Grumpy Legalists


What can turn happy, friendly Christians into a snarling mob? What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob?


What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob? Legalism!
What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob? Legalism!

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.

Angry fist. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

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.

The Psychological

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!

15 Items - Here we draw the line in the sand!
15 Items – Here we draw the line in the sand!

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.” [1]

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.

The Spiritual

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. [2] 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.


[1] 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:

[2] For a useful list of all 613 mitvot or laws of Moses, see

“Grumpy Legalists,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

14 thoughts on “Grumpy Legalists

  1. I find this thread offensive. not saying i’m trying to act like these “legalists” by being “grumpy”. you seem to misunderstand what “yoke” means in the context of the text. the “yoke” isn’t the Law, but rather, the Curse of the Law, which too many say is the Law itself. These posts explain it better than I can.
    now, the reason I do this is not out of spite, but love, in hope you’l be lead to Truth.

    1. Not I, but the rabbis of the Second Temple themselves, invented and freely used the “yoke” metaphor. They did not mean “curse of the law” but rather the positive and joyful reception of the Torah. When Jesus used it in Matt 11 he did so in a context where it was a common metaphor.

      In rabbinic terms, when a proselyte was circumcized and received the mikveh baptism, he was said to “receive the yoke of the law upon himself.” Again, I assure you that I am getting my information from having read the rabbis, and teaching the topic on the graduate level, not from a website.

      Btw, take a look at the works of the flesh in Gal 5. In Paul’s argument, he is attributing them, in the first place, to Christian legalists. My use of the word “grumpy” is extraordinarily reserved compared to Paul’s “they bite and devour one another”, no?

      Thanks, Gary

      1. perhaps i should have worded it better. the Law is a yoke, but people too often use that saying to mean it’s a bad thing, when without it we wouldn’t know what sin is(Romans 7:7). it is a yoke, but it’s not unbearable(Matthew 11:28-30)
        what i ment is people too often say the Law itself is the curse. Did you read the articles i linked? not angry, just wondering if you read them, because they explain it well.

        1. Okay, the two short articles? Yes. Both, with due respect, lacked serious scholarship and almost certainly were written by people who were not able to do their own deep research in the languages. Web pages that promise much, that criticize “so-called scholars”, that use lots of bold type are a red flag.

          For example, there is zero historical evidence for “Yahushua” being Jesus’s name. Yahushua is a made-up modern combination, and is found nowhere in any Scripture to refer to Yeshua/Iesous. People use their own special form of the name, unfortunately, to say “We use the right name, instead of Jesus, and therefore you must follow our teacher and not your pastor.” I have seen a dozen or so forms, all of them mistaken, but all of them saying “Only our group is correct.”

          From Matt 1:21, and from every single reference to the Savior in the Scriptures, his name was Yeshua/Iesous: as the angel said, his name means “he-shall-save”, which in Hebrew and Aramaic is Yeshua, transliterated into Greek as Iesous, but not the made-up Yahushua.

          Yahweh very probably is the right pronunciation for the tetragrammaton, but that is not certain, and even Hebrew experts will generally say it is an approximation, or maybe some other pronunciation is correct.

          The distinction about transliteration and translation does not apply to Yeshua/Iesous/Jesus, since Iesous and Jesus ARE transliterations of Yeshua, not translations. If we wanted to translate his name, we would call him “He-shall-save”.

          The yoke that Jesus talks about in Matthew 11, btw, is not the Torah, it’s his teachings = “MY yoke”. Blessings! Gary

          1. you seem to have responded to the wrong one of my comments. i think you got this one confused with the one on the “yeshua? iesous? jesus? some? other? form? whos? right?” blog. i was asking about the ones i posted on the comment ABOVE.(although i appreaciate your response to my other links. Shalom.)

          2. Ah, I see, thanks, no, I didn’t read them. They seem to come from a Jewish Roots perspective, which I do not follow. There are many people these days who emphasize Jewish roots, but, to be honest, I find that many of them have studied primary sources of Second Temple Judaism less than I have, so typically I’m not convinced.

            No, I don’t think the Law is a curse, to those who perfectly obey it, it’s a blessing. “What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not!” But it promises a curse, as Paul says, quoting Deuteronomy – “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.'” Continue, everything, are absolute terms which no-one can relativize. Jewish Roots teachers typically DON’T take the Deuteronomy quote seriously, they emphasize going to meetings on Saturday, eating kosher, or celebrating Passover, but leave out hundreds of the other mitzvot. That means, according to Moses, Paul, that they are under a curse, neither are they righteous through Christ nor are they righteous by Torah, so it’s a double loss.

            Blessings, Gary

      2. Please read the articles i linked. they would have answered most of the objections you gave.
        I know it’s diffucult to read something you don’t agree with, but they explain it very well, and debunk the common reasoning used to say Galatians says the Law is done away with.
        I know it may start to feel like i’m spamming at this point, but i really care about bringing you to Truth. please stop fighting me and read them. as much as I’m trying to be loving, this is getting frustrating.

        1. I will try to take a look at them at some point. But please believe me, Jeffrey, I spend hundreds of hours a year reading things I disagree with! I read two books a week, week in and week out, and disagree with a long list of them.

          In the meantime:

          You haven’t responded to any of what I have posted, except to tell me what others have said.

          You haven’t responded to my question as to whether you live by Torah.

          You didn’t even listen when I said that, I don’t believe that the Law has been done away with! So now that you are, again, trying to convince me that the Law hadn’t been done away with, you are “breaking down an open door”.

          You haven’t given me any indications that you have done your own study on the topic.

          I don’t say this to put you down, but ask that you please respect that I am investing time to interact with you, and do so with the assumption that you will read what I’ve posted. Thanks! Gary

  2. I like what you said. My Mom in recent years has become a very Jewish , Hebrew language legalistic Christian. I can’t have a decent conversation with her any longer about anything bible related without her constantly asserting the use of Yeshua instead of Jesus and Now Jehovah (J as Y pronounced she insists) instead of God. It’s to the point now that she tells us our bibles are wrong and it seems like she thinks we all have to learn Hebrew to understand the word of God. I don’t mind understanding Jewish customs etc. as it relates to our foundation as Christians but I don’t understand why she now is emphasizing these things more now rather than Just knowing Jesus as our Saviour and that what He did on the cross and His resurrection are enough. It’s very frustrating . It seems like these things could just cause confusion and distrust in the Bible, especially for new believers or those we witness to.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear this! This is the trap that “Jesus-plus” sects have always caused for the past 2000 years: they promise to make people deeper and more advanced disciples, but they do so by diminishing Christ and therefore robbing people of the Spirit’s power to make them truly holy and loving. It’s the “fruit of the Spirit”, not the “fruit of the Torah.”

      Btw, I have read Hebrew for years, and while I am very blessed by using it, it doesn’t make us any closer to God.

      Blessings, Gary

  3. Aunque quizas no pòr lo mismo, he sufrido de los legalistas; en un tiempo fuí uno de ellos, hoy por más que lo lamente, debo reconocer que he hecho mucho daño:
    La única forma de cambiar es tener un verdadero encuentro con Jesucristo, te llena de amor y perdón y aceptación hacia los que difieren contigo.
    El legalista es un muy buen conocedor de las “Escrituras”, pero su interpretación es literal; no sabe distinguir de las diferentes maneras de interpretar las mismas.
    Pablo a los galatas les dijo: “oh, galatas estupidos ¿quien los hizo desviar de la verdad?
    Ojala que volvamos a la verdad, sin señalar a los demás, sino ante una autoevaluación frente a las Escrituras, sin importar cual es la “versión” o traducción que usemos, pero con un espìritu humilde y deseoso de obedecer, sin juzgar a nadie.-

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