Why You Should be Legalistic – Part 2

In Part 1 of “Why You Should Be Legalistic” I argued that “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.”  While some may make the case that legalism is never good in an setting or stage of development, I think we need to accept that it is, but based on a few considerations.

Arrested Development & Reification
Young faith, though not technically legalistic, has all the dimensions of “legalism” in it. Because of human development, we all start life with a very binary way of thinking that is based on relationships of cause and effect. Complexity, nuance, gray areas, etc. become more comfortable and less fearful as we grow, or at least they should. We move from solely thinking in concrete terms to more and more abstraction. While this process of unraveling is due to natural patterns of maturity, not all make it through this process. Richard Rohr calls this process Falling Upward after his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for The Two Halves of Life

Legalism happens when concrete dynamics of our childhood development are reified and arrested thereby extending them into our adult development. It happens when we don’t do what Rohr talks about and unravel the egoistic construct we built in the first half of our life. This dynamic of moving from repetition to deconstruction is actually how we grow in life – moving back and forth from one to the other as we Fall Upward.

Arrested Development: An abnormal state in which development has stopped prematurely. i.e. – fixation, infantile fixation, regression, etc.

Reification: In David Naugle’s “Worldview: The History of a Concept“, he recounts a passage in Bernard Shaw’s film, Caesar and Cleopatra explaining the dynamic of reification well – “Pardon him Theodotus, he is a barbarian and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.” Naugle explains, “This pitiful barbarian is representative of the universal human tendency toward reification, which itself betrays a deep aspiration for security and a longing for truth.” (pg. 179) Reification is when we absolutize that which we are currently experiencing and treat our current circumstances, knowledge and awareness as universally true and concrete without the ability to questions, expand or deconstruct said circumstances. Basically, we’ve arrived.

Reification may be the only real heresy as it does not accord with the way God has designed humans to operate. The ability to learn requires that we let go of the paradigms and molds we previously learned in, in order to embrace new learning and new paradigms – and this will never end, literally. We do need seasons of repetition in our learning, but learning is not repetition. Repitition is the mother of all learning, but Deconstruction is the Father – and you have to have both to birth real learning. Learning is actually going to continue being part of the New Creation. The ability to learn isn’t part of human brokenness, only the inability to learn and change is. We will continue learning perpetually for the rest of our existence. The New World God is renewing will include our ongoing acquisition of knowledge, skills and wisdom. We will not know everything “when we get to Heaven”. In fact, intimacy with God is structured around continued learning, even after humans resurrect from the dead. So to stop this process by absolutizing and universalizing any aspect of human knowledge is “heretical” because it operates in opposition to the way God created us and the way we will continue to grow in intimacy with God in the New Creation.


By giving into the temptation of reification and the security provided by an arrested stage of development, we choose to ignore, fear or our-right reject complexity, nuance, abstraction and gray areas because they require us to let go of the security of our childhood development. This type of security is absolutely necessary during our childhood for healthy formation. While this this is an understandable dynamic, hanging on to those dynamics into adulthood is always destructive. It is especially destructive when we project it onto other people and expect them to uphold the world we cannot let go of. Churches, traditions and pastors do this all the time. If anyone in their community begins to grow beyond the capacity of their leadership, that person becomes a threat and are many times demonized, ostracized or made to feel as if they don’t belong anymore.

Prophets & Wisdom Literature: Deconstructing Legalism in the Bible
Old Testament prophets represent this dynamic. A prophet would receive new revelation from God that would either reinforce the covenant made between God and Israel or project what God was going to do with Israel in the future. By carrying out their ministry, OT prophets upset the accepted norms by introducing reinforced standards that had been forgotten or new ways of understanding God that had to be freshly incorporated into the life of Israel. The people of Israel would grow stagnant in an arrested posture towards Yahweh and reject these needed changes and expel, incarcerate or kill the prophet to avoid having to leave their arrested stage of development.

Biblical wisdom literature, particularly Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job demonstrate this trajectory of spiritual maturation that Israel was to be on. While at one time they read the relationship of cause and effect in Proverbial wisdom as static and concrete, the longer Israel was a nation, the more they realized that Proverbial cause and effect relationships could not always be true. The Psalmist knew this very well – that “cause and effect” isn’t how the universe really works, even though it does at times. Juxtaposing Ecclesiastes and Job with Proverbs demonstrates that the biblical authors and compilers of these text sought to place books (Job & Ecclesiastes) that demonstrate complexity, nuance, abstraction and gray areas next to a book (Proverbs) that didn’t (although it does the closer one looks). By placing Job and Ecclesiastes next to Proverbs, the audience, had to contend with the fact that the Retribution Principle outlined in the book of Deuteronomy wasn’t always true. Sometimes the opposite of what should happen happens and we cannot box God into always rewarding the faithful or always punishing the wicked. Ultimate justice is his, but in this era of human experience, that’s not how it works.

Infantilism: The Cause of Legalism
This teaches us as adults that Reality is not actually determined by the ethical and epistemological constructs of childhood or adolescence, even though many live as if it is. It is difficult for many young adults to accept that and transition out of it. They eventually do because life forces them to do so, but many don’t make it all the way out. Spirituality represents one area in which they don’t have to mature. Many then don’t because their spirituality has reified a version of God they met in their adolescence or childhood, providing them with a pseudo-security to traverse the complexity of adulthood without ever becoming a “spiritual adult.” This is pandemic among Christians because of a little known limitation I have called “infantilism”.


Infantilism is the fascination and reification of perceived securities provided in childhood that are then extended into adulthood. Adolescence is the era in which we unravel our childhood in order to become adults. Many think the main problem of adolescence is rebellion. Actually, much of our perceived rebellion is actually immaturity leaving our bodies in the struggle to become mature and independent while we unclench our hold on childhood securities. To not complete this process leaves us infantilized and many experience their faith as an infantilized faith leading to legalistic religious communities.

So how does legalism have so much momentum in communities that should be much more mature?

Two reasons – 1) leadership and 2) communal influence.

Though leadership plays a role in perpetuating legalism, I tend to believe that the collective community actually has a lot more influence than any leader or leadership paradigm. Leaders can promote, ignore or even work against legalism, but the dominant voice determining the environment, is the community, and usually it is a community with a majority of people with an infantilized faith or those who are transitioning out of a young faith. This is true at Bible Schools/Colleges, organizations, mission groups, etc. and it isn’t a Christian issue only. There is legalism is Isalm, Hinduism, Atheism, etc. It’s a human issue that finds its most hospitable home in immature or young expressions of faith, but is not exclusively found there.

Christianity has both the ability to meet and affirm young people in their legalism but also deconstruct and mature them beyond their legalism. It is a dynamic faith that everyone can find a home in wherever they are at in their journey of development. The key is that they should not assume that the “room” they are in at any point along the way, is actually the entire “home.” Theresa of Avila described this dynamic in her book, The Interior Castle, in which we develop through rooms of a mansion that represents the entire life of God. One does not have to agree with every aspect of her thought to appreciate the helpful metaphor. The problem though, is that like the barbarian in Caesar and Cleopatra, we enter a stage of our development, a “room”, and assume that we have arrived and expect others to arrive there as well. No further journey of maturation seems to be needed and the room we are in becomes our permanent residence when in reality we’ve been invited to explore the entire mansion – but the choice remains ours. 

Holiness: Appropriateness – Not Mere Morality
Right and wrong for a child is different than it is for an adult because the appropriate nature of certain actions (sexuality, diet, relationships, freedom, responsibility, etc.) changes as one develops and as one is able to “do” things that one was not to do as a child. A child shouldn’t drive, an adult should…a child shouldn’t have sex under any circumstance, an adult should under certain circumstances….a child needs to have unquestioned security for proper development…an adult needs abstraction and complexity to develop well…a child needs constant external micro-managed authority…an adult requires an ever-increasing internal rather than micro-managed external authority.

Holiness is not a universal sense of right and wrong. Rather, it is the ability to understand through wisdom, what is appropriate and not appropriate given context, situation, and timing. The problem with sin is that it is always attempting to make you experience something good in a bad way, at the wrong time or in the wrong context. By experiencing all that is good in God’s good creation in its appropriate way, time and context, we are being holy. Holiness is also teleological because as you experience life more and more in appropriate ways, you are living out the life you are designed to experience in the New Creation. Your life is headed in the direction of your fullest created identity, an identity that you will only achieve in the New Creation, but can grow towards now –  i.e. “Be holy as I am holy.” You cannot be appropriate (holy) in everything right now, but knowing that you will be holy in the future compels us each to lean how to do so in the present. This is done by not allowing our development to become arrested and reified in one stage.

So it is “appropriate” to be legalistic until it becomes “inappropriate”. Maturity is being fully present in the stage of development you are currently in – not trying to transcend it and act older than you are or remain naive and act younger than you are. Maturity is best understood as fully embracing the appropriate stage of one’s development and being full present in that stage. This allows to you leave that stage when maturity dictates that it is appropriate to do so. But again, like everything we’ve discussed, when it comes to growing, maturing and developing the choice remains yours. 

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  • Adam Lorenz

    I definitely resonate with your argument but…

    My struggle with approaches/understandings similar to this is that they seem to make faith a ‘hierarchical’ understanding. That individuals ‘evolve’ or somehow hold faith in some ‘better’ manner as they cognitively develop. Many have used Fowler’s ‘Stages of Faith’ as justification.

    I might add here that by no means do I believe that it is good for individuals to remain at a certain stage especially when they able to ‘progress’ in their thinking.


    (and some of this you hint at)

    the danger comes in, for me, when we believe we hold a more ‘mature’ faith due to our ability hold faith in a certain manner. We lose sight of the beauty each stage might have in and of itself; and when we do this we have actually created a new legalism.

    The humbling reality for me as always been the stories of Christ siding with the lesser, the child, the ‘simpleton’ over the academics, theologians and priests – time and again.