A long time ago, some Pharisees got together and decided that they would make up a bunch of rules to make themselves feel extra holy. There were already rules about what was holy, but as long as the Pharisees were the ones making up the extra rules, they would be the only ones who could keep them all. It was the first Baptist church.
Jesus went full blast on all the Pharisees and teachers of the law: He told them they were in trouble for weighing people down with burdens but never actually helping them. Jesus did not make many friends with the Pharisees, but Nicodemus did come around, so you never know. Sometimes going full blast works.
There are two pretty good ways to define legalism: first, you can say it is rules over relationship. That a person is more interested in the minutiae of Christianity than in communion with God and other people. Second, you could say legalism is creating sins out of thin air. That a person is making rules and holding them up as Gospel when they are not Gospel.
And—get this—American Christianity loves its legalism. We want to feel like we’re better than our fellow believer. I guess a good way to do this would be to follow the commands Jesus left us, but those suckers are, like, hard, man. Why bother taking care of orphans and widows and washing feet and visiting prisoners and loving your neighbor when you can just make up a batch of rules that other people will stumble over? That’s way easier.
In the early 1900s, a bunch of old married Christians who weren’t having enough sex got together and decided that everyone should be as miserable as they were. They called this a Temperance Movement and they decided that drinking was a sin. It was not. But it was all good, because in 1920 they convinced America to adopt Prohibition, and this was a rousing success: everyone stopped making and drinking alcohol, there was no more alcohol-related violence, and it was a boost to the economy, all of which are reasons why Prohibition continues to this day.
In the 1970s, some Christian musicians got together and said “hey, maybe we can make some music that doesn’t suck,” and they added things like guitars and drums. Unfortunately this was a new thing, and horrible Christians fussed because this is what horrible Christians do, even though all music was new at one point, but whatever. These decrepit believers told everyone that Larry Norman and Keith Green were playing the devil’s music, which was total crap because the devil likes Rush, but everyone forgets this. Then a Christian tract maker named Jack Chick wrote cartoon books which said listening to Christian rock and roll could lead you to hell and give you AIDS, but probably in the reverse order, if we’re being technical about it.
In 1997 a man named Josh Harris wrote a book to make horny homeschoolers feel better. It was called I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and it was about courtship, which was a way people found a spouse back in the good old days, when everyone got married at 14 and died at 37. Fundamentalists, who are Christians who love to be different, immediately seized upon this, and said that courtship was God’s alternative to dating. That meant dating was a sin, and that if you took a girl to dinner without her parents in the back seat you might as well put some Rush on and drive straight down into hell.
In 2005, a theologian named Albert Mohler, who apparently had taken care of all the orphans and widows, decided to make some new commands. He announced that Christian couples who choose not to have children are in rebellion against God. This was excellent legalism, because no one except Albert Mohler knew how long you could wait after getting married before the sin kicked in. A month? A week? Did you have to copulate in the church coat room after the ceremony? Only AlMo knew. Furthermore, how many children do you have to have? Can you escape sin with three or four, or do you have to go full Duggar?
In 2011, a pastor named Mark Driscoll announced that yoga was “demonic” because it had roots in other religions, kind of like the food sacrificed to pagan idols in 1 Corinthians 8 that Paul said was okay to eat. But wait, no, yoga was probably WAY different, and the millions of people who practiced it for exercise with a clear conscience were now in sin.
In 2015, a writer named Veronica Partridge decided that because her husband thought leggings were hot, she would no longer wear leggings, because lust, or something. Anyway, this was fine, except she announced it to the world on her website, which still would have been fine if only Christians read it, except everyone in the world read it, and Veronica Partridge became known as The Christian Who Cares About Your Butt Sin, and not The Christian Who Cares About Your Soul, and Jesus only told us to be one of those things.
What’s even worse is that in our postmodern haze, the meaning of legalism is getting fuzzy.
Some Christians today use legalism as a straw man to rail against while hiding beneath their #undergrace hashtag. Sorry, but telling you to not divorce your wife and run off with your secretary is not legalism; the Bible clearly says to not do that, and you are a dumbass.
Still other Christians conflate legalism with works. The mere mention of Biblical mandates will be met with waving hands and shaking heads. “Jesus did it all, bro! IT IS FINISHED!” Well, yes, sort of. But we’re not talking about earning righteousness, Chief, we’re talking about working the Great Commission like Jesus said…
Probably the best way to deal with legalism is to stick to the things the Bible actually says. Or, if you’re lazy, to look for other ways to make yourself feel spiritually superior, like repeated viewings of the legendary Carman/DC Talk “Addicted to Jesus” video
Or maybe writing a 1,000-word post about legalism. That should do it.