Stricter Standards Do Not Always Equal Legalism

When I became a Christian at age 16 or 17, the pastor of the church I attended at that time taught that women should not wear pants. I had only been in church sporadically before this time, and I was also new to reading my Bible regularly and systematically. I had never heard this taught before.

Around this time, I saw an episode of The Big Valley in which the daughter wore pants, and it was A Really Big Deal in the community. I thought maybe modern society had just gotten away from the idea.

It wasn’t terribly hard to switch to wearing only dresses. The hardest part was trying to explain it to family members who thought it was odd.

Fast forward several years. In one of my college courses, the teacher happened to mention the verse that many people believe teaches that women shouldn’t wear pants, Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God” (NKJV). She pointed out that both men and women wore robes in Bible times, so this was not talking about pants.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized my teacher was right. I believed that the Bible taught as a general principle that men should look like men and women like women. But that wasn’t necessarily defined by pants.

By that time, though, I had gotten used to wearing dresses and skirts. I had some pants for PE, for our childbirth classes (because I had to be on the floor for some of our exercises), and for the gym. But I felt comfortable in dresses as well as modest and feminine (though of course there are modest pants and immodest dresses, and femininity is not always manifested in dresses).

Fast forward another few decades. We were visiting Cade’s Cove on a late autumn day. It was incredibly cold, and I was tromping around foresty areas with bare calves. I thought, this is ridiculous. So I bought a couple of pairs of pants for such occasions.

Through all of this, I’ve been surprised to come across the sentiment that those who held to the belief that women shouldn’t wear pants were legalists. In most Christian circles, that’s almost the worst thing you can call someone.

But difference of interpretation that results in stricter standards and practices is not legalism.

At its most basic, legalism is the belief that I have to keep the OT law to be right with God. There’s also a sense in which trusting in rule-keeping to get or keep right with God is legalism.

Jesus’ death set us free from the law of Moses that people in the OT were under. Of course, the moral law carries over and is repeated in the NT (loving God first, not lying, stealing, killing, etc.). But the minutiae of the law given to Israel, which no one could keep anyway (Acts 13:38-39; 15:10-11), was kept perfectly by Christ in our stead. His laying down His life for us paid for all our failures. So we have a wonderful sense of freedom when we believe in Christ.

But this freedom doesn’t mean we can do whatever we feel like. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15).

I used to think that, since all Christians are indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, we all ought to come out on the same page about various issues. But that’s not what the Bible says.

There are some fundamental Biblical issues for which there is no wiggle room: the Deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc. But Romans 14 has instructions for those who come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches in those areas that aren’t fundamental to the Christian faith. (Though the passage is discussing weaker brethren, I think some of these overarching principles apply.)

In Romans 14, people came down exactly opposite in their convictions and practices on some matters. Paul told them that each should do whatever they do as unto the Lord (verse 6), not judging or condemning each other, (verses 3, 10,13), being fully persuaded in their own minds (verses 5, 22), remembering they’re accountable to the Lord (verse 12), not being contentious about it (verses 1, 17-19), not to “quarrel over opinions” (verse 1).

One of the issues in Romans 14 was eating meat—not just meat that had been offered to idols as was the case in other passages. “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (verse 2). Scripture actually sides with the meat-eaters in this case. God told Noah after the flood, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3). Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:18-19). In Peter’s vision, he was told that all food was clean. Paul warned against those “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3-5). Some may choose not to eat meat for other reasons, but it was not unclean any more as far as OT law went. Even still, in Romans 14, Paul advised people not to judge or quarrel over eating meat.

So we need to avoid “accusing” someone of legalism if they don’t believe in women wearing pants, if they do believe in women wearing head coverings, if they don’t believe in Christians drinking alcohol, if they have a stricter understanding of the role of women in church, or any other area in which you feel you have freedom that they don’t feel. Freer standards do not always equal spiritual superiority. Stricter standards do not always indicate legalism or weakness. They may just mean that someone has a different understanding of Scripture than you do.

These principles don’t mean we can never discuss these issues with others. But we need to avoid a “set them straight” mentality. First we must be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath (James 1:19). We need to understand where the other person is coming from in their thinking. We need to assess whether the issue really even needs discussion. Is it really harming anyone? Is it something that will likely correct itself with time, growth, and maturity? Is it something we can agree to disagree about and move on? And if we feel that the other person actually is wrong in their interpretation and understanding, or they are operating from a feeling of conforming to a culture’s rules rather than the freedom of Scripture, we need to remember that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach” (2 Timothy 2:24).

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

29 thoughts on “Stricter Standards Do Not Always Equal Legalism

  1. Interesting post Ms. Barbara. I tend to fall in the “do what feels right to you that still aligns with the whole word of God, not selective passages” camp. There are many doctrinal or denominational issues that cover a broad spectrum of understanding and interpretation. Some, clearly do not align with God’s word, while others are open to interpretation and understanding. Since it is beyond my realm and role to judge others, I try not to stand too firm on those Christian believers who choose to follow doctrines that can be supported by scripture. My understanding may be different, but I recognize that as man (human), my thoughts and interpretations can be flawed as much as someone else’s. Simply put, I don’t know what I don’t know, but what I do know is that the entirety of God’s word is true. I may not have interpreted correctly, but I respect another’s opinion unless I can prove them wrong using God’s word. This is why longsuffering and kindness are fruits of the Spirit. We need these fruits to look beyond our human differences and focus upon those things that unite us. Christ alone! God’s blessings ma’am .

    • I appreciate your humility, JD. There is a right kind of judgment in Scripture, a discerning of whether someone is teaching a true or false gospel. But there is a wrong kind of judgment as well. We need to give each other grace in our different interpretations or applications on issues that aren’t core to our faith.

    • I think we have to be careful of generalizations. I’ve known some like that. But I’ve known some who operate from an earnest desire to please the Lord. And I’ve known some on the more liberal side of things who want to be thought of as more mature and more spiritual as well.

  2. We need to be careful of calling something a sin that the Bible doesn’t call a sin, and likewise need to be careful that we don’t condone something that the Bible clearly labels sin. But overall, we must always operate from a place of love and wanting to honor God with how we live, and I’ve found that even if I don’t always agree with another’s interpretation of Scripture and how to live it out, I can certainly learn from them and treat them with love and respect. Keep the main thing the main thing!

  3. Very good article, Barb. Have you read the book “Conscience” by Andy Naselli? (Sorry, maybe you already reviewed it.) It deals very well with these issues (but could go a bit further, I think). I agree with you 100 percent. I’m from a similar background, I think, and know very well what it’s like to be called a legalist simply because our family had stricter standards (no mixed swimming beyond family, no rock music, modest skirts/pants on women, etc.) than many due to a desire to live pleasing to God and be separated from the world. (Certainly there is a struggle in these circles not to feel like you are more godly than others because you keep a list of dos and don’ts that others don’t. I believe that is a form of legalism, which you rightly pointed out.)

    A lot of this issue has to do with what’s going on in the heart, which Romans 14 addresses, and unfortunately motives aren’t obvious because they’re internal. So the bottom line, I think, is how we should respond in action in this do-as-I-please-even-if-you-don’t-like-it world, which is often missing in the discussion. The strict believer isn’t going to offend someone (tempt the other believer to go against his or her conscience) by not drinking wine. However, the Christian with more relaxed standards needs to be careful not to cause offense (tempt someone to go against his or her conscience) to the Christian who is stricter. This verse from a parallel passage is important, I think, yet we hear so little preaching/teaching on it. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13 ESV). While we aren’t dealing with idol’s meat today, what principle exists, and how can we apply it? If I’m okay with drinking wine but my fellow believer thinks doing so is a sin, am I going to serve him or her wine? I certainly hope not. Loving my friend and being sensitive to his or her conscience is more important than flexing my Christian liberty. My two cents.

    • Thanks Adam. Yes, I enjoyed the book on conscience. It was a big help to me as conscience can be affected my so many things and needs to be trained in the Bible’s teaching.

      I agree, so much of this goes back to the heart. The stricter or the looser Christian’s standards (or lack thereof) don’t do them any good if their actions aren’t done from a heart to serve and please the Lord and love their brothers and sisters in Christ.

  4. Great thoughts! “Freer standards do not always equal spiritual superiority” — so true. Our previous church was so big on “freedom in Christ” that it felt at times that standards of almost any type just flew out the window. All the harping against Christians who had strong standards about various things just felt uncomfortable to me. It can be a fine line to walk.

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  6. Not judging each other’s consciences is such a gift of grace we can give. I appreciate your room for giving that. Humility is such a critical trait to maintaining healthy relationships when we find ourselves differing on interpretations. I still have lots of room for growth in that area. I appreciate those in my life who set the example of humility.

  7. I enjoyed reading your article and agree with you whole heartedly. I had a very unique upbringing. My mother was a holines, my father a catholic and my grandparents who reared me were baptist. We had some interesting and occasionally warm conversations. What I have learned is the bible does not specifically address everything. We should not trip over what is not there. Yet, we must stand firm on those biblical principles and truths you mentioned above. No wiggle room there.

    • I can imagine some of the interesting conversations you had with so many different points of view represented. Maybe that gave you a head start in learning to weigh things against the Scripture. We truly need God’s wisdom and balance in when to stand firm and when to allow for differences.

  8. This is a great post! It’s so easy to fall into judging others who see differently on certain things. It’s important to remember that the Bible is not 100% clear on all the practicalities and to respect those who have different convictions.

  9. These words, “Freer standards do not always equal spiritual superiority. Stricter standards do not always indicate legalism or weakness. They may just mean that someone has a different understanding of Scripture than you do.” say it all so well, Barbara. We are so thankful to now be in a fellowship where judging has been set aside .

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  11. Love this article about stricter standards abd legalism. You make very clear the difference between them. Very helpful!

  12. Barbara, Wonderful article. This does help clear up how to respond to some of the differences in our Church. I was brought up Catholic and it was okay to wear pants – not a church but in general life. But as I grew up in the 70’s in public middle school we could only wear pants on Friday – Pant Friday as I recall. Then later when I recommitted my life to Christ we went to a Baptist church. And I wore pants to an evening service and noticed I was the only woman in pants. I was a little embarrassed but no one said anything to me. I felt it was ok by them but in the future I made the decision to wear dresses and skirt and if needed leggings.

  13. This is such a refreshing point of view and so important that you noted that it’s only legalism if you feel that your choices determine your salvation. I have often felt that others see me as legalistic because I have stricter standards on what I will watch and listen to (coarse cursing and sexual content) then most of my Christian friends. Hearing how you phrased the distinction is very freeing to me.

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