Legalism is a term Protestants use to talk about a nexus of spiritual and psychological problems concomitant with overly formalised and burdensome religious practices. It can also be used in a secular context to describe the angst that modern Westerners feel in an overly-legislated everyday environment, be it the workplace, roads, the internet, or even the home.
Law serves a variety of purposes in the secular and religious worlds. It informs people about moral principles that should guide their attitudes and conduct and it controls groups by imposing punishments for unrighteous behaviour. God’s laws are always just, but man’s laws may be unjust. The application and creation of laws are complex matters. On the one hand, it is wrong to deny an ideal; on the other, it is naïve to think that fallen human beings are perfect. As St Paul says in Romans, “I do not do the good that I wish to do; the evil that I do not wish to do, that I do.”
Society today seems plagued by a burden of too many laws, and laws that are so complicated as to be beyond the comprehension of significant parts of society. The result of this can be that various people do not have access to civil and criminal justice, because the cost of hiring a lawyer is prohibitively expensive. Through improving technology, we are slowly allowing people to get access to justice (e.g. apps that help people to challenge unjust parking tickets). But there are still broader questions Are the plethora of laws we have really necessary? Are all of our laws just? Are many of our laws too complicated?
One of the criticisms Christ had for the Pharisees was that they imposed many laws on the people of Israel, but did nothing to help them bear the burden of those laws. It may be that this challenge applies equally to the secular world today. While it is true that the state does often incorporate various reliefs, extensions, and defences into its laws, while also publishing guidance documents on public governmental websites, it remains the case that scrupulous people feel overburdened in our legalistic societies. In fact, while the following proposition is not capable of being rigorously proved, one has a certain intuitive suspicion that the burden of the law today is a contributing factor to OCD in some people.
A vast body of laws would not be necessary in a society where people were generally reasonable. That is, where people knew moral precepts, were willing to submit to them, and knew how to apply them in a flexible manner that took account of the particular circumstances of a given case. Christians believe that God’s final judgment of humanity will proceed on this basis: He will judge people on what they knew or were reckless about, not on things beyond their grasp or control. This approach, which generally characterises the criminal law (actus reus and mens rea) is not found in cases of strict liability. In these cases, the innocent suffer because it is felt that letting them off will make the law become unenforceable as the truly culpable find ways of convincing courts that they lacked the necessary blameworthy attitude and intent.
The secular world of law has become murky. There is no longer consensus on what is moral and what is immoral. In truth, hypocrisy finds expression everywhere, seen, for example, in cases where people criticise corporations and then demand luxury products at low prices. At the heart of the problem lies the evil of statism, creeping like a weed through the garden of conscience. We now live in world where it seems people expect everything to fall within the remit of the state, and nothing within the personal liberty of human beings.
A slavish system will engender a slavish mentality. We are not called to be slaves to men, but servants of the living God. Christians are compelled to put up with a number of bad things – but we must not confuse the obedience required of us by conscience with the willing obedience owed to truly just laws and norms. It is my prayer that God will visit the USA and UK in revival power and change our culture, so that our governments learn to trust people and ease the excessive, neurosis-causing burden of the law we experience today.