Home christian living Legalism or Freedom…

Legalism or Freedom…

by Kelly Crawford

“…have we become selfish and individualistic to the point that we would rather “have our own way” and cloak it with a spiritual “freedom in Christ” sermon, than to submit in love to those around us?”

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and thought the blog would be a great place to “think out loud”, get your ideas on it, and clarify some of my own thoughts. So here goes…

I hear the word “legalism” getting thrown around an awful lot these days. By Christians, of course. And the more I hear the accusations of this group, or that person being legalistic, the more I wonder if we really even know what legalism means, and why we are so prone to label someone (in our spiritual tone, no less) as legalistic.

Maybe I don’t have a complete understanding…thus this post.

From my standpoint, and from what I read in Scripture (“legalism” is not a word used in the Bible), legalism, or “Phariseeism” (I think I made up that word!), is the act of ascribing salvific merit to my works. In other words, to believe that my salvation is dependent upon or improved upon something that I do, instead of the free gift of grace from Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.

Having set forth the definition of “legalism”, then, I want to consider some practical examples of where I think we are wrong to apply the label.

If you are a “dresses only” lady, you will most likely be labeled as legalistic. Now the way I see it, the “rule” or standard one has in NO way makes the person legalistic, regardless of the rule. I think it is the intention of the practice of a standard, (which no one can truly judge), that makes a person legalistic or not.

“Obedience and holiness, striving to please the Lord, is not because his death on the cross wasn’t enough; it is because it WAS enough, and that overwhelming reality calls me into action for my Savior.”

If I only wear dresses because I love them, I love feminity and believe that dresses are more feminine than pants, I desire to do all I can to demonstrate beauty and grace to a world where beauty and grace are diminishing, I’m just not sure about how the word “apparel” translates in Scripture and want to make sure I’m being obedient, I want to err on the side of caution when it comes to modesty, if I have a conviction that defiles my conscience to wear pants–if these are my reasons for wearing only dresses, I am not legalistic.

However, if I wear dresses because I believe I cannot be saved otherwise, and I imply that everyone else must follow suit or they are not really saved, now I am being legalistic.

(Just for your curiosity, I am not a strictly dresses only, although I wear dresses a large percentage of the time.)

But I have heard people refer to those who are “dresses only” as legalistic. Unless they have heard them make the statement about dresses somehow adding to their salvation, how can a person accurately label them so?

I think we live in a day where “freedom in Christ” has become an enemy of obedience. What I mean is, we are scared of “doing” anything, for fear of being labeled legalistic, when the Bible is FULL of warning to OBEY, and to “add to your faith works”, etc. Works, obedience, pleasing God, whatever you want to call it, is NOT to be confused with legalism. It is only the wrong intention behind those things that make it so.

A person whose heart is merely seeking to please the Lord should not be deemed legalistic, even if he has a standard that is higher than your own. For no one knows the heart of a person.

Consider this: a family makes a rule that they will not own a television. Others looking in may be prone to accuse of legalism. But perhaps before this father was saved, he had a tremendous weakness for pornography, and he has vowed to “cut off his right hand if it offends you”..i.e., not watch television. The person accusing stands in danger of serious judgement, in my opinion.

I could go on with other examples…but I think as a Christian culture, we’ve slid into the “spiritual relativism” that I’ve mentioned before, and have become people more concerned with figuring out how CLOSE we can come to being like the world, instead of being honored to be SET APART for His glory.

Another thought…have we become selfish and individualistic to the point that we would rather “have our own way” and cloak it with a spiritual “freedom in Christ” sermon, than to submit in love to those around us? (“This is the way I am, or the thing I prefer, and if it offends you that is your problem.”) Or are we called to submit to one another in love? “Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food (or dress, or ______), you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died.” Romans 14:15

Does this make sense? Am I missing something here?

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Mrs. Taft February 6, 2008 - 1:51 pm

I agree that it’s the intent for the “minor” issues that makes it legalism or not. It’s not legalistic to be dresses-only. It’s not legalistic to have convictions. It’s legalistic to major on the minors, so to speak, in such a way that causes you to judge others who don’t follow your same convictions. Thats how I see it. 🙂

Hannah February 6, 2008 - 2:42 pm

What an interesting subject.
It seems that the term “legalism” is thrown around a lot as a defense mechanism.
I wear dresses or skirts by preference a lot of the time and instead of asking or considering why I do, it seems it is easier to label me as legalistic.
I left a comment on one blog saying that “anything that encourages us as mothers to leave the care and nurturing of our children should be severely examined.” Yup, I’m legalistic, I’m told.

Catherine R. February 6, 2008 - 3:13 pm

Kelly, you are such a thinker…I have been pondering the same thing ever since I became a Christian. I met people who would basically get drunk and sleep around because it was their ‘freedom in Christ’ or because they were ‘saved by grace’…huh?

That is an extreme example (however true) but I think this attitude is prevalent to a large degree and in many subtle ways, like you say. I think the reason is nothing more that Christians lining themselves up with the ever deteriorating values of the world simply to fit in. Call it luke-warm Christianity if you will. Is it any wonder that the average Christian is much more ‘main-stream’ in an age where basic Christian values are becoming increasingly obscure? Not having sex till your married? Isn’t that something only fanatical weirdos do? NO! We must remember that the worse the world gets, the more we will look different from it as believers.

Do I believe God loves women who only where dresses more? Of course not. But why is it that the criticism is more often directed at the dress wearer than the pant wearer? Interesting to think about and an important topic to raise for discussion.

Word Warrior February 6, 2008 - 4:05 pm

I thought this was a great thought by Jason Dulle, at http://www.apostolic.net:

“Legalism is oftentimes very hard to recognize and can be hard to distinguish from true holiness. This is because the actions of the legalist, and the actions of someone who possesses true holiness are generally the same. The difference is the motive of the heart. One’s motivation is to save themselves, or keep themselves saved, while the other’s motivation is to please the One who died for them.”

So often we cry “legalism” based on one’s actions; when in fact, it has nothing to do with “the thing” itself…only the motive behind “the thing”.

What most of us call legalism today, was called “piety” 100 years ago. Holiness, or piety, is something we are still called to. But it is a response to grace, not a means to grace.

Obedience and holiness, striving to please the Lord, is not because his death on the cross wasn’t enough; it is because it WAS enough, and that overwhelming reality calls me into action for my Savior.

Sheila February 6, 2008 - 5:33 pm

Excellent, excellent thoughts, Kelly!

The Henderson Family February 6, 2008 - 9:21 pm


Excellent post!!! In my opinion and from what I have observed this is a huge problem among Christians. If we are honest with ourselves we must admit that unless someone tells us that they base their salvation on some work of their own we cannot label them legalistic. It is simply impossible to look into someone’s heart or to read their mind.

Unfortunatley I have had other Christians insinuate that I am legalistic because my daughters and I wear dresses and skirts only. Nothing could be further from the truth!!!

Often times I think that those labeling others as legalistic are actually feeling called to take some of the same steps as those they are labeling have taken. Often they are in a state of rebellion and are simply taking that anger out on their Christian brethren.

It is hard for all of us to be set apart in world where it is becoming more common to embrace everything that is not of God. I think we all feel the temption, stress and pressure of going against friends, families and neighbors and being different.

What we should not do is in our frustration turn against our Christian brethren and begin fighting amongst ourselves. We need every bit of our energy to remain pure in a world that hates us as it hates our Savior.

Word Warrior February 6, 2008 - 10:11 pm

Henderson Family,

You said,

“If we are honest with ourselves we must admit that unless someone tells us that they base their salvation on some work of their own we cannot label them legalistic. It is simply impossible to look into someone’s heart or to read their mind.”

I had the exact thought just a few hours ago…well put.

Sal February 7, 2008 - 7:57 am

Ladies, what insightful comments.
and let’s not forget the very human tendency to feel better when surrounded by those who do as we do. This can be the source of criticisms from both sides: “I need everyone to homeschool, so I won’t feel alone and weird” as well as “I need you to wear pants to I won’t feel convicted.”
It really is intention that matters, isn’t it?

Ashley S. February 7, 2008 - 8:45 am

I grew up in skirts. And then for several years I dressed way too atractivly for my own good, and it showed by the kinds of people I attracted. 🙁

Now I’m wearing skirts again, my husband loves it and finds it attractive, I find people treat me more politely, and my little boy searches for the skirt in the crowd instead of grabbing at random jean-clad legs.

You start wearing skirts though, and a hush falls over the extended family and everyone assumes you think you are better and your way is the only way. And then everyone gets offended. Ouch!

I don’t want to judge anyone, just enjoy my frilly skirt and er on the side of caution in being modest. It’s important to me with having sons.

We’ve been called legalistic many times over different things. *sigh* It is wonderful to read a post like this that really tells it like it is!

Sarah February 7, 2008 - 9:27 am

I went to a private Christian college with lots of rules, including dress, and heard more than once that my college was “legalistic.” Untrue. I think this term is bandied around by people who don’t understand the purpose of having personal standards or just don’t want to be told what to do. On the other hand, I remember hearing that a church I was familiar with would not allow girls to come to their youth group if they weren’t wearing skirts. That struck me as being somewhat unreasonable; my mom knew a girl who was a new Christian who had tried their youth group out once, wearing pants, and never went back.
Anyway, this is a little bit of a rabbit trail from your topic. Thank you for addressing this issue. Hopefully it will help some readers to re-examine their use of the word “legalism.”

ladyofvirtue February 7, 2008 - 9:42 am

You have described my philosophy dresses! Good post.


Feminine Pursuits February 7, 2008 - 11:08 am

I so look forward to coming to your blog every day and reading an inspiring, uplifting, controversial tidbit for the day! You are indeed a word warrior my friend.

Great Post!

Terry @ Breathing Grace February 7, 2008 - 1:04 pm

Bravo, Kelly! I tried to address this issue some time ago on my own blog but could not accomplish anything nearly as articulate as what you have done here. It concerns me that the contemporary Christian community has substituted the idea of being “led by the Spirit” as a substitute for adhering to sound doctrine. What we now have is a people who represent a subculture, rather than a salt and light counter- culture.

As I’m sure you have noticed, our families, our children, and in many cases even our churches are virtually indistinguishable from that of the darkening culture around us. This, I believe, is a direct result of this notion of “being led by the Spirit” at the expense of obeying the written word given to us by God himself. Am I saying that we are not to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Of course not! I am however, suggesting that when we are “led” in a direction that takes us and/or ourfamilies on a path that contradicts the commands and doctrines in Scripture, we should examine if we are indeed being led by the Holy Spirit, or the desires of our own fleshly natures.

Oedience is not legalism-it’s obedience!

Elizabeth February 7, 2008 - 2:26 pm

My definition of legalism is when I take a personal preference and attach spiritual significance to it. Wearing dresses is a lovely example of femininity, but if I were to impose that upon someone as a measure of their spirituality; then I am being legalistic.

Because we have freedom in Christ, we are free to walk according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean we throw out the standards of excellent moral conduct, but it does mean that we don’t go around evaluating everyone else and making sure they all measure up.

In the end, each of us stands before God and is accountable for our lives. When I stand before God, He’s not going to ask me to be accountable for anyone else but myself. Perhaps I ought to live that way instead of worrying that everyone else conforms to my ideas of what it means to be a Christian.

Mrs. C February 7, 2008 - 3:45 pm

I guess it comes down to whose idea it was in the first place…

I attended a dresses-only church and saw how NASTY people were to those struggling with issues. The pastor once said that if you cut your hair ONE INCH thinking you’re ok and can do what you want, you’re in danger of hellfire! And forget about that TV you have in your living room.

I left that church and about a year later found out that same pastor was doing some extremely not-good things and had to leave the ministry.


How important was it that I followed *his* rule about the tv and the hair? When someone feeds me trash like that, I start to wonder if they’re picking at my sawdust and ignoring their own beam, you know??


I’ve also come to the conclusion that birth control would be wrong for me because of a *wonderful* and loving, godly family that just told me why THEY felt led to do things that way. They loved me as I was and never tried to “convert” me to their point of view.

If I asked questions, they’d talk about it. But I never, ever felt pushed and I think as a result I was able to find out for myself what GOD had to say for MY life.

There are some Bible absolutes, and some things you might reason because of the Bible (ie, abortion is wrong if “thou shalt not kill,” but that doesn’t mean abstaining from sex on the 14th day of your menstrual cycle is going to lose you your salvation!!). I do wonder if I will never really hear what GOD has to say to ME about the dresses because of the way the issue has been presented to me previously.

I hope that makes sense.

This is an important issue, because we all need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Lord bless ya!

Anonymous February 8, 2008 - 6:11 pm

As far as legalism goes, again a non-biblical term. It is amazing how sneaky it can be- we may not overtly believing that we are being saved by wearing dresses, per se, but we may subtly begin to think that an action makes us better or commends us to God, either way somehow adding merit to us, whereas the only merit we have is the Grace of God! Even something that starts out with a good motive can change to a bad motive, if we start judging others for not doing it. On the other hand, we can be judged by others wrongly because they don’t like our convictions. 2 people can do the same thing, and one of them may be legalistic and the other not, depending on their heart. I am a 95% skirt person, because of the femininity factor, and because I don’t like strangers staring at my behind, so I like the extra security it provides. But I can find my attitude going towards the “brownie points with God” for those same things, which would be the essence of Galatians 3:3. God bless! Carrie

Anonymous February 8, 2008 - 6:13 pm

(I missed a couple of words above- thinking a behavior makes us better than other people, that is- justifying ourselves by comparison to the behavior of others, like the Pharisee and the Tax Collector)

Word Warrior February 8, 2008 - 6:52 pm


Great observation…so true. We must be careful to make the distinction between not allowing ourselves to believe we can earn favor, and yet understanding that we are called to obey and that it is a good thing to strive to PLEASE God. The two can be carefully confused and get us into trouble in either direction.

Just because we can’t earn favor, doesn’t mean we just throw off any thing that resembles a conviction or standard to avoid “legalism”. And just because we want to please God, doesn’t mean our convictions and standards become “brownie points”. Good thoughts.

The Henderson Family February 8, 2008 - 10:49 pm

Good point Carrie. There is a thin line here that it is easy to fall off. I think through studying the Word and prayer we can do it but relying on our own abilities will get us into trouble.

We should constantly be checking our motives for doing anything not just wearing skirts. Reading the Bible, attending church, going to a ladies Bible study, reading and commenting on certain blogs, being a stay-at-home mother, being quiverful minded, homeschooling. All of these things could be done for the wrong reasons.

What I find interesting is that most people will not even question if a person is being legalistic by going to church or reading the Bible because the majority of Christians do these things. It is when someone decides to do something that many have not chosen to do that we see this label used.

My point is that since we can’t read another’s mind and therefore don’t know if they are being legalistic and since we can be legastic in anything we do we should probably refrain from judging others in this area and spend our time quietly examining our own motives for our practices and convictions.

The Stones February 23, 2008 - 2:46 am

This issue has been a HUGE struggle for me this year!

When I first began wearing skirts, there was an immense feeling of freedom for me. But as time went on, I did indeed become legalistic, in the true definition of the word. And I know that perhaps makes me immature and weak, but I’m being honest. My brain would never say outloud that I was “better” for wearing skirts, as opposed to those who didn’t… but my heart would! I became irritated at church, and rather than focus on worshipping my Lord, I grew bitter and upset about how many immodest and unrighteous women there were around me! I’m embarassed to admit it, but I felt like my two skirts became shackles to me and I even slipped in my time with the Lord. I’m wearing pants right now. I am no longer distracted in church or from my time with the Lord, but I wonder if that’s a battle Satan is claiming victory over?

I love the femininity of skirts and dresses. I love the Lord, and I want to walk in obedience to Him! Is it disobedience to NOT wear skirts, yet dress modestly (I’m sure an argument can be made against pants being immodest)? I’m just so afraid of falling into that ugly immature legalistic me… which I know isn’t the inanimate object’s fault, that it has been in my heart and within my capacity all along.

*sigh* Sorry to be so long and blah, but this has been a daily thought and battle for me.

Thank you so much for your blog. I just stumbled across it in my search on “skirts and legalism”!

authenticallyme February 26, 2008 - 2:50 pm

I would have to disagree with at least half the meanderings here.

I am very familiar with investigating ‘legalism’, having been spiritually abused and watching others be abused…..in a (conveniently) independent fundamentalist church.

legalism might not be in the bible, but neither is a lot of other verbage…..but this doesnt discount or discredit its TRUTH, nonetheless.

It is true, IMO, that a ‘manifestation’ of legalism would be doing works, or ascribing to a system to gain favor in Gods sight. I use the word favor verses ‘salvation’ simply because not many professed Christians I know would NOT readily SEE they are trying to earn salvation….but they might agree that they are trying to win FAVOR. Unfortunately, IMO both stem from the same ill. and that foudnational ill is SHAME.

SHAME is what the underlying issue really is. SHAME is why people revert to depending on works again. SHAME is why christians establish rules for themselves and then saddle up others with them. Not desiring to be free of shame, or to allow shame to once again take foothold…or to ‘exercise’ shame over another’s head, is not only wrong..its Anti-Christ; it is the equivalent of witchcraft. Choosing to live in shame is not choosing the way of God.

this SHAME translates into the pants verse skirt phonomena….slyly. There is also a subtle good, better, best syndrome I fear some Christians fall under. “It’s good to wear a skirt on Sundays at least, its better to wear them more regularly, and it is best to eradicate blue jeans form a wardrobe altogether.” The good, better, best syndrome really holds power to trip others up, and suppose that our intricate and carefully detailed ways (which upon further physchological interpretation..are sometimes whittled down to nothing but a DIVERSION from the MAIN POINT)have reached a higher stature in worth…….to the point of even becoming our own “gods”, althewhile thinking we are in full, rendered submission to him. Been there, done that. Too many times to count.

If wearing a skirt is that important to you, by all means wear one, but I find it profitable to resist the temptation to ‘spiritualize’ everything out there. You will discover yourself diverting all over the place….or worse….NOT discover it. If I choose to wear skirts as my absolute wardrobe, true, that doesnt make me a legalist. But why do some feel the need to ‘let’ others know of their decision? why do some choose to write books about it, supposing to know the higher, more elite way? All one has to do is endure Christian radio for one day to realize……legalism has permeated our culture…..and yes, even in Christianity. And, IMO the devil is using it to UNmirror what Jesus oringinally had for us. Christianity, due to legalism, the SHAME of it all……is being tainted daily…..and of no effect or attraction to onlookers ooking in. I am not surprised. Why leave the pitiful shame you live with NOW……to delve into another realm of paralyzing shame? And nonetheless, one that PROMISES to free you???!!!???

I DO wholeheartedly agree that legalism is about the INTENT and motivation. The only problem in disarming that, is that most people who dabble in legalism, are still paralyzed by shame (even tho they know they asked and trusted Jesus to remove it)and do not know how to get away from it. They are blind, leading others blind.

My expereince was NOT with people who wore dresses and chose to keep quiet about it. It was with people who had an intricate web mapped out for others. It is all about control, and them not knowing how to climb themselves out of the shame (confusion abounds) and so theyd rather take others with them. Isnt that the underlying sickness of the entire bible? Its epidemic.

If you think about it long enough, you will be able to make the connection between shame and legalism. it underlies addictions, child abuse, some poverty, oppresion of women, oppresssion in other countries, strict adherance to a religion,etc etc etc.

I have had to stay out of organized church for a time now, just to rest, process through, and gain strength and insight on how legalism affected me. and if anyone supposes that ‘not gathering with the brethren’ means I am forsaking them, that is likewise……….shame and legalism. Sometiemes, we must replace this legalism with something………for me, that something is FREEDOM, and knowing God does not love me based on my performance. It is a great gift to have when trying to reexamine one’s foundation. It is very healing…..and I see the rest of the world thirsting for it as well; oftetimes Christians; after all we are the ones who actually think we even need a ‘doctor’.

I like what this gal had to say, regarding the Romans 14 thingy….and the weaker brother…http://qaz1.bannerland.org/kelly/?p=195..because often I have seen that to be mishandled, abused, and used as a control tactic. The experiences posted here are not what I often encounter..it is normally the opposite. I also find it peculiar that the ones supposedly crying, “legalism!”, in the examples cited……are often guilty of passivity and gluttony/lusts/indulging. In my experience, that is not the case. And using extreme examples only prevents people from getting to the root and TRUTH of leglism…….as extreme thinking often diverts us from the TRUTH.

Thank you for reading my (somewhat disheveled)post.

Audrey July 6, 2010 - 8:49 am

Kelly…who did you quote in this post(in purple?)? There are so many good things said. Can I quote you as long as I give you the credit? I’ve been dealing with this a lot lately. Thank you for addressing this issue.

Word Warrior July 6, 2010 - 9:11 am


It’s been a while since I wrote the post, but if I quote someone else, I always give them credit. So I’m sure this was just a sentence I wrote and emphasized to break up the post. You are welcome to quote me.

Em November 9, 2010 - 9:45 am

I know this is an older post, but I wanted to share a link that explains from the viewpoint of the orignal languages what legalism means in scripture. “Legalism” is what Paul calls “under the law” in our language/scriptures. Hope this helps:


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