There was a time when legalists were easy to identify.
They were the ones more interested in “Sunday best” than repentant hearts; more concerned about music and movies than an inner transformation. They judged by outward appearance and were, in turn, judged lacking in both truth and grace.
Gen-Xers and millennials know them well. We grew up hearing about them, and watched the church shift and buckle under the weight of change. It was a good change, for the most part. It exposed things. It revealed how church had become more about doing and being “good” than about God being good in us.
We call them “Pharisees”: those “suit-wearing, Bible-thumping fundamentalists” so easy to demonize from our trendy glass pulpits. We remind our congregations that “Sunday best” doesn’t make you Christian. Traditions and hymns aren’t the standard of righteous living. Door to door evangelism is outdated and ineffective, not to mention intrusive. We condemn “those people” with their stubborn hearts and outward trappings, convinced Jesus would join us as we cast our stones.
But the Pharisee we need to fear is not the man in the suit. Sure, he still exists. But there is a new brand of Pharisee; one no better than the last, though far harder to see.
It’s easy to condemn the legalist bound to tradition; as time changes, he remains stagnant, more devoted to the past than to the future of the gospel. But the legalist of the 21st century does not fit this mold. Rather than erecting rules to preserve a past way of life, he has created a fluid list of guidelines: a way things should be done for the future of the church. And there is absolutely no difference between the two.
Legalism is a heart condition. Outward trappings make no difference. The man in the suit – more worried about skirt length than the Spirit of God – and the pastor in skinny jeans – condemning traditionalists as if they don’t know God at all – are equally damaging to the gospel, and equally offensive to Christ.
We like to resurrect the story of the first Pharisees – circled around the adulteress, stones in hand. And yet we stand around them in a larger circle, ready to condemn those who don’t fit our brand of discipleship.
“I see somebody had to wear a suit to church.”
“This church stuck in its old ways. It’s so legalistic.”
“Skirts, tennis shoes, and homeschooling. I mean could you be more legalistic?”
I’ve heard these comments and more.
Yes, legalism still exists in those “right-wing” places the modern church has “progressed” beyond. But it also exists in skinny jeans and a Hebrew tattoo. It hides behind your Bethel Music and your electric guitar. It fills conversations with judgment and gracelessness, adding man’s requirements to a gospel of freedom – a freedom that includes both suits and skinny jeans.
The reality is that legalism will appear wherever you let it. Anytime our methods take precedence over Christ Himself we’ve erected an idol in His image – not Christ, just our version of Him. Then we take our idol and bash people over the head with it, wondering why they can’t grasp the importance of tradition or the necessity of progress. And in the end all you have is a bunch of idol worshippers – people more consumed with who is right than with righteous living.
When we deem other Christians legalistic based on outward appearance, church traditions, or anything other than an actual spirit of legalism, they are not the Pharisees – we are.
Read More: How I Left Legalism Without Leaving God
We are called to judge right from wrong according to God’s Word. But we are neither called nor able to discern motives of the heart. If the church is to fulfill the Great Commission, we must be as welcoming to the KJV-loving brother as we are to the recovering alcoholic. The irony here? We act as if the former deserves our love less, before we even know if he is legalistic! And if, indeed, a brother is steeped in legalism, how will our own arrogance bring him to repentance?
Like tattoos were in yesteryear, the “telltale signs” of legalism draw a collective murmur from the modern church: long skirts, head coverings, the King James Version. And yet in condemning the people who practice these things, we do the very thing we claim to hate: judge by appearance. The truth? A head covering does not equal legalism. A long skirt, a suit, a KJV sermon – the Spirit of God can motivate such decisions with as much authenticity as the Anthropologie-clad girl on her YWAM mission. In confining God’s work to the limitations of an ideology, we don’t beat legalism – we become it.
The gospel is meant to give freedom. As we pursue holiness by the Spirit of God, we will be led many different directions. For some, this results in a head covering. For others, it is accompanied by a Hebrew tattoo. For both, the end should always be the glory of God and the unification of His church. The issue is not in what we wear or what Bible translation we read – it is in our hearts.
Thus, The question is not “How far is too far?” but “How holy can we be?”
If we really want to defeat legalism, it’s not found in more condemnation. It’s found by pursuing lives of genuine holiness, willing to give up whatever trappings we’ve added to the gospel along the way.