Have you ever thought of someone’s behaviour as being legalistic? What did you mean? The dictionary meaning is exalting the law, usually with the purpose of applying the law in a way not intended by the law makers, and using the law for selfish ends. Jesus was harshly critical of the Pharisees for being legalistic. They would use obedience to the law for self-serving reasons, to limit what they would do for others, and as a weapon of judgement. Pharisaism has become a byword for legalism. The ultimate misuse of the law is to try to use it to justify oneself to God. As if someone’s obedience to a set of laws is going to impress God!
Yet, probably because of legalism’s negative associations, we sometimes wrongly criticise people as being legalistic when they are simply appealing to the law for support. The law in this case can be the law of the state, or some other regulation or principle that has generally agreed authority. Laws in themselves are not bad things. They seek to make our society a better place. The laws God gave to Israel through Moses were a good thing. Those laws do not apply to us as non-Jews living thousands of years later, but the issue Jesus had with the Pharisees was not about the laws themselves, but the way the Pharisees were using them.
Church rules and doctrinal statements (whether they are formally documented, or not) can function the same way. What is intended for the good of their members can always be misused. They can be used to justify breaks in fellowship between believers, especially with those in churches of differing doctrinal viewpoints. If faith is construed as holding to a set of doctrinal beliefs, as distinct from, or additional to, personal trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, a legalistic use of those doctrinal statements becomes a real possibility. Church doctrinal statements are attempts at describing our relationship with God. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, we can use these different insights to help us in our pursuit of truth. But may us Christians never be divided because of legalism. There is a temptation to separate from Christians of other denominations over fear of what others might think. Jesus knew the problem of being misunderstood, so it is unlikely that we will avoid it. Besides, how do you know what others might think? Some might respect you for it. Jesus would.