One attitude of legalists that stands out among all the others is the attitude of being an authority on most spiritual matters. Once legalists start down the road of collecting all the right rules, and tightly defining what a Christian ought to be in nearly every detail, it isn’t too long before they start to exude an authoritarian attitude.
This is because when they first set out, they are on an honest quest to learn how to live in a way that is pleasing to the Lord. They really do have a passion for holiness. But as they misguidedly accumulate more and more rules and regulations, this quest often eventually produces a know-it-all attitude. And why shouldn’t it? They’ve set out to find the answers, and now, through accumulating of rules for nearly every detail of Christian living (practical things), and absorbed their leader’s opinions and perspectives on nearly every Biblical topic (theological things), they’ve GOT the answers. And this can happen in a relatively short period of time.
But once they get there, they are sure that they now know what God is like – they’ve got Him well-defined, and they are sure they know what God demands – they know exactly what God expects of Christian behavior. With all of that knowledge, they are confident that they have authoritative positions on most spiritual matters, and should be listened to and heeded when they speak to an issue.
And when legalists do speak to an issue it is rarely with anything other than strong confidence and self-assurance. They often speak with great passion too – the kind that commands authority. To come across as weak, or like you don’t know the answer, is avoided with great effort.
This is the kind of attitude that assumes that they are the ones who have come to the full knowledge of the truth, and that rarely experiences self-doubt. It is the attitude of authority. They are the ones who are right on the issues. They have studied it out and know all the issues involved. They have thought it through like few ever have. They are the ones who have been blessed with God-given insights that few others ever have. They are the ones standing for righteousness and truth like few others in our day.
In fact, those that disagree with them must just be plain wrong. If others do not share their convictions or their insights, then they are accused of being either liberal, weak, compromisers, ignorant, or all of the above. Those that disagree haven’t studied it thoroughly enough, or are deliberately rebelling against some other “Biblical” principle or verse. They must just be hard-hearted and sinful.
It rarely crosses a legalist’s mind that he may be the one who’s wrong. They become immune to self-doubt and fortified against humility. Many legalists, when confronted with the accusation that they are being know-it-alls and authoritarian, will deny it, but everything about them proves otherwise: their harsh reaction against those who disagree, their tone and choice of words, their criticism, ridicule and sarcasm about those who differ, their condescending attitude, the digging in of their heels when challenged instead of honestly holding their own thinking up to examination, their walled-up hearts.
In the words of Carl Trueman, this kind of attitude creates an atmosphere “where others are only ever critiqued, not learned from, while [the legalist] remains blissfully above correction. That’s cultic.”
That is an authoritarian attitude, not a student attitude, because none of us is above correction. Legalists tend to close their ears to other voices, but it is surprising how often God will use people and things from sources outside our own camp to teach, refine, and even correct us.
Too often, though, legalists fail to have the student attitude that is so necessary for genuine spiritual growth and maturity. Sadly, they often stop growing in love and grace, and theirs hearts become tougher not more tender, more offensive toward others and not less. In fact, in some cases this authoritarian attitude even becomes spiritually abusive.
This spiritual abuse occurs in the form of condemning anyone who disagrees with them, and suffocating any hint of difference among their group. This kind of power is so strong, that victims of such churches and ministries often flee under heavy guilt and fear that God might condemn them, simply because they didn’t share the same standards of behavior, or dared to think differently on even a non-fundamental issue.
These kind of authoritarian legalists are threatened by those who dare to think for themselves. They can only feel secure when they are surrounded by simple-minded “yes” people.
Brokenness and teachability are not hallmarks of this kind of legalist. It is those who finally admit that they know very little, and decide to open their hearts and their ears and become a learner, and no longer a know-it-all, they are the ones who have the greatest potential for spiritual growth and of being well-pleasing to God.
Jesus had absolutely no tolerance for the authoritarian, self-righteous, know-it-all Pharisees. They were closed to learning and correction. They already had God and the Law and life figured out to the last detail. Even when Jesus attempted to expose them to their extreme and unbiblical beliefs, their authoritarian attitude prevented the truth from penetrating their hearts, and Jesus harshly condemned them for it.
But it was those imperfect, stumbling, and eventually broken disciples that were the learners. It was they who became the ones God blessed as the primary influencers and leaders in His holy kingdom. And it is from Christ and His apostles that we must take our cues.
Yes, there are fundamental doctrines on which we are to stand firmly and with out compromise. They are the ones that affect the Gospel. Christ and His Word are our authority, and under Him we must possess deep humility and a teachable spirit. As Josh Harris has so helpfully expressed it, even our orthodoxy should be characterized by humility.