Originally posted 4/26/2008, some revisions 9/25/2016
Much of the problems that occur in today’s Church stem from varying degrees of legalism. While legalism is found in the Bible, it’s often hard to pinpoint it in a modern-day context. Legalistic thinking doesn’t belong to the realm of any particular group. It can also afflict individuals in groups not known for legalism. (Christians who act as though one’s entire Christian walk hinges upon involvement in certain ministries come to mind).
All Christian groups have time-honored traditions that are important to them. Some have distinctives in how they dress or their behavior. These aren’t bad things in and of themselves. It’s when they’re treated as though one’s salvation hinges on them that they become a problem.
The Pharisees, a Jewish group of Jesus’ day, kept the laws of the Torah and also added their own traditions to the observance of the Law. A lot of these traditions lead to legalism, as faithful observance of the Law typically entailed following the extra traditions in addition to what was directly commanded in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Jesus had several clashes with the Pharisees over such things as healing on the Sabbath, which the Pharisees believed was unscriptural. However, Jesus pointed out that the Law allowed for one to rescue an animal that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:11-13) It seems that the issue wasn’t abstaining completely from all work, just what wasn’t necessary. This is an example of how Scripture can be misinterpreted to end up being more about rules than relationship.
At the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15, a conflict arose between those who thought that Gentiles had to formally convert to Judaism and keep the Law to become Christians, and those who thought that the Law was only given to the Jewish people. This was probably the first case of legalism within the Church. The first group expected more of Christians entering the Church than God did.
In the end, legalism occurs when the trappings and rules become more important than why the traditions are kept. It’s very easy to lose sight of why traditions are kept, and focus solely on keeping them. This is what we must avoid.