Legalism and Being Like Mike

I “played” basketball in high school. I wasn’t very good. I have bad eyes that are always worse in artificial lights that throw my depth perception off. I stunk.

The more I stunk the more self-conscious of my stinkiness I became. There must be something I can do to be better? It was hard to get better when I never got any playing time. How could I be better while bench-warming?

During this time Michael Jordan and Nike shoes were all the rage. I soon figured out that I needed Nike shoes. “It’s gotta be the shoes” is how Nike commercials summed up Jordan’s success.

I bought the shoes. I paid $100 for those shoes with my own hard-earned money. I looked good, man. I even stuck my tongue out while doing lay-ups like Jordan. “Like Mike, I want to be like Mike, Like Mike. I want to be like Mike” ran through my head.

Nike settled for a legalistic approach to my basketball career. “Want to be good at basketball? Buy our shoes and shorts and shirts and eat Wheaties and drink Gatorade and stick your tongue out like Jordan does.” They wanted to change the external while never truly addressing the issue.

Legalism is an excessive conformity to a law. If this excessiveness is demonstrated by interpreting laws to minute detail to see how the law should apply to every circumstance, problems arise. Rather than being told “dress modestly” we invent 437 laws to explain what that means.

This flesh-oriented legalism’s main point is to make sure you are keeping the law. That’s it. It has no other concern for you. Legalism relies upon several things in order to work:

1) Clear authority–someone has to make, interpret, and enforce the law
2) Fear and Torment–there is no other possible goad for obedience then penalties and fines
3) Guilt–there is never a time to rest, you are always failing at some law or another
4) Peer pressure–what will the neighbor’s say?
5) Judgment–how will you know you are wrong lest I tell you?

Flesh-oriented legalism must rely upon externals. Enforcement of laws depends upon suitable external punishments to keep you in line. Obedience to laws is only proved by external conformity. Legalism is not concerned with your attitude, merely whether you are fulfilling the letter of the law.

1) Legalism wants to conform you to a law
2) Legalism doesn’t want to conform you to Christ
3) Legalism’s conformity to a law does not require the Holy Spirit
4) Conformity to Christ requires the Holy Spirit

This legalism will never lead you to dependence upon the Spirit and will never result in Christ-likeness. Legalism’s best hope is that you become just like the one who is externally enforcing the law it gave you.

Legalism might make me wear baggy shorts and wear Nike shoes, it can turn me into a Nike salesman, but it will never make me Michael Jordan. To be Michael Jordan, I must be reborn!

Legalism and Women’s Clothing

Legalism is like “cold”–it means different things to different people and too much of it makes me quiver.

Legalism officially means, according to the dictionary, “a strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” That being the case, legalism might not be bad.

I suppose the problem enters when we look at what law we adhere to or perhaps what “excessive conformity” means.

Excessive conformity might mean “abiding by interpretations of the law.” In other words, the New Testament tells women to dress modestly, that’s about all the details you get on women’s clothing.

Excessively conforming to “dress modestly” isn’t a bad thing at all. But “modest” can be a shifting wave in our culture. In fact, “modest” might not mean what you think it means! The Greek word translated “modest” means “orderly, well arranged.” Didn’t see that one coming did ya?

Modest then might mean, “make sure your shirt is ironed and matches your pants.”

The problem with biblical principles is that we don’t trust others to know what they mean. I, obviously, know what modest means, but I’m not the problem, it’s all those other people who don’t know. Therefore, excessively conforming to the dress modest law could mean well nigh anything.

Therefore, I must define what “dress modestly” means. But I’m not satisfied with merely telling myself what it means, OH NO! I must then start a movement and tell all women everywhere what it means.

I will make a list of modest and non-modest clothes and set myself up as the authority on what a woman should wear. Furthermore, since I’m nobody, I will then add that my lists are the definition of biblical modesty and if you do not conform to my list you are disappointing God and more than likely close to being singed by the fires of hell.

Once my lists go public and God’s authority is placed behind them, I will get one of three responses:

1) A fair number of women will take me seriously because, honestly, the women’s fashion industry is in constant flux, it’s a sea of confusion and it costs a lot of money to keep up. It is also time consuming to put your self in order every day, so yeah, Jeff’s lists are very helpful and I’m also closer to Jesus. So this is cool.

2) A fair number of women will suddenly dress worse then ever before. They may have even dressed modestly in the past, but no more! Once they’ve been told what modest is they will go all crazy nasty into un-modest dress. They will push the limits like never before. They might not even be comfortable with how immodest they’ve become, but as long as they aren’t legalistic, they’ll go for it.

3) Most women will ignore everything and just keep rolling along.

If this is legalism, an excessive conformity to a law, then this is a problem. Hyper-defining biblical principles soon turns into following the traditions of men rather than the word of God. Legalism doubts the Holy Spirit.

We can’t trust crazy women and teenage girls to know what modesty is, so I must force them into living by what I know it to be. This short-circuits the work of the Spirit and gives the false notion that you’re doing fine without Him.

Legalism is excessive conformity to a law and legalism abhors a law-vacuum. Legalism will invent a law where none exists. How will we cope otherwise?

Ten Points on Legalism

1) Most people’s objection to legalism has more to do with resisting authority than it does with resisting legalism. Most people opposed to legalism would be just fine if they were in charge of it.

2) Legalism can look very modern. Legalistic churches don’t all have their women wear skirts and have a bun in their hair nor do their men wear black and have short hair. Many legalistic churches wear jeans and have dreadlocks and think if you don’t–you really don’t know Jesus, man.

3) Legalism is not a biblical term. I know a guy who had an argument over legalism with other Christians and they said, “You have to define legalism the way the Bible does.” To which he asked, “Where does the Bible use the term?” They never saw the point. Legalism is our term and means different things to different people.

4) Listening to God is not legalism. Listening to God is called “faith.”

5) Listening to God’s law is not legalism. Listening to God’s law is called “the point of redemption–those who walk in the Spirit fulfill the righteousness of the law.”

6) Legalism defined, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code” According to this, I doubt God would have a problem with a legalist!

7) Pharisees are typically the group we point to for the dangers of legalism. “Jesus didn’t like Pharisees and they were legalists, therefore Jesus doesn’t like legalists” is the typical line. Why didn’t Jesus like the Pharisees? Because they tried to keep the law? Nope. Matthew 23 tells us why Jesus didn’t like Pharisees:

“All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”

The problem Jesus had with Pharisees is not that they tried to keep the law, He told His followers to keep the law like Pharisees said to do. What He didn’t like is that while they told others to keep the law, they didn’t keep it themselves! Pharisees weren’t legalists enough!

8) Pharisees were not legalists; they were hypocrites. They said stuff they didn’t do. Most of the ensuing verses in Matthew 23 begin with, “Woe unto you Scribes, Pharisees, HYPOCRITES.” Pharisees did stuff for show, to lord it over others. The problem with Pharisees was not legalism. Let me say it again: the problem with Pharisees was not legalism.

9) Non-legalism can be just as destructive as legalism. There are many who have turned liberty into a law. I’ve known many an opponent of legalism who will scoff at you for wearing a tie to church.

10) Legalism is a problem, if you take legalism to mean something other than what legalism means. If legalism meant adhering to a man-made law of righteousness, that’s a problem–but that’s not legalism, that’s a cult. If legalism meant earning your salvation by works, that’s a problem–but that’s also not legalism, that’s self-righteousness. If legalism meant discarding Christ cuz you got this one, that’s a problem–but that’s not legalism, that’s pride.

Legalism Aint All Bad, But When it is, It Is!

Christians know we’re supposed to be different, but rather than wait around for the Spirit’s movement and the subtle changes of character gradually brought on to make huge differences, Christians have settled for external proofs of change.

In America, legalism targeted different foe through the years. Near the turn of the 20th Century, teetotalism was all the rage. Refraining from alcohol was a big deal. Legalists weren’t satisfied with keeping themselves not drunk, they insisted upon getting rid of all alcohol everywhere for everyone.

Christians soon gave that up and moved on to movies. Movie watching was akin to worshiping Baal. Setting foot in a movie theater meant you sold your soul.

Television came next. All the evils of movies were now in your home. The Devil has an invite to your children with the flip of a switch.

Then came Elvis Presley and his gyrating hips. Rock music and dancing were two peas in a pod and those peas need to be composted, brother.

Over the years legalism has targeted and then dropped one fad sin after the next. Obviously, in all these behaviors, there are dangers and evils lurking. My point is not that these things don’t have evil tendencies, they can, as there are evil tendencies with anything on this earth.

Legalism’s problem is that it makes people against these things apart from voluntary participation. You refrain because a guy made you feel guilty about it. Pride came in, obsessive concern with your self entered. You weren’t against sin for the sake of being against sin, you were against these sins so you’d fit in with your group.

Now, again, peer pressure is not the worst thing in the world. Legalism falters, however, when it chalks up spiritual worth to what was physically done. It’s the people of Israel bringing animals for sacrifice near the end. Yeah, they technically fulfilled the law but their heart wasn’t in it.

“Be not conformed to the world” is a tough phrase to digest. Legalism attempts to make you non-conformist to the world’s evil. But evil is shifty and hard to nail down. It’s not always external either.

Legalism settles for “be not conformed to the world” as its base principle. “As long as we’re different from those smoking, drinking, movie watching heathen scum, we must be good.”

But that’s not the whole phrase. “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Legalism doesn’t deal with the mind; it deals with the body, it deals with what can be measured and/or judged.

Legalism has its place. I said it, yup I did. All parents should be legalists to a certain degree. So too should teachers, bosses, governors, etc. But if legalism is our sole approach to God? We’re in big time trouble. God judges the heart.

Legalism is an obsession with conformity to law, which again isn’t all bad. What is bad is if external conformity to an external law is relied upon to prove a spiritual reality. In my mind, this is the danger of legalism.

Holiday Entertainment

It’s a holiday in America, Memorial Day–the day Americans remember all the men who made America win wars over all those other loser countries in the world–so I’m taking a break along with everyone else. Here are some videos I did a few years ago to provide you with some holiday entertainment and education.


How to Use the Gift of Christ

Let the Bible Define Grace

Did The New Testament Invent Grace?

Jogging with Jeff, not with Joel Osteen

I am Forty-Second

Well, at least I think I’m funny.

Leaving the Faith Happens one Skipped Church Service at a Time

I have spent almost 39 years in a pastor’s family, either by being a PK or being a pastor. Over this time I have seen many who have walked away from the faith.

I cannot remember anyone who walked away from the faith (not leaving just “our church”) due to falling for the arguments of an atheist.

I have seen many walk away because they got busy with stuff and Christianity was merely a burden to bear. Something to discard to make selfish living easier.

Faith is a living thing, as with all living things, it must be kept alive. One of the pitfalls of “once saved always saved” is that people think faith is static–I had it once and now I’m in.

But faith needs to be kept alive. Keeping faith alive happens by the Word, the Spirit and the Church. These are the means by which God ordained to keep our faith alive and active.

People leave the faith slowly. They peter out. Very few flame out, most just fade away. It starts slowly. Church attendance was once weekly, then couple times a month. More gets done without bothering with Church.

Then it’s down to once a month. Then down to going when the pastor calls. Next thing you know, they’re gone. I’ve seen it many, many times. So did C. S. Lewis. If you don’t believe me, then at least believe him.

“if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious readings and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe.

“Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away? “

Don’t fade away. Keep the light burning. I know it’s Memorial Day weekend and you are busying memorializing, but go to church tomorrow. There’ll be plenty of time for barbecuing and doing yard work later.