Legalism is not a term we want to be used in a description of ourselves. It has harsh and negative overtones that imply someone who is stiff, mean, judgmental, cold, stern, and unloving. In other words, to be accused of being legalistic is to be thought of as an unpleasant person. This is quite the contrast to our modern conception of Jesus Christ. If you asked the average churchgoer to think of words which described Jesus, you might hear kind, caring, compassionate, graceful, and loving to name a few. And while these terms are accurate, we tend to forget that Jesus came across as judgmental, mean, and unloving at times.
An excellent example of this is the exchange between Jesus and the Gentile woman (Matthew 15; Mark 7). Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon and this Gentile woman comes to Jesus to ask Him to exorcise the demon from her daughter. Jesus ignores her. So the woman begins to beg loudly and in reply Jesus says He was only sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Again she begs, “Lord, help me!” Then Jesus responded, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Wow. What does this say about Jesus? Is He sexist? Is He racist? From our modern eyes this appears to be just that. Jesus is comparing someone of a sex and race that is less privileged than His own (in Jewish culture) to a dog(this is also speciesist against the dog, right?). Jesus is being legalistic by adhering to what the traditional views of women and Gentiles are in 1st century Jewish culture. This is also clearly judgemental as well because legalism is just a form of judgmentalism. But does Jesus not teach us to judge not otherwise you will be judged as well (Matthew 7)? Does this make Jesus a hypocrite?
Absolutely not! There is more to the story than just this. After Jesus compares the woman to a dog, the woman comments back “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs feed off the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus responds by saying “Your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And the daughter was healed. So Jesus healed the woman’s daughter anyway. Yet that does not excuse his horrible attitude does it? If you read this story from a modern cultural lens it appears highly judgemental, but if you take those glasses off and see this through the lens of a 1st century Jew, it is actually very inclusive, compassionate, and graceful.
The literary context shows us that at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for their unwritten and unspoken traditions. The confrontation began over a matter of ritual cleanliness (Mark’s version makes this most clear.) But Jesus challenged the Pharisees by pointing out how they followed their own traditions before they followed the commandments of God. What Jesus was doing was pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Yet, Jesus goes further. He begins to explain how the Pharisee’s own beliefs regarding cleanliness were wrong. He points out how it is not whether one washes their hands or what food they eat or what they touch that makes one unclean. It is what comes from the inside which is unclean. All evil first comes from the heart of humanity. This is the context of the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. And it sets the stage for this seemingly unloving encounter.
Jesus is building on what He had just taught. He taught that unwritten, unspoken traditions and expectations of the religious experts were wrong. Jesus also taught what it meant to be pure. We see Jesus undoing what had been taught by the religious leaders in His exchange with the Gentile woman. So when Jesus said He came only to Israel and compared the woman to a dog, he emphasized what had been taught. However, by interacting with the woman, Jesus began to teach a new understanding.
In this conversation, Jesus challenges the Jewish norms by interacting with the woman and by healing her daughter. Through this exchange, Jesus could be considered ritually unclean Himself. Yet in addressing her, Jesus demonstrated He would not be made unclean by an unclean person. And by healing the daughter, Jesus showed himself to be the source of purity.
Still the question remains, why did Jesus choose to heal the woman’s daughter? Jesus answered the woman’s pleas because of her statement of faith in Jesus. He answered the woman because she demonstrated that faith in Jesus is what makes one pure of heart. She knew she was unclean and unworthy, but she still asked Jesus for at least the crumbs. The woman was shown to be pure by virtue of her expressed faith in Jesus and demonstrated that Gentiles were able to have faith just like the Jews. And this incidence shows that Jesus was quite inclusive, compassionate, and graceful.
So, what does this story have to do with legalism and judgmentalism? Just like the Jews did not understand what ritual cleanliness was about, what we mean by legalism and judgmentalism may not be what they are actually about. When we think of legalism, we think of old ladies who tell us not to smoke, or drink, or dress a certain way. But legalism is not about one specific set of rules that we have in our minds. Legalism is strict adherence to any set of informal social rules. The specific set of informal rules can be anything. Certainly, they may be: do not drink, smoke or dress a certain way. But often they are not.
What legalism is actually doing is attempting to take ideas, principles, and ethics and formalize them into a one size fits all rule. And that’s the problem. You cannot take concepts like love, compassion, acceptance, and kindness and formalize these into law. It simply does not work. These are things which must come from moral freedom. So when society demands that we practice concepts like kindness and acceptance, they lose their power because they do not come from moral freedom. They lose their complexity and flexibility to adapt to different situations and circumstances. And what this leads to is judgmentalism.
Judgmentalism is a misunderstood part of Christianity and is often confused with discernment. Judgmentalism is eternally condemning someone by holding them to a standard that you yourself are not meeting. The concept of “judge not lest ye be judged” is taken out of context. Jesus teaches us that before we judge others, we should get the log out of our own eye or else we will be held to that standard. In other words, make sure you abide by the standards you hold before pointing out how others do not meet it.
Still we cannot forget that to avoid judgmentalism we must offer a path of redemption as well. This is why someone could completely follow the Law of Moses perfectly. The Law offered a path to redemption. But judgmentalism does not. It only condemns. This is much like the traditions of the Pharisees. They could not be kept and only seemed to condemn people because they ultimately did not follow the law God established in Israel. This ultimately leads to lawlessness. People lose hope and just decide the rules they have been forced to follow are no longer worth it. And so they find a false sense of freedom in leaving the old rules behind. But before long, legalism will rear its ugly head and begin the process all over again as new social rules become established.
If we are to combat legalism, judgmentalism, and the eventual outcome of lawlessness, we must become like the Gentile woman. We need to come to God in humility and recognize our uncleanness. We need to realize we are unworthy of God’s mercy and grace. And still by faith we ask if we can have the crumbs off the table. God is just waiting to heal us from our spiritual sickness. He is waiting for us to ask for the cure which is Jesus Christ who has defeated death. All we have to do is put our faith to practice.
Update: If you want to dig into judgmentalism a bit more, I came across this video from Patristic Nectar Films on YouTube. Father Josiah tackles the issue a bit more and discusses Jesus’ own words from Matthew 7.