Legalism

During the past two years, the Brethren Practices page carried brief articles on each of seven ordinances and on each of five ideals, all of which have been largely distinctive to Brethren faith and practice. Brethren practice the three-part lovefeast, the anointing with oil, the laying on of hands, the salutation of the holy kiss — and Brethren teach the ideals of peace, temperance, purity, stewardship, and simple living — because these are all clearly mandated in the New Testament.


The articles being prepared for the Brethren Practices page (to be published in forthcoming issues of the BRF Witness) will deal with the principles of the Gospel, many of which are prohibitions given for the believer’s benefit. But when we speak of prohibitions, and of negative things, and of specific steps the church ought to take to maintain biblical standards in matters related to outward conduct, there are those who immediately cry — “Legalism.” Most people who use the term “legalism” are unclear about what legalism really is.

In a theological setting, the term “legalism” describes “a carnal attitude that conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self.” Conforming strictly to a rule or to a law is not in itself legalism. Legalism is an attitude. For example, the law of Christ says, “Lie not one to another.” The Christian obeys because this is his Master’s will. The legalist refrains from lying so that he may be able to boast in the fact that he does not lie.


An athlete has to keep “training rules.” Most athletes are glad to keep the rules (rigid as they are) for sheer love of the sport. A few conform in order to make the team and thus to glorify (show off) self. The first attitude is love; the second attitude is legalism. The observance of a rule is not in itself legalism.


The early Anabaptists accepted the Scriptures literally. They were very specific on such things as modesty and divorce and feetwashing. They observed rigid dress patterns and carefully regulated the conduct of their members. Today there is much speaking in generalities, and increasing looseness regarding Christian conduct, but “my brethren, these things ought not so to be.” We must never draw back from observing regulations which conform to the principles of the Scriptures, unless such an observance is causing one to glory in his conformity to the rule. One who boasts in his conformity is a legalist.


— Harold S. Martin