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How Being In a Legalistic Church Is Like Being In an Abusive Relationship

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

The Relationship

As Christians, a lot of us like to say, "It's not a religion. It's a relationship," referring to Jesus. To those of us that understand this statement, it's a truly beautiful thing. And it's true. Not only because of the differences between a cold, legalistic religion and an actual loving relationship with someone, but also because of who the relationship is with.

Jesus Christ was and is the most loving man to have ever walked the face of the Earth. He is the most honest, the most forgiving, the most kind, and the most holy in every way. Many of us, when thinking of what it will be like to actually meet the Lord Jesus, are filled with joy.

Because He is our Savior, God in the flesh. Because of His love for us, His understanding, His grace, and His mercy. Because of what He did for us, and because of who He is. And when thinking about relationships, not religion, we could say that He is the only person to have ever lived that was not abusive at all.

The relationship we have with Christ is the perfect model for what all healthy relationships should look like. All people make mistakes. We're all sinful because of our human nature, and all of us at some point or another has done, said, or thought something abusive toward someone else. We're not perfect, and everyone is guilty of it, at least a little bit.

But Christ is the antithesis of abuse. And if Christianity isn't a religion, but a relationship with Him, then that relationship is the least abusive relationship that anyone could ever be in.

He pointed out when people were being abusive without being abusive Himself, and He loved and forgave those who abused Him, while providing safety, healing, and encouragement for those who have been abused.

The Religion

On the other hand, we have religion. In a religion that is really a relationship (Christianity), religion comes in the form of the Legalistic Church.

The Legalistic Church is not loving, forgiving, kind, or gracious, as Christ is. In fact, when we really look at it, the Legalistic Church is in complete opposition to the healthy, loving relationship that we have with Jesus.

It places you in chains, it puts rules and requirements and obstacles between you and Him. It turns the unconditional love of God into an abusive relationship with a controlling, manipulative tyrant, called the church, and its authority figures. It makes your salvation conditional, rather than the gracious and merciful gift of God that we have in Christ.

Look at this list. It's a list of warning signs that you can find yourself with a few minutes of Google research. Warning signs that you're in an emotionally abusive relationship. Think about how the Legalistic Church exhibits these signs in their own behavior with Christians, maybe you personally, and listen to the sound of your chin hitting the floor.

  1. They humiliate or embarrass you - Ex: You've committed a "sin," so they confront you in front of a group of people to "rebuke" you and make you repent to them/the church/to God in front of everyone.

  2. Constant put-downs & Hyper-criticism - "How can you watch R-rated movies as a Christian?" "I can't believe you listen to that devil's music," etc...

  3. Ignoring or excluding you - "We can't be seen with someone who associates with non-believers," "You've broken your church membership agreement, so you're not longer welcome here," "We don't allow ________ in our group."

  4. Conditional Love/Saying "I love you, but..." - "God loves you, but you need to take Communion every week, or you'll go to Hell," "God loves you, but you need to go to church to really prove that you're a Christian, and if you don't, you're going to Hell," "God loves you, but if you don't get baptized, you don't really love Him, so how can we accept you?"

  5. Threats/Saying things like, "If you don't _____, I will ____." - Threats of Hell, Excommunication, Heresy Accusations, & Dis-fellowship

  6. Domination and control - You must follow a laundry list of requirements and rules in order to be a member of the church, you must be transparent and open about your personal life and sins under the authority of the church, etc...

  7. Withdrawal of affection - Ending a relationship with you because you left their church, ignoring phone calls and cutting all communication because you disagree with their doctrines, refusing to show any Christian love, forgiveness or compassion for you because you've committed what they consider to be an unforgivable sin.

  8. Guilt trips - For not paying tithes, not signing up for the next church event, not being a part of a small group, or not doing something else the church or its leaders want you to do for their church.

  9. Isolating you from friends and family - Because your friends and family aren't Christian, don't belong to the same church/denomination, or they've expressed beliefs contrary to your church's in some way.

  10. Using money to control you - "You must pay tithing to the church, and if you don't you're not a real Christian."

  11. You're scared of what will happen if you leave them - Will you go to Hell in the afterlife? Will people who once loved and cared about you shun and ostracize you? Will you lose your job? Your family? Will your name get smeared and slandered all over town? What will people say about you behind your back?

I've been in a few abusive relationships in my life. One of them was with a Legalistic Church. I've also been in a few very healthy and loving relationships, too. The best one is with Jesus Christ.

The behaviors of the Legalistic Church are downright abusive. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally. Sometimes even physically for some unfortunate people. And when we look at the sexual abuse being done to women and children in many religious churches all over the world, we have to ask ourselves, "How can people who claim to be so Christian, be so abusive?"

The answer is simple. They lack Jesus. They lack the source for the love, mercy, and grace that comes in a healthy relationship. The core of the healthy church is the same core that we find in healthy relationships, and the same core that we find in all good things. It's Jesus.

With Jesus comes forgiveness, mercy, grace, love, and new life. With Legalism, there is control. guilt, fear, conditions, requirements, laws, humiliation, and ultimately, death.

If you're in an abusive relationship with your church, they are probably legalistic. You don't have to be afraid though, because regardless of the threats they make and the fear they've instilled within you, Jesus will save you from them, just as He has saved you from yourself.

If you need help leaving an abusive relationship with your church, Jesus will be there for you, and so will we.


Do you have experiences with an abusive legalistic church? Share them with us in the comments below. It might encourage someone who is stuck in one right now and doesn't know what to do.

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