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?