I’m a legalist. You’re a legalist. Your cousin Jimmy is a legalist.
How dare I say that about sweet Jimmy, who loves the Lord and lets his kids read the Harry Potter books?
Well, everyone falls into some form of legalism. I like to call this accidental legalism.
Most people think they have a decent understanding of legalism. But this issue still remains a major stronghold for Christians, especially about stories and pop culture.
Why we struggle with legalism
I see two reasons Christians are tempted by this sin.
The first is our fallen human nature. We love to create laws based on preference, work for our salvation, and judge others by man-made standards. In fact, the group Jesus criticizes most in the Gospels are not “sinners,” but Pharisees. He does this because leaders with access to the Old Testament law must be held to a higher standard—just as Christians are today.
Second, most people don’t understand what legalism actually is or how to detect it. This widespread ignorance is dangerous. Instead of defining legalism by a principle or mindset, we assume that adherence to specific issues makes someone legalistic.
Christian fantasy fans may think we’re better at avoiding legalism or fundamentalism. But that’s only because we define it wrongly. We assume legalism is not allowing children to read Harry Potter or books with aliens. Or we may assume legalists will forbid movies above a PG rating.
A few years ago, I tried to tell a friend that something we’d read in a women’s Bible study was subtle legalism. She defended the author by saying, “She can’t be a legalist, because she sends her kids to public school.”
That’s another case of this issue-based definition of legalism, and it needs to go.1
R.C. Sproul: Beware the three types of legalism
In his article, “3 Types of Legalism” from Ligonier Ministries, R. C. Sproul defines legalism. We’ll discuss the last two, but I encourage you to read his entire article.
The first type of legalism divorces “the letter of the law from the spirit of the law.” A Christian who falls into this legalism “obeys the externals while the heart is far removed from any desire to honor God,” Sproul writes. What is the spirit of the law? It’s understanding the goal or intent of why God gave it to us.
- Biblical example: In Matthew 12:1–8, the Pharisees criticized the disciples for picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath. Jesus answered them by saying David was guiltless when he ate the bread of the Presence (1 Samuel 21). Here, David breaks the letter of the law but is keeping the spirit of it.
- Modern example: You might be careful to guard your eyes from sex or nudity on screen, while continuing to desire and objectify other people (who bear God’s image) in your heart and mind without effort to stop (Matthew 5:27–30).
The second type of legalism is making law. Sproul says this kind of legalism “adds our own rules to God’s law and treats them as divine.”
- Biblical example: In Luke 14:1–6, Jesus tests the Pharisees by healing a man on the Sabbath. Jesus knew they had distorted the Law so much that they would even object to him helping someone desperately in need on the Sabbath. (The Pharisees also added many commands to the Torah in the Mishnah.)
- Modern example: Some people believe dark or “gritty” fiction (Christian-made or otherwise) is contrary to Scripture and therefore wrong. Technically, this belief would be legalism (to be explored in another article!). However, some Christian fans practice a reverse legalism by claiming the only truthful fiction will portray evil in its truest form. Both of these are extremes and forms of legalism.
Opinions can be helpful, but don’t turn them into law
Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23). Again and again the Bible cries out that God cares about your heart—your goals and intentions—more than your actions (although those are also important). That’s why we must switch our legalism-spotting lens, rejecting a list of specific laws and cultural errors so we can focus on principles and heart motives.
Anyone can make a law about anything (even non-Christians). Most of the time, it’s not wrong to have an opinion—even a strong one. But our opinion becomes legalism when we fail to understand the spirit of God’s law, or the opinion is held in such a way that leaves no room for Christian freedom.
That doesn’t mean that all such opinions are equally wise. Christians have referred to these as “wisdom issues” rather than law-making issues.
Let’s look at two examples of common, man-made laws about the Harry Potter books and alien stories. A person can hold these opinions legalistically, or simply practice them as a wisdom-based opinion that leaves room for Christian freedom.
1. Harry Potter and fictional magic
- Legalism: “Harry Potter will lead my child into the occult and make them think magic is just fun and games. All Christians should avoid it.”
- Opinion: “I think it may be confusing for my children to read something containing magic, such as divination, because the Bible teaches against it. So we’ve chosen not to read Harry Potter in our home.“
2. Science fiction containing alien life
- Legalism: “Reading stories about UFOs, aliens, or the supernatural will lead my heart away from God and toward secular materialism.“
- Opinion: “In the past, I struggled to grasp the existence of God because of secular humanism and many science fiction stories’ evolutionary focus. For that reason, I’ve personally chosen to read other things.”
Don’t respond to legalism with more legalism
When we see people practicing legalism, let’s be careful in how we respond. We might identify three unhealthy responses to others acting legalistically:
- Feeling proud that you are not legalistic like them. (I hope you see the irony.)
- Feeling guilty because they seem more godly or have more discipline than you.
- Feeling or speaking resentfully about a person judging you, even if they didn’t direct their own laws (or opinions) toward you.
Christ cares about your heart, your motives, and your goals. The more we grow in understanding his heart and goals found in the New Testament’s actual stated commands, the more we grow to become more like him, and the less we will be tempted to add to his word.
So long as we have sin, we will have legalism. It will sneak into our hearts as well as our churches. Although we can’t control others, we can pray that God would give us humility and wisdom to discern legalism in ourselves.
- We could explore other examples, such as the issues of alcohol consumption and homeschooling, but for the sake of argument, we will focus on pop culture. ↩