It truly frustrates me when I hear religious terms thrown around, but am left hanging as to what they are supposed to mean. One of those terms is “legalism”. Now, I can only give you my perspective of what legalism is. As I search the Scriptures, it appears to me that a legalist is someone who makes either tradition or a forced interpretation of Scripture as “the” standard of conduct for all believers.
A classic example can be found in Matthew 15:3-6. Note that Jesus says that those who teach “as doctrines the commandments of men” worship in vain. Legalists tend to be very precise. However, the danger of legalism is that what a person does is the standard of holiness rather than Who (Jesus) that person is related to.
Legalists tend to question other people’s ‘non-Scriptural’ (so they think) conduct. Ask yourself, does your “private interpretation” make the word of God of no effect? I’ve been amazed at the capacity of individuals to ‘explain away’ Scriptures in order to influence others to arrive at their conclusions. Remember, philosophy or ‘higher research’ is not the basis of interpreting Scripture.
I might add here, lest I be misunderstood, obedience to God and His word is not legalism. We are commanded and exhorted “as obedient children” to be like our holy God. Furthermore, to exhort you to “be doers of the word” is expected of any pastor. Modest dress should be the rule for all Christians, but a legalist will define what modest apparel is and in doing so establish a ‘standard’ of acceptance for the entire Christian community. If you wonder why other Christians do not dress “like you” (i.e., the way they are supposed to?), you are a legalist. Legalists are appearance conscious, not heart conscious. A legalist does not accept that within the church there are ‘two-sided’ issues or persuasions, but Romans 14 is still true today.
I recall discussing church worship with an individual one day. This man loves Jesus, and is sweet as can be. He told me that “his research” caused him to conclude that electric guitars (stringed instruments), pianos, organs, or drums have no place in a church sanctuary. I replied, “Then Psalm 150 has no place in the Bible.” I challenged him to read it at face value. Silence. Revelation prevailed over research.
Let Scripture determine both your conduct and your theology as well. God doesn’t create legalists; men do. If other believers must act just like you in order to ‘be in the Spirit’, you, my friend, are a legalist. I’m not advocating gullibility or acceptance of any or every wind of doctrine or conduct. Test the spirits. Prove all things – to what? THE WORD OF GOD.