Romans 14:1 says, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over disputable matters.”
Have you ever been doing something that you thought was perfectly fine, but felt eyebrows go up around you? Maybe you’re the one with the uppity eyebrows.
It took me a long time to recognize legalism, and I think it’s because I grew up in it. I lived in it for so long that I could not recognize it. As a young mother, I had little grace for others. In fact, I was probably more un-grace-filled than anyone I knew. I’ll be honest: I looked down on parents who did not subscribe to my particular way of parenting, and we kept company with people who encouraged us in our thinking. Eventually, several of the families that were part of our group buckled under the strain of our self-imposed expectations. Relationships were strained under the weight that our ideology brought with it.
I didn’t know it then, but I’ve come understand that my attitude was something called “legalism.” Legalism sits as the gatekeeper of a parenting vortex. Legalism says if you wear the right clothes, or don’t watch television, you’re righteous. It judges others by an extra-biblical standard. In other words, it judges others based on a personal conviction rather than Biblical fact. Things such as style of dress and parenting beliefs are something the apostle Paul called “disputable matters,” and yet, these are the very things that seem to trip us up the most in our walk with each other and with God.
In a “grey” areas, like watching television, wearing pants verses dresses, birth control, homeschooling or even courtship verses dating, we have freedom. God’s Word tells us that individuals have the freedom to make up their own mind, because issues like these are not specifically addressed in Scripture. Christ died to set us free! Free to listen to His spirit and follow His leading.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the struggle we all have with pride. Pride is a killer, and legalism paves the way for pride to take root. We can easily take pride in our own opinions, rather than trusting that God can lead His own people—even when they choose something we might not have chosen!
Years ago, I was struggling with choice that one of my friends made. I told trusted friend about my struggle. “Heidi, does your friend love the Lord?” she said. I answered “yes.” She then said, “Is what she doing clearly sin?”
I thought about it for a moment and I said, “Well, to me she is sinning.”
At this point our conversation took an unexpected turn. “You know, Heidi” she continued, “you are putting your personal convictions on your friend. God has given you a personal conviction about this, not her. This is legalism. Your friend is not sinning… you are, because of the way you are judging her.”
I’ll be honest. For a minute there, I was pretty steamed. My pride was hurt. After all, most of the boundaries in Scripture are laid out. For example, we know that adultery is sin and we know that lying is sin. We know that the Bible clearly states it. However, when a behavior, a doctrine, or a tradition is not addressed in Scripture by a specific moral absolute commanding, or forbidding an action, it belongs to the category of freedom.
In areas of freedom, Christians are encouraged to establish their own convictions and are not permitted to judge or ridicule those who don’t share them. This is the opposite spectrum of legalism. What I mean is: while it’s not cool for me to become a legalist, it’s also not cool to for me to make fun of someone who has a personal conviction that I do not share.
I’ve learned from experience that while it might feel good for a while, legalism is a burdensome friend. If it is left unchecked, it can blind us to the sin of pride.
My husband says that legalism always is based in fear and perpetuated by pride. It starts with thinking “If I just do this and this and this, then I’ll have it right, I’ll have it down.”
Unfortunately, when those formulas (and they are usually formulas) fail, we perpetuate them by pride. After all, what if others see that I don’t have it all together? What if they discover that the thing I said would work really isn’t working? Once we begin to think this way, fear and pride take over and we’re stuck, but it’s worse than that: When we become so dogmatic about following rules instead of following the Spirit, we miss God’s heart—and we miss the freedom and joy that comes from following God.
So moms, as soon as you put your personal conviction on your friend, and make that conviction your friend’s responsibility, you have crossed into legalism.
You know, it’s easier, at the end of the day, to follow a checklist of do’s and don’ts. It is a harder thing to get before the Lord and say, “Father, show us what You want us to do.”
As a recovering legalist, I can tell you this: there is great reward in following God’s spirit. The person who is walking in the Spirit will avoid being caught up in the law.
It might make us feel righteous, but in the end, when we are led by the law, legalism becomes disguise used to cover up a failing of our flesh where love, grace and discernment should be.
Be led by His spirit,