Navigating the Dangers of Legalism in Contemporary Christianity:


Legalism, a subtle yet pervasive issue within Christian communities, has historically hindered spiritual growth and caused division. While often not recognized as sin, its impact on faith is undeniable. As someone on the journey to becoming a pastor, I've witnessed firsthand the harmful effects of legalism. It has prompted me to delve deeper into this distraction from Christ. Legalism, rooted in a strict adherence to religious laws, can overshadow the core principles of faith. It manifests in various ways, from rigid traditions and personal convictions to regulating "gray" areas of life. Such practices can inadvertently become a litmus test for salvation, alienating those who differ in interpretation. Legalism's extreme forms may even impede evangelism, obstructing the command to be a light in the world. Jesus' teachings emphasize genuine worship, heartfelt devotion, and the danger of external displays of righteousness without inner transformation. Legalism, by contrast, hinders the transformative power of God's grace. To counter its dangers, a balanced approach is needed—one that prioritizes authentic faith, heartfelt obedience, and a personal connection with God. In this complex journey of faith, let us remain steadfast in upholding the true essence of Christianity—God's boundless grace and love.


Legalism is a concept that has plagued religious communities since ancient times, often leading to division and hindering spiritual growth. While the term may not be explicitly found in the Bible, its destructive influence on one's faith has been a recurring theme throughout history. As a pastor in training, I have witnessed the detrimental effects of legalism firsthand, prompting a deeper examination of this phenomenon and its impact on contemporary Christianity.


Legalism, often unrecognized as sin, is a prevalent issue within the Christian community. While typically associated with an excessive emphasis on strict adherence to religious laws, legalism is not commonly viewed in the same light as more obvious sins like adultery or theft. Perceived internally as a pursuit of holiness, legalism is most often outwardly seen as little more than pride, self-righteousness, and judgement.


The purpose of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was to counter the heretical teachings of the Judaizers, who insisted on following the Mosaic Law, including circumcision, for salvation. Paul emphasizes the importance of justification by faith in Christ and the freedom it brings, rejecting any form of legalism. He highlights that while good works are a product of faith, they do not serve as the basis for salvation. The epistle focuses on living by the power of the Spirit rather than the flesh and highlights the significance of the new birth through the gospel. It warns against compromising with legalistic teachings and stresses the importance of exhibiting one's faith through their own opinion of righteous living.


To comprehend the insidious nature of legalism, it is essential to define it accurately. Legalism, as described by Thomas R. Schreiner, is when individuals attempt to attain righteousness in the eyes of God (or even in the eyes of others) through strict adherence to religious laws and regulations. It is a mindset that places an emphasis on outward compliance rather than fostering a genuine relationship with God. This excessive focus on rules and rituals often eclipses the fundamental aspects of faith, leading to an absence of true spiritual growth and understanding.


In contemporary Christian circles, legalism manifests in various forms, each with its distinct set of challenges and implications. Traditions, for instance, can serve as a conduit for legalistic practices within a church. While traditions can be a source of spiritual connection and reverence, they can also become a barrier to authentic worship when their significance overrides the true essence of faith.


On a more personal level, legalism can manifest in the form of personal convictions. While there is nothing wrong with personal convictions, they are yours and yours alone and should never affect those around you or lead to your own judgement of those who do not share your convictions. As an example from our own family, Jennifer and Cheyenne both practice head covering. As there is no clear, undebatable Biblical commandment that a woman is to keep her head covered, this practice is a personal conviction. Therefore, it would be wrong (sinful judgement) for either of them to condemn someone else who does not follow the same practice.


As I've observed in certain congregations or families of believers, personal preferences such as exclusive use of the King James Version of the Bible or strict limitations on various aspects of life can inadvertently become a litmus test for salvation. When individuals impose their personal convictions as a benchmark for spiritual growth, it can alienate those who may not share the same interpretations, leading to a rigid and exclusionary environment within the church.


Furthermore, there exists a tendency among some believers to enforce their personal views on what they perceive as morally ambiguous areas of life. These practices often stem from a desire to regulate every aspect of one's life in accordance with a particular interpretation of religious principles. This can manifest in the form of prescribed prayer times, strict limitations on certain activities, or even restrictions on mundane daily practices, such as shopping or vacation preferences. While these convictions may stem from genuine religious fervor, they can inadvertently limit the individual's spiritual growth and greatly inhibit their ability to engage with the complexities of the modern world.


Legalism in its most extreme forms can even prohibit one’s ability to evangelize. In some extreme families or congregations, there are those who take personal convictions to such an extreme level that they cannot even be in the presence of those who do not share their own convictions. For example, there are those who have who have such strong convictions against alcohol that that will not enter a restaurant or even a grocery store where alcohol is served or sold. There are those who are so convicted about modest dressing that cannot go anywhere that someone is likely to be dressed immodestly. We’re not talking about avoiding the red-light district or adult clubs, but avoiding going to any lake or river because someone may be in a bathing suit, or refusing to enter a museum because Venus de Milo or Lady Godiva may be on display.


In Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus tells us: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven”. If you purport yourself and your family to be followers of Christ, yet shelter yourself from the world, you’re hiding your lamp under a basket.  


Contrary to legalistic practices, the teachings of Jesus emphasize the importance of genuine, heartfelt worship and spiritual sincerity. In Luke 11:37-54, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their outward displays of righteousness, highlighting the significance of inward purity and authentic devotion to God. He stresses the futility of adhering to strict external rituals while neglecting the matters of the heart, signaling the inherent danger of legalism and its potential to deviate from the true essence of faith.


Moreover, legalism undermines the very purpose of genuine faith, often leading to an empty display of outward obedience rather than a true transformation of the heart. As Tullian Tchividjian rightly points out, legalism promotes the erroneous belief that God's love is contingent upon human efforts, disregarding the fundamental truth that it is God's love that initiates true change within individuals. Consequently, a legalistic mindset hinders individuals from experiencing the transformative power of God's grace and love, leading to a shallow and superficial understanding of faith.


To combat the dangers of legalism, it is crucial to embrace a balanced approach that prioritizes genuine faith and heartfelt obedience. Striking a balance between adhering to spiritual practices, personal convictions, and fostering a personal relationship with God is essential to avoid falling into the trap of legalistic thinking. As highlighted in 1 Samuel 16:7, God looks at the heart, not outward appearances, emphasizing the importance of cultivating a genuine, heartfelt connection with Him.


In conclusion, legalism poses a significant threat to the integrity and vitality of contemporary Christian communities. Its divisive nature and detrimental impact on personal faith highlight the importance of fostering a genuine, heartfelt relationship with God that transcends mere adherence to religious laws and regulations. By embracing a balanced approach that prioritizes authentic spiritual growth and genuine love for God, we can navigate the complexities of faith without succumbing to the dangers of legalistic thinking. As we continue to walk on our individual paths of faith, may we remain steadfast in our commitment to uphold the true essence of Christianity, which lies in the boundless grace and love of our Creator.


Kevin Lanham - Veal Station Ministries

October 21, 2023 — Kevin Lanham