Fifteen Feathers of a Legalist (Part 1 of 2)

Birds of a feather flock together.

birds-of-a-feather-legalismOrnithologists identify flickers of movement in a thicket as a particular bird. They do so by catching characteristics peculiar to a certain species. Wing feathers, tail feathers, and head or throat feathers all serve identifying purposes.

In the two posts in this series you will find fifteen “feathers” to help you identify a legalist. But first, a definition.

By “legalist” I have a particular definition in mind. David Miller, author of Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism, says that:

“Legalists are people who add personal preference to accepted doctrinal teaching, accept these additions as having equal weight with doctrinal teaching, and apply these additions in the judging of others.”

The Tenth Edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines legalism as:

“Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code.”

In other words, legalists follow the letter of the law with rigid compunction, ignoring the original spiritual motive and loving intent of the instruction. They are so fearful of breaking the law that they add their own “hedges” of rules around the original commands. They then judge other people based on both the original law and their own man-made laws.

I like Mark Buchanan’s summary of legalism in The Rest of God:

“Legalism is the reduction of life to mere technicalities. It substitutes code for conscience, ritual for worship, rectitude for holiness, morality for purity.”

Biblical Evidence: Primary biblical citations which discuss legalism are the following: Isaiah 28:10, 13; Matthew 12:9-14; 15:1-14; 23:1-33; Acts 15:1-31; Romans 14:1-23; 15:1-9; 1 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 2:11-21; 3:1-29; 4:1-11; 5:1, 25; Colossians 2:8, 20-23; and Titus 3:5.

Some readers might wonder if I had a specific person in mind when I created this list. Allow me to dispel your fears: I did.


A few years ago, if you looked up “legalist” on Wikipedia, my name and picture would have appeared. I believe I can write with some authority on the matter of legalism because I was first on the medals podium in the hidden Olympics of legislation. Since I came out of my Bible cult God has changed my worldview. He has helped me to see some of the dynamics that made me a champion legalist.

Are you a legalist? Try on these “feathers” for size:

1.) Fearful: You live primarily in fear. Legalists spend most of their time worrying. They worry about displeasing God, about their own sin, about falling into temptation, about how other people perceive them.

Solution: Cultivate love and thanksgiving. Love overcomes a multitude of sins and casts out fear, since fear has to do with punishment. The person who lives in fear has not been made perfect in love. And love is the name of the game (1 Corinthians 13:4-11; 1 John 4:8). Thanksgiving also casts out fear, because it puts the focus back on the Provider of all things: God (Philippians 4:6-7; 1 Thess 5:16-18).

2.) Divisive: You spend concerted effort trying to convince other people that your interpretation of God’s Word is correct, often leading to quarrels over words or disputing. You love to stir up controversy, accuse other people of sin, and paint people with a broad brush of condemnation. You believe that divisions must exist in order to show who is approved by God.

A man with a megaphone protesting the Houston Sidewalk Art Show, October 2011. As a Christian enjoying the show, I felt ashamed of my more legalistic brethren on the other side of the fence. How does this promote the Gospel? Photo by the author.

A man with a megaphone protests the Houston Sidewalk Art Festival, October 2011. As a Christian enjoying the show with three other Christians, I felt ashamed of my more legalistic brethren shouting invective from the other side of the fence. I struggle to understand how such in-your-face, broad-brush condemnation mirrors the gospel of Christ. Photo by the author.

Solution: Avoid foolish and stupid arguments. Recognize core doctrines vs. peripheral interpretations. Practice intellectual charity. (1 Corinthians 11:19; 1 Timothy 6:4; 2 Timothy 2:23; Romans 14:1-4).

3.) Masochistic: You view salvation as a rigorous, painful, and hard-to-achieve event. You also view sanctification as a continuous struggle which involves much sober reflection, ascetic living, and the forsaking of most pleasures. You believe that taking up your cross resigns you to a life of depression, wearing scratchy clothing and blocky shoes, and forsaking pleasures both small and great.

Solution: Recognize the simplicity of the gospel which is an exclusive work of God, received as an unearned gift by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-10; Romans 5:8). A godly saint once said, “My salvation was a partnership between me and God: God worked and I resisted.” It is all God’s work. Also recognize that peace and joy are an evidence of God’s saving work in your life (Romans 8:1).

4.) Conformist: You value conformity and uniformity. Instead of granting other people and cultures the grace to express Christianity in a way that reflects their own life, personality, or system, you demand that everyone else look just like you. You stifle creativity and demand outward rigidity.

Solution: God loves diversity, not conformity, and unity, not uniformity (Acts 2:1-13; 10:9-16; Galatians 2; Revelation 7:9-10).

5.) Scandalized: You get easily offended. Legalists work themselves up over other expressions of Christianity which vary from their own. The word “scandal” comes from the Greek word scandalon, which originally meant a stumbling block. Legalists are scandalized by other expressions of Christianity and allow themselves to stumble over minor differences related to music styles, worship services, apparel, Bible translations, and a host of other incidentals.

Solution: Judge nothing before the appointed time (1 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 14:1). Be slow to anger (James 1:19-20). Recognize that perhaps it is the freedom, foolishness, and grace of the gospel which you are stumbling over, rather than doctrinal matters (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

6.) Separatist: You fear engaging with the world. Instead, you put up walls and boundaries against non-Christians or other Christians who you think are contaminated by Bodiam Castle with Moat. worldly or fleshly values. You are so afraid of contamination that you live a castle-like life, cut off by moats of fear and judgment from anyone different than yourself.

Solution: Remember that Jesus came into the world incarnationally to save sinners, of whom you are the worst (1 Timothy 1:15). It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick (Mark 2:17). Therefore, practice mercy which triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Incarnational ministry means meeting people where they are, remembering that to the pure all things are pure (Titus 1:15), becoming all things to all men in order to save them winsomely (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and living a holy life in the midst of the world, not just within the four walls of your church.

7.) Cosmetic: You place primary emphasis on external appearance and behavior. You believe that a person’s soul is best evidenced by his or her clothing, hair-length, leisure-time activities, and taste of music. You enscripturate your own personal preferences and interpretation of certain “principles.” You find it inconceivable that a person could be saved who looks different than you. Different is sinful.

Solution: People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). And remember, other people are judging you based on your appearance: your anachronistic lifestyle, your lack of love, your simplistic orientation to life, and your love of division and argument. Since Jesus said that Christians are known by their love (John 13:34-35), and since he said that by the measure you use to judge someone else, you too will be judged (Matthew 7:2), how do you think you will fare at the judgment of God?

Next Post: “Feathers” 8-15 of a Legalist

Related Post: We Swallowed Camels: Reflections of a Legalist

10 comments on “Fifteen Feathers of a Legalist (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Oh so good Stephen….
    One I was thinking of today that finally I am spreading my wings- and that is being a separatist.
    I was raised in a Christian home and surrounded continually by Christians. While I love the fellowship with the believers and I know Christ calls to do it, I have also seen the blessing of being out with nonbelievers as well. I am learning good things even from them. Today, the Lord brought me to the realization of many in the Word who were out there and not separated. Abraham, Joseph, Esther, Daniel, and Paul are a few that I can think of. These were people involved in the very heart of paganism, but were able to transcend beyond it and show the image of God glorified. I see that now- i was once in fear, but now I am free from that fear.

  2. These were people placed by God in the very heart of paganism, but were able to transcend beyond it and show the image of God glorified.

    Just had to clarify that they were not involved in paganism but were put there by God.

    • Such a great insight, trust4himonly! Thanks so much for mentioning those biblical figures. I agree that this is how God normally works. And I’m so happy to hear about your own growth and continued freedom. Keep spreading those wings!

  3. Reblogged this on ringoftruth.org and commented:
    Great article on legalism by Steve Smith. Worth a read.

  4. […] –          Giving peripheral interpretations the same authority as doctrinal teaching […]

  5. […] –          Giving peripheral interpretations the same authority as doctrinal teaching […]

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