Legalism happens when we take a Biblical principle and make a practical application to it, and hold the practical application as the standard for it. For example, we can look at the verses throughout Proverbs instructing the parents to teach their children and work that out through homeschooling, then put down people who aren’t homeschooling as those who aren’t following the Bible. The principle is for parents to teach their children, but it doesn’t tell us specifically how that is to be done (there are a variety of ways this can be accomplished.) We teach our children, and there could be different ways this can be accomplished, not just one specific way. So, if a family is not homeschooling, but they are faithfully spending time teaching and nurturing their children, the principle is being followed. If this family is looked upon as not following Scriptures because they are not homeschooling, that is legalism. The reverse could also happen. A family could be a homeschooling family, yet not be spending time teaching their children what God says and working with them on following the Bible. I’ve even heard people that are Atheists who homeschool!
This is not a case against homeschooling! Homeschooling makes the job of bringing our children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, much easier. It lends itself well to teaching a Christian worldview to our children. I recommend homeschooling highly for Christian parents. But if you choose not to homeschool your children, you have not broken the law (unless you know in your heart that God wants you to do this and you are resisting!). The key is to know in your hearts what God wants you to do, whether homeschool or something else. What Scripture tells us to do is to diligently teach our children to know God. That is what we have to obey.
Another example would be for us to obey the Scriptures and be modest. Being modest really implies doing the opposite of attracting attention. It involves not making ourselves known by the way we live and dress, and handle ourselves. There are many ways to do this, but if we tend to be literal, we will set up standards for how we are to dress, particularly women. I am not talking about a dress code for school here either. Some of them have dress codes that are very conservative, and the school has the right to do that. But when we take that specific dress code and set it as a standard for what we consider modest, that could be legalism. If, for example, the dress code says that a skirt or dress has to be 2 inches below the knee, if we take that as the Biblical standard for modesty and use that standard on ourselves and our daughters, or even in a church setting, that could easily become legalism. When we see a woman with a skirt that is a little above her knee level, we could tell her that she is being immodest, and that she needs to change her clothing. That would be legalism. But if a person’s clothing (either guy or gal) is obviously immodest, then that is wrong. Also, a person could be really flashy looking, with elaborate jewelry or tattoos, etc. to draw attention to themselves, and when that type of attire is really distracting, then you know there is something deeper going on in the heart. We want to represent Christ, and represent Him well, and when we are dressed inappropriately (where our dress causes attention to ourselves) then we have gone against Scriptures.
One last example of this is in the area of evangelism. I remember someone having a poll or a challenge for people to post how many tracts they passed out each day. I don’t see anything wrong with that in itself, but someone pointed out that it could lead to legalism. Johnny in California passes out 20 a day. Susie in Virginia passes out 50 a day. But Billy in Florida only passes out 2 a day, if he can get out. Then there are those who haven’t felt ready to pass out a tract yet. Or, Susie passes out 50 a day, so why can’t she pass out 75 a day? Or, it could be like another group I was invited to join which required you to pass out a certain amount of tracts each day, and talking to a certain amount of people about the Gospel. This sounds like a good idea at first, but if you can’t get the opportunity to pass out tracts on certain days, you fail the whole event! That is legalism. The Bible doesn’t tell us that we have to pass out tracts each day. It tells us that we need to be sharing the Gospel with people, and making disciples of all nations. That is the command we are to obey. There are many, many, many ways this can be done. We can give to ministries financially. We can go on missions trips with the intention of sharing the Gospel. We can go to our neighbors and share the Gospel with them. We can have Bible clubs for children in our homes. We can have Bible studies for adults in our homes. We can give out tracts. We can mail out Bibles. We can talk with people individually or in groups. The list of ideas can go on. The key is that we are obeying what the Bible says about preaching the Gospel. It’s not how many tracts you gave out last week, or how many people you talked to yesterday, although those are important, but that you did have it in your heart to share the Gospel with people. The Bible says that we are to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. How we carry that out will look different for different people. To say that a certain way (like passing out 10 tracts a day) is how we are to do that, is legalism. We should pass out tracts a day. It’s a great way to communicate the Gospel, but if you don’t use tracts, you haven’t broken the law.
I know a guy who is effective in doing evangelism, but I have never seen him doing open-air evangelism. I was puzzled at first because I thought that everyone who is effective in evangelism does open air. So, everyone does what God calls him or her to do, whether they use tracts, teach, serve, pray, open air, one on one, door to door, or whatever. Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 both talk about the variety of spiritual gifts. Not only are there different spiritual gifts, but there is variety in the way they are used. There is diversity. If we set up a standard for how a certain gift is to be used or applied, we have suppressed the proper intent of the gift. We have also set a trap for legalism.
So, let’s obey the Scriptures using the gifts and talents God gave us, but let’s not set up as a standard, the specifics for how God wants us to carry those works out. Standards can be helpful many times, but we have to be careful that they don’t lead to legalism, or that we don’t hold our particular application of the Scriptures for everyone else to follow. They might use our applications, but if they don’t, they haven’t broken the law! We have to remember that for ourselves and one another.
"There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work." 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 NIV