Within the evangelical Christian universe, few things are more damning than being labeled 'Legalistic.' The term evokes images of strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, unforgiving judges, and worst of all —unpopularity.
When churches, schools, pastors, institutions, and communities are viewed as legalistic, they are demonized and shunned — sometimes rightfully so.
One disturbing trend I’ve noticed — especially among young believers — is to assume that everything associated with a few of legalism’s attributes: structure, requirements, consequences, and work, is legalistic — it’s not.
Legalism is often based on personal opinion and perception, and the exact same entity can be viewed as both legalistic and gracious, guilty and innocent, good and bad. Thus, the Christian world often devolves into muddled debates with contrary voices shouting differing messages, each hoping to push their own beliefs.
I work at a Christian university that still requires their students to attend daily chapels. On any given day, a student may either love or hate the chapel service. Within 48 hours I’ll hear a student complain that mandatory chapels are too “Fundamentalist” and “strict” and “legalistic.” Then later, after an especially moving worship service or speaker, that exact same student will rave about how they loved chapel. Go figure!
Historically, the church has struggled with legalism, and many young believers have recently witnessed the consequences that legalism has had on the previous generations of Christians. They’ve seen firsthand how painful and devastating the experiences were, and are understandably wary of anything that appearssimilar. But rejecting the old temptations of religious strictness has come with a price — the loss of discipline.
In many ways, discipline and legalism share many of the same characteristics: repetition, rules, accountability, and work (to name just a few). But there is one important difference: attitude.
Attitude often determines whether a discipline becomes legalistic. It’s the difference between having aRelationship and having a Religion. Are you praying because you have to, or because you're forced to, or because if you don't you'll get into trouble? Or are you praying because you love God, and because you want to know God better, and because you desire to?
The difference between legalism and discipline is determined by the attitude of both the recipient and facilitator. For example, when it comes to daily chapel services at Christian universities, many students view these chapels as legalistic because they're forced to go, attendance is required, and if they fail to meet the necessary requirement they'll be punished and possibly expelled.
But at the same time, many — especially school administrators — view these chapels as a necessary discipline, a format where students daily participate in corporate prayer, worship, biblical study, and fellowship, not because they want to manipulate and control the students, but because they desire that the students strengthen their relationship with God.
The reality is that both parties have legitimate claims, and legalism is not nearly as clear-cut and defined as we want it to be (although sometimes it can be).
Then, there are times when both the recipients and facilitators of legalism have no idea that they’re even immersed within its grasp. For outsiders, it might be obvious, but one party — or both — might be deluded by power, ignorance, propaganda, fear, or other negative forces, preventing them from identifying or admitting legalism’s existence.
In one sense, we've romanticized the Christian faith and turned it into an unrealistic dream, where everything is happy, easy, and fulfilling — or least it's supposed to be. On the opposite extreme is legalism, which is equally unrealistic, and everything is religiously upheld to the letter of the law.
The reality of a relationship with Christ is somewhere in between — a mix of enjoyment and discipline. But in a post-legalistic society, whenever we interact with any sort of discipline, we’re tempted to immediately misinterpret it as legalism — even if it's not.
Legalism still exists, and unfortunately, in many spiritual communities, it thrives. Learn to identify its trademarks: fear, guilt, shame, abuse, manipulation, and oppression. If you’re experiencing this — get out!
Contrarily, discipline is associated with work, consequences, learning, growth, and maturity without the aforementioned characteristics of legalism. And although discipline may not be pleasant, enjoyable, or fun, it’s essential to being a follower of Christ.
If you’re struggling to differentiate between the two, gain counsel from trusted individuals and communities who love and care deeply about you, and study the life of Christ. Jesus redeemed, restored, forgave, and healed, and most importantly, the motivation and attitude behind everything Jesus did was driven by love. If only we could do the same.
Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta .
Image: Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe  / Shutterstock.com