You, Me, and the Legalists

You, Me, and the Legalists

13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.

(James 3:13 NASB)


Involve yourself in spiritual discussions, and eventually you’ll hear the term, maybe even applied to you.  I am referring to the term “legalist.”  Much as with other such pejoratives, its purpose is to end arguments by offending someone into silence.  “Legalist” is an attack of character, usually invoked when attempts to defend a particular course of action have reached such a level of absurdity that they no longer have even the appearance of merit.


The result is that it is difficult to pin down what exactly the term means.  Some use it to object to passages that do not fit with their view of morality.  Others, in an attempt to brush aside some point that they are unwilling to concede.  If we were to take the literal meaning of the word, it would apply to one who strictly keeps and promotes the advancement of strict law keeping.


No matter how it’s used, the trouble with the word legalism is that it is thrown around as if it’s a term found in scripture.  It actually is never used, at least not in any translation that I’ve ever seen.  There is, however, another term that is used quite often and is clearly defined in scripture, and we should be keenly aware of its meaning.  I’m referring, of course, to the term “hypocrite.”  The Scripture speaks a great deal about hypocrisy.  


Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.

(Romans 12:9 NASB)


1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.

(1 Timothy 4:1-3 NASB)


The commonly accepted definition of the word hypocrite is a person who says one thing and then does the opposite, but that is a much more recent understanding.  The original idea of a hypocrite was someone who simply was not what they professed to be.  The hypocrite was an actor, a player of parts.  The Pharisees of Matthew 23 praying long prayers and then swallowing up the houses of widows were a prime example.  Though they had the appearance of godliness in their public persona, they simply were not what they professed to be and showed by their behavior that they were not governed by scripture.  It would be wise, before accusing others of something that we likely do not understand (legalism), to pause and consider whether we are playing the hypocrite when it comes to the scripture in making such accusations.


The Christian in Culture


The notion of legalism is becoming more prevalent because of the desires of many to more closely assimilate with the culture of the world, and in no place is it more likely to appear than in a discussion of morality particularly when it comes to the topic of drinking.


Most Christians agree that the scripture condemns drunkenness, but the topic of social drinking is becoming more divisive than ever.  Some take a very literal definition of drunkenness, arguing that anything up to the complete loss of sobriety is within bounds.  Others look at passages like Proverbs 23:31 and other passages and say that there are enough warnings in scripture about the dangers of drink that it should be avoided, even if there are some passages that might appear to speak of it in a positive light.  (Many of those would not apply when compared to modern strong drink).


It’s interesting that the latter is the one who is so often called a legalist.  Not because he is imposing his rules on others, but because he considers the words of God and speaks to a standard that God Himself authored.


Still, the notion of legalism is generally invoked when someone is trying to defend that which cannot be defended comfortably.  It is the notion of demanding a verse that states a specific prohibition, knowing it isn’t there, instead of accepting what the scriptures says in places like 1 Peter 5:8, Romans 13:13-14, and Titus 2:11-13 about sobriety.


It is usually at the point that wisdom has been abandoned that the word enters discussions, and in that we see the real danger of it.  It is the accusation of legalism by which many justify stopping their ears against the rebukes of wisdom.


Take drinking, can I show you a passage that emphatically states “Thou shalt not drink?”  No, but I can take you to Proverbs 23 and to the advice to King Lemuel in Proverbs 31:4-5.  There he was told it was not fitting for Kings but rather for the dying.  I can look at Noah in Genesis 9:20-28 and see his shame, and I can make the decision that the scripture promotes sobriety and condemns drunkenness.  God has sufficiently spoken.  I don’t need more than that to say that wisdom indicates that drinking is not befitting a Christian.


13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.

(James 3:13 NASB)


Why would we choose any path that might lead us into sin?


Is it wise?


Brethren, acting as if all things not explicitly forbidden by scripture are allowable is an open invitation to spiritual disaster.  At best it’s presumptuous.  At worst it’s wilfully ignorant. Behaving as if we are free to indulge in God’s presumed silence when His intent is clear is not wisdom but rather hypocrisy.  Instead we ought to ask ourselves, “is it wise” (according to scripture) and “is it good?”  Does this have the appearance of holiness (1 Thessalonians 5:22)?  Let us not be hypocritical in our pursuit of holiness.