The new legalism? (Why we use that word too much)

Late last week I re-tweeted an Eric Mason tweet below that said “Stop calling obedience to Jesus legalism!”


I don’t know what the context of Eric’s tweet was. As for me, I was fresh off a reading of Anthony Bradley’s article, “The New Legalism.” In the article, Bradley suggests that the new missional/radical movement is becoming a new form of legalism by making Christians feel bad for not dropping out of their middle class lifestyle and engaging in inner city or third-world missionary work. I think the article makes some good points but I take a few issues with it as well.

First, I think it mischaracterizes much of the missional/radical movement. I can’t really classify myself as a part of either of these movements – I don’t really know what either are, and I’m not a big fan of labels, especially new ones – but most of what Bradley argues against is an abuse of their positions, not their actual positions.

Second, I take issue with the use of his term “legalism.” This isn’t unique to him and, in fact, since reading the article I have found myself and others using this term loosely on a regular basis. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to stop, and I think you should too.

Here’s why.

There are three meanings for legalism in use today, one narrow, one broad, and one wrong.

The more narrow meaning is this: The idea that we are saved, or retain our salvation, by following a set of rules. Since Christianity maintains that salvation is by God’s grace alone this form of legalism stands in opposition to Christianity.

The broad meaning is this: Over-emphasizing a rule OR doctrine, especially in comparison to God’s grace or the free choice of the individual. So, someone might say that a school having a strict dancing policy is “legalistic” because he might believe that the policy over-emphasizes what he might consider to be a made-made rule that unduly restricts the free choice of the students.

The wrong usage is this: I don’t think holiness or obedience is really all that important, so I’ll name any call to obedience ‘legalism’ to sound pious.

I think Bradley’s article falls under the second/broad meaning of the term.

In his article he argues that “missional” thinkers over-emphasize the call to inner-city work and therefore restricts the “choice” of the individual to live in the suburbs by adding undue guilt onto their consciences. In other words, he this ‘new legalism’ over-emphasizes a particular rule (which he might call man-made) and therefore de-emphasizes grace.

I don’t blame Bradley for his use of this term in this way. It’s common.

So, why does it bother me? Good question. Perhaps I am overreacting a bit but I’ll make my case anyway and let you, dear reader, can decide for yourself.

When you use ‘legalism’ broadly you mischaracterize your opponents: Because ‘legalism’ has a narrow and a broad meaning you run the risk of charging your opponent with hold a position which stands in opposition to Christianity when, in fact, you may only wish to say they are too restrictive in their rule enforcement. You characterize them with being Pharisees – no small charge among followers of Jesus.

The two forms of ‘legalism’ have different causes and different cures: Real legalism is a theological error. It makes works a requirement for salvation. You solve it by showing how we are saved by Christ alone. However, when most people use legalism, they are saying that someone is restrictive, or judgmental, or narrow-minded, or overly zealous. All of these may or may not be real issues but they are not the same issue. You might solve these issues by talking about Christian liberty, or an appeal to conscience, or a more balanced perspective, or by pointing to the heart of the matter instead of the outward appearance, etc. In other words, the charge of legalism, in many cases, misdiagnoses the problem.

When you bring the charge of ‘legalism’ you shut yourself, and others, from learning from their perspective: Because legalism is such a bogeyman it’s easy to shut off a conversation by just saying the other side are a bunch of gospel hating legalists when, in fact, there might be much you can learn from their position. For instance, perhaps those missional/radical Christians have something important to teach us about what it means to live out the Great Commission or lose your life for the sake of Christ. Or, perhaps that school with restrictions on dances has something important to teach us about modesty, propriety, and sexual purity. Perhaps what we thought was a restrictive rule designed to simply modify behavior actually teaches us something important about obedience and holiness. We’ll never really know if we can’t get past the ‘legalistic’ label we’ve applied to them. It shuts down the conversation.


I’m not sure if there is one or, if there is, I don’t know what it is. For now, I’m trying to stop use the label of legalism unless I really mean it. I’m hoping this will open me up to more nuanced and serious discussions with those who emphasize some component of holiness and obedience I had previously neglected.

What do you think? Do you agree we use legalism too broadly or am I overreacting?

2 thoughts on “The new legalism? (Why we use that word too much)

  1. mikewittmer

    This is very helpful, Steve. One thought I have is whether there might be more of a link between the narrow and broad definitions. You’re right that the broad definition doesn’t say ‘keep this to get or keep your salvation,’ but might it have some bearing on how sanctified you are? E.g., it’s great that the ‘radical’ Christians are sacrificing everything for the Great Commission, but might it be tempting to think that those with too much house or too new car or too much in their savings account are not as sanctified as those who have given theirs away for the gospel? I don’t think anyone is suggesting they aren’t saved, but they might be less so.

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      I agree there is a link between the narrow and the broad definitions. Really, there’s probably a gradient between the two. All language is, of course, a bit ambiguous, and I think the connection you draw is a good one. I just came to realize I was personally getting a little too loose with how I was using the term “legalism” and recognized my own fuzzy thinking only when a movement I sympathized with (in this case, “missional”) was saddled with the label. So, at least part of this is me just recognizing how I was using the term “legalism” in a less-than-helpful way. I also agree that there is the possibility that zeal, especially unbalanced zeal, can start to merge into the sort of legalism you describe and therefore take away from the gospel.

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