Have you ever heard of the word "legalism"? If you have been in the Christian community for any amount of time, you may have heard the word pop up here and there. Legalism refers to "strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code", according to Merriam Webster Dictionary. In the Christian sense of the word, legalism refers to strict adherence to the Mosaic Law to the point of compromising grace and losing sight of Jesus' salvation. In many sermons, pastors use the Pharisees, as in the Jewish priests during Jesus' time, as an example of legalism. If you have done our Acts Bible study series, you have read about these men already. But who were these men, and why were they legalistic?
The Pharisees were actually a sect of the overall Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the overall group of Jewish priests, whereas the Pharisees, as well as the Essenes and Sadducees, were different sects of the Sanhedrin. These priests conducted all rituals, feasts and holidays, and sacrifices required by Mosaic Law. You may have noticed that in the Old Testament, the priests were either from the line of Aaron, Moses' brother, or Levi. During the intertestamental period, also called "the 400 Years of Silence", Roman rule radically changed the hierarchy system of Hebrew priests. These men were now under the authority of Roman rulers, like the King Herods.
Who were these different sects of the Sanhedrin? First, the Pharisees were a group of middle-class priests who were against the Hellenization of the Jewish people. (Hellenization refers to a culture transforming into more of a Roman way of life.) Pharisees were a kind of purist when it came to observing Jewish Law, feast days, and rituals. Due to their devoutness, the Pharisees were able to exert great moral and spiritual influence over the Jewish people. Jesus, however, continually “clashed” with the Pharisees, due to their hypocritical legalism and egos.
The Essenes were a kind of extreme version of the Pharisees. The Essenes priests followed the Jewish Law more precisely and stringently. These priests also prided themselves over their purity (i.e. not using the restroom on Sabbaths, eww!). In some ways, the Essenes priests were like Jewish first-century monks. These priests lived away from major cities, so they could completely isolate themselves. Thus, they did not exert much influence on the average first-century Jew.
The Sadducees dominated the Sanhedrin. They denied man has a personal spirit, although they also believed angels have personalities. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees believed resurrection is possible (Acts 23:8). Many of these priests belonged to families of wealth and power. Most Sadducees did not adhere to the Law strictly and were considered more “worldly” than their counterparts. They exerted the most control over the Sanhedrin and the people, due to their large numbers and amount of wealth. The Sadducees were repulsed by Jesus and His followers, because this sect came from a low socio-economic class and taught against the Sadducees’ way of life.
Not all of the priests were bad, though! Most Christians can recite John 3:16 by heart, but remember that it was first told to a Pharisee, Nicodemus. In John 3:1-2, Nicodemus clandestinely visits Jesus in the night to ask questions. Nicodemus would later assist Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus' body for burial (John 19:39–42). Not much is known about what happened to Nicodemus, leaving us wondering if he ever became a Christian.
Paul the apostle was originally a Pharisee, who led the charge against the early church (Acts 8:3; 9:1-2). After his conversion in Acts 9, Paul would later use his Pharisee roots to appeal to the Jewish leaders (Acts 23:6; 26:5).
In Acts 15:5, we read that some Pharisees had actually converted to Christianity. However, they still struggled with keeping the Mosaic law strictly, and thus believed every Christian, whether Jew or Gentile, should be circumcised. Remember, though, that these men had spent most of their lives leading the Jewish people in following the Mosaic Law. It was their job to ensure sacrifices were executed, feasts and holidays were observed, and individuals followed all the different laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. According to the Tyndale Commentaries, "We probably underestimate what a colossal step it was for dyed-in-the-wool Jewish legalism to adopt a new way of thinking." Could you imagine growing your whole life believing one thing, than radically changing gears to another way of thinking? No wonder the Pharisees struggled with adhering to the Mosaic Law rather than embracing Jesus' grace!
Do Christians struggle with legalism like the Sanhedrin? You probably automatically think, "YES!" I'm sure you can think of quite a few Christians who emphasize being a "good Christian" over embracing Jesus' grace and realizing He has forgiven us. Unfortunately, some of the most legalistic Christians I have ever met were the ones proclaiming grace the most.
Like the Sanhedrin, the evangelical community often places more of an emphasis on being a “good Christian” over tackling difficult issues, exploring new areas of our relationships with God, and being transparent with other believers. Since leaving my last church, I have come to realize legalism is widespread in Orange County, California, which is where I am from. There is a culture of “fake it ‘til you make it” and never admit openly to struggling with sin.
When I started attending my new church, which is a Messianic congregation, I was surprised by the emphasis on grace and transparency in the rabbi’s teachings. He spoke of wrestling with God and experiencing disappointment. Furthermore, the rabbi regularly admits to falling short that week and realizing how much he needs Jesus’ grace. I never heard these kinds of things from pastors at evangelical churches! People ask me all the time if the people at my Messianic church are legalistic due to their Jewish upbringings, but I always say that actually, I found every evangelical church I have attended in the past to be far more legalistic than my church.
Any time we are shocked by a person's behavior, or feel ourselves judging someone for his beliefs or actions, we have fallen into legalism. You may think, "Shouldn't we hold other Christians accountable and encourage them to follow Christ?" In some ways, yes. We should definitely encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). However, any time we raise an eyebrow or distance ourselves from someone we feel is not being a "good Christian", than we have placed more of an emphasis on adhering to the Law than to loving one another and extending grace.
Don't give anyone the Scarlett O'Hara eyebrow!
One person always comes to my mind on this topic. There was a guy at my last church that consistently raised his eyebrow, put me down, and scoffed at anything I said. Every time I interacted with him, he made me feel like I must be the worst Christian that ever walked the planet. In some ways, maybe I should thank him? I say that because after working with him and feeling so bad about myself, I started really considering what it meant to "be a Christian" and what truly does it mean to embrace Jesus' grace? It was then that I realized that saying you are a Christian is merely a label. There is no such thing as a "good Christian" or "bad Christian". There are those living under Jesus' grace and those still bound by sin and judgment.
Obviously, this is a brief overview of the Sanhedrin, but this may give you more context when you read the gospels or Acts.
Now, what about you? What do you think about legalism today? Do you know any legalistic? Do you see legalism in you? Tell us in the comments!