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5 Signs You Belong to a Legalistic Church

Victoria Riollano

iBelieve Contributor
Published: Feb 03, 2021
5 Signs You Belong to a Legalistic Church

If you are new to Christianity, you may have never heard of the term “legalistic.” However, over the last 20 years this word has been synonymous to a profane word of the faith. No one wants to be known as a legalistic church or person. This term is meant to signify a person or entity that has a heavy focus on God’s law and works rather than His grace and mercy. Often, those associated with being legalistic are known to add additional human standards to God has slated as truth. Before long, more time is focused on judging others, outward appearance, and keep up with the Old Testament law rather than sharing God’s love. Although Christians should always seek to serve the commands of God, we have to be careful that we don’t neglect to build a relationship with the Lord. Whenever, rules take precedence over true worship, legalism may be present.

With this in mind, here are 5 signs your church may be legalistic.

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1. A heavy focus on rules that may or may not reflect biblical truth.

1. A heavy focus on rules that may or may not reflect biblical truth.

Legalism may look different for different churches. For some, legalism may come in the form of dictating dress codes, for others it may be not allowing tattoos, or requiring members to run all personal decisions by the pastor for approval. Years ago, I went to a church like this as well. Women who wore pants, had earrings, makeup, and did not have their heads covered were openly called, “Jezebels” and looked down upon. Thus, rather than going to church ready to hear God’s word and fellowship with others, I would be worried about not looking the right way and being ostracized. Pastor R.C. Sproul described attributing human law as divine to be the “deadliest form” of legalism. In his article, "Three Types of Legalism," he writes,

“For example, the Bible doesn’t say that we can’t play cards or have a glass of wine with dinner. We can’t make these matters the external test of authentic Christianity. That would be a deadly violation of the gospel because it would substitute human tradition for the real fruits of the Spirit.”

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/4maksym

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friends in face masks due to COVID-19 helping at food pantry small group serving

2. Works become a central focus.

Legalistic churches often see works as the focus of salvation. Those who are saved are often concerned about losing their salvation for failure to do good works. Although we should actively seek to do things that display our heart for the Lord, like feeding the homeless, going to church, giving financially to help ministries, they can never become the measuring stick for how much of a Christian we are. 

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8)

The truth is, no amount of works could ever earn us a place in heaven. Salvation is a free gift for anyone willing to accept Jesus. When we start to equate our abilities with our salvation, we diminish the work of the cross itself. It’s by His goodness that we get to enjoy the benefits of being a child of God. Like the Apostle Paul says, 

"It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God: our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.'” (1 Corinthians 1:31)

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Biserka Stojanovic

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couple holding hands in prayer support forgiveness slow to anger

3. The message of grace is not taught.

Grace and mercy are a central part of the gospel. Yet, in churches that are legalistic, grace isn’t offered as much as it should be. Instead, those who miss the mark or fall into temptation are outcasted or even asked to leave the church. Author Laura Petherbridge states that one sign a church may be legalistic is that “There’s talk about the church extending 'too much grace' when it comes to a less-than-desirable person in the pew.” We must remember that grace is also a gift from the Lord. In many ways, choosing to withhold grace from the same people that the Lord has forgiven is a sign of arrogance, ignorance of God’s word and a judgmental spirit. 

"He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time," (2 Timothy 1:9)

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4. Only those who are a part of the denomination or church are true believers.

4. Only those who are a part of the denomination or church are true believers.

Another sign of a legalistic church is the idea that only their denomination truly reflects Christ. In these situations, those within the churches see themselves as the true “church” that knows the truth of God’s word. Anyone else with a different conviction about topics such as the role of women in the church, if drinking alcohol is acceptable, or even the style of preaching, could be the cause for a legalistic church to see themselves as closer to God and superior. Yet, the Lord never makes such distinctions amongst believers. Instead, He encourages us to come together, despite the differences, and worship Him alone.

Whenever we decide that our way is the way and condemn all others to hell, we place ourselves in the position of God. I believe the Lord is less interested in whether you are affiliated with being a Baptist, Pentecostal, or a part of the Holiness Church. We have to remember that God’s desire is that the church be in one accord. Although there may be differences in how we worship, we must remember that such distinctions are man-made and can become a distraction and stumbling block to some.

"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6)

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5. The law is more important than relationship.

5. The law is more important than relationship.

Christians should seek to follow all the commands put forth by the Lord. However, more than “checking the box” of Christianity, the Lord wants our hearts. Churches that neglect to focus on deepening one’s relationship with Christ miss a major opportunity. Although Jesus didn’t encourage his followers to disobey the law, He made it clear that He came to fulfill the law. It would be the Pharisees and Sadducees that would be more inclined towards the law than stewarding relationship with Jesus when He was standing right in front of them. Instead, Jesus came to draw people closer to Him. He was intentional about keeping his followers in close communion, teaching them about the Kingdom of God, and revealing who He was to those who were willing to listen.

Overall, we should seek to be a part of churches that draw us back to Jesus. One underlying thread of the legalistic church is a focus on human standards. Part of this can arise from misinterpretation of Scripture or failing to recognize the context that certain books were written in. Additionally, when church leadership start to see themselves as wielding the final say of right and wrong or heaven and hell, rules are created that place many in bondage. My prayer today is that the Lord would show you if you are part of church culture that has become unhealthy, legalistic, or that places a wedge between your relationship with other people of faith. Being a part of organizations like these can be detrimental to your spiritual growth and become a hinderance to others. May we all desire to lift one another up and be vessels of unity, hope, and love.

"So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:26-28)

References:
3 Types of Legalism

Why Believers Show No Grace

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Victoria Riollano is an author, blogger, and speaker. As a mother of six, military spouse, Psychology professor and minister’s wife, Victoria has learned the art of balancing family and accomplishing God’s ultimate purpose for her life. Recently, Victoria released her book, The Victory Walk: A 21 Day Devotional on Living A Victorious Life.  Her ultimate desire is to empower women to live a life of victory, hope, and love. She believes that with Christ we can live a life that is ALWAYS winning. You can learn more about her ministry at victoryspeaks.org.

Originally published Wednesday, 03 February 2021.

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