This essay is the third in a series on weaponized words used in American churches with a significantly different sense or meaning than might be inferred from the dictionary definition. Unlike "relationship", which is generally used hypocritically, "legalism" makes a genuine distinction between the speaker and his victim. The distinction, however, is an Orwellian inversion of value.

What It Means

Legalism is a pejorative accusation, intended to imply a fixation on following rules and regulations in the absence of Christian love. The person thus accused is thought to have a list of "do's and don'ts" which they imagine everyone is obligated to follow. There actually are a very few such people, but mostly the word is applied to honest Christians living a life of enviable discipleship on a higher plane than the accuser. The word thus becomes a condemnation of another person's virtues, usually in connection with the supposition of pride in that person or at least a realization that the accuser has no desire to attain that level of virtue.

In context "legalism" is often used interchangeably with (and means the same thing as) "self-righteous"; they both mean something like, "Your behavior makes me ashamed of my own, but it's easier to demonize your virtue than to clean up my own act."

Scriptural Support

The notion of legalism gets its scant Biblical support from a misreading of Paul's letter to the Galatians, from which the modern users of the term understand Paul to deplore any and all obedience to "law" and to encourage only "Christian freedom" -- which somehow comes down to doing anything you want.

A more careful reading of Galations (and shorter but parallel portions of Colossians and Romans) makes it clear that the "law" Paul is condemning is Jewish ceremonial regulations: circumcision, kosher foods, and Jewish calendar festivals. These are not a requirement for Christian salvation in Gentiles. Elsewhere -- including nearby chapters of the same books -- Paul makes it clear that God's moral law has in no way been nullified, and that Christians everywhere are expected to obey it, not so much because it is a list of do's and don'ts, but because that's who we are!

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, -- Gal.5:16,17
Immediately after this general principle, Paul launches into a long list of do's and don'ts, the don'ts first:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. (vv.19-21)
and then the do's:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (vv.22,23)


Rather than point a long finger of accusation at people, I prefer to think of it as a journey, with some people further along the road than others. Or perhaps more like a steep cliff we are climbing. Those who are higher up can reach down and lend a helping hand to the people behind them, not to criticize them for being there -- for we all started at the bottom -- but to encourage them in their climb. On the other hand, we must not camp out on the first ledge we come to, nor try to drag the others higher up the path down to our level.

Rahab the Prostitute was given a place in the Hebrews Hall of Faith and in the lineage of Christ, not because she lied about the Israeli spies she had hidden, but because she was living up to the light she had. She did not yet understand the whole truth of God, but only (some of) His great power, and she acted in faith on that understanding.

A person with a lifetime of seeking God's direction over his life may come to understand the Second Great Commandment (Lev.19:18) as not standing alone, but in context of also not pimping his daughter (Lev.19:29) nor setting up hidden hazards for people who cannot see or hear what you are doing to them (Lev.19:14) -- which are really the same thing. The person who has not yet spent that kind of time in the Word may be tempted to see these Old Testament laws as a meaningless list of do's and don'ts. They are not meaningless, but examples of the larger principle of Christian love.

Even more advanced followers of Christ may begin to see (still in Lev.19) the principle of Godly purpose in that Commandment, which Jesus restated somewhat more directly in Matt.12:36:

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.
You are ultimately accountable to the God who cares about every hair on your head (Matt.10:30) what you do with those hairs -- and the skin under them (Lev.19:28).

Rahab was a prostitute. Obviously her faith had not yet reached awareness of God's laws against pimping and prostitution. But she left that behind. She did not attempt to continue and defend her past activities as "flirty fishing" nor did she call the Israeli spies "legalists" because of their greater awareness, but she chose instead to join them in their victory over evil. She chose Life, and her memory lives on in our Bible.

The Least of These Commandments

I discuss this concept in the context of prostitution, because most of us agree that prostitution is evil. There is much less agreement over some of the other commandments in Leviticus 19, yet the language and context is the same. Who has the right to pick and choose which of God's laws are applicable, and which we can discard in the name of legalism?

The prohibition against prostitution is repeated many times elsewhere in the Bible; the commandment against pimping is here in Lev.19:29 only. Does that make pimping acceptable? Hardly. The prohibition against dishonesty is repeated many times in the Bible; the commandment against tattoos is here in Lev.19:28 only. Does that make tattoos acceptable? You cannot argue in favor of tattoos on the basis of Scripture. But it is a single verse in an obscure chapter in a book nobody wants to read.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees for being careful about the less significant commandments of the Law, tithing their mint, dill and cummin, while neglecting the more important matters -- justice, mercy and faithfulness. Then he gives a very curious conclusion: He said, "You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." [Matt.23:23, emphasis added]

This idea is so important, that Jesus emphasized it very early in his Sermon on the Mount:

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt.5:19)

If you are only going to obey five of God's commandments, by all means start with the important ones, justice, truth, and mercy. But who wants to stop at five? Do them all! Start with the important stuff, but don't stop there.

Legalism is the complaint of people who want to stop obeying God's commands before they get to the end of the list.

Tom Pittman
2007 September 12
All Scripture quotes from NIV