I’ll admit it: I’ve got a bit of a rebellious streak. It doesn’t come out often, but it’s there.
See, I like rules. Specifically, I like rules that make sense. I appreciate decisions that I understand (even if I don’t agree). I can’t stand when people take power trips (especially when they have no real power or authority anyway). I have no patience for those who act like arrogant so-and-sos. I really struggle with heavy-handed bureaucracy. I chafe whenever I’m told to “just do it,” no matter what “it” is…
This, naturally, puts me at odds at times with authorities. I don’t (usually) defy them, but I certainly don’t comply with joyful obedience. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. In fact, it’s almost a sure bet that some, maybe most, of you reading this have a similar kind of reaction.
Why do we do this though? Is it simply because we’re sinful people that always want their own autonomy? When we chafe under reasonable rules, and humble leaders, yep. But what about when it’s the leader who habitually leaves his or her decisions unexplained, who tends to power trip, or just wants what he or she wants? Then, I’d suggest it may be reacting to something else: legalism.
Legalism has a number of manifestations, obviously, but one of the chief ways it reveals itself is in arbitrary behavior. If you don’t think you need to explain your decisions or positions and people should just obey, you’re probably a legalist. If you demand your own way and use your authority (or emotional or spiritual manipulation) to make sure people comply, you’re probably a legalist. If the only “right” way to practice a particular spiritual discipline is the way you happen to be most comfortable, you’re probably a legalist. If you think “because I said so” is actually a good reason for someone to obey any and every command, you’re probably a legalist.
And guess what? This is the number one way you encourage people in their rebellion and to undermine your authority.
It’s worth repeating: not all of the blame for this lands on the shoulders of those we perceive as legalistic or domineering. We are, by nature, sinful people who desire complete and total self-rule, as mentioned above. But without removing the need to honestly evaluate ourselves, we ought to recognize that legalism certainly doesn’t help us become more holy, humble, coachable and compliant.
And here’s the rub: this isn’t a problem that can be solved with more rules. If you’re a pastor or a manager or a supervisor or anything else for that matter, you can’t have a meeting with those you lead and say, “There will be no more of X, Y, or Z,” any more than you can say, “We’re going to do even more of A, B, or C!” All either does is further undermine your authority and push people deeper into their resistance. Jerram Barrs explains this well:
Legalism fosters rebellion against parents, schools, and churches, and ultimately against God. Whenever we add to God’s Word we immediately increase the likelihood of resistance to our authority. … If we try to make worship obligatory, we will produce either spiritual arrogance or superficial observance and a resistant heart. (Learning Evangelism from Jesus, 174-175)
Though Barrs writes with church ministry in mind, we can all apply this regardless of our context. The more rules we heap upon people, the more they will resist. The more we demand a certain kind of posture, the more people will openly defy us or comply while hating you in their hearts.
So here’s what we need to ask ourselves:
First, if we primarily identify ourselves as leaders in whatever capacity we serve: Does our posture bring life or death? Are we overbearing? Are we domineering? Are we truly as patient as we think we are, and doing our best to explain our decisions? Or do we try to solve problems by making more policies and procedures?
Second, for those who sit under leaders we perceive as legalistic or domineering: Are we actually thinking rightly about those who lead us, or are we misinterpreting their behavior? If we are right in our thinking, what are we going to do about it? Just as more rules won’t solve rebellion, so too rebellion won’t eliminate legalism. So, how can we protect our hearts from hate? How can we prevent bitterness from taking root? And how can we extend love and grace to our legalistic leaders, who may not even realize how they appear?
There are no easy answers to these questions, on either side. But they are worth asking, if we ask in the right spirit, and with a desire to do something with what we learn.