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10 Signs Your Church is Legalistic

Updated: Apr 10

10 Signs Your Church is Legalistic

The dictionary defines legalism as "excessive adherence to law or formula." As it relates to the Christian Church, legalism could be defined as strict dependence on obedience to religious laws and formulas, either real or man-made, rather than faith in Christ, God's grace, and a personal relationship with Him.

I believe Christ was clear during His ministry and through the fulfillment of the Old Covenant through His life, death, and resurrection that the law has been fulfilled. He finished it and nailed it to the cross. (See Romans 10:4; Colossians 2:14)

The New Covenant of Jesus Christ is not like the Old Covenant according to the Bible. It is a gift of grace through faith, not works, and it operates by the Spirit, which gives life and liberty, not the letter of the law, which brings death. Legalism and punishment for sin is the old way. Grace and reconciliation through forgiveness is the new and better way. (See Romans 3:21-31; 2 Cor. 3)


“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9

“Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.””

John 6:28-29

“For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

Galatians 2:18-21

“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

Romans 3:28


Of course, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't do good works. Sanctification is important to the believer's walk with Christ. However, one of the beautiful things about Christianity is that we do it individually, in faith, directly with God. It's between us and God, not dictated, micro-managed, or mediated by the church or its self-appointed leaders, pastors, elders, or patriarchs. (See Philippians 2:12-13; Heb. 8:10-12)

The law of God is now written on our hearts and minds, not as a written code of laws like the Old Covenant, but by the Holy Spirit. We no longer need a mediator telling us what is right by God because Christ is our only mediator and He teaches us Himself. We have God within us, guiding us and transforming us by the renewing of our mind.

The only job we have now as Christians, as the Church, and as pastors, teachers, evangelizers, or whatever it is God has called us to do, is to love God, love each other, spread the Good News, and encourage each other in our walk with God. Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. (See Luke 10:25-27; Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; John 13:31-35; Colossians 3:23)

Condemning vs. Confronting

When avoiding legalism, it's important to distinguish the difference between condemnation and confrontation. They're two different things, but like forgiveness and reconciliation, they're commonly conflated and confused in the Christian Church, especially by leadership. This can lead to abuse.

Condemning someone for supposed sins and pointing the finger at anyone we find to be disobeying our opinion of what the Bible says is not gracious, loving, or Christ-like, but legalistic. It presupposes that my opinion of what the Bible teaches is true and therefore you are deserving of eternal punishment for disobeying my version of Christianity.

The truth is, I have my opinions of what the Bible teaches and so do you, but neither of us are right about everything. Only God knows the complete objective truth about everything. The rest of us are trying to figure that out, but none of us will ever have perfect knowledge of God or His Word. For me to condemn anyone, or in other words, sentence them to eternal damnation or punishment by God, for my subjective, human opinions about God's truth is legalistic, but also incredibly prideful.

The New Covenant of Christ is not a book of laws to obey, but a relationship with God by the Spirit, through which He writes His laws on our hearts and minds. Therefore, we shouldn't condemn others with our subjective, man-made laws or traditions because only God knows our hearts and minds and only God can judge us perfectly.

However, if someone is harming you or those you love, it's perfectly reasonable to confront them to protect yourself and others. This is displayed multiple times in the New Testament and addressed by Christ directly. Exposing darkness is what the light does by nature. Unfortunately, the line between confronting someone for abuse or harm and condemning them for sins against so-called "biblical standards" or "God's law" is often ignored for the purpose of spiritual abuse, exploitation, and manipulation by church leaders.

Confronting someone for abusing you or harming you in some way isn't the same thing as punishing, condemning, or using God's name as a means to punish or condemn them. One action is an act of love and often reconciliation, while the other is an act of usurping God's authority for the purpose of coercive control and contempt.

With this understanding of legalism, confrontation vs. condemnation, and the gracious reconciliation we have with God through Christ, let's look at 10 signs your church may be practicing legalism rather than the law of life, liberty, and love given to us by Christ under His New Covenant.

10 Signs Your Church is Legalistic

1. You're required to attend a class and sign a contract or agreement in order to be a member of the church.

This first sign is surprisingly common in Christian churches today, and I have no idea why. By signing a membership agreement or contract, you're literally swearing a legal oath to a small group of men/women that you will pay tithes, serve the church (for free), submit to them in whatever way they think you should, and continue to believe in specific doctrines which the church labels as essential to your membership in their church.

This is as legalistic as it gets. If your church requires you to go through a class and sign a contract in order to be considered a member of their church, they are legalistic. God’s laws are written on our hearts and minds now, remember? The letter kills. The Spirit gives life.

I've recently received criticism that it's unreasonable to expect churches not to provide membership classes or make sure their members agree with/support their teachings and practices. While I agree that it's reasonable to offer classes that outline the church's teachings and practices, it's still legalistic to require members to sign a contract which legally binds them to the whims and false authority of the church's leaders.

(2 Cor. 3:6)

2. The church's teachings focus more on condemning sins than preaching the Gospel.

One of the main messages of the Gospel is that we are free from the burdens, laws, and curses of sin, death, and condemnation. Through our faith in Christ, we can stand before God blameless and innocent. We have been forgiven of ours and are no longer condemned for them through Him.

Any church that spends more time condemning people for their sins than resting in God's grace is missing the point and reverting to a legalistic way of thinking.

(Romans 2:1; Luke 6:37; John 3:17)

3. The church preaches tithing or coerces financial donations using the Bible as a law.

The New Testament is pretty clear on matters of giving. That doesn't stop pastors from creating confusion, conflating tithing with charity, and sometimes even making money management more important than the Gospel. According to the Apostle Paul, the believer should give according to how they are led by the Spirit in their own heart. A believer filled with the Holy Spirit will give, but the church has no right to legislate the believer's giving in any way. They act as though they do, but there is nothing in the New Testament that gives your pastor the authority to demand anything from you, whether it's generosity, time, or your talents.

As for tithing, it's an Old Covenant temple ordinance of the Mosaic Law. Period. It doesn't apply to Christians, and never has. If a Christian independently decides in their own heart that they want to give 10% of their income to their church, that is their right and decision. If they can't afford that, but would still like to give, they can give less and be just as faithful of a Christian as the one who gives more. If they don't give anything to a church but live a generous life as best they can regardless of their poverty, they're also just as faithful of a Christian as the one who donates to a church.

Jesus scolded and berated the Pharisees for using their traditions to “devour widows’ houses”. I believe He would do the same thing to any church preaching tithing today.

(2 Cor. 9:7; Mark 12:38-40)

4. You're afraid to be yourself around church members and leaders because you don't want to be judged or condemned.

Some churches and Christians are so judgmental and obsessed with living up to their own religious laws that they're constantly trying to appear a certain way, either because they think it will make them a better Christian, or because they’re afraid they'll be judged for not following the laws.

This is just sad, and not at all what Christ gives us through His sacrifice on the cross. If you feel judged and condemned by your church or your friends from church, or if you feel like you can’t even be yourself around them because you’re afraid of appearing sinful, you’re probably going to a legalistic church.

The Pharisees turned the law of God into a legalistic religion which led to deep hypocrisy and insolent pride. While appearing godly outwardly and giving lip-service to God, inwardly, they were lawless, ravenous wolves and "full of dead men's' bones."

(Matthew 7:15; Matthew 23:27-28; Luke 18:9-14)

5. You're required to attend a class and/or sign something in order to be baptized by your church.

Like with the membership class many churches have, a baptism class is equally baffling. If someone claims to be a Christian and wants to profess that faith outwardly in the act of baptism, what's with the classes and the contracts?

It takes less than a sentence to explain what baptism is, so why do churches have classes that last hours, sometimes even several hours, to allow someone a baptism in their church?

If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’ve put your faith in Him, you’ve died to yourself and have been raised to new life in Christ. Baptism is the physical, outward expression of what has already happened inwardly. If you understand this and you want to get baptized, you should get baptized.

Literally no one in the New Testament churches made any record of requiring or offering a practice like this. When churches create entire courses and contracts around something as simple as baptism, which people must attend in order to be baptized, it makes baptism way more legalistic that it is.

6. Spending time with non-Christians is frowned upon.

This one gets me every time. How can Christians, who are commanded to love others, be so unloving toward non-Christians? How are we supposed to spread the Gospel if we don't engage with non-believers?

This legalistic behavior, like most of them, is based on a single verse that’s been taken out of context in order to justify judging, condemning, and scolding people for being “unequally yoked” with non-believers.

For a contextual study of 2 Corinthians 6, check this out, but simply put, a church that condemns you for loving or spending time with non-Christians is legalistic.

7. The church leaders and members frequently take the Bible out of context in order to condemn or judge people.

As an extension of sign 6, there are plenty of passages in the Bible that can easily be taken out of context in order to judge, condemn, and scold others for not living up to what they see as the Bible’s standards. This comes from a legalistic mindset which views the Bible as a written law rather than a roadmap for individual believers seeking God and walking with Him.

Once again, the letter kills. The Spirit gives life. We are no longer condemned under Christ, and pointing the finger is religious legalism, not Christian love and grace.

8. Your obedience to God is made synonymous with being obedient to the Church.

Some churches will make themselves the mediator between you and God, usurping Christ's authority and condemning Christians who don’t invest their whole lives into the church.

News flash, pastors: you’re not God. I don't need to be obedient to you in order to be obedient to God. No one does.

If your church leaders use language that make it sound like you’re neglecting God if you neglect the church, they’re making themselves a mediator on God's behalf like the High Priests of the Old Covenant. That's legalistic.

Christ is our only mediator, not the church or its leaders.

(1 Tim. 2:5; John 14:6)

9. Reading the Bible is made into a religious ritual that you're obligated to do in order to be a faithful, good Christian.

Reading and hearing the Word of God is important. Very important. It’s how we learn about the Gospel. It’s how we become knowledgeable in the things of God. We should be fed the Word of God for so many reasons.

However, it's not required.

The only thing required of Christians is our faith in Jesus Christ. He makes intercession for us, and the Holy Spirit guides us and convicts us. Creating a religious ritual around reading the Bible is just as legalistic as turning baptism into a four week class, church membership into a written and signed oath, and requiring Christians to pay a tithe.

If you read the Bible a lot, great. If you don’t read it at all, you should consider starting, but guess what? Not reading it doesn’t make you any less of a Christian than the guy who reads it for hours every day. What makes you a Christian is your faith in Christ, not your works.

(Romans 3:21-30)

10. Sin Discipline

If your church has an established protocol for disciplining individual Christians' sin within their church, that's pure legalism. There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. If God no longer condemns us, neither should we condemn others for their sins, and no one has the authority to discipline God's people for sins except God Himself.

Additionally, when we do fail to love and fall short, as we all do, our mediator is Christ, not our church, our pastor, or our church's leaders. A church establishing procedures for disciplining sin is akin to the practice of confessing sins to a priest in the Catholic Church.

(Romans 8:1; 1 Tim. 2:5)


This is just a small list of the kinds of things churches and legalistic Christians practice today, but if you recognize them, please consider a different way. In my experience, legalism leads to insolent pride, idolatry of the law, neglect of Jesus and His Gospel, and spiritual abuse.

If you want to follow laws, be condemned for failing to meet a church’s standards and feel guilty 24/7 even though Christ died so you could live in freedom, go to a legalistic church. If you don’t think Jesus Christ is enough, that you must do more, or that you can impress God, go to a legalistic church.

Following Christ, in my opinion, is about Christ and His Gospel. It's about how He’s saved us, not only from death and separation from God, but also from sin and slavery to legalistic religions.

I know this list will be upsetting to many Christians because a large portion of Christian churches today are legalistic, but I stand by it. If you think I'm wrong, let me know. I'm glad to discuss my views with anyone that asks.


It's been about five years since I originally wrote this piece on legalism in the Christian Church. I've learned a lot since beginning my church checking journey, and since this article gets so many views, I thought it would be good to update and adjust things as I've matured in my faith and grown in knowledge about the legalism that plagues many local churches. These adjustments are mainly to improve the quality and clarity of the article, but I've added some content based on things I've learned over the years as well.

As always, let me know what you think, church checkers. Ask questions, examine everything, use Christ-like discernment, protect the sheep, and please do not feed the wolves.


Terri Mauldon
Terri Mauldon

It is possible to swing too far in the opposite direction and I believe you are on that side of it. One point is tithing. The church has electricity and other bills. It has to have a pastor that receives a salary. There are different funds such as missionary and benevolence funds. These funds do what the Lord would have us do: spreading the gospel, and helping the widows, orphans, and the poor. We don’t tithe bc it’s a law. We offer what we can afford bc we want to do what God would have us do. Some pay 5%,10% and some pay more. As far as staying away from sinners, Jesus is incorruptible, we aren’t. Nobody has the rig…


Hi Terri,

I understand where you're coming from, but the fact that churches have expenses doesn't mean they should use the Bible to coerce and exploit people financially. I agree with most of what you're saying, but tithing simply isn't a Christian practice. Freewill cheerful donations are, which I'm all for. As soon as church leaders use the Bible to manipulate, guilt, and coerce people into donating, however, it's become deceptive and legalistic.



Unfortunately, this article misses the mark. There are a few points that are good, but she paints with way too broad a brush, which cancels out any vestige of good. Point #11 is laughable. She is saying that if a church exercises Church Discipline, that is pure legalism??? The Bible tells churches to do this (Matthew 18:15-18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). Points #1 & 5, if a church requires a person to attend a class as a prerequisite for membership or baptism, that is legalism? How is that considered legalism? Is there not an importance to making sure a person is saved before allowing them to become a member? Is not the church made up of born again, baptized believers? No…


It looks like I'm a year late to this comment, but better late than never, right?

I wrote this article in 2019 and would probably adjust some things, such as the wording perhaps to be more clear, but not much, so I'll try to answer your critiques based on how I see things in my walk with Christ today.

  1. I don't think it's laughable to see church discipline as legalistic, since that's exactly what it is. Matthew 18 isn't about church discipline, but conflicts between individual believers, and 1 Cor. 5 doesn't establish an official church discipline policy either. Only that Paul was repulsed by the church's affiliation with a man in such egregious sexual immorality. The way churches today…


Angles Family
Angles Family

Just another Protestant thinking that your interpretation of the Bible is the only one. In your world, you condemn everyone who doesn't think your way about Jesus. This is pure legalism! Who determines what the Bible means? Why are there so many denominations, who determines what is and isn't correct? I've checked your church and found it lacking!


I don't condemn anyone in my article. Also, nowhere do I say my interpretation of the Bible is the only one. In fact, I say the opposite. My church checking is for the purpose of protecting people from abusive cults, not to make sure they live up to my standards doctrinally or otherwise.

Thank you for your comment.


Thank you so much for this post. It is so helpful to me as a Christian. One sad manifestation of legalism is the mind-set of "in" groups and "out" groups of people, when Jesus died to save every last individual, regardless of what category others may put them in. Church-going members of my wife's family only really associate with those who believe just as they do, and they basically exclude her. The most hurtful part of this is that my beloved wife has not professed faith in Christ. If she had been seeing His love in those relatives, she might be more open to receiving Him. But now, she doesn't even like me having Bibles because of what she has…

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