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Legalism may be defined as the position which sees religion or morality consisting of strict obedience to a prescribed set of laws. Otherwise stated, it is the theory that by doing good works or by obeying the law, a person earns and merits salvation. It can also be defined as the strictness by which one conforms to a code of action as a means of being justified.

For the early AnabaptistsAnabaptism, strict faithfulness to a code of action was called for by their understanding of Scriptures, not because this was a means to being justified, but because this was a demonstration of the changed life. The changed life gave evidence of one's regeneration. To this way of life the Christian committed herself voluntarily.

But the "new life" did not just happen. It was encouraged by exhortation, and it was aided by church discipline. Church discipline was the practice by which the faithful were seen to be in good standing, and by which the unfaithful were separated from the believing fellowship. The Anabaptists very soon received the reputation of living exemplary lives. They differed from the Lutherans, e.g., in believing that God's grace did not only offer forgiveness, it also enabled victorious daily living.

The good repute which the Anabaptists enjoyed, even from their enemies, on the basis of their Christian walk carried both a price tag and a danger with it. The price lay in the task of ascertaining what characteristics marked the Christian's everyday walk. They asked, "What is the biblical, especially the New Testament, mandate?" The danger lay in the application of that biblical mandate through an unloving use of church discipline to keep church members in line. Here legalism lay close at hand.

The history of the Anabaptists pictures the tension which existed. The Dutch Anabaptists in the time of Menno Simons were very strict with the use of the ban and avoidance of the disciplined person. Menno counseled less rigorous application of avoidance in such instances as between marriage partners. His fellow elders made the application too extreme, causing disruption in the fellowship. Menno, however, was himself accused of legalism when the Lutherans, believing that they had just moved out of the deadly grip of Roman Catholic works righteousness, saw the Anabaptist call for holy living as backsliding into a very similar perversion of the Gospel. This, of course, was not true.

Menno's understanding of grace was pristine. No one could earn salvation. God's grace alone accomplished it. One reason for Menno's writing the booklet The true Christian faith was to answer the charge of legalism. It was here that he dealt with such themes as law and gospel, letter versus spirit, and how one deals with commandments. His writing flows with the spontaneity of the fruits of the life of faith, and for him obedience to Christ's commandments is not legalism, but the loving response of the believer who has recognized God's Son as Redeemer and as Lord.

Notwithstanding, the legalistic tendency was there, and this became evident when the Dutch Anabaptists, adapting more and more to their culture, sought to spell out in detail what the church could not tolerate. Thus when Mennonite merchants acquired stock in sailing vessels which were armed, the church stipulated that, because this was contrary to the biblical teaching, to have more than a small percentage of the stock could not be tolerated. The Swiss Brethren similarly had their lists of permissible and non-permissible practices.

Through the centuries the issue of legalism has continued to raise its head. Kauffman and Harder in their Anabaptist profile, Anabaptists four centuries later (1975), point out that at given times and places Mennonites have clearly been caught in the problem of a legalistic moralism. For some Mennonite groups this has been more marked than with others. Adaptation to the surrounding culture has always occurred to some extent. However, the Mennonite Church (MC), the Mennonite Brethren, and the Brethren in Christ undertook more rigid enforcement of prescriptions and. proscriptions than the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Evangelical Mennonite Church. The lists of proscriptions have varied with the groups and varied with the time, covering a broad range of items such as the use of communication media, dress, recreation, use of alcoholic beverages, membership in lodges, etc.

More recently church conferences have been asked to deal with the application of biblical teachings to the practices of divorce and homosexuality (sexuality). Those who believe that the Scriptures clearly designate these practices as wrong, and therefore to be condemned, are considered by others as applying law separate from the love and forgiveness of God. Commendable is the continued openness to consider life-style and ethical issues, to receive such new light as the Spirit of God may grant to those who take their Christian walk seriously.


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Author(s) Henry Poettcker
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Poettcker, Henry. "Legalism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 27 Jun 2022.

APA style

Poettcker, Henry. (1989). Legalism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 June 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 516-517. All rights reserved.

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