From what my last post was saying, one would at first glance be unsurprised by my next statement: “we ought to be extremely modest.” Then I can imagine all of the red flags going up and every one of them screaming: “Wait! Do you want us all to be dressed in black bags with only our eyes showing, and them behind a veil?! Do you want me to go live in a cave or a nunnery and never go out?! That is legalistic!” This is the reaction that I want to address. It is very common for people (in topics even far removed from the issue of modesty) to constantly bring up legalism and sometimes use it to attack perfectly sound arguments that convicted them.
So what is the definition of legalism? I tried to find out, but was thwarted by the extreme overabundance of varying opinions. It seems that everyone agrees that it is bad, but everyone disagrees on what exactly it is! Here are some of them…
- Adding works to grace for salvation.
- Excessively strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.
- To focus exclusively on biblical law rather than our relationship with God.
- Trying to hold to the Old Covenant.
- Making up a new law that isn’t really in the Bible.
- Judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
- Being distracted by little rules from the weightier matters of spirituality like our relationship to God.
- A collection of facts rather than a study of the Living God.
- A too-strict set of rules that cannot apply to everybody.
- A set of rules that do not allow for the working of the Holy Spirit in changing our minds.
- Relying on human, fleshly understanding instead of God in our seeking to be righteous.
That is quite a list. Most could actually be considered viable definitions or attributes of legalism. Most I would agree need to be avoided in the Christian life, depending on what you mean by them. Here is what I would say is the best, most accurate definition of legalism (derived from my father): “Legalism is the extrapolation of rules/laws (the letter of the law) beyond their intended scope (the spirit of the law) in a prideful attempt to put yourself above others.” This is the definition that is most germane to the manner in which it is popularly used in the type of cases that I am referring to.
When, in my example of extreme modesty, people bring up legalism, they are misunderstanding what I mean by extreme modesty. They are assuming modesty is a set of rules of dress and behavior, and so when you say “extreme modesty” they immediately equate that with extreme rigidity and extent of rules, which, ironically, is legalistic if you think about it. They utterly miss the point: modesty is not about ‘rules’ per se, nor is it utterly about a ‘heart attitude’ as many proclaim, neither is it really a mixture of the two. It is an outworking of an inner spirit in certain definable ways. Just like faith and works cannot be separated, true inner modesty cannot be separated from the ‘legal’ rules that must needs pour out from it.
When I say that something must be extreme, I mean that it must be extremely Godly. The world has overtaken our language and drastically and brutally subverted it to its way of thinking. In thus doing, they have made semantics much harder to navigate, and have crippled many people’s attempts at articulating their otherwise very good beliefs. If we let them define our terms, then they will define our communication, and will in so doing cripple us to a great extent. It is they who have defined modesty as a bunch of rules to create a psychological barrier to us obeying God’s desires.
So the gradient ought not to be more rules or less rules, it ought to be closer to God and further away from God. Everything pours out from where we are on that gradient. This does not mean that it is ‘up to each person’s discretion and conviction,’ but that it is all based on God, who changes not and does not waver, and who would have you glorify Him with modesty in every area of your life to its fullest extent. We ought to reflect our clothing of righteousness to as great a degree as possible.
That being said, I do agree that legalism is wrong, but only in the true sense of the word. Avoiding legalism does not mean that you are avoiding rules that are strict and all-encompassing: it means that you are not perverting rules to match your selfish desires.
With joy and peace in Christ,