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Discipline is not legalism

Discipline is not legalism
Posted on October 20, 2019  - By Preston Byrd

A common refrain in many Christian circles when confronted with the importance of regular habits is the sentiment, “I would do that, but I don’t want to become legalistic about it.” For many, repetitious and scheduled acts should be completed only when their heart is in it, lest it cross a line or somehow null its importance. But perhaps we’re mistaken and have conflated or misused the term ‘legalism’ as a catch-all term to eschew discipline in our faith. The two are very different and, if left unchecked, may have serious consequences.

Legalism, as popularly used, draws on the concept of following the law and external acts of spiritual actions, as well as establishing preventative measures to allay other transgressions. That is, in the mundane trenches of adult living, our anxiety may stem from hoping to avoid outsourcing our faith to hollow rituals, participating in Christian acts without partaking of their substance, like those who offer sacrifices, but not mercy (Hosea 6:6). It’s an understandable concern, but it may be more unfounded, unwarranted and, ironically, legalistic than we ourselves realise.

Certain acts in Scripture are expected: prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), fasting (Matthew 6:16-18), and gathering together (Hebrews 10:25), for example. Discipline itself is heralded as an important thing (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) and is seen in figures like Daniel (Daniel 6:10, 13). If our holy words, stories and examples implore it, then we must consider its importance to the spiritual life. Legalism, however, exempts required acts, expecting nothing from us while offering a spiritual justification for slothfulness.

Legalism exempts required acts of discipline, expecting nothing from us while offering a spiritual justification for slothfulness

Simply put, the desire to avoid being legalistic in our faith is a good one, but the habit of engaging in Christian living only when our hearts are ready for it may not be. Even the way this question is framed is revealing — to avoid legalism and instead be disciplined is very different than emphasising discipline in our faithfulness with a caution about becoming legalistic. And when comfort and ease are our insidious masters, it is used to justify a lack of regimen under the umbrella of legalism. The problem, however, is this imposes a serious toll, a spirituality which demands nothing from us, yet patterns us into fickle, malformed believers.

When you’re ‘ready’

If we choose to act on spiritual precepts solely when our conditions are met, such as if our hearts are adequately prepared, we create a near impossible standard to follow. We are humans — we have good days and bad ones, times when we are focused and others when we are distracted. Hoping to engage and participate in Christian acts only when we are ‘ready’ for them means we will spend a lot of time waiting to be ready to act, instead of acting. After all, do we not hold simply going to church regularly to that same standard?

A remedy for this is structured, regular order —  basically, living the Christian life even when it’s difficult. Musicians, athletes and professionals all work to craft their skill regardless of how they feel that day and we ought to as well. It’s partly why we train — so when the hard times do come, we’ve established the rhythms and conventions necessary to sustain us through those hard times when we cannot or do not feel it. After all, we are aware of various parts of the Christian life we do consistently, without subjecting them to the question of legalism, which helps us to understand their importance.

Not to mention, funnelling the whole of our spiritual life through the lens of legalism is itself a legalistic act, artificially constructing a new barrier to hurdle in pursuit of holiness. No, our trepidation is misplaced. A rigorous spiritual life also keeps faith from reduction into simple doctrines as it engenders and orients our life and loves through consistent spiritual routines.

Even if we fail to recognise it, there are customs, frameworks and principles which shape our approach to faith formation. Some are easy to discern while others are much harder. But among the most challenging and dangerous are ones which purport to bring freedom while offering slavery, and present flourishing while giving maladaptation. Jesus Himself gave His disciples instructions about what to do when they pray (Matthew 6:5-6), so it would serve us well to not be so quick to abstain from the very practices our Lord has prescribed for some pence of temporary ease. Instead, we discipline ourselves and, in so doing, are carved more and more into the image of Christ the King.

Preston Byrd

About Preston Byrd

Preston is a Texas native who is interested in topics of theology, culture, ethics, and literature. When not working with people in his community, he enjoys drinking coffee, sports, and reading books.



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