Churches Of Christ/Legalism


Thank you so much for all your help! At what point does obeying the commandments of God out of a loving heart become legalistic? In other words when one reads the New Testament, finds commandments and keeps them out of a loving heart, when would this become legalistic?

Hi Josh,

I thank you for asking me your question and I will do my best to give you a solid answer based on what I have learned through my study of God's Word and my life experience. The short answer is that at no point does obeying the commandments of God out of a loving heart become legalistic. But what I have found when most people speak about someone being a legalist or legalistic is that they don't really have a good understanding of what that means. Legalism is not fidelity and loyalty to the Word of God. Jesus stressed and taught the importance of absolute trust in what God said. (Matthew 4:4; 5:17-18; John 5:46) Legalism is also not stressing the need to obey the Scriptures. (John 14:15; Matthew 7:13-14; 24-27) Legalism is not linking our salvation with obeying the word of God: Jesus knew all about grace and mercy, and yet He deliberately linked our salvation with whether or not we follow His teachings (John 8:31-32 'If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'; 8:51 'if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death'; 12:48). Legalism is not making arguments based on a detail in the text: (Matthew 22:31-32) Legalism is not believing that every word in the text of Scripture is important (Matthew 5:17-18).

Now that I've shown what legalism is not I will explain legalism. What is legalism? The best way to understand legalism is to look at the things Pharisees did that Jesus condemned.

First, a legalist adds human tradition.

Matthew 15:3 'And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'; 15:9 'But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men'; Mark 7:13 'thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.'

Many try to label the churches of Christ as full of legalists or modern day Pharisees but I just don't see that overall. Of course there will always be certain individuals who might be legalists or modern day Pharisees, but overall I don't see it. The Pharisees placed a tremendous amount of importance upon prior interpretations made by famous rabbis (Matthew 15:2). For them, the words or interpretation of some illustrious teacher became divine law.

In the churches of Christ, while a preacher may quote something said in a commentary or something written by another member of the church, that same preacher will often disagree and expose almost the next comment made by the same commentator. The denominations view the writings of various famous men like Luther, or Calvin as sacred. And in our own time, one would be sharply criticized if they disagreed with anything that James Dobson, Charles Swindol or Billy Graham taught. But if there is one complaint about the church of Christ, it is that we verbally oppose even our most famous evangelists when we feel that they are teaching error (Galatians 2:11-13).

The Pharisees also would place a hedge around the Law. The Pharisees tried to place so many rules between an individual and the actual violation of a command, that one could never violate the command. This is what they had done with the sabbath day (Matthew 12:1-2; 11-12; John 5:10).

Pharisees were self-righteous too. Luke 18:9 'who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt'

We should strive to avoid a self-righteous attitude and this is a danger for all of us. It is good to examine ourselves regularly(2 Cor. 13:5; Matthew 7:1-5)and remain humble before God always knowing that we are far from perfect and depend on Christ's blood to continually cleanse us as we walk in the light (I John 1:7}.

Pharisees loved praise of men. Matthew 23:5 'they do all their deeds to be noticed by men'; 6:1-4. This can be a temptation for anyone today as well. I have focused on Pharisees because most who accuse us in the church of Christ as being legalists or legalistic also call us modern day Pharisees and also it was the Pharisees that Christ was constantly correcting and confronting while on earth.

The bottom line is that a legalist will add to God's Word and bind where God does not bind and he will also loose where God does not loose and as you know it is wrong to add to and to take away from God's Word. Are there legalists among us within the churches of Christ? Oh yes there are but I firmly believe they are a minority among us. Another aspect I haven't mentioned yet about a legalist is that they tend to forget the reason behind commands and end up "going through the motions" so to speak. I think there is one more thing we should avoid as Christians. We should avoid making a check list. Many do this mentally and maybe aren't even aware they do it. Some literally make a check list.

What I am talking about is going through a list of things they need to do right in order to get to Heaven. Many worry that they have to do everything just right to be saved. They will tell you that we can't and don't earn our salvation but then they worry about neglecting one thing or worry that one area where they might struggle with temptation will cause them to go to Hell...or one specific sin in their past is unforgiveable. This is wrong to do for anyone. NO ONE is perfect and we can't earn our salvation. The only way to earn it is to live a completely sinless life and that was and is only possible for Jesus. Why do we need to do our best to obey God's Word accurately? Why did Jesus link salvation with obedience? It is because in our obedience we express, love for God, trust in God and His promises, and show that we are committed to Him just as a spouse is committed to a marriage. We don't earn salvation by our obedience but not obeying, doing our best to obey...that shows lack of love, lack of trust, lack of respect toward God.

Love is our motivation for all we do and not a desire to earn salvation. When we obey out of love, respect, and trust in God, there is no way we can be in danger of being a legalist. I really hope that I have helped you understand. Please study God's Word daily and prove what is true. Don't blindly believe anything anyone teaches...not me, not anyone. We are all responsible for learning the Truth of God's Word and living by it best we can.

In Christian Love, Joe Norman  

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Joe Norman


I can answer questions regarding acceptable worship, organization of the church, or any apsect of the Christian life. I am the son of a preacher and have studied the Bible from cover to cover since I was 12 years old. I am strong in my research skills and do not follow teachings of men. Many will label me as conservative and some might label me as liberal, but I just seek to be biblical. I understand proper exegesis and hermeneutics and apply them. My desire is to share my knowledge of God's Word with others. Please always keep in mind that none of us who are listed as experts here are divinely inspired and therefore it is possible to get incorrect answers from any one of us. Study the Scriptures and decide for yourself if what is taught is true.


I am the 4th generation in my family to be a faithful member of the church of Christ. I was raised by a preacher and have studied the Bible everyday since I was twelve. I am 45 yrs old now. I am not a "scholar", but I am very familiar with the scriptures.

member of the church of Christ, served as a Deacon for a few years at LakeShore church of Christ in Waco, Tx. I currently live in the North Dallas area and am still very active within the church of Christ teaching, leading Bible Studies, and songleading as well. I am also actively involved in online ministry. I hope to open my own webpage eventually.

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