Myth: Conservatism is legalistic
I’ve previously defined a conservative as someone who, well, conserves something. Conservatives differ based on what they are conserving. A Christian conservative is someone who conserves biblical Christian doctrine, practice, worship, and affections. This is in contrast to a progressive who believes that history runs on its own motor toward an undefinable ideal of Possibility. But it’s also in contrast to something I’ve been calling “contemporarism” because I don’t know what else to call it. This is a view represented by much of modern American Christianity. These brethren believe that we can and should adopt as much of the culture as possible, unless there is some explicit command against it. Conservatives find this approach to culture too simplistic and unbiblical.
Perhaps the number one complaint about conservative Christianity is that it is legalistic. In fact, for many contemporary Christians, having conservative standards is almost the definition of legalism! But to see if this allegation is true, I want to take a step back and examine legalism from a biblical perspective.
First off, we must set about to define what legalism actually is. In a strict, technical sense, Legalism (I’m going to use a capital “L” for this one) is the belief that one is saved by adherence to the Law. In this strict sense, it’s actually impossible to be a Legalist and a conservative Christian because those who are trusting in the Law to save them are not truly Christians! Legalists fail to conserve the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
But most Christians recognize that there is a secondary kind of legalism (using the lower case “l” now). These legalists accept Jesus by faith as their only way for salvation. But they then try to sanctify themselves in their own power by obeying certain rules. In short, they try to continue in the flesh what was begun by the Spirit (Galatians 3:3).
But what does that mean practically? I have found that there are two competing views on what it means to be a legalist. It is very related to our earlier discussion on the encompassing and encyclopedic views of Scripture. The contemporarist believes that a legalist is someone who believes that a certain action is right or wrong when the Bible nowhere explicitly states that it’s right or wrong. The Bible never says women should wear knee-length skirts to church. Therefore, if you think that’s a good idea, you must be a legalist. The Bible never condemns rock ‘n’ roll. If you do, you must be a legalist.
But conservatives have a different understanding of what legalism is. They believe that the legalist views the Bible as a set of rules and looks to those rules as their sole boundary for moral action. What conservatives call legalism is very common in today’s Christianity. One prominent Bible teacher says,
Any specified list in Scripture is to be obeyed without hesitation or question. That’s an inspired list for us to follow, not someone’s personal list…But when questionable things are not specified in Scripture, it then becomes a matter of one’s personal preferences or convictions.
Conservatives believe that this sort of teaching leads to a life governed by the List. Christians who follow this viewpoint tend to obey the rules without thinking through the heart behind it. This view then makes man autonomous in all areas not governed by the Law. As long as there is no specific rule about it, the person can rule himself without having to consider God’s desires for the situation.
To the conservative, this is a description of legalism. Ironically, our contemporarist brothers and sisters will read the same quote and see it as a declaration of Christian liberty. That is how wide the gap has become. What some Christians call legalism, others call liberty, and visa versa.
As with all matters of disagreement between Christians, the Bible must decide between us. Though the word is never used in the Bible, it does have much to say about the concept of legalism. I think most Christians would agree that the Pharisees were legalists and that in our Lord’s renunciation of the Pharisees we have a critique of legalism. I therefore want to look at the characteristics of Pharisaic legalism and compare it to the conservative and contemporary views of legalism.
Did the Lord Jesus condemn the Pharisees for making standards not found in Scripture? Or did He condemn them for refusing to apply biblical principles to concrete situations? That’s what I wish to examine at this time.
Marks of legalism:
Legalism follows the rules but doesn’t get the heart (Matt. 5:20-22, 27-28)
Let’s start by looking at some of Jesus’ first rebukes of legalism, given during His Sermon on the Mount:
For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:20-22, 27-28 NKJV)
Here, our Lord condemns people who were, technically speaking, “doing all the right things”. They were “following the rules” and yet missed the whole point of the rules. They could conform outwardly, but their hearts were still sinful.
Which understanding of legalism does Jesus condemn here? Is He criticizing people for creating standards beyond the explicit lists in Scripture? He actually appears to be doing the opposite. There were some people that thought that because hate and lust were not mentioned in the Ten Commandments they could get by with them. Our Lord calls them to look beyond the “specific lists” of the Scripture and instead understand the heart-level principle behind the list.
It seems that the legalists’ problem was not that they created standards beyond the Scripture, but that they failed to do so. They slavishly clunge to the explicit lists of the Bible (“thou shalt not kill”) but failed to apply the principle (don’t hate) to daily situations. Our Lord rebukes people for merely following rules without taking the time to understand God’s intentions behind those rules.
These verses seem to support the conservative understanding of legalism.
Legalism finds loopholes (Matt. 5:33-37)
Later in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus says this,
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37)
One of the major problems with a law-governed approach to life is that it can be so easily manipulated to our advantage. The legalists that Christ condemns found creative ways to get out from under the demands of the Law. They thought that if they swore by something other than God Himself, they were free from the obligations of the oath. Jesus quickly shot down that line of thinking.
I think we need to honestly ask ourselves which view has a greater propensity for this kind of legalistic thinking? Is applying biblical principles to every area of life or limiting God’s moral will to “an inspired list” more likely to lead to loophole hunting? It is my contention that the popular view makes individuals self-ruling in every area that doesn’t have a scriptural rule about it. I would further argue that this opens the door wide open for people to abuse the spirit of God’s commandments.
Legalism nullifies scriptural commands (Mark 7:8-13)
In these verses, Jesus condemns people for failing to take care of their aged parents by claiming that the money that was designated for their care had been set aside for God.
He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:8-13)
When reading these verses it’s important to note that Jesus is not condemning all tradition. Elsewhere in Scripture, the word tradition is used positively.
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. (3:6)
What Christ condemns is a man-made tradition that undermines a God-given tradition. He challenges His listeners to forsake the tradition given by rabbis in order to better obey the tradition given by God through Moses.
Again, let’s examine this verse in light of the two understandings of legalism. Jesus is not condemning the legalists for adding standards beyond what the Scripture said. There is no rule in the Old Testament that forbids a person from donating funds that were supposed to go to aged parents. But it is a violation of the principles, not the expressed commands, of Exodus 20:12 and 21:17. The verses Jesus quotes do not forbid a person from declaring their “aged parents fund” as “corban”. But our Lord condemns the Pharisees for failing to go beyond the “inspired list” and apply the principles of those verses to their current situation.
The Pharisees were not doing anything that was explicitly forbidden. But Jesus condemns them for failing to apply biblical principles to situations not expressly mentioned in the Bible. Conservatives also think that biblical principles should be applied to situations that the Scriptures do not directly address.
Legalism imposes double standards (Matt. 23:4)
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for holding double standards.
For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. (Matthew 23:4)
Both conservatives and non-conservatives can be guilty of this. We each need to humbly examine our hearts and see if we are demanding things of others that we ourselves are not willing to do. I will not deny for a moment that many conservatives (myself included, I’m sure) are guilty of this. But I don’t think we’re alone.
Contemporarists often demand that Christians with stricter standards than them show grace and tolerance and not judge their motives. And yet, these same people will sometimes meanly criticize sincere Christians for the standards they hold, often questioning their motives and demanding that they change their convictions. This is a double standard and therefore a symptom of legalism.
Having double standards has nothing to do with being conservative, progressive, or contemporary. It’s a heart issue that each individual must person answer to God for.
Legalism is motivated by self-glory (Matt. 23:5-12)
Ultimately, legalism is a heart issue. It’s not defined by doing certain things or not doing certain things. Rather, legalism is a reason for doing certain things and not doing certain things. Legalism is all about self.
But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5-12)
These are sobering words that ought to cause every Christian to do some serious self-reflection. We are all in constant danger of being motivated by the wrong desires. We can so easily desire to look spiritual and important to other people.
But this sin is a human sin, not a specifically conservative one. In contemporary American Christianity, a person is more likely to be praised and respected for being a contemporarist than for being a conservative. So I think this is a temptation that our contemporarist brothers and sisters are in special danger of.
Legalism ignores important issues (Matt. 23:23-24)
Legalists like to major on minors because minors can be done in the flesh without dependance on the Spirit.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)
Certainly, conservatives have been guilty of making their pet issues more important than the central concerns of the Scripture. Yet I believe this is a quirk of conservatism, not something that is inherent to it. In fact, the whole point of Christian conservatism is to preserve the “weightier matters of the law”.
It should also be noted that Jesus warns against overreaction and encourages His followers to do these weightier matters “without leaving the others undone.” Minors still matter.
Legalism only looks good on the outside (Matt. 23:27-28)
But perhaps the greatest hallmark of legalism is hypocrisy, looking one way when we’re actually another.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)
I will not deny for a moment that some conservatives are guilty of this. I will not deny for a moment that I am guilty of this. But I also know that I struggled with this sin as both a conservative and a non-conservative. In fact, I personally think that I struggled with it more as a non-conservative.
While plenty of conservatives are guilty of hypocrisy, it is in no way limited to us. Contemporarism has created its own brand of whitewash. There’s nothing more spiritual in the eyes of American evangelicalism than having a cross tattoo, bored ears, a Skillet t-shirt, and waving your arms during a worship service. Do all that, and you can get away with a lot of “dead men’s bones”.
We’re at a place in Christendom where conforming to the culture is considered a mark of spirituality. While I don’t know hearts, I can’t help but wonder how many of our contemporary brethren are actually thinking through their standards in a biblical, prayerful way and how many are simply conforming to what is popular in the Christian community. I personally feel more pressure to look good by bowing to contemporarist standards than conservative ones.
After studying what the Bible says about legalism, it’s my opinion that legalism insists on conforming the explicits lists in the Scripture while ignoring the heart behind those commands. I see no biblical basis for the popular view that legalists are people who apply principles beyond the inspired lists of Scripture. In fact, I see that as a vital safeguard against legalism.
Ultimately, legalism is a heart issue that transcends any one movement. There are legalistic conservatives, legalistic progressives, and legalistic contemporarists. But I don’t see anything about conservatism that especially lends itself toward legalism. In fact, with its encyclopedic approach to Bible interpretation, I believe that contemporarism is in more inherent danger of falling into true legalism.
Jesus seems to present a picture of legalism that is all about twisting the rules for our benefit while refusing to apply biblical principles to life situations. This is exactly what true, principled conservatism fights against.