Understanding the Appeal of Legalism

Do you ever think about your younger self sometimes, shake your head, and think, “What was I thinking?”

I was contemplating this recently again, as this topic came up in private discussion. Then my thoughts drifted towards wondering why we make certain choices.

What is it that makes things like legalism and religious extremism appeal to people? More specifically, how did this free-spirited hippie at heart embrace some pretty extreme legalism for a while there?


Completing the Equations

One of the reasons, I think, is that I love the assurance of equations. Yeah, like math equations.

As someone who always loved Math and Science, I tend to like life with equations that work out, where if you do a + b then c happens.

I approached my Christian walk like this for a long time. I had to have God on my side, so I studied the Bible like a Physics textbook, and tried to make God “have to” like me and “have to” take care of me and “have to” be happy with me.

All of this seems incredibly silly now, but that was how I viewed life in many ways. I needed some kind of assurance.

Ignoring God-Given Discernment

I can remember feeling like, “This is wrong” when I heard quite a bit of wrong teaching and legalistic ideas (particularly things that would fall under the category of family life, and anti-feminism stuff). If someone could show me a Bible verse or two, and make a strong argument for whatever their pet topic was, I felt like I had to deaden my discernment and double down on believing man’s lies.

My main desire was to please God…and too many times I wound up doing what others told me was the right thing to do instead of seeking God for myself.

In fact, many I met, if I expressed a reluctance or a sense of “This doesn’t feel right” would argue not to be “Wise in your own eyes” or putting your own judgment over God’s.

Now, certainly as Christians our theology can’t come from our feelings or else you can wind up in some pretty crazy heresy. However, when the Holy Spirit is living in us, He promises to lead us into all truth in Jesus’ sermon in John 14-16. The Holy Spirit is like a referee¬†blowing a whistle when we are heading down a wrong path, whether it is doing something directly “evil” or something that appears to be good but is just as evil because it distorts the character and nature of Christ.

The Cure for Legalism

The cure for legalism is as it’s always been: a living, breathing relationship with Jesus. Period.

When people present some off the wall idea about serving God that feels off, read that proof-text verse in the context of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, and our primary purpose here on earth (to love God, love others, and be an ambassador of reconciliation between God and others).

For example, a favorite one of mine is the Christmas tree topic. There’s a passage in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 10:1-5) that many take to refer to Christmas trees. I have a few friends who really go all out with this verse, and ban all things Christmas from their homes, viewing it as idolatry, and urging others to do the same.

There are several reasons why I reject this, and I think it illustrates my views on other topics that get us off topic from the Gospel and walking with Jesus.

  1. In the context, Jeremiah is talking about the kind of idolatry of his day, not making a blanket statement. So there’s that — cultural context. I’m pretty sure no one is tempted to worship demons and idols because of their Christmas tree. If you are, it’s probably best to not have one.
  2. If my purpose is to show Christ to the world that doubts the reality of who He is and what He’s like, is creating a huge issue about Christmas trees of all things the best way to do that? Yeah, nothing shows the unchurched what Jesus is about like bah humbug, right?
  3. Christmas is probably THE best time to be missional to those around us, as people tend to be more open this time of year. Now recently, Christians have done a bang of job of making sure to annoy everyone by splitting hairs over Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays and keeping Christ in Christmas by being argumentative about it. Sigh. Let’s not. The purpose isn’t “being right” or winning culture wars, but about showing Christ to the world in need. Being a whiny jerk in December about keeping Christ in Christmas or being the person who preaches loud and long about Christmas being idolatry are two sides of the same coin, and it distracts from our purpose here.
  4. God can use anything, even a donkey. Don’t worship Christmas trees, of course (it goes without saying right?) but ask God to show you how to use Christmas (and anything else) to help others see Him for who He is.

This is just an example of an issue that gets us sidetracked from the real purpose of walking with Jesus. The disciples lived in a day when Christians were killed for their faith, in a culture that was very contrary to their morals, and yet they still managed to turn the world upside down in one generation by not getting distracted by weird little issues.



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