Legalism bad in society but worse in religion

By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist

Legalism. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “legalism” as “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.”
In our society, the silliness of legalism is so pervasive we hardly notice it anymore.
Have you installed a computer program recently? If you have, you almost certainly came to a screen early on that said, basically, check this box if you’ve read and agree with the following paragraphs and pages of legal mumbo-jumbo our fine lawyers have come up with about how this program should be used, not copied, not redistributed, etc.
You probably did agree with them, and you probably will use the program legally, but I’ll betcha you checked the box, and I’ll just about bet the farm that you did not read it. Don’t feel bad. Nobody (except the seriously neurotic) does. So legalism virtually forces everyone who installs software to tell (well, make that “click on”) a lie. And if you worry much about that, you’re probably too scrupulous to live long and prosper on this planet without driving yourself and everyone around you nuts.
I recently remembered to sign a change of address card for our church. No, we’re at the same place we’ve been for almost 40 years. But since we get our mail at a Post Office box, I don’t want folks who send mail to our physical address to get it back with NMR (No Mail Receptacle) scrawled across it. To be “strictly” legal, though our good postal folks here are good at finding us and know our address has never changed, I have to fill out a change of address card to keep happy and employed some USPS bureaucrat way up the food chain who likes rules better than delivering mail.
Legalism. “Excessive” conformity to law.
It’s bad in society and bureaucracy. It’s worse in religion.
Legalism in religion means trusting in law rather than in God. It’s death to real faith. It means that people get ground up in the gears of religion.
Consider, for example, religion and divorce.
In the church of my youth, legalism meant that a man contemplating divorcing his wife was likely better off just shooting her instead. He’d get more practical forgiveness from us for murder than for divorce even if, sadly, the divorce really needed to happen.
But, turning the tables, it was also legalism that made divorce easier in the church of a friend whose church taught that if you weren’t married in their church, you weren’t married at all. So go ahead and divorce your wife of however many years and break the hearts of your children. No problem. You’re legal.
Dear God, save us from legalists and forgive us when they are us. May we never be the modern incarnation of those “experts in the law” Jesus wrote about who, knowing law but not knowing you, “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry” and “will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).

Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at