Why You Should Be Legalistic – Part 1

What kind of problems “float” to surface when people float around the world on a ship filled with 300+ 18-25 year old religious zealots?


In 2007, I had the unique opportunity to live on an international ship for two months filled with people from over 50 countries. Not only was the globe represented by the myriad of international volunteers, but these ships traveled (and still travel) to nearly every country in the world with port access. In my 2 months onboard, we spent 2 weeks in Japan and then sailed for South Korea for a couple of months. The diversity in culture, language, people and experiences was overwhelming. My roommates alone represented 3 different continents (South Africa, Northern Ireland, USA and France).

Each of us had come to the Doulos as volunteers to serve anywhere from 2 months to 2 years. Operation Moblization’s ships are a dynamic ministry for those with an adventurous spirit as well as a do-anything attitude. They boast the largest floating bookshop in the world and the ship’s work is made possible by over 400 volunteers, all whom raise their own support to come serve in any capacity the ship requires. The work is hard and the days are long, but for decades these ships have sailed the world transforming innumerable lives, forging life-long friendships and creating unheard of experiences for those who serve.


So with all this wonder and adventure, what problems are created when a boatload of predominantly 18-25 year old religious zealots sail around the world together. Well, to be honest, there are a lot of problems, but one of the most prevalent I noticed while onboard was the pervasive legalism plaguing the intents and actions of this younger demographic.

Legalism – an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigour, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit of the law. (Wikipedia)


In a conversation with a young woman onboard who was very concerned with a perceived legalistic streak, she asked me, “how do I stop being legalistic? I feel like it such a problem for me.” I shared with her three things:

1. I immediately informed her that by recognizing “a legalistic streak,” legalism may not be as present as she actually thinks. Usually those that are perpetually legalistic find it very difficult to realize that they are.

2. I asked her how old she was. She answered 21. I responded by encouraging her to realize that being legalistic is a very normal part of her current stage of development but that she was also at a transitional time in her life. As a child and teen, her ethics revolved around black and white binary thinking – which is normal. Authority for most of her life has been external instead of internal – which is normal. As a 21 year old she should be questioning these constructs and dismantling them, but by no means has she been wrong for holding them. It’s how the world has made sense to her, but as her development demands new frontiers to be explored, she has to deconstruct old ones and it is not wrong  to make these changes.

3. The last thing I told her was about how fearful and difficult it is to make this transition out of “development-appropriate” legalism. Letting go of ethics, constructs and paradigms that gave us security and sanctuary in our earliest years of development for more expansive and mature paradigms is no easy task. While “legalistic” constructs may be appropriate for our development at one stage of life, they are inappropriate and destructive for our maturity once we reach early adulthood. Sadly, many don’t make it through this right of passage to unravel the role legalism has played in their development. They are the ones who perpetuate legalism long after they’ve needed it for their development, because they were never able to let go of the security it brought them. They are trapped in their own infantile faith, which at one time was life-giving, but now drains them of the abundant life that they were meant to mature into. Though they may preach of the loftiness of grace, they are trapped in their dungeon of legalistic fervor. The longer they are there, the more fervent they become in order to protect what they have so dutifully built their life around. We can at one time be angry with their destructive and infantile influence and yet also look on them with empathy and compassion for the world they’ve trapped themselves in. What we shouldn’t do is allow them to tell us who God is and trap us along with them, in a world of squalor and exactitude. As long as they are trapped in legalism, they will always look to tell us of a God that is stuck, angry, unhappy with us and who needs to hurt somebody or something to satisfy his anger for whatever it is he’s angry about. Fathers, aunts, famous pastors, failed pastors, college professors and even our own selves can carry this burden.

So if you were on a boat filled with young religious zealots, how would you transition out of legalism? Here are three ways.

Recognize: Recognize that you are legalistic in some way and know that by recognizing it, half the battle is won.

It’s OK: It’s ok to be legalistic because you needed it to grow and develop rightly. But know there will come a time when the fear associated with letting go of that security will be overwhelming – yet you need to face it and let it go. Ways of thinking that gave you deep meaning and security in your childhood and teen years may need to be let go, some may need to actually die. Pray for perception beyond what you have perceived and courage for what you have not yet experienced.

Compassion: Be compassionate to those stuck in legalism rather than antagonistic. They will not understand you, but you can understand them and so do so with empathy. They will view you as unorthodox, a heretic or a liberal, but by recognizing their prison and living faithfully within their reach, you can actually compel them to live differently. But how do you do so without being overwhelmed by them? Create boundaries instead of palisades. These boundaries will keep you from being coaxed back into their prison. Boundaries instead of palisades will allow you to encounter them as a person endowed dignity and God’s favor, and maybe, just maybe, be part of God’s plan to help free from their prison.

In Part 2, we will discuss the reasons legalism is perpetuated in communities of faith – Why You Should Be Legalistic – Part 2

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  • Adam Lorenz

    I use to be ashamed and resentful towards my ‘legalistic’ days. But what I failed to realize that in that moment was I had actually created a new legalism for myself – I had just found a way to use different language (and the occasional curse word) in my interactions and considered myself beyond it.

    Discovering grace for myself in the midst of that but even more so grace for those who still operated within those constructs; this was one of the most freeing acts I’ve had in my life. Acknowledging that I am not who I was nor am I who I will be; I have not arrived and that this applies also to those all around us.

    Your 3 suggestions for transitioning apply equally to how we then live with and for others throughout our lives. This is a good word, Nate.

    • Adam – thanks for your story. I too think back on days when legalism ruled my actions and heart with shame at times. I think the best thing I discovered was what you and I have realized – that it was ok – that was part of growing up. I can’t stop thinking about how important understanding “stages” is. We do that with infants when they are developing rapidly, but fail to do so with ourselves and others once we get into adulthood. “Stages” don’t end with adulthood, but they may slow down. Thank you for your good word on this topic. With the grace piece you mentioned, I like to appeal to Richard Rohr’s second half of life idea. It’s a brilliant way to explain this dynamic.

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