The Illegitimacy of the Legalism Label

“Legalism” has become a buzz word in the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement lately. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, we keep using that word, but I don’t think it means what we think it means.

Let us start with the etymology. “Legal” refers to law; specifically, written law. “Ism” is an adherence to a theory or doctrine. Thus, legalism is a strict adherence to written law.

Now, many Christians that I have encountered recently have thrown this term out like it is some measure of their street cred in the IFB movement. One person actually said he is a “recovering” member of the IFB church—like he was a drug addict—and now seems to have some sort of mission to show everyone else that his way is the correct way.

Is it?

Legalism comes up in any conversation that involves worship music (both style and instrumentation), preferred Bible translation, proper church attire, or procedures for rituals like baptism or communion. However, none of these topics are inherently legalistic.

For example, my father is a traditionalist. He prefers the use of hymns to contemporary Christian music. He believes that only string and brass instruments should be used in worship. Of course, we have had many disagreements about this since I am a drummer who wants to use my talent to be a worship leader.

To the modern IFB critic, my dad’s strict beliefs about music are “legalistic”, yet I would argue that his preference stems more from tradition than law. There are no written laws about worship music; therefore, how can this be legalism?

There are many Christians who believe that men should wear suits, and ladies should wear dresses (with hems BELOW the knees, of course) to church. Modesty is the appropriate stylistic choice when crossing the threshold of the House of God. After all, if we were to visit the President of the United States or the Queen of England, would we not dress up for it? Why, then, would we not wear our “Sunday best” when going to the home of the King of Heaven?

Again, this is a traditional view, not a written law.

Perhaps the most volatile of the “legalistic” subjects is Bible translation. Other than worship music, this subject will get Christians riled up like nothing else. Are you a 1611 King James Version person, or are you okay with the alphabet soup of modern translations like NIV, ESV, NLT, NKJV, NASB, NCV, or RSTLNE? LOL, JK.

Those who stand on the soapbox of reformed IFB members will hail down accusations of legalism against any who stand by the traditional King James Version. Some, and I believe this to be idiotic, will go as far as to say that if you claim to be KJV-Only, then you are claiming that the King James is MORE INSPIRED than the original texts (which no longer exist, by the way). As if anyone believes that there was no true Bible until 1611 A.D.

If anyone DOES believe that (in my almost 28 years of being a Christian, I have never met a single person who does), they are simply wrong.

That being said, belief that the KJV is superior to the alphabet soup is not a blind adherence to some written (or even unwritten) law of being a legitimate Baptist. I would say it is actually more than mere tradition. As the source document for our entire religion, The Bible is more important than clothes or music. If the foundation of your worldview is flawed, then so is your worldview.

I personally believe the King James to be the only divinely inspired Bible in the English language. Other translations change words that can change the context of a verse, and some remove verses completely. Some modern translations make errors so large as confusing the Son of the Morning (Lucifer/Satan) with the Morning Star (Jesus Christ).

This truly matters.

Yet those who are critical of the  IFB “legalists” flippantly disregard any discussion of our founding document as some way of measuring spiritual fortitude and they are “recovering” from such drivel. As if somehow listening to Christian rock music and reading a New International Version of The Bible is superior to tradition.

I find it interesting to see the parallels in modern American politics. There is a growing sentiment that The Constitution is an old document that needs updated, and we need to progress beyond the traditions of the past and embrace change.

The King James Version and The Constitution are irrelevant in the modern era, because they are ancient. They are difficult to understand and should be updated. Some of us are “recovering” Baptists; some are “recovering” conservatives.

Traditionalism is not legalism, my dear readers.

Like The Constitution, The Bible is full of written laws. As Americans and/or Christians, we should understand and follow the laws written into our founding documents.

When it comes to worship and clothing, there are very few written laws. Thus, disagreements about these things boil down to preference, not legalism. Our arguments are over tradition, not law.

Odd that someone can break away from being legalistic as soon as they buy a new Bible translation, even if they still believe that we should not wear shorts to church. One stops being a legalist the moment they play a contemporary Christian song from the stage, even if they ban drums from the platform.

The lines of legalism are blurry and ambiguous, at best. Yet we are supposed to believe that “recovering” Christians have any sort of legitimate argument as they pass judgment on the rest of us? The arrogance of their perceived superiority only serves to undermine their critique of traditionalists in the Independent Fundamental Baptist church as being arrogant in their “old” beliefs.

The Pharisees were the models for legalism in that they stuck to their Old Testament beliefs while the New Testament stood before them in human form healing the sick on the Sabbath. They killed Christ for violating the written law.

The Pharisees placed the written law of God over the spoken law of Jesus Christ. There is no modern equivalent in the IFB church.

Christianity in America is in the decline, not because of legalism, but because of petty arguments over preference. There are thousands of churches throughout our country, and I would bet that none are exactly the same. It is not incredibly difficult to fine one to suit your preferences. So find one that works for you and shut your mouth about the rest of us. Save your judgment and your comments about traditionalists being like “Pharisees”.

Like so many other labels, those who tend to use them misunderstand their meaning. There are incredibly few true legalists among us today. Moreover, it is never right to apply the actions of a few to an entire classification of people. This is known as stereotyping, and is generally frowned upon.

If following The King James Bible makes me a legalist, although I play drums to Christian rock music and I care very little about what people wear to church, then so be it. It is not the label I would choose for myself, but I am proud to know that I am advancing the Kingdom of God in a way that does not violate the Word of God. That is good enough for me. Is it good enough for you?

 

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