Nov 13 17

Legalism vs. Discipline


Recently I read an article that was helpful for those who misunderstand the dichotomy of legalism and discipline for Christians. As you know, I decided long ago as the pastor of Berean not to adhere to a lengthy list of rules that are enforced by the “holier than thou committee.” Many churches use rules to sit in judgment of others’ Christianity. Legalism is a theological issue in these churches and often they do not understand they are legalists.

Strictly speaking, legalism is the belief that salvation is obtained by keeping commandments (rules), or in other words that we are justified by works rather than by faith. This strict definition causes many legalists to say they are not legalists because they would never teach that salvation is by any other means than grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ.

However, a broader definition is needed because legalism also concerns an inordinate preoccupation with the Law. Legalism may be defined as “excessive adherence to law or formula.” This is where many churches fall into legalism. Their issue is not usually justification but sanctification. Unfortunately, these two doctrines are often blended until unbiblically, sanctification becomes justification. These churches become excessive and insistent about rules for the membership to follow. This definition of legalism must be resisted as much as the other.

We have our own problems to deal with in this area, and my purpose is not to throw stones at those we disagree with. Our problem is not legalism—it is lack of discipline. In our efforts to combat legalism, many have fallen away from good Christian discipline. Discipline may be defined as “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training.” As the author of this article said, “The danger of confusing the two [legalism and discipline] is that we can lose the important spiritual disciplines which are crucial to our growth, sanctification, protection, and intimacy with Christ.”

This author did not address personal appearance issues but went on to describe other spiritual disciplines that are not optional if a person wants to grow in his walk with the Lord. These are extremely important, and we discussed those things in our Living for Jesus series. I want to turn our attention instead to the issue of how we appear to others.

How we dress is also a spiritual discipline. The teaching of our testimony before the world in all its facets forms an integral part of New Testament instructions for Christian living. How we appear can cause instant formation of opinions, and whether it is right or wrong to form an opinion of someone merely by the way they dress is immaterial to its being a fact of life we must live with. We have few opportunities to sit down with people to explain what we believe. The limited amount of information someone knows about you—who you are and what you are in their minds—is communicated instantly through your appearance. An unkempt appearance, sloppiness, even the wrong swagger evokes its assessments. A clean-cut conservative appearance does the same. We tend to form good opinions of the latter and poor opinions of the former.

Likewise, assessments of moral values are made by appearance. Provocative clothing does not speak a character of godliness. It characterizes the wearer as conforming to the purpose of modern fashion, which is to entice, exude sexiness, and invite the onlooker’s inspection. We can make all the excuses we want, but we can never escape that exposing the body invites examination of things which should never be seen.

What is my point? Disciplining ourselves in appearance is godly and expected. We cannot justify our resistance to legalism by developing habits that kill our influence for Christ. Think about the testimony of your appearance wherever you are. From what I see inside in our church services, more personal discipline is needed, which no doubt means it is needed much more outside among those who do not know us personally.

Personal appearance is not all there is to godliness, but surely it has its important part to play.


Pastor V. Mark Smith