When I was young I read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. It took place during the Jewish holocaust in Europe, and the Ten Boom family (who were Christians) protected Jews from the Germans by building a secret compartment in their home where Jews could hide when Germans came around.
I was so glad I was not in that situation because, though I felt sorry for the Jews, I might easily have betrayed them. I imagined a scenario where my family provided such a hiding place for Jews. One day the Germans come and ask me the question: “Are any Jews in this house?” There was only one answer I could give, “They are behind that false wall.”
Why on earth would I tell them that!? I would do it because of legalism; it is wrong to lie, and I would not tell a lie under any circumstances. If I did, I would be rebelling against God’s laws and might even be punished in hell for it.
And innocent Jews would die…because my ultimate commitment to an arbitrary religious rule was more important than empathy and compassion for people.
Legalism is a Stunted Way to Live
I was a legalist; my entire religious circle was legalistic. I was also immature and did not know the difference between a non-negotiable religious rule and an ethical principle. When I say I was immature, I don’t mean I was a child—I was not. But because of legalism my ethical and spiritual growth was stunted; I was a spiritual child. I thought following God meant keeping all his many, many rules found throughout the Bible.
Whenever I faced a situation, I tried to remember what the Bible said I should do. If I failed, I would be in trouble with God because he was very serious about his religious rules. The church people all said so—particularly the preachers; it was their job to preach against sin (breaking God’s rules) and to judge those who sinned. Keeping God’s rules was all that mattered.
My spiritual growth was stunted, as was the spiritual growth of the other legalists—including the preachers. Because of legalism, we could not comprehend and live according to Jesus’ teaching to love people.
Jesus’ Principle of Loving People
Jesus was not a legalist, but I really didn’t notice this at that time even though I read the Bible constantly. He didn’t keep the Sabbath laws as religious leaders thought he should; he even said that man was not made for the sabbath but that the sabbath was made for man (blasphemy!). Jesus was not careful about protecting himself against unclean people; in fact he spent a lot of time eating and talking with them and even TOUCHING THEM.
This was not because Jesus was careless; it was because he lived according to something more substantial than religious rules. He loved people. He had empathy and compassion. He cared deeply for them and brought peace, reconciliation, and healing to their lives. One cannot love a list of religious rules, and they certainly will not love you back. And religious rules do not create peace, reconciliation, and healing; rather they create burdens and judgmentalism.
Jesus summed up his way of loving people when he said: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Then he added that this was really the key to what right behavior is all about.
He also shared his thoughts about religious laws in the sermon on the mountain and declared religious laws inadequate. One can keep the letter of religious laws in the Bible and, at the same time, ignore the intent of it. Let’s look at some of the things Jesus said in Matthew 5.
- ‘Do Not Murder’ is inadequate. Though you might not murder someone, you still hurt them with your anger and insults. The point is to love people with their best interest in mind.
- ‘Don’t Commit Adultery’ is inadequate. Though you do not touch another woman, you still hurt your wife if you give your thoughts and focus to another.
- ‘Give a Certificate of Divorce to Your Wife’ is inadequate. Though you are honest and legal about no longer wanting her as your wife, by abandoning her you have put her in an almost impossible situation. Wives are (in those days) dependent on their husbands, and without your provision your former wife has little chance of living successfully. You have hurt her by bringing untold difficulty to her life.
Religious laws are not the arbitrary demands of God; they are meant to help people. If we understand that the point of all laws is to love people and treat them well, then Jesus’ principle of loving people is ALL the ethical guidance we need. There is no need for religious rules; in fact they often get in the way of loving people.
The Great Burden and Damage of Legalism
For many believers, legalism seems easier than loving people; but not only does legalism stunt our spiritual growth—it is a terrible burden as well. There are so many rules to learn, and even so they don’t cover every situation we face. Without mature discretion we need even more specific rules to guide us. Sometimes we try to cover the gaps with a couple of general rules:
- Do not offend others with your behavior (lets all live at the lowest legalistic level)
- Avoid the very appearance of evil (just in case)
Rather than helping us to love people, religious rules get in the way of loving people. When we focus on the rule, we are not focusing on the person. Instead of seeing how we can relate to the person, we often judge and chastise them for failing to observe the religious rules, and this does not lead to peace, reconciliation, and joy.
Legalism does not serve legalists either. When one becomes a good legalist they often develop one of the most terrible spiritual traits—self-righteousness. If I can end each day by checking off the checklist of 100 or 500 religious rules that I did not break that day, then I can feel pretty good about myself. Thank God I am not like that sinner over there!
This does not help us in loving people and sharing with them the Good News of Jesus. As we mature as followers of Jesus, we should abandon religious rules and simply live a life of loving people; that is all we need to do. Otherwise our spiritual growth is severely stunted; and though we have been believers for 40 years we are spiritually immature children.
The Final Post of the Series
In this series, we have discussed a number of misguided and very harmful beliefs that many Christians believe and teach. How should we respond to those leaders and teachers who hurt so many people by promoting these harmful beliefs? I suggest that we respond in love; we will talk about that next time in the final post of this series.
In this series:
6 Religious Beliefs that Cause Tremendous Harm
The #1 Most Harmful Belief Among Christians—Angry God
4 Ways that Believing God is Angry and Harsh Hurts People
The #2 Most Harmful Religious Belief—the Inerrant Bible
A More Realistic Alternative to Inerrancy of the Bible
4 Huge Ways Believing the Bible Inerrant is Tremendously Harmful
How Legalism Stunts Our Spiritual Growth (Today’s Post)
How Should We Respond to Those who Teach Harmful Beliefs?
Photo Credit 2: Christian Evolution
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Have a great day! ~Tim