Legalism is a word that is usually applied to adherents of Christianity. It refers to a code of religious laws or rules that are followed but with a negative effect—the Christian begins to judge others’ righteousness based upon external adherence to those laws. In severe instances, the salvation of the “offenders” may be doubted. When the topic comes up, I’ve been told more than once by pastors that a person who smokes cigarettes cannot be a Christian. Christians debate such topics as, “Which movies should Christians watch?” “What exclamations are permitted when one is angry?” “May a Christian drink wine? Beer?” Some of the laws that Christians adhere to are indeed biblical. Some have no biblical basis, or a spurious one.

The problem is not the standards to which a believer holds. The problem is when Christians begin to think that they are righteous based upon their ability to keep religious law. If they do so, they are in serious error. Christians are made righteous only through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He took our sin and death upon Himself and received the punishment that we deserve. In return, He gave us His perfect righteousness, which enables us to have fellowship with the Father and to be His children and the inheritors of all that He possesses.

Throughout my lifetime, the pervasive drumbeat in the U.S. culture is the intolerance and even danger of Christianity. The three main targets have been the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, and Puritanism. Let’s be honest. We cannot defend brutality in the name of Christ. We also cannot defend an imposed, legalistic, religious life, if that is how Puritanism is perceived by its detractors. However, we can defend Jesus. Grace. Love. Forgiveness. The sovereign greatness of God, and many other essential truths.

Another target of the culture has been religious hypocrisy. Christians cannot defend hypocrisy either, and we must admit that it comes with the territory. We are held to the highest of standards—be perfect as God is perfect—but we cannot reach that standard. We teach those standards, endeavor to live by, and encourage others to do so, but we should be honest and admit that we fall woefully short—which is why we need a Savior.

Have Christians been improperly legalistic? Probably. There is no doubt that the culture has considered Christians to be “straight-laced,” “goody two-shoes,” or other perceived joy-killing pejoratives, as well as intolerant of others’ beliefs. However, now there exists an insidious, religious legalism within the secular culture of the United States. It is a legalism that is as deadly as anything legalistic Christians in the United States —rightly perceived or not—ever adhered to. In contrast to the forgiveness of sin and God’s grace that are pillars of Christianity, there is no such forgiveness for moral offenses in this secular legalism. I may lose my job if I am perceived to be a racist. I will be publically condemned, and my life ruined. I may lose my job if I’m considered a sexist. I will be publically condemned. However, the most dangerous of all the secular legalistic laws is that a Christian has the audacity to assert that belief in Jesus Christ is the only way one may go to heaven. I am therefore an intolerant bigot, a cultural supremacist. The odd thing about this is that this bigotry seems to only apply to Anglos. Black and Latino Christianity gets a pass in the media in the United States.

The Christian response? Admit to sinfulness, both yours and of past generations. I don’t recommend fighting silly cultural wars that only reinforce the idea that Christians are legalistic. Does it really matter if a secular culture “properly” celebrates Christian holidays? Let’s be honest. Christmas has become a frenzied, materialistic orgy. Christian believer, does that please God? Our concern should really be on our own values, not of those who do not even know our wonderful Savior. Why should I expect secular schools or meetings to allow Christian prayer? The United States is a post-Christian culture. It makes sense to me that secular authorities don’t allow such prayers. If they did, they would be faced with the issue of allowing the prayers of all religions. Do Christians really want that? No, we should not insist on having our way in such superficial issues. Let our light be the love and truth that is in Jesus. Let’s endeavor, by our love for others, put lie to the belief that we are intolerant, legalistic, and bigoted. Jesus and the early believers lived within cultures that had not been influenced by Christianity at all. They never attacked or criticized cultural norms. They preached the gospel. They prayed for others. They made disciples. Let us go and do likewise.