14 Characteristics of Theological Legalism

By C. Michael Patton:

[…]

Here are some ways to know if you are a theological legalist:

  1. You don’t think there are “minor theological issues”
  2. You always define yourself with the word “true” in front of it (e.g. “I am a ‘true’ Calvinist,” “I am a ‘true’ Baptist,” “I am a ‘true’ Christian).
  3. Your statement of faith or catechism is so detailed that no one but your particular tradition can sign it.
  4. Your passions focus on the small issues and this finds expression in your personality.
  5. Most of your theological writing and/or discussion focuses on where other Christians have gone wrong.
  6. You have a bulldog mentality with regard to your “pet” issues; you cannot let things go emotionally. You have to leave the room.
  7. When one disagrees with you they are forever defined by that disagreement (“There goes Joe the Arminian” or “I would like to introduce you to Katie the complementarian.”
  8. You think belief is either black or white, you either have it or you don’t; there is no in-between and certainly no room for doubt.
  9. You think all those outside of your tradition are either going to hell or are less spiritual than you are (i.e. all Catholics are going to hell, all Protestants are going to hell, all those who suggest otherwise are going to hell, etc.)
  10. These are the only three reasons why people disagree with you: 1) they don’t have enough or the right knowledge, 2) they have compromised, and/or 3) they are justifying in some sin.
  11. No one outside of your tradition wants to talk theology with you (and you take it as a badge of honor).
  12. When you write about other Christians, you continually find yourself putting the word “Christian” in quotes.
  13. Your statement of faith is so qualified no one can understand it.
  14. You are always shutting conversation down by accusations of logical fallacies ad absurdum.

Of course we all have these problems from time to time. And I am not saying that the word “Christian” should not be place in italics for some people. But if you find yourself identifying with many on this list too often, you may have the problem of doctrinal legalism which, in my opinion, is the most dangerous trap out there for those of us who love theology. I have been there and still wrestle with my own theological legalism. But this is something we all need to repent of and teach our students and children about its dangers.

If you love theology, please be the first to put on the attitude of humility. When someone speaks about you in this regard, don’t have your goal for others to think you are smart or right, but humble and meek. When others talk about your personality with regard to theological discourse, would they say you are arrogant and legalistic, or gracious and meek? This does not mean we sacrifice our passions or beliefs, it just means we temper ourselves for the sake of the Gospel. The truth is too important for us to lose our witness due to theological legalism.

Titus 3:2
[Instruct them] to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.

Phi 4:5
Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.

2 Tim 2:25-26
With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.

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