Commandments of Men: When Christians Embrace Legalism

Christians are all too familiar with legalism, a philosophy that obsesses over every detail (or perceived detail) in the Bible and often holds up a total agreement with all of it as a requirement for salvation. Considering how often this term is misapplied, it bears a closer look to see what it actually means and looks like in practice.

Legalism betrays an improper attitude toward the Bible. Whether it consists of adding to God’s word or simply holding that a confusing verse can only be interpreted in one specific way, this philosophy idolizes the Bible and encourages strife against Christians with genuine questions or differences of opinion. Let’s take a closer look at this issue plaguing the church and how to avoid it.

Legalism has plagued the church since ancient times. Let's take a look at what modern legalism looks like. Click To Tweet

Definition of Legalism

Legalism puts a massive focus on works and following biblical minutiae for either earning God’s favor or earning salvation altogether. Even if some legalist traditions deny that this is their focus, the core philosophy of legalism holds that God’s attention is gained through works. This is demonstrably false!

A less commonly acknowledged form of legalism is holding to secondary traditions almost as steadfastly as core Christian principles, if not more so. For a common example, consider the tradition of having church on Sunday rather than Saturday. Some Christians choose to dedicate Saturday as their Sabbath, following in the footsteps of the largely Jewish early church. Others follow more recent tradition and hold services on Sunday. Neither tradition is wrong. However, if the Saturday worshippers consider themselves superior for following an older tradition and look down on Sunday worshippers for their choice, this betrays an attitude of legalism.

Legalism in Action

One blogger tells a story about a time her husband had a civil disagreement with a church elder over a non-essential element of the faith. The elder hesitantly said, “Well…I am not questioning your salvation.” The man was shocked that the elder even had to bring that up. Why question another’s salvation over something so minor?

The elder in this story was likely so convinced that he was right and this non-essential element was crucial that he had a hard time not questioning the man’s salvation. Why? Many legalistic people will shame anyone who disagrees, calling them weak Christians or even questioning their salvation. And even if a legalistic person doesn’t question the salvation of a Christian who disagrees, their belief system still cultivates an attitude of seeming superiority and thus a better Christian walk. After all, they correctly identified and adhere to a particularly obscure biblical principle when their friend didn’t!

Consequences of Legalism

Jesus quoted Isaiah to address what the Pharisees in His day were doing:

“ ‘This people honors Me with their lips,

But their heart is far away from Me.

‘But in vain do they worship Me,

Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ ” (Matthew 15:8-9)

The Pharisees were known for adding their own laws to the Old Testament law and considering them just as authoritative, if not more so at times. Rather than encouraging higher respect for the law and making a believer’s life holier, their countless regulations burdened the Jewish people and often contradicted each other. Jesus condemned these additions to the Bible and, through this quote from Isaiah, showed the consequences of their attitude. The Pharisees were so focused on saying the right words and doing the right things that they forgot to actually love and worship God in the process, much less other people.

Modern-day Pharisaical attitudes cause similar problems. When Christians begin holding each other to an unreasonable standard that God never required and questioning the spiritual health or salvation of anyone who disagrees, we lose sight of what truly matters. God requires nothing for salvation but repentance and belief, and you have no right to require more.

Pro Tip: Disagreements on nonessentials of the faith is no reason to question the salvation of someone else. Two sincere Christians can disagree on certain things.

What Does the Bible Require?

This all begs the question: if legalism and extrabiblical traditions aren’t the answer, what is? What does the Bible call the essentials of the faith?

Interestingly, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 contains what many scholars believe to be a creed recited by new Christians in the early church. This creed would have been accepted as a confession of Christ and thus an acknowledgment of salvation. As has been pointed out, this creed is early enough to have avoided later traditions or corruptions being added and thus serves as probably the best example we have of the early church’s fundamental beliefs.

This creed touches on the following essentials:

  • According to the Scriptures: Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.
  • Christ died for our sins: Jesus took our punishment through His death (a literal death, not fainting on the cross)
  • He was buried and raised: Once again, Jesus actually died, but He rose again bodily.
  • He appeared to others: Jesus appeared in His resurrected body to many witnesses, most of whom were still alive at the time.

It could be argued that some traditions and non-essentials were assumed by the Jewish believers and thus not included in the creed. However, the letter in which this creed appears was written to a Gentile church with no background in Jewish traditions! The complete lack of non-essentials such as which day is the Sabbath, how often to take communion, whether the sermon comes before the music, or other hotly debated topics today show that they were simply not important to early believers. A Christian is a Christian if they truly believe this creed and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. That’s it!

Don’t Worship the Commandments of Men

It can be rather unsettling to realize that a good deal of what divides denominations simply comes down to minor interpretive differences. While some have significant enough doctrinal differences that it takes significant soul-searching to decide, something like whether or not to include music in worship or who serves communion is so laughably insignificant as to be a non-issue. The next time you find yourself thinking of these minor differences as insurmountable obstacles, see if any of your concerns demonstrate a contradiction with the creed in 1 Corinthians. You’ll be surprised how much you have in common with other Christians!

Join the conversation to explore more interpretive differences and how to handle disagreements between Christians.

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