16. Difficulty making moral decisions. Legalists often have a very difficult time either making moral decisions or with the concept of freedom to make moral decisions. This is why legalism causes one to become enamored with checklists. The checklist eliminates the possibility of having to think for yourself and arrive at your own conclusions. This symptom is also the reason why legalists struggle with convictions that differ from theirs. As a result modern legalists, much like the Pharisees, prefer to live by the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. A perfect example is found in Adventist history. A school board was divided over whether the school should provide classes for children under a certain age. The debate was over an Ellen White statement in which she said that parents should be the only teachers of their children up to that particular age. Thankfully, Ellen White was still alive and was invited to settle the matter. She was upset with those who took such a harsh, unbending attitude toward her comment and indicated that, while she did believe that her comment was true, situations and conditions change the relationship of things. In short, her point was that we need to be flexible and use common sense. Living by principle and not by the letter of the law was the key. Legalists love to live by the letter of the law because they want to make sure that they do everything exactly the way God said to do it without any consideration to the context. While they may decry the heresy of salvation by works as much as non-legalists their codependency on the letter of the law and inability to make their own moral decisions show that they are not living by the Spirit but by the law - a classic root of legalism.
17. Turning cultural statements into timeless practices. This characteristic is directly tied to characteristic 16. The concept of living by the letter of the law logically leads one under the power of legalism to ignore the cultural and historical context of certain biblical commands. For example, there are legalists who insist that modern Christians must keep the Jewish feast days. Of course, they baptize their language in grace terminology to sound less offensive (they may use the "we do it because we love him" argument) but nevertheless, it is legalism. Likewise, there are legalists who insist it is a sin to shave or to wear clothes that has mixed materials because of some of the levitical laws found in the Old Testament. In the same manner, many Adventists today teach it is a sin to go to the theater or wear a wedding band because Ellen White spoke against these practices. However, a look at cultural and historical context reveals that these statements had literal application for their time that is no longer binding. While we may glean eternal principles from these statements literal obedience to them is not necessary. The interesting thing is that even the legalists recognize this. For example, Ellen White also said it was a sin to wear a wig or own a bicycle. However, modern legalists never mention these things because they know in Ellen Whites day wigs caused diseases and people were letting their families starve in order to buy a bicycle (the new fad back then). Sadly, they fail to apply this principle of interpretation to many of the other issues that they esteem. As a result, while their lips may deny salvation by works their lives are bound by rules and statues that no longer apply.
18. Making personal preferences a moral issue. This concept is seen alive and well in those who despise anything new or different in the church. For them wearing a suit and a tie to church is a moral issue. Other issues may be having pews in the church. Singing with a hymnal in hand. Worshiping with hymns only etc. None of these issues are moral issues but legalists turn them into moral issues. What they fail to see is that all these are matters of personal preference whose defense cannot even be found in scripture. As a matter of fact, an honest look at history will reveal that many of these are traditions rooted in paganism and secular culture. For example, the organ that many traditionalists enjoy so much originated, not in the courts of heaven or even a church building, but as a theatrical instrument. I am not suggesting that traditions are bad but when we make them a test of fellowship and spirituality we are in the realm of legalism. Those of this persuasion may argue that they are simply defending the truth, standing up for the standards of the church, and defending the church from the world but what they are really doing is complaining about styles and forms that they personally do not like. Those who think this way often gravitate toward those who feel likewise and spend countless hours researching evidence that they can use to show everyone else why their activities are so evil. While they may never preach a sermon on getting to heaven by works their obsession with classifying anything out of their comfort zone as immoral shows otherwise.
19. A desire for control. This is a classic symptom of legalism. Legalists often feel that they are the only ones who are not deceived. They also feel that it is their responsibility to stand for the truth and to purify the church. As a result they seek positions of power and leadership that they can use to force everyone else into their way of thinking. A church I know elected a man an elder and he attempted to use his power to censor all of the church members who had joined the military for, in his personal opinion, joining the military was sin. He even spoke of how he would disown any of his sons if they joined the military. The threat was an attempt to control his sons into never doing that which he hated so much. This characteristic is often the most obvious because it is very difficult to hide. While legalists of this caliber may answer "false" if asked, "Are we saved by works?" one has to wonder if they are even converted.
20. Feeling personally responsible for everyone else's behavior. Like characteristic 19, this one is very intrusive. The difference is that characteristic 19 is assertive - the legalist actually wants to control others. This characteristic differs in that the legalist does not want to control others but feels extremely anxious if he/she doesn't. While Christians are called to look out for one another and exhort one another when sinful behavior is observed, this characteristic fails to differentiate between serious problems that need to be addressed and less serious problems that can be overlooked. I once struggled with this concept immensely. Anytime someone said or did something that I found questionable I immediately felt that it was now my responsibility to correct them and that if I did not the Lord would hold me accountable. However, I have since learned that there is a huge difference between seeing my brother with a woman who is not his wife and exhorting him vs seeing my brother surfing the internet during the sermon and feeling the need to exhort him. I have also learned the difference between exhorting someone very close to me and going after someone whom I barely know. In the end, this characteristic ignores the fact that the Holy Spirit is working on that persons heart by turning you into the Holy Spirit responsible for correcting everyone. While I would never have said we were saved by works, my obsessive compulsion to correct everyone else's bad behavior showed that I had yet to see my own sinfulness in light of the cross of Calvary.
21. Fanaticism (often lacks common sense and fails to stand the test of scrutiny). This characteristic was very common among those of the older generation. Many of them grew up with, and developed standards of Christian behavior that they attempt to pass on to the next generation. The problem is many of those standards make no sense to new generations and the reasons used to defend them make even less sense. For example, people should not use wedding bands because if they do they will want to use other jewelry as well (the slippery slope fallacy). We shouldn't go to the theater because it is an evil place (but its OK to watch the same horrendous movie at home). Stay away from other churches because there is a bad spirit there (elitism). Women should not dress like men, therefore, they should never wear jeans (even though women's jeans clearly differ from men's). Don't listen to music that has a 4/4 time signature or syncopated beat, it will make you want to dance (like David maybe?) and will arouse your sexual desires (cant remember the last time that happened while listening to Chris Tomlin!). You must use a suit and tie when you come to church because God is here (my suit and tie impresses him?). We shouldn't sing songs written by other Christians who don't have our version of truth (does that include "Amazing Grace" and "It Is Well With My Soul"?). And the list goes on and on. In extreme cases it degenerates even further as in the example of those who think it a sin to shave their beards because "God has numbered the hairs on our head and it would be arrogant to shave them" or like a movement in the late 1800's teaching that Christs command to be like children meant we should crawl on all fours and suck our thumbs even as adults. While those of this mindset may still have enough tradition to reject the phrase "saved by works" their fanatical and irrational ideas show that they have yet to experience the freedom and joy of salvation.
Unmasking Legalism (1-5)