What can turn happy, friendly Christians into a snarling mob? What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob?
Paul dealt with legalism in Galatians, and he observed that the more legalistic you are, the more cannibalistic you become:
If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. (Gal 5:15)
He gives this warning, because legalists tend to attack other legalists; for once you set up a standard for behavior, then anyone who deviates by a fraction of a degree will be your fiercest enemy.
We may paraphrase Paul thus: If you are transforming into the type of person who attacks and pecks away at others who are less strict than you, watch out! Eventually someone will turn around and take a bite out of you!
How shall we define “legalist,” by the way? We all know that the Pharisees were legalists, although what that meant exactly is under heavy scrutiny. We all know that Others We Could Name are legalists. We are certain that we ourselves are not: no-one has ever said “I am a legalist” unless they are being ironic.
For the sake of argument, I will offer the following:
Legalism is an attempt to feel spiritually secure (1) by obeying laws or “principles” which God does not expect of the Christian, or (2) by focusing on performance to the diminution of God’s grace, and then evaluating other believers by the standards we have set up.
When I say “feel spiritually secure,” I am alluding to the truth that legalists are trying to scratch some itch which they themselves feel. There is a psychological as well as a theological side to legalism.
More than a few legalists have crossed my path in the last years, usually when they visit me on my blogs.
- Some take issue with me when I insist that salvation is through faith in Christ alone.
- Someone will say that I am of the anti-Christ because I use a Bible version other than the King James or its Spanish equivalent, La Versión Reina-Valera.
- Another will say that I hate God because I worship him on Sunday and not on Saturday. Or because I use the name Jesus (Jesús in Spanish) instead of the pronunciation “Yeshua.”
- Another will argue that I am of the Wicked One because I do not agree with his views on who the antichrist is.
Besides the specific content, it’s important to communicate the spirit, the tone of many of these messages: there are people who write me page after page, with no punctuation, all in capital letters, going on and on attacking my “heresies,” questioning my credentials to teach the Word, and trashing my character. Many people have consigned me to eternal hell because I am (supposedly) an apostate-papist-Illuminati-communist-Satanist-anti-Christ-God-hater-gay-heretical (let me catch my breath!….okay) and on and on and on. There are some very angry people out there. The reasonable people I try to dialogue with, but if it’s mere verbal abuse, I sadly just end up blocking them – legalists are nothing if not persistent, and if a legalist writes me one letter, he’ll probably write a bunch.
They are defending a belief system that they hold dear, and they are way past Grumpy, they are furious.
I don’t like super-hero movies, but I do know what the Transformers are. But instead of a legalist transforming, I don’t know, from a John Deere tractor into a flame-throwing tank, we see a transformation from Joyful Hands of Praise into…The Clenched Fist.
Now, I have spoken with Jehovah’s Witnesses and people of other faiths, people who deny the very foundation of my faith and misjudge who Jesus is, and yet in the face of that I rarely feel angry; maybe it’s because the Witnesses I meet look sad and dazed more than anything else.
But why is it that you and I can dialogue with people who are blatantly against the true Christ, and do so with grace and patience and even a smile; while at the same time people turn into volcanoes because someone uses a Bible version they don’t care for?
I will suggest two very different but I think legitimate reasons why legalists are Special Forces in Wrath.
Legalists I have met seem very sure of their ability to separate right from wrong. “It’s okay to have a glass of wine, but only in these eight carefully-defined situations – these eight, no more, no less.” Wow! “It’s okay to go through the 15 Items or Less Lane with 16 or even 17 items; but 18 and above is just immoral!” Okay, that’s pretty doggone specific!
The authentic legalist lives in fear, like those folks who feel compelled to wash their hands all day long or touch the door a dozen times before leaving the house. As a friend wrote to me about this facet of legalism: it is designed to “satisfy some lower sense of security or desire to be good. It’s a behavioral pattern rather than a theological view or attempt to be saved.” It also shows a stunning lack of humility, to “know” God’s pleasure in any and every situation.
People who suspect that the universe will implode if they don’t follow all the rules are fearful people; fearful people tend to lash out at others.
I hear tell that when the United States was trying to arrest President Noriega of Panama in 1989, in “Operation Nifty Package” (!), el Presidente took refuge in a church building. In order to drive him out, the US set up mega-speakers and blasted rock music non-stop at “deafening levels,” including repeated and ironic plays of “Panama” by Van Halen. Legalists too live with deafening levels – or maybe even whispers – that say, “In this circle you are safe; step out, and you will fall.” 
On the back of all those comics that I read in my misspent youth, they always were running ads for X Ray Specs, or Garlic Chewing Gum or Itching Powder. Put itching powder down a friend’s neck or in their clothes, and they’ll go crazy! Hilarious at parties!
Legalism is the itching powder of the mind; it’s an itch that can’t be scratched.
What made some of the Galatians transform from loving, generous, joyful people into a bloodthirsty pack? Was it because they had abandoned themselves to carnal pleasures, hard drinking, Satanism, drug abuse? Not at all. It was legalism.
The Galatians were taught by false teachers that following Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit was fine for the new Christian, for the baby steps of discipleship; but that Advanced Discipleship was a matter of identifying and obeying God’s rules. Circumcision was merely the gateway, since it was the symbol that a person was taking upon his shoulders the yoke of the 613 laws of God’s Torah.  Not just “thou shalt not kill” but also, you shall not wear clothes made of blended fabrics or eat oysters or neuter your pets or light your stove on Saturday. For them it was all or nothing, not just accepting “fun” laws like Passover celebrations.
The Galatian errorists were ostensibly trying to do God’s will, in Jesus’ name, while missing the Spirit’s power. And so they ended up doing the works of that dead battery, the flesh. They were followers of Jesus. Lip-service to the New Covenant while living by the tools of the Old one.
And the harder they tried, the behinder they got.
By no means are Messianic believers necessarily legalistic; and not all legalists are Judaizing – some are anti-Semitic, in fact. There are legalist Calvinists, Arminians, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and No-Name. The names change, the itch and insecurity remain the same.
Legalism is a security blanket to make a person feel right with God. And although he will swear up and down that it’s not so, the legalist has shown a clear willingness to trade off the cross of Christ in favor of his own precious blanket.
So, what happens if you try to take it away from him? Or tell her that your “banky” is just as good as hers? The legalist gets steamed up, verbally abusive, rancorous, and begins “biting and devouring one another.”
Legalistic church leaders are surrounded by a cloud of misdirection. For every legalistic preacher, you will find a cadre of believers who will swear out an affidavit that the one and the same Brother So-and-So is the kindest, gentlest, most loving person on the planet. So, what’s going on? Perhaps some legalists have bullied their way into people’s affections, while others are very nice to their followers; but get in their way, and Watch Out.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were infected with both sides of legalism, both the psychological and the theological. They believed that the Roman occupation army was God’s judgment on Israel for its disobedience. But what sort of disobedience? Because they were not loving enough, or merciful, or patient, or generous? No, principally because they did not properly observe the laws of Torah concerning Sabbath; purity; and separation from the Gentiles. Do those things properly, the Pharisees taught, and God will take notice and intervene! He will toss out the Romans and establish his kingdom of earth. Jesus was objectionable because he didn’t pay much attention to their priorities, while at the same time he claimed that the kingdom was truly and uniquely present in his own ministry. No wonder they played the role of Grumpy in the gospels.
I heard an unkind but admittedly hilarious joke, that one of our national politicians is “A woman who always looks like she’s watching someone not use a coaster.” Metaphorically speaking, that’s what Jesus did, driving the Pharisees crazy. Jesus tracked mud on the floors that the Pharisees were trying desperately to keep spotless.
Legalism leads a person conjugate the verb: “I am right, YOU are almost right, SHE is never right, THEY, that group over there, are 45% right.” The legalist knows by what formula they can count themselves right and others wrong. “Count yourself in the right” is, in theological terms, the same exact thing as “justifying yourself.” As in the story that Jesus told about people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9). And were grumpy.
By our fruits they will know us. Anger, no matter how reasonable it seems at the time, is a sign that all is not right between us and God, that our spiritual tank is empty and we are running on fumes. It matters not how correct we are.
 My impression is that the “Panama for Panama” story is mythical, which is too bad, because it’s a good one! For our less-wordly 🙂 readers: Van Halen was a rock group famous, mainly, for being loud; for the late Eddie Van Halen’s amazing guitar work; and also for (sometimes) featuring David Lee Roth’s grating, squeaky voice on vocals. I would have lasted maybe three turns around the “Panama” merry-go-round before running out and surrendering to the Marines. Take a look if you think I’m kidding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-NshzYK9y0
 For a useful list of all 613 mitvot or laws of Moses, see http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm
“Grumpy Legalists,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica