Theology

learning the words: legalism

chain link fence

Today’s guest post is from Timothy Swanson, who blogs about his literary explorations at Diary of an Autodidact. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

My family had been attending Bill Gothard’s seminars for a year or so, I believe, when my parents decided that we would join his home schooling program (we had homeschooled for many years prior to that– I had only one year of high school left by that time).

I objected to this decision for several reasons. One was that I had only a year left and didn’t want to make a change (I was allowed to finish, thankfully). One was that the program, which purported to make all learning based on and flow out of scripture, seemed to lack any clear academic organization and vision. It was more about indoctrination than real schooling. These objections were easy for me to articulate. I had the words for these concepts.

My bigger, overarching objection was more difficult. There was a word for it, but I was not allowed to use it, because it had been re-defined.

That word was legalism.

In the ultra-conservative Christian world, legalism has been re-defined to apply only to an extremely narrow concept: a belief that salvation can be earned.

It’s not that this definition is exactly wrong, but that it excludes much of what legalism really is. Conveniently, the narrow definition allowed us to say that other religions were legalistic, because good deeds would be weighed in determining one’s fate after death. Perhaps even Roman Catholics were legalistic. But “true” Christians could not be legalistic, because they acknowledged that only Christ could save.

But.

There were all kinds of rules in the Gothard system (and in the similar ultraconservative systems). These rules were called principles or standards— and they were necessary to achieve “God’s best.” So, Christians should never send their children to public or private school; girls must wear skirts, not pants; women shouldn’t work outside the home; Christians should only listen to certain music and read certain books; and on and on. Of course, this wasn’t legalism. We just wanted “God’s best” in our lives. Never mind that we were encouraged to judge those that did not adhere to all our standards as probably not being real Christians.

So, I couldn’t use legalism to describe a legalistic system or belief. The closest I could come was rigid. That word was inadequate because it allowed the focus to shift from the problematic system, which insisted that “God’s way” included many man-made rules beyond the commands of Christ, and placed the focus on other people within the system who were perhaps a bit “rigid” in their practices. We could be a little less “rigid” than them.

The real problem was the legalism, which insisted that following Christ was really a bunch of rules and cultural preferences. But I couldn’t say that, because legalism had been taken away from me.

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  • NuttShell

    It’s about control. It’s always about control.

  • Control of language is so close to control of thoughts…. Thanks for the thoughts on this, I too was taught that legalism was trying to earn salvation.

  • Legalism can properly be used in both senses, as you say, but it creates difficulty when two people are using it in different ways in one discussion. This is why I try to avoid many ‘Christian’ words in speaking and writing; they have so much baggage that the words have to be defined. And defining it still does not remove the baggage.

    In this case, though, legalism was the perfect word for you to use and there was no adequate substitute for what you wanted to say. Indeed, the word to express your thought was taken away from you.

  • I found this blog recently and am going through this series. This is so true, and I think it’s connected to the fact that certain Protestant groups put such a high value on words and doctrine. Unfortunately this happens at the expense of loving actions and, as you said, means that “legalistic” churches can cover their tracks with their statement of faith.