I often wondered if the Christian life would be a whole lot easier if God would just give us direction for everything that we were to do. If we could pray and receive an e-mail telling us exactly what to do, where to go, who to meet, etc. (the reasoning goes) then it would be a whole lot easier to obey Him and we wouldn’t wonder if we were doing the right or wrong thing.
I think this is legalism’s appeal. Throughout the centuries many religions have formed that have told people exactly what they must and must not do. Roman Catholics have requirements about church attendance, prayer beads, and other traditions and formalism that tells them exactly what they must do. In tribal communities there are sacrifices to gods that must be done in certain ways. Jehovah Witnesses have a certain number of hours that they must be reaching out to get more converts.
In some ways, Fundamental/Evangelical Christianity is one of the less stringent forms of Christianity, and I believe that this is why it has a tendency to become legalistic. It is in the desire to be right, the desire to do right. Christianity prides itself in having the right religion– believing in the truth and following the one true God. However, the faith that they claim has at its root now not a list of 10 Commandments with all the associated sacrifices, but a covenant of love that should motivate a believer to be holy.
It is here that the problem exists. Love is a strong motivator, no doubt. But without a list of things to do and not do, and with the fact that this love is in Someone unseen by the naked eye (and yet whom is owed so much), it is easy for some Christians to fall into a malaise or apathy where they say they are a Christian, but are not willing to give Christ everything, or put forth their best effort.
In walks legalism– the ability to give people structure and discipline: to say this is right and this is wrong. It’s definitely appealing to those that are trying to give God all, because instead of looking at people that are not doing their best and praying and wishing they were, they’re enforcing it!
The problem here lies in the fact that Christians have liberty in which to pursue God’s glory. Keep in mind that I am not saying that we are free to do whatever we want. We’re not. God’s very clear on certain items that He detests (divorce, homosexuality, immorality, etc.) and very clear on the things that He is looking for (love, joy, peace, etc.). That being said, we are free to choose colors of clothing, music choices, etc. as long as they fit within the “fence” that God has prescribed.
Legalism is the trap that Israel had fallen into with the Pharisees. Christ had a lot of words about the Pharisees and their hypocrisy, but He also said that his followers should do what they say, not copy what they do. They were all into creating rules on top of the Scripture so that they wouldn’t even get close to sinning– which is not necessarily a bad thing, it just wasn’t necessary.
Legalism is a reaction by a church to the culture in that as the culture degrades, some people will fall back on dictating style preferences instead of falling back to the Word and allowing for multiple ways to glorify God. We’re not to do things that God says are wrong, mind you, but doing things with which He is pleased and glorified.