we sometimes see prevailing as a form of legalism in the Christian Church in the western part of the world, can sometimes appear a bit different. However, it is still rife with the hypocrisy of these other overt displays of legalism.

Often we will see faithful brothers and sisters accused by other Christians of legalism when they teach pure doctrine (especially about salvation or sexual issues), hold their brothers and sisters accountable, or when they confront a heresy or falsehood directly (even if gently). And just as often the accusers, like the Pharisees before them, trumpet their own false piety for not being so intolerant, legalistic, or bigoted.

The term bigot in Christian circles these days more often than not is used incorrectly and horribly irresponsibly. It is often used to refer to someone who holds to Biblical truths about salvation or sexual purity.

I personally have seen professed Christians who were openly and unrepentantly living very licentiously and carnally (worldly); being taken with drunkenness, promiscuity, idolatry, immodesty and vulgarity (many of us have been guilty at one time or another too). And these same professed Christians would promote that others be able to indulge without repentance in all forms of immorality (Rom. 1:17-32).

Their itching ears and guilty consciences would cause them to become angry and hostile to other Christians who would indicate that these behaviors were ungodly, sinful or harmful to the soul. This is the case even when they are not the ones being directly confronted.

This is the challenge in the Church in the western world my friends. This is a falsehood that must be dispelled. To coin a phrase, it’s a sacred cow that we must slaughter in our churches.

I’ll leave you with some words from our Lord Jesus Christ to consider:

John 14:15-21 (KJV)
If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.

You think about that, and God bless!

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      That's a wise answer to a tricky quetoisn

    • JeremyLBrown profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeremy Brown 

      4 years ago from Maine

      Thank you and I couldn't agree more! Between Phariseeism and outright idolatry we all need to draw near to God and seek His face and His word.

      God bless you!

    • JeremyLBrown profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeremy Brown 

      4 years ago from Maine

      Hello ReasonablyLogical,

      Thank you for your reply! I hope you can forgive me for being absent from HubPages for some time. I am resuming my blogging activities here, and would welcome you to return and interact at any time.

      I have a question for you, because you focused on treatment of women in religions. I would like to focus solely on biblical Christianity, because I would agree that many other religions err and are unjust in this area. And I'm sure you would agree that I don't represent those other religions and so it's not very reasonable or logical for me to consider answering for them. Fair enough?

      Do you see modesty as a "dress code" per se? You will find that the New Testament gives only certain guidelines and very little specific instruction on clothing requirements. So I'm curious as to why you speak of a dress code. Can you give me more detail on why you see modesty that way?

      I would also like to ask you if you see a woman respecting her body and considering it valuable and something that her husband should value and cherish as bad? In America, we tend to put covers on cars and boats; tablets and cell phones; and many other things we want to preserve and protect. We also tend to use blinds and curtains in our homes; desire privacy in our social media; and password protect many devices when we don't want people to see things that we don't consider their business. Do you think that a women taking that same attitude toward her body is "old and outdated"? How about a man?


    • JeremyLBrown profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeremy Brown 

      4 years ago from Maine

      Hi Ericdierker,

      Thank you for the feedback and encouragement. I love hearing back from other commenters!

      My apologies for not having been active on HubPages for some time. I am resuming my blogging activity and welcome you and your feedback any time.

      I agree with you that NOBODY should have to be commanded to love Jesus. He deserves it and is most worthy! To be honest I don't think we should have to be told not to murder or steal either, however, we know that the heart is desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9).

      When I see God's commands, I see Him showing us a mirror of sorts that shows us how we have sinned and fallen short of His glory. It also reveals to us how we've departed from His wondrous design for us, and our need for Him to return to that.

      I see man's creation of our own laws as a means of attempting to manufacture love and righteousness to shortcut the process. We know that is legalistic and eventually it causes great failure.

    • JeremyLBrown profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeremy Brown 

      4 years ago from Maine

      Thank you for the encouragement! I appreciate your response.

      Please forgive me for not being active on HubPages in some time. I am resuming my blogging activity here and welcome you and your feedback any time.

    • JeremyLBrown profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeremy Brown 

      4 years ago from Maine

      Thank you for your reply. And please forgive me for not being active on HubPages for some time. I am going to be resuming my Hub here, and would love for you to keep coming back. Feel free to interact!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      5 years ago from San Diego California

      We still have this problem of "whitewashed walls" in our modern churches that concentrate on churchiness, on style over substance rather than on love and forgiveness. Phariseeism runs rampant in the pulpit and the pews. I give you a big 'Amen!' On this one!

    • ReasonablyLogical profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      Faith itself, regardless of what religion prompts you to subscribe, is simply being satisfied without the answers. An ancient text written by illiterate impoverished herders in the epitome of poverty in the middle east certainly cannot be an appropriate document for basing your entire existence. I appreciate your interrogation of interpretations, however, that is all they are. Morality has nothing to do with dress code, especially in women. It is obvious how religions reflect upon the "old and outdated" treatment of women.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Wonderful and well written.

      I confess to disagreeing with the command to love Jesus. That should not be a written direction. Telling people to love Jesus misses the whole notion and is actually legalism.

      We are just to Love. If we do that how can we not love Jesus. But if we are told to love Jesus before we love others and ourselves we are deceived. We must just Love and everything else falls into place.

    • cptjarum profile image


      5 years ago from perth

      Thanks for this article. It is true some people go overboard and their christian faith ends up being more about what to do and not to do instead of their actual walk with God.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      5 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Good overview of what legalism is and is not. I especially appreciate your emphasis on the fact that adhering to the clear teaching of Scripture is not legalism, while going beyond to impose man-made laws to enforce practices Scripture does not command is legalism.

    • FSlovenec profile image

      Frank Slovenec 

      5 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Well said: Christianity is a love relationship with Jesus. Everything I do I want to please the Lord. So I must obey His commands and do what pleases him. We are free but we are told: 1 Corinthians 8:9 "Be careful, however that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak." Rules can be created which are Pharisee rules. Jesus knows our heart.


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