The Foolishness of Legalism

“Legalism” is one of those words that it is just about possible to use with a positive connotation. It is typically used in a judgmental manner by those who oppose the attitudes and requirements of individuals and groups who are legalistic, and those who fit into that category often fail to realize it, and so would rarely if ever use the term to describe themselves. The truth is, though, that legalism was a problem in the early church, and is sometimes a problem still in churches today. I will address that here somewhat, but first I will provide a modern example of the foolishness of legalism from outside of the church.

Even before that, though, perhaps it is a good idea to define what legalism is. provides this definition: “strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.” And that definition provides a perfect backdrop to this contemporary example.

Apparently, a county employee in Detroit, Michigan was mowing grass last month–not his own grass, but grass he was supposed to mow as part of his job. In other words, he was at work. In the course of mowing, he came across a loaded revolver. He called the police to inform them of the gun, thinking they would come retrieve it. However, the authorities never arrived. So, when he finished working, the county employee took the gun to a local police station to turn it in. The police thanked him, happy to get another gun off of the streets. County officials, though, fired him, saying that he was in violation of county policy by possessing a gun while on the job.

Now I’m guessing that when you read that your initial reaction was probably somewhere along the lines of, “Oh brother!” or “You’ve got to be kidding!” After all, the individual in question was clearly doing the right thing–the responsible thing. Without a doubt, the policy barring gun possession at work by county employees was devised in an effort to promote safety, and the vast majority of the time there would be no reason for a county employee to possess a gun. The problem is, rules and policies always have the potential to run smack into unforeseen situations–situations in which the “letter of the law” no longer makes any sense.

For just about my entire working life I have been in positions that required me to enforce rules. First, I was a classroom teacher, so I had both my own classroom rules to enforce as well as those of the school. But for the last eight years I have been in positions where I was usually the one who was the ultimate enforcer of the rules. Sometimes I was also able to craft, or re-craft, the rules, but other times I was expected to enforce the rules that were given to me by those in authority over me. Either way, I was “the executive branch,” and enforcing the rules was my responsibility. What I learned very quickly is that developing rules that are absolute is rarely a good idea. Why? Exactly because of situations like the county worker in Detroit who found a gun and took it to the police station to turn in. Odds are good that as the county policy is written those in authority had a choice to make: fire the gentleman, or fail to enforce a county rule.

There are students expelled from school and inmates incarcerated in prisons all over the country because of so-called three strikes rules. in an effort to curtail crime, many states passed three strikes laws, mandating life sentences for individuals who were charged with their third felony. No, I am as anti-crime as anyone I know. In fact, other than criminals, who in the world would claim to be pro-crime? But I also think it is absurd for someone to be spending the rest of his life in prison for a third minor offense, while someone else might get ten or twenty years for killing someone. The same thing is true of students who have been expelled from their school for an accumulation of relatively minor offenses. There needs to be wisdom in the application of the law…which necessitates wisdom in the crafting of the law.

To go back to the definition of legalism, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law are not always in complete agreement. Legalism is what results when the former is given precedence over the latter. And as foolish as it is in the workplace, the school, or the criminal code, it is perhaps even more foolish to allow legalism to creep into one’s relationship with the Lord. But I’ll address that tomorrow….

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