I had a conversation recently with a person who accused our church of being “legalistic.” This person felt our church was steeped in legalism because we have expectations of those who lead in our congregation. I think the exact statement was, “You’re legalistic because you have rules that those in leadership must follow.”
Before I point out what I believe are the errors in this person’s assessment, let me first properly define legalism. Legalism is the notion that a mere human could attain a holy standing before God through his or her own righteousness, good works, or adhering to a set of laws or commandments. It stems from the Old Testament idea that a person could achieve rightness in the sight of God by strictly adhering to the Law.
Of course anyone who knows his or her Bible understands that if following the Law made one righteous, then we would not have needed the New Testament, it’s Cross or it’s Christ! The whole reason Jesus came was because no man could ever measure up. Only Christ measured up. And our only hope of standing justified before a Holy God is to trust in Christ’s righteousness, not ours. Our own righteousness is not enough – not by a long shot. When we are born again of water and Spirit, we put on Christ’s righteousness. We are made holy because of what He did, not because of what we have done.
We are certainly not legalistic:
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ Name. On Christ the solid rock I stand – all other ground is sinking sand.
So why do some fire off accusations of legalism like a shaky-handed gunslinger? First of all, it’s ignorance of the true meaning of legalism. Some have wrongly branded anyone who teaches holy living as being legalistic.
I make no apologies for teaching Biblical standards of conduct and lifestyle (which should be embraced by all those who are children of God). But such teaching is not legalism. I don’t for a moment think those standards are what make me holy. If I could be holy by what I do or don’t do, then the cross was for naught. Only Christ’s Righteousness can make me holy!
I do my best to live a Godly and holy lifestyle as a reflection of my salvation not to earn it. I strive to adhere to Bible standards of conduct, not to be saved, but because I am saved. I live the way I do because my priority is pleasing God, not this world. I follow after a holy lifestyle because what God’s Word teaches about Christian living is for my own protection and benefit. This is not legalism.
I remind myself daily, that I’m saved by grace:
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men…(Titus 2:11)
But I also remind myself of the rest of that passage from Paul to Titus – what grace teaches:
“…Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world…” Titus 2:11-12
If we equate standards of Christian lifestyle with legalism, we would need to throw out most all the epistles. The majority of the writings of the apostles to the church deal with how Christians should live their lives once saved.
I wouldn’t dare call Paul a legalist. How could I? He, of all men, understood the failure of the Old Testament to make men righteous. Yet Paul taught standards of Christian lifestyle that ran the gamut from modesty in attire to appropriate conversation to sexual purity. So anyone who believes those who teach Biblical standards of lifestyle and conduct are legalists simply don’t understand the Scripture or what legalism means.
Unfortunately, the approach of some who teach standards of Christian lifestyle has produced a culture in some circles of “self-righteousness.” Again, self-righteousness goes against the very essence of the New Testament. Such ugly attitudes should have no place in the Body of Christ. Regardless of what I embrace as my Christian lifestyle, I should never look down my nose at others or think that I’m more righteous or holy than they, simply because I do this or don’t do that. Such an attitude is the antithesis of true Christianity. We have our hands full working out our own salvation and trying to get our own flesh crucified daily on the altar. We sure don’t have time to worry about everyone else’s journey to spiritual maturity!
The accusation of being legalistic was leveled because I, “have rules for those in leadership.” If having expectations of those who are in leadership is legalistic, then all the apostles where legalists. They pulled no punches when it came to setting the bar high for those who desired to lead in the local congregation. Just look at the long list of qualifications of bishops and deacons set forth by Paul. It’s only common sense that if a person is going to be a spiritual leader, we expect them to be spiritually-minded, Godly people. How will leaders testify to others of the transforming power of Jesus Christ if there are not signs of such spiritual transformation in their own lives?
I won’t apologize for having clear expectations of those who lead our congregation into the Presence or Word of God. This is serious business! There is nothing more sacred and holy than the Spirit of God and the Word of God. Those who lead the congregation in these areas must be committed to Godly living, purity, spirituality and dedication.
The irony of such unfounded accusations is that those making them have rules in their own congregations for their leaders. I would imagine even the most liberal church would find it unacceptable if their worship leader came onto the platform on Sunday in a thong or string-bikini! Would that be ok? If you say no, then, you too, have rules. I would hope that even in the most liberal church, a man wouldn’t be permitted to feed the flock of God on Sunday if he was sleeping around with a different woman every night. If you answer, “No, we wouldn’t allow that in our church!” then you, too, have rules. And if having any rules makes you a legalist then every church is legalistic.
Everyone draws a line somewhere and that, in itself, isn’t legalism. Usually someone cries “legalism” when there is a difference in where you draw the line. We all have expectations and rules for those in leadership. What we expect of leaders in our congregation may be more conservative than your expectations, but the truth is we all have them. And that doesn’t make us legalistic.
What usually follows the “legalism” accusation is a reference to being judgmental. But again, the inconsistencies of those making such claims are obvious. Why is expecting a leader to dress modestly judgmental, but expecting a leader to refrain from adultery not judgmental? The truth is we all have standards. We may just differ in how high we set the bar. But setting a bar in itself, is not being judgmental or legalistic.
Of course it’s imperative that where we set that bar be based upon eternal Biblical principles. What we expect of those in leadership in our local congregation and what we teach in our church about the Christian lifestyle is based on explicit Biblical commands or common-sense applications of Biblical principles. There may be differences of opinion from church to church on how to rightly apply Biblical principles to present day life. But just because I may define modesty in a more conservative way than you, doesn’t make me a legalist any more than your liberal definition of modesty makes you a legalist. If preaching standards is legalism then we’re all legalists, because we all have standards of some varying degree. If having expectations of our leaders makes us judgmental, then we’re all judgmental. We all have expectations of those involved in spiritual leadership.
If preaching standards equates legalism then we’re all legalists, because we all have standards of some varying degree.
The hypocrisy of those crying “judgmental” is that you condemning me for teaching Bible standards is judgmental! I could justifiably say, “Why are you being so judgmental? Why are judging me because I expect our leaders to live a certain way?” It’s like those promoting a LGBT agenda calling me intolerant because I believe in the Bible’s definition of marriage. Aren’t those crying “Foul” being intolerant? They are being intolerant of my different viewpoint! Some think they can define “intolerance” as having any other viewpoint than their own.
“Holy living,” “standards,” and “expectations for leaders,” are not bad words! Establishing Bible standards of living for those in leadership and teaching Biblical concepts of holy living is not legalism nor does it mean a church or pastor is judgmental or intolerant. It likely means that pastor or church is doing their best to lead that congregation into a life-style pleasing to God and one that stands as a testimony to a lost world of God’s power to make us new creatures!