legalism vs. witness: moral claims in christian discipleship

It can be difficult to navigate the tension between the danger of legalism and raising the expectation of Christian discipleship to a high level.

There is no place for legalism in Christian discipleship. All of our kingdom-oriented action is enacted out of faithfulness and gratefulness on the basis of what has already been achieved in Christ. But of course none of this means there are no imperatives in Christian discipleship.

I know that personally I have been accused of pedalling legalism. As regular readers would be aware, I am passionate about and active in areas of social justice. At times I have offered prescriptions as to what I believe are just actions as we attempt to live in faithfulness to the gospel in the world. These prescriptions occasionally lead to accusations of legalism.

In saying this, I would wager that the same accusers often prescribe different standards of, say, sexual fidelity. Not that I am against fidelity (in fact I think it is quite revolutionary in our consumer culture!), but it does beg the question as to whether some would view such fidelity as a form of legalism.

Whose legalism? becomes a relevant question.

The Denial of St Peter by Gerard van Honthorst (c. 1623)

What, then, is legalism? It seems to me that legalism is often a label directed at any moral claims that confront our own sense of morality.

In Christ there is the promise of a new world and a new way of life, given as a gift, but requiring our resultant faithfulness, even unto death. However like Peter we know what we are meant to do yet we are in denial – “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”

None of this answers the question as to what legalism actually is – it merely challenges our reasons for employing the label. Perhaps, after all, there is a subtle but important difference between, on the one hand, bearing witness to the life we have found in Christ, the life that the gospel demands of us, and on the other hand legalism.

Whatever “side” of the Christian spectrum we hail from, perhaps we need to do some self-reflection next time the moral and practical demands of another person offend us. Is it legalism, or a faithful testimony that brings into focus our Peter-like denial?

And what is legalism anyway?


Posted on July 4, 2012, in Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. To me, legalism happens within the loss of true mutual relationship, where each has the true well being for the other at heart.

  2. My favourite legalism story is when I first came to Church and whilst wearing a singlet I was told (right in my face) a Christian couldn’t have tattoo’s and that they were forbidden in the Bible. By a person who I believe was wearing a jumper of two blended fabrics, had cut the side of his hair and did not banish his menstruating wife to the outskirts of his property boundary.

  3. Craig – There is an understated depth to your comment. I completely agree and I would love to hear more.

    Baz – Did you ask him where his wife went whilst menstruating? Maybe she did dwell on the outskirts for five to seven days of her month.

    • Thanks Matt.
      I believe that the true mark of holiness is love. Legalism is the opposite of love, grace, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. Now true grace doesn’t mean we can’t call a spade a spade…and true relationship allows us that freedom; because we know we have the best interests for all within that relationship. But the spade isn’t one of accusation – rather its one honesty, framed in love.

      Legalism may have an element of truth to it – but its message is one where you have to do more. Try harder. Do this or that out of point scoring…to earn brownie points. It condemns, doesn’t bring about Godly change and freedom.

  4. I think she went to the back shed for a week, maybe I have been too harsh on my accuser!! 🙂

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