Dealing with legalists in the church can be discouraging. Of course, no one believes they are a legalist (and maybe we all are to a degree). Most legalists just feel they are serious about obedience while others are less so. And how is obedience not a good thing?
The issue with legalism is that it comes from a mindset of superiority. The legalist believes that he or she knows the word of God and its proper interpretation and application in every situation. There are no areas of life where good, sincere Christians may disagree. Of course, this mindset runs contrary to Scripture (cf. Romans 14:1-12) and to logic if we are honest with ourselves.
Think about your Christian walk through the years. How often have you changed your mind about a particular thing that you thought you knew? How often have you gained new understanding or perspective and had to reevaluate some of your former convictions? It happens to all of us. It reminds us that we are not all-knowing and that we are in a process of growth in our Christian lives. It should be a reminder that we need to practice humility and grace towards others who have not learned what we have or have reached different conclusions than we have. Many legalists will readily admit that their minds have changed over time, but they fail to practice the grace that should result from such experience. They held people to their old view and, when their their minds changed, they now hold people to their new view. And they never miss a beat in between.
Perhaps the hardest thing about legalism is that no two legalists are the same. They hold differing convictions on so many things. If you have multiple legalists in your life (and you probably do), it will be impossible to please them all. Why? Because they do not agree with each other! One will think you should boycott movies with certain ratings while another will think all movies are bad. Still another may say we should avoid companies like Disney for something the company may have done in the past. It is not only impossible to keep everyone else’s rules, it is impossible to even keep track of all of their rules! Can someone please give me the “official” set of rules and the final interpretation of those rules? What movies can I watch? How much TV is acceptable? Which political party should I vote for? What music can I listen to? What clothes can I wear? Can a woman wear makeup? If so, how much? Can a woman hold a job? What if she works from home? How should Christian parents educate their children? Can I celebrate certain holidays? And on and on it goes. Of course such a list does not exist. Sincere Christians disagree on all of these things!
Legalism is alive and well. It is a threat to all of us because we all like to feel superior to others. However, we must resist it in ourselves and in others because it suffocates the Christian life and it is a perversion of the gospel of grace. No one can keep all of the rules. That is what the Mosaic Law teaches us. It opens our eyes to the need of a Savior who saves us from our sin (Romans 3:20). This becomes no less true after we are saved. Our sin continually pushes us back to the cross and the Savior who died there for us, to remind us of his love for us and his continued grace towards us.