Updated: Jun 13, 2019
If you don't already know, legalism is bad. Christ was clear. The law has been fulfilled, and He finished it on the cross. (Romans 10:4; Colossians 2:14)
We have a new covenant with God given to us through Jesus Christ. It is a gift of grace through faith, not works. Legalism is the old, inferior way. Grace is the new, better way. (Romans 3:21-31)
And just in case some of you still believe there is anything you can do to make your position with God any better than it is with Christ alone, here are some passages for you to mull over.
Ephesians 2:8-9 - “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.”
John 6:28-29 - “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.””
Galatians 2:18-21 - “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.”
Romans 3:28 - “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
This doesn't mean that we shouldn't do good works. Of course we do. One of the beautiful things about Christianity is that we do them individually, in faith, led by the Spirit. It's between us and God. Not pressured by the church, not dictated by the church, and not dictated by other Christians or Small Group leaders either. (Philippians 2:12-13; Heb. 8:10-12)
The law is now written on our hearts and on our minds. We no longer need an outside force telling us what is right by God. We have God within us, guiding us and transforming us by the renewing of our mind. If we have sinned in our hearts, the Holy Spirit will convict us. If we don't have the Holy Spirit, we will continue to live in the flesh, and no amount of legalism will make us right. It's our job to work out our own salvation. It's not the church's job to work it out for us, or other Christians to condemn us.
The only job we have now as Christians, as the Church, and as pastors and teachers, is to love God, love each other, and encourage each other in our walk with God. To encourage one another in our relationship with Christ. (Luke 10:25-27; Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; John 13:31-35)
Condemning each other for sins, and pointing the finger of sin at anyone who we find to be disobeying our version of what the Bible says, is not the way of grace, truth, and love. It is not the way of faith in Christ. They are works and legalism and law. Those days are done.
So, we probably shouldn't be trying to bring the law back, don’t ya think? Personally, I think Christ would be scolding us like foolish children if He were here, watching Bible study groups condemn people for their sin, or making membership rules and laws to abide by. It's a disgrace, an insult to Christ’s work on the cross, to God, and it least of all it is a burden to the Church. (Matthew 11:28-30)
That's why I'm making a list of ten signs for people to look out for in their own church. If your church shows any of these signs, you may be in a legalistic church. If you are, you should leave and find a more gracious, Christ-centered church where the Gospel and the Word are actually taught, and practiced.
But enough rambling. To the list!
10 Signs You're In a Legalistic Church
1. You're required to attend a class and sign a contract/agreement in order to be an "official" member of the church.
This first sign is surprisingly common in Christian churches today, and I have no idea why. A written document that we must sign in order to be members of a local church? Basically swearing an oath to men/women that we will pay tithes, be active in their church, and continue to believe in specific doctrinal positions which the church finds to be important, salvation-related or not.
Eh, am I the only one who finds that to be extremely legalistic? Because...it is. If your church requires you to go through a class and sign a contract with them in order to be considered a member of their church, they are legalistic. Period. God’s laws are written on our hearts and minds now, remember? The letter kills. The Spirit gives life. (2 Cor. 3:6)
2. Your pastor's sermons seem to focus more on condemning bad behavior or what the church deems as sinful behavior, rather than preaching the message of the cross.
The entire point of the Gospel is that we are free from sin, death, and condemnation through Jesus Christ. Through our faith in Him, we can stand before God blameless and innocent, and we have been forgiven of all our sins.
Any church that spends time condemning people for their sins is missing the point, and reverting back to a legalistic way of thinking. (Romans 2:1; Luke 6:37; John 3:17)
3. Your church preaches tithing and/or uses some other term besides tithing to pressure you into giving money to the church in order to be a "faithful, cheerfully giving Christian."
The New Testament is pretty clear on matters of giving. The Christian should give according to how they are led by the Spirit and their own heart. A Christian filled with the Holy Spirit and a heart for God will give, but a church has no right...NO RIGHT...to legislate that giving in any way.
As for tithing, that is an Old Testament Law. Period. It no longer applies to Christians today. If a Christian independently decides in their own heart that they would like to give 10% of their income to their church, that is their right and decision. If they know that they cannot 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. (2 Cor. 9:7)
Jesus scolded and berated the Pharisees of His day for using their laws to “devour widows’ houses” as a shame. I believe He would do the same thing to any church preaching tithing today. (Mark 12:38-40)
4. You're afraid to be your real self around people because you don't want to be judged or condemned for something you think, do, or are.
Some churches and Christians are so judgmental and obsessed with living up to their own laws that they are constantly trying to appear a certain way, either because they think it will make them a better Christian, or because they’re afraid they will be judged for not following the laws.
This is so 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 your true self around others because you’re afraid of appearing “sinful” in any way, you’re probably going to a legalistic church.
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 some churches have, a baptism class is somewhat equally baffling to me. If someone claims to be a Christian and wants to profess that faith outwardly in the act of baptism, I mean...what’s so complicated about that?
It takes less a sentence to explain what baptism is, so why do churches have classes that last hours, sometimes for several classes over the course of a few days, weeks, or months, to explain baptism?
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.
That churches feel the need or want to create a class that people must attend in order to be baptized makes baptism much more legalistic that it is.
6. You find yourself or your church judging and openly condemning others as un-Christian for not abiding by your church's rules, laws, or interpretation of sinful behavior. This can include things like listening to certain types of music, watching R-rated movies, drinking, etc...
Utah is well known for the Mormon religion and its antics. One of those antics is their stringent religious hold on their members when it comes to things just like this. Paying tithing, not smoking, not drinking (coffee even!), not watching R-rated movies. That’s what Mormons are known for, and grace-loving Christians often poke fun at them for it.
Then they turn around and make their own unspoken rules and laws that all Christians must abide by, or risk being considered a backslider, a Christian that is “living in sin,” or my favorite, “not a real Christian.”
Not only are these made up laws and rules nowhere found in the Bible as actual things we must follow in order to be considered Christian, but the very idea that there are rules we must follow contradicts the grace and liberty of Christianity itself. (Matthew 15:11; Romans 14:1-23; Galatians 5:1)
7. Spending time with non-Christians is frowned upon.
This one gets me every time. How can Christians who are actually commanded to love others, like...that is actually something Christ told us we must do, be so unloving toward non-Christians? And toward Christians who ARE loving toward non-Christians?
It’s all 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 unbelievers.
For a contextual study of the passage of Scripture I’m referring to, check this out, and know this: a church that condemns you for loving or even just spending time with non-Christians, is legalistic.
8. You and/or your church frequently take the Bible out of context in order to condemn or judge people.
As an extension of sign number 7, there are plenty of other 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 the Bible’s standards.
First of all, read it in context before you decide what it actually means. You’ll actually find that it could mean something completely different than what you’ve always thought it meant.
Secondly, 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.
9. Your obedience to God is somehow made synonymous with being obedient to the Church.
Some churches will go so far as to put themselves at the same level as God in authority and importance, condemning and guilt-tripping Christians that don’t invest their whole lives into the church, or sign up for every small group and activity under the sun.
News flash, churches: you’re not God, and you’re not on His level either. You serve Him, just as we do. If you think we should be financially transparent and giving to you because faithful Christians serve God in all they do, you need to slow your roll. Take a look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’re doing everything you can to serve God.
If your church uses language that make it sound like you’re neglecting God if you neglect the church, they’re legalistic. The way to God is through Christ, who is our ONLY mediator. The church is not a mediator between us and God. Remember that. (1 Tim. 2:5; John 14:6)
10. Reading the Bible daily is made into a religious ritual that you feel you must do in order to really be thought of as a faithful, good Christian.
Reading and hearing the Word is important. Very important. It’s how we learn about the Gospel. It’s how we become knowledgeable in the things of God, and we must be fed the Word of God for so many great reasons...but, on the other hand, it’s not required.
The only thing required of us as 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 doing it doesn’t make you any less Christian than the guy who reads it for hours a day. We can do nothing to impress God. Remember? (Romans 3:23)
This is just a small list of the kinds of things churches and legalistic Christians will do that should send you running for the hills.
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, go to a legalistic church.
If you don’t think Jesus Christ is enough and that you must do more, or that anything you can do would impress God or make Him love you more, go ahead and go to a legalistic church.
But if you understand the truth, that Christianity is all about Christ and how He’s saved us, not only from death and separation from God, but also from a life of sin, religion, and legalism, stay far away from these kinds of churches. Please.
Additional Red Flags of Legalism
It's been some time since we wrote this post, and with time has come more observations within the legalistic churches that we've checked. Here are even more signs that your church is legalistic.
11. Sin Discipline
If your church has an established protocol for disciplining individual Christians' sin within their church, that's pure legalism. The Bible is clear. 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. (Romans 8:1)
Additionally, when we do fail to love and fall short, as we all do, our mediator is Christ Himself, not our church, our pastor, or our church's leaders. A church establishing procedures for disciplining sin is almost akin to the idea of confessing to a priest in the Catholic Church. (1 Tim. 2:5)