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Legalism, Again

by Kelly Crawford

We’ve been here before; the discussion of legalism. Legalism is the catch word now days meant to tear down any shred of conviction or standards in the believer’s life. Something came to me that I wanted to share…

I’ve noticed a common tendency, one I think is a big problem, among the legalist-accusing folks. ALMOST always, when I hear someone accuse another of legalism, the accuser asserts that “the legalist” is keeping rules or standards because he thinks it will make him more godly, and he expects others to keep his rules also. This last assertion is almost always an assumption. I’ve personally never heard anyone who is a “dresses only” lady tell others they must stop wearing pants to avoid being in sin. And I know quite a few.

As Mr. Phillips pointed out in the last post, some of the issues of ethics (birth control, education, etc) warrant careful study of the Scripture and may have definitive lines in a Christian’s life. I’m not even talking about those subjects here.

I’m using “modesty” for illustration purposes, since that’s one of the most common areas of disagreement among Christians. This thought can be applied to any topic.

I am defending those who are accused of legalism. But hear me…I’m not defending it because it is so personal to myself. I love dresses, I love femininity, and I wear a lot of dresses. But we do not have a strict, “dress only” code in our home. Just want you to understand that so you can see that I speak from a less biased starting point than you may think.

Everyone agrees that the Bible says “dress modestly”. What we don’t agree on is the definition of modesty.

So when one family decides to “err on the side of caution” as a reader pointed out in the last post, why are they so prone to be called legalists? (By the way, dresses have as much to do with simple femininity as they do modesty for those who wear them…)

For illustrations sake, consider the command: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Again, agreed.

I know many couples, including my husband and me, who “err on the side of caution” in this area. Barring an impossible situation, we’ve just made some RULES, across the board, to keep us above reproach and temptation. Stuff like not allowing ourselves in the position of being alone with someone else, not having exclusive friendships with members of the opposite sex, etc.

These RULES are not written in Scripture. They are our own standards to protect from potentially harmful consequences. They still do not make us immune to sin, but they represent a deep honor and desire to do all we can to remain faithful to our vows.

I submit that many “dress only” families subscribe to a similar concept. Would you call me a legalist because I purposely avoid being together, alone with another man? Why not? Isn’t that a “man-made” rule?

Could I remain faithful to my spouse if we didn’t have those rules? More than likely, yes. So the rule in itself is not where my trust is. The rule is simply a visible guideline that keeps us from creeping, accidentally over into forbidden territory.

And if a lady wears dresses only simply for the sake of feminity, how tragic the act of being called a legalist! It would be the same as being called a legalist because you choose to only wear “warm” colors after the beauty consultant told you those were the most flattering.

I would hope that those of you who have different standards of modesty would reconsider your thoughts of legalism toward others. Understand what legalism is, and understand that you cannot, under most conditions, accurately label someone a legalist.

In Scripture, if someone had a higher standard about something not explicitly written, the “lower standard” people were to submit to the others for the sake of not offending a weaker conscience.

Just something to think about 😉

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Daisy June 18, 2008 - 5:32 pm

Excellent post!! I wholeheartedly agree.

Brenda June 18, 2008 - 8:19 pm

I agree with what you wrote, but let me add in another thought…

I think sometimes those who cry “legalist” see the other person as not being free in Christ. Like they are bound by all these “rules” and are missing the freedom they could be experiencing. So they say, “why are you so bound by legalism?”
That, and sometimes they feel threatened and sometimes just truly have not thought out their view on a topic so they have no idea how to react.

Anonymous June 18, 2008 - 8:58 pm

Very good point, Brenda! I had a dear friend tell me that I was legalistic and judgemental because I really try to err on the side of caution. I think that sums up the reason for her concern for me quite well!

This might be one of my favorite posts, Kelly. 🙂 Thank you!


Kim M. June 18, 2008 - 10:33 pm

I have heard the same thing before about being under bondage.

Personally, I don’t feel under bondage when I am living carefully. Actually I feel a certain type of freedom from the world’s fashion standards. (don’t get me wrong, I like to wear “cute” outfits)

I see those who try to copy “the world” as being the ones who aren’t truly free. They are trying to please everyone else by following all of the fads and styles of the world.
Spending lots of money on something to only turn around and have it go “out of style”.
Especially teens struggle with this (I did as a teen!). I love being free without worrying about what the world thinks, but on the other hand not judging someone because they choose to do something differently than I do.

Anonymous June 18, 2008 - 10:36 pm

Nice blog, and interesting posts. I think the point is that if the Smith family is a “dresses only” (just to take your example) family and the Jones family is not, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Now if the Smith family starts snubbing the Jones family because Momma Jones wears pants, then that’s judging and wrong.

As you alluded to, Romans 14 does a nice job of speaking to these individual differences. Apparently God loves us, wine or grape juice and all. 😉

New King James Version
1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. 2 For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. 4 Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.
5 One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

Kim M. June 18, 2008 - 10:38 pm

I realize I just got off on a “dress standard” tangent but It certainly does apply to other areas of carefulness too. 🙂

Feminine Pursuits June 19, 2008 - 9:52 am

Kelly, great post! The example that you gave with adultery is perfect.

Anonymous June 19, 2008 - 1:40 pm

“err on the side of caution.”

Now that is food for thought! You go to great lengths to decide why you believe what you believe. And I really admire that. Thanks for making me push myself to do the same!


(L-o-n-g time reader, first time commenter 🙂 )

Anonymous June 19, 2008 - 7:16 pm

I remember the day the Holy Ghost convicted me of wearing pants. It was a time in my life that I was praying for sanctification and seeking to walk closer with the Lord. I was out side bent over washing the under side of my car. A man walked up and I got chills all over because I knew that he had gotten his eyes full. I know what happened that day and no one who “cries legalism” can convenience me it was a “legalistic-in the flesh” decision. The decision was wrought by the convicting power of the Holy Ghost, and Him teaching me to walk in holiness.

I was curious as to when it became acceptable for women to wear pants.

Wikipedia says this: “Historically, in most of the Western world, women have worn dresses and skirt-like garments while men have worn pants. During the late 1800s, women started to wear pants for industrial work. During World War II, women wore their husband’s pants while they took on jobs, and in the 1970s, pants became especially fashionable for women. Today, pants are worn far more often than skirts by women, and many women wear pants almost all the time.” AND,
“Orthodox Jews: Most Orthodox Jewish women are required by religious laws to wear skirts and not trousers. There are two main precepts in Judaism that are the basis for this. One is modesty. In Jewish belief, the space between a woman’s legs is considered to be a private area, and therefore, must be covered by a garment. Additionally, there is the Biblical Commandment that women must not wear men’s clothing and visa versa (Deut. 22:5). Since trousers were originally created as a man’s garment, women are therefore forbidden to wear them according to most rabbinical authorities. Though the common requirement is for skirts to be at least knee-length, many Orthodox Jews as a precaution extend the length, wearing only skirts that reach as far down as the ankle. Other Modern Orthodox women will permit even shorter skirts or altogether disregard this practice.
Pentecostals: Pentecostal women are likewise required to wear skirts because of the Biblical commandment that women must not wear men’s clothing [2]. Also, wearing dresses is a sign of submissiveness.
Mennonites: The basis for skirts in Mennonites is modesty. For this reason, long skirts or dresses covering most of the legs are required[3]”

So apparently the people who “cry legalism” couldn’t even make this arguement prior to the 1970’s when pants became fashionable at this time as stated in the article. They would have been wearing skirts or dresses too. Unless they were out working like a man. And isn’t it interesting that during this time is when the feminist philosophy was just taking hold in our society. Are you going to say that all women up to this point were legalists? That’s ridiculous! Women wearing dresses has been around for eternity up until the ’70’s. All down through history women have worn dresses, or skirt like garments. WOW, no wonder the Holy Ghost worked on me in this area!
Jeremiah 6:15-17
15Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore they shall fall among them that fall: at the time that I visit them they shall be cast down, saith the LORD.

16Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.

And I know some of you will say that I am pushing my conviction on you. It’s up to the individual to come to God with a broken and contrite spirit and ask Him to show you where you need to clean up your life. I know many people that have given up little knit-picky things that they felt like the Lord convicted them of. I don’t think for one minute that it was them in their flesh that made that decision. It was the Holy Ghost taking them to the next level on the highway to holiness. The key is to love the Lord with all your strength, soul, and body that you will be willing to do ANYTHING to grow in Him.

In 1 Peter 1:13-16, Peter writes to believers, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” Peter is quoting from Leviticus 11:44 and Leviticus 19:2.

And whatever it is that the Holy Ghost convicts you of, I’m sure not going to dismiss it because I am scared of talking against or blaspheming the Holy Ghost and His work!

I thought this was really good commentary of the above verses. “In 1 Peter 1:13-16, Peter was instructing them to be distinct from the other nations by giving them specific regulations to govern their lives. Israel is God’s chosen nation and God has set them apart from all other people groups. They are His special people, and consequently they were given standards that God wanted them to live by so the world would know they belonged to Him. When Peter repeats the Lord’s words in 1 Peter 1:16, he is talking specifically to believers. As believers, we need to be “set apart” from the world unto the Lord. We need to be living by God’s standards, not the world’s. God isn’t calling us to be perfect, but to be distinct from the world. First Peter 2:9 describes believers as “a holy nation.” It is a fact! We are separated from the world; we need to live out that reality in our day-to-day lives, which Peter tells us how to do in 1 Peter 1:13-16.

Finally, how can we become holy? Holiness only results from a right relationship with God by believing in Jesus Christ as Savior (accepting His gift of eternal life). If we have not placed our faith in God’s Son alone to save us from our sins, then our pursuit of holiness is in vain. So, we must first make sure we are born-again believers (see John 3). If we truly are believers, then we recognize that our position in Christ automatically sets us apart from the world (1 Peter 2:9). After all, we have a relationship with the living God! Then we must daily live a set-apart life, not trying to “blend in” with the world, but instead living according to God’s Word as we study the Bible and grow in it.

It almost sounds as if you would only be “legalistic” if you were not a “believer”? Interesting!!

1 Corinthians 1:29-31

29That no flesh should glory in his presence.

30But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:

31That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.

Hebrews 12:13-15
13And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.

14Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:

15Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled;

1 Thessalonians 1:4-6

4For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

Anonymous June 20, 2008 - 9:39 am

For illustrations sake, consider the command: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Again, agreed.

I know many couples, including my husband and me, who “err on the side of caution” in this area. Barring an impossible situation, we’ve just made some RULES, across the board, to keep us above reproach and temptation. Stuff like not allowing ourselves in the position of being alone with someone else, not having exclusive friendships with members of the opposite sex, etc.

These RULES are not written in Scripture. They are our own standards to protect from potentially harmful consequences. They still do not make us immune to sin, but they represent a deep honor and desire to do all we can to remain faithful to our vows.

I submit that many “dress only” families subscribe to a similar concept. Would you call me a legalist because I purposely avoid being together, alone with another man? Why not? Isn’t that a “man-made” rule?
Yes, it is a man-made rule. You are entitled to your convictions 100%, but what you are not entitled to do is to force others to live by convictions or revelations they have not received.

What is legalistic is not that YOU abide by that rule. What would be legalistic is if you insisted, constantly and with great vehemence, that it is a sin for any woman to be alone with any man to whom she is not married.

There are women who wear only dresses, and I do not begrudge them their conviction. It is only when they insist that it is a sin to do otherwise that I begin to see them as imprisoned by legalism. I hope you can understand the subtle difference between these two things. It is not having convictions which brand one as a legalist (we all have convictions, hopefully), but rather judging others based on guidelines not found in Scripture. I hope that makes a little bit of sense. Be blessed!

Word Warrior June 20, 2008 - 10:45 am

I completely understand the difference.

Problem: Most of the time, the people accusing others of legalism, have NOT been told that they must uphold the same standard. They are accusing others based ONLY on the fact that since they do not believe the Bible speaks explicity on the subject, therefore those who hold the standard are legalist. I see this all the time.

I think most of us would admit that this is the problem far often than that of others imposing their standards on everyone else.

Anonymous June 25, 2008 - 1:50 pm

I’m the same anon from above. I am mostly in agreement with you, but I’m not sure I agree with the assertion that “crying legalism” is a worse issue in the church than actual legalism.

Let me say first off that the issue of dresses vs. pants doesn’t directly affect me, because I do generally wear dresses/skirts. However, I don’t believe there’s a Biblical mandate to do so. I have heard the claim, particularly in United Pentecostal churches, that all women wearing pants or makeup were sinning, and I have many friends who were harmed by this doctrine because it has forever caused them to see others (and to some degree themselves) with judgmental eyes. I have seen young men fall away from God because they feel they cannot live up to standards that their church (not God) has set forth, discouraged because they cannot live up to “God’s” standards. People who “cry legalism” can be annoying, but people who perpetrate legalism can put others’ very salvation in jeopardy (even if you don’t believe salvation can be lost, surely you’ll agree that it’s possible some won’t gain it because they see the unBiblical standards set forth in some churches). In that context, it’s insidious and really nothing short of a tool of Satan.

I have lots of personal convictions, in addition to what Scripture reveals on various moral questions, and I abide by them – but I cannot in good conscience require others to do or imply that they are less spiritually mature than I just because I have been convicted of something and they have not. That’s where I draw the line.

Mrs W June 29, 2008 - 2:17 pm

I used to think that it was best to “err on the side of caution” until someone said, rightly so, that “to err on the side of caution is to still be in error.” Wouldn’t we rather make sure that our beliefs are definitely Biblical?

By the way, my husband recently wanted me to start wearing pants. I have been snubbed and rejected by many so called “friends” because of it. They have told me I am in in sin, and since I “know” I’m in sin, they aren’t to fellowship with me anymore. That’s judgmental legalism, and I’ve had SEVERAL people do this to me.

I used to believe it was wrong for a woman to wear pants…I was unsaved at the time and I was trying to work my way to heaven.

Anonymous October 31, 2008 - 10:58 pm

“I am defending those who are accused of legalism.”

why? has someone asked you to defend them? do you have proof that they are not guilty of it? who ever these people are you feel a need to defend?

There are those who impose their standards on others in the wrong and unloving and unchristian way. and all the while seem so very righteous about it all, and at times even deny the truth that they are like that.

and if someone else who is loving Jesus has been judged and treated in a legalistic way and they have personally been treated in contempt and rejection because they did not hold to that person’s standard – , then why would you defend them?

I am sure there are people who are accused of being legalistic when they were not, I’ve been accused and I hadn’t talked to anyone about any kind of standard of any sort, just merely wore a skirt – but there are a lot of folks out there who are legalistic and do treat others wrongly who do not hold to their standards, whether you’ve had them come and talk to you personally or not… They exist, lots of them, and they don’t need you to defend them.

Word Warrior November 1, 2008 - 8:54 am

I wasn’t defending those who are legalist. Most accusations of legalism are made against people who have simply chosen different standards than others–not pushing them on everyone else…at least I don’t know anyone like that. Legalism is legalism; this post was a defense of those who are not legalists. 😉

authenticallyme November 13, 2008 - 11:16 am

Hi Kelly,

I cant believe I didnt comment on this….imagiine that!

I do agrfee with anonymous, and the jist of what she is trying to say. I do notice that you posted you understand the subtle differences between the two mindsets she was trying to make separate issues.

I agree, in some ways, that no one outright TELLS me to not do this, or that i am in sin if i do this, but OTOH…..Christian radio, websites, certain denominations..have all affected me and these people WERE doing that. When to a rule is attached any sort of “we have to look at this issue more in depth, and not so topically, so that we are careful to be in obedience to God”….that DOES infer that we are out of line if we dont come up with a smiliar belief system as others have.

i dont think people are legalists, but i think people in general, all of us, struggle with different degrees of legalism, myself included. i dont see any of us being totally freed from it as long as we are submerged on this earth, living under sinful conditions…we are all infected to some degree.

I also look at legalsim; true legalism, as shame-based. Mostly when peopel are not operating out of a shame-based conscience, they woould not be insistant, or even pressuring at all for others to see their view. they would realize, more than likely, the humility they walk in….and their powerlessness over another human creature. it is easier to try and understand people, and their differences, and accept them where they are at FOR THAT MOMENT and win them over via relationship, than biblical debates etc. im not saying dont debate; i enjoy it too, and it helps nme develop discernment. I am sorry if you personally have felt attacked or judged by being deemed a legalist, ESPECIALLY if *my* words and actions provoked you to feel that way. It is just as hurtful to be called that name, as it is for me to feel belittled or shamed or not as ‘holy’ as the next person simply because i dont follow the same theology or doctrine, outlining the same square foot area of ‘blakc and whites’ or ‘greys’ as you, or your family. It sounds like your church is not so conservative; maybe that is why you differ strongly in opinions, due to what you see first handedly on a regular basis…..I, on the other hand, have been submerged into a family system, a marriage, work places when i was younger..’recovery’ groups, and independent churches and ‘theologies’ that took me to an extreme in legalism. it was a lot of work involved for me to step foot out of those awful, freedom-less places. my process or path may differ from those who were not harmed by such guilt-based, fire and brimstone doctrines. I understand those who likewise, have had experiences that touch on similarities to mine, and you will to yours. The real beauty, imo, is when we can all unite regardless of where we are all at, or how/why we got there….if we have a heart that truly desires God, we are asking him daily to make us more aware, of ourselves……of our areas for concern, and weaknesses. and trusting HIM alone to see where we are blinded,. and to rescue us by His grace…so that though our whole body is clean, we can continue to fulfill our need to ‘wash our feet’ daily, moment by moment.

I do hear people say ‘legalism’ and throw nthe word around superficially. but some of us are using the same term to express bondages that we were entrenched in, and we are referring to (though i cant speak for all) that we were shackled in sahme, though Christ already took it away, we didnt know how to stop walking in it, so we gravitated to the very thing that would continue our shame cycle….more rules, more diversions, more work, more theology. none of which leads to God. These things can be ok sometimes, as long as God is the foundation….and the ‘things’ arent the foundation. but its tricky. I cant even find the words to explain properly my experience and how it affected me….all I know is it has. ty for listening.

Pam November 6, 2010 - 1:39 pm

It gives us great comfort and peace to know that our husbands can decide all these things and we can rest in that which he feels God calling us to. Otherwise I would truly go crazy wondering what to do and think! What a gift to not lead. I tried that and it is hard. What a relief to follow instead.

When someone expresses an opinion about me, especially a potentially negative one, I may need to sift it out and be sure there is no kernel of truth tucked in there. I need my husbands, and God’s help to sift it. If there is no chaff, then I purpose to keep my eyes on Jesus. It is not my business to look around. When Peter looked about him he began to sink. We fear God and not man because the fear of man brings a snare. If there is a bit of chaff to be dealt with, I humbly seek God for how we might glorify Him better. In this case the words of the person become a blessing to me to help me not walk in error.
Either way, I learn and grow and find confidence in following Christ.

Jennifer November 6, 2010 - 2:35 pm

Having a partner is great, but I wouldn’t rely on a man to make my decisions for me. Sometimes it gets downright silly: I once heard one woman, “Megan”, challenge another woman, “Tracy’s”, meaning in a post on an online religious argument. Tracy’s husband showed up online and tried to end the argument, posting, “As the spiritual head of my household, I believe my wife’s intentions are genuine and clear”. Well, Megan was married too, and a lady named “Cora”, on another site, pointed out how silly it was to get the husbands to solve the argument for the women. “Well, what’s going to happen now after a response like that? Is Megan’s husband going to show up and claim ‘Well, as the spiritual head of MY house, I believe MY wife’s intentions are clear and right? And what then, will the two spiritual heads have some sort of arm wrestling match to determine whose wife is right?” LOL Puts things in perspective.

I Live in an Antbed November 6, 2010 - 4:51 pm

You are truly walking in the blessing and protection offered us through having a head and covering through our husbands. Because your desire is for the Lord to be reflected more and more clearly in your spirit, He is glorified through your motives. The humility you display in your desire to root out anything in your heart that doesn’t honor Him, even when revealed through a source most would ignore, will continue to bring forth even greater fruit. Thank you for testifying to His Faithfulness.


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