It use to be easy to recognize a legalistic member of the body of Christ. They were easily identifiable by their concern over whether a man wore a tie, or a woman wore pants, outweighing their concern for regenerated hearts; they focused more on the “sins” of “moving pictures” and senior proms than on lives being changed by the Holy Spirit; they judged by what was on the outside, what or how things appeared, and because of this they were/are ironically judged themselves of not exercising compassion and grace.
Those categorized as being in Generation X, and even millennials, and even those of us who come before these labels, are all too familiar with these legalistic crusaders. If one grew up in the church they definitely heard about, or witnessed them, and also witnessed as the church shifted under the weight of change from this mentality. For the most part the change was/is good and necessary, and in many ways needs to continue its momentum. The change revealed how the church had become so much more occupied with doing the right things and being good (“works”) than about God Himself and His goodness and righteousness.
We identify them as suit wearing, bible thumping, foot stomping, ultra fundamental Pharisees and so easily vilify them from our modern, artist rendered, ultra thin, stylish, glass fashioned pulpits. We are quick to remind our congregations that what one wears to church has nothing to do with anything. We make it clear that traditions of man and signing only hymns in worship are not what determines righteous living and proper worship. We’ve pulled the plug on all of that door to door evangelism because it is so outdated, ineffective, and most of all, intrusive. We scoff at “those people” who “just don’t get it,” and at their stubborn ways and stubborn hearts as they can’t seem to free themselves from outward trappings; all the while convinced Jesus would be right along side us throwing our stones at the stone throwers.
But there’s a new kind of Pharisee in town. We don’t need to fear the “man in the tie” as much anymore. I mean, his type still exists and needs correction, but the new kind of Pharisee is who we need to keep our eye on now. This kind is no better than the last, but is not quite as easy to identify.
It’s easy for us to recognize and ridicule the legalist who is bound to tradition. As time passes and things change, that type of legalist remains rooted in the past; they stay devoted to it and reliant on tradition. There concern for the future of the gospel appears minimal. But the legalist of today, those who exercise modernized legalism, don’t fit that same recognizable mold. Instead of developing rules in order to preserve a former way of life and doing things, they have created more of a “fluid” list of guidelines for how things should be done for the future of the church. As we will see in a moment, there’s not a bit of difference between the two. They are both equally troubling.
You see, the problem with legalism is that it is a condition of the heart. Everything on the outside, the externals, don’t make a difference. The man being choked by his tie, more concerned over the length of a skirt than the Spirit working in one’s life, and the pastor wearing women’s jeans (oops, I mean skinny jeans) who constantly bashes traditionalists like they have no relationship with God at all, are equally wrong and equally have the potential of doing damage to the good news of the gospel.
“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.” (Masonheimer, Phylicia. “Tattooed Pharisees: How The New Legalism Is Wrecking The Church,” phyliciadelta.com)
“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.” (Masonheimer, “Tattooed Pharisees…”)
The truth of it all is that legalism will rear its ugly head wherever you let it. Anytime our methods become more central than Christ Himself we have created an idol in His image. It comes to a point where it’s no longer Christ, it’s just our version of Him. Then what happens is that idol is taken and used as a weapon against people as we wonder why they can’t understand the importance and place of tradition or the significance and necessity of progress. When it boils down to it, all we end up with is a bunch of “idol” worshippers – people more consumed with being right than living righteously.
When we consider other believers to be legalistic based only on outward appearance, church traditions, or anything other than a true spirit and attitude of legalism, they are not the Pharisees, we are the real Pharisees.
Scripture does call us to judge. It calls us to judge right from wrong while using IT as our guide. However, we are not called to judge, nor are we capable of judging, the motives of the heart. If we, as the church, are going to fulfill the Great Commission, as we are commanded to, we have to be just as welcoming to the one who refuses to read any translation other than the KJV as we are to one who is a recovering alcoholic or drug addict.
This brings up an extremely ironic point; a point I have witnessed several times, especially in online discussion forums. Believers repeatedly behave as if the KJV only reader deserves our love less before we can even determine if they are actually legalistic or not. And if it turns out the individual is caught up in the mire of legalism, how will our own arrogance bring them around to repentance? Actually, I can answer that, it won’t.
The easily recognizable signs of legalism automatically illicit sighs of disdain, frowns of disapproval, and quiet whispers from the modern church: suits and ties, ankle length dresses, head coverings, and King James bibles. But when we automatically categorize people who “do” these things, we are doing the exact thing it is we claim to hate and have such a disdain for: judging by appearance. In reality, neither a head covering, ankle length dress, suit and tie, or KJV sermon automatically equate to legalism. Don’t you think the Spirit of God can motivate one to make a decision for these things with just as much genuineness as one deciding on being clad in a Nordstrom miniskirt, having freshly styled hair, wearing a T-shirt, using the ESV, or going on a weekend “missions” trip?
When we limit God’s work to the boundaries of a completely human ideology we aren’t batting against legalism, we are actually becoming it.
The gospel is good news and it is intended to give us freedom. As we seek to grow in the progressive aspect of sanctification, we will be guided to make decisions in many different areas. For some, this could materialize in wearing a head covering. For others, it may be seen in the form of a beautiful tattoo filled with deep meaning. But for both, the end game should always be the glory of God. I can’t emphasize enough that the issue is not what clothes we wear, whether we are pierced or not, or what translation of the bible we prefer; the issue is our hearts.*
*Inspired by, and highly adapted from, resource cited within.