If You Teach Obedience in Details,
Does That Mean You Are Legalistic?
Every now and then I hear someone say something like: “That church is legalistic, they’ve got all these details about what is right and wrong.”
I sometimes hear this accusation about churches of Christ. Churches of Christ are more detailed than most religious people about what they believe is right and wrong, so they must be legalistic, or so they say. I’m not so sure that logic is correct. In fact, it’s my experience that most “religious people” tend to confuse legalism and obedience, thinking they are one and the same. Biblically, they are not.
So does a pursuit of detailed obedience mean you are legalistic?
The Danger of Legalism
Legalism, as I understand it, is thinking that we are saved by our perfect obedience. It is a specific attitude toward obedience, a “works-righteousness” mentality. We get everything right, so we are saved. We are essentially saving ourselves by our works.
If that is our attitude then we need to change it, because legalism is not biblical. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
We are not saved because we get everything right. God’s grace “credits” us with righteousness when we act in faith. Are there actions God requires before He credits us with righteousness? Absolutely. You see repeatedly in the New Testament that those conversion-actions include faith, confession, a commitment to repentance, and baptism. Only then does the New Testament show God crediting someone with salvation. Actions are important, but God saves, not the actions.
For example, think about baptism. Are we saving ourselves by being baptized into Christ? Of course not. We are saved in baptism not because of the action itself, but because of God’s promise to save us when we unite with Christ in baptism (1 Pet. 3:21, Acts 2:38). Do you see the difference? Legalism is an issue of assigning salvation to the wrong thing: actions instead of God. It forgets God’s grace, perhaps thinking grace isn’t really needed for someone who does everything right.
We are all sinners (Romans 3:23), so no one is earning their salvation based on their perfect actions.
In churches of Christ, we certainly need to be aware of this danger. We have made it our goal to live, serve, and worship exactly as God wants. We dig into questions big and small to determine God’s will, and we try our best to do it. I suppose we might be more susceptible than most people to the danger of legalism because of that emphasis of getting everything right. So let’s be careful about our attitude toward obedience. Let us never think that getting everything right is the basis of our salvation.
Does God Want Us To Try to Get Everything Right?
While the idea of legalism is condemned in Scripture, obedience – even an attempt at perfect obedience – is encouraged! Notice these three passages that teach the importance of obedience in everything, even in the small details:
1) The words of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
How do you make disciples? First, baptizing them. Second, teaching them to observe ALL (don’t miss that word!) that Jesus commanded. Not just the “big” commandments, not just the “small” commandments. All His commandments.
2) The words of Jesus in Matthew 23:23 – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”
Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for missing the big picture. They were doing the small things (tithing even their herbs and spices), but they were missing the big things (justice, mercy, faithfulness). So yes, some things are more “central” – or “weightier” as Jesus calls them – and we must not lose perspective on the most important issues. (1 Cor. 15:1-4, for example, is said to be of “first importance” to the Christian faith. And in Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus gave “first” and “second” commandments. Some things are more important!)
But here’s what most people miss about the Matthew 23:23 passage: the small issues are good too. Jesus doesn’t condemn the Pharisees for ‘detailed obedience,’ in fact He encourages it! What did He tell them? “These are the things you should have done without neglecting the others”!
The problem was not detailed obedience. The problem was majoring in minors and missing the majors. But Jesus told them they should not have been neglecting either one! Jesus wanted them to do both: be faithful in both the big issues and the small issues.
3) The words of Jesus in John 14:31 – “but so that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me.”
The example that Jesus left for His followers is an example of perfect obedience. As disciples following in His footsteps, that should be our goal as well!
And notice why Jesus did “exactly” as the Father commanded. Because Jesus was encouraging legalism? Not at all. To show the world that He loved the Father.
What?! Love and obedience fit together?! Our religious world often tries to separate them, but Jesus says they go hand in hand. When you truly love God, you want to give Him “exactly” what He wants. The big things and the little things, just like Jesus did.
Obeying Like Jesus
So clearly, God does want us to pursue obedience, in the big issues and even in the small details. That’s what Jesus taught, lived, and encouraged in His followers.
That last passage, John 14:31, should be the compass that we allow to guide us. We want the right actions: we want to do “exactly” as God wants, big and small. And we also need the right motives: we pursue what God wants not by attempting to save ourselves through our works, but because we love God and want Him to be pleased with us.
Is legalism a danger? Yes, it is, and it should be confronted when we see it in ourselves or in others.
But ‘detailed obedience’ is not the same thing as legalism. In fact, when you see someone pursuing ‘detailed obedience,’ you might be seeing someone who simply loves God more than other people. They’re not content to ‘sort of’ serve God. They don’t want to settle for a ‘just-do-the-minimum checklist’ approach to faith. Instead, God is their life. And so they’re willing to dig and search for what God wants, in matters both big and small. And they’re willing to put their will aside in everything, not just the common things.
That’s the type of person God wants, and that’s the type of person I want to be.