Is legalism killing your church?
I know, that’s a bold statement, but sadly, it’s all too often true. This week we’re going to talk about legalism in church, what it is, how to detect it, and how to get rid of it.
Moved by the Spirit
Back in the late 1970s, a friend told me about a church speaker who had gone to Africa on a speaking tour. I don’t remember now what countries he went to or how long he was there. But he basically had several Bible topics he talked about and people really appreciated his message. His overall focus was on the healing power of God in today’s world.
In one location, and again, I don’t remember where it was, he gave one of his standard talks, which was about an hour or so. And unlike the other places he’d been, the audience didn’t get up to leave when he was done. They said, “We want more.” So, he talked to them for another hour or so, sharing one of the other topics he spoke about.
When he was done, the audience stayed seated and said once again, “We want more.” And so he talked for another hour or so, once more sharing ideas from the Bible about God’s healing power.
Hungry for the Truth
He was so impressed with this group. They were so hungry and thirsty for the ideas in the Bible he was sharing with them. He could see it in their eyes and the way they responded to everything he said.
This time when he finished, they said, “You’ve been telling us about God’s power to heal. And that’s all well and good. But when are you going to heal us?”
He felt such receptivity from these dear people. They set up a little tent or some place for him to meet with people individually so he could talk to them and pray for them.
This was totally unexpected on his part and unprecedented in all the years he had been giving these talks in various places around the world.
Responding to the Holy Spirit
But he responded to the need. And there were many healings reported from his time there.
I think about this story every once in a while. I marvel at and give thanks for this man’s, I’ll call it courage, to go outside the box of what his own expectations and previous practice had been.
Now you may be wondering, Hey James, I thought this was going to be about how legalism is killing the church. What does this story have to do with legalism?
Legalism left behind
Well, that’s just the point. This story shows the opposite of legalism, in a small degree, because he “was supposed to” only talk for an hour. That was the expectation, or rather, the rule established by the church speakers bureau he was part of.
To me, one of the beautiful things about this story is that the man felt free to respond to the needs of the audience he was talking to. He allowed the Holy Spirit to move upon the waters, so to speak, instead of sticking to some well-intentioned, but restrictive, human rule.
And of course the real beauty of this story is that so many people experienced God’s healing power on the spot.
What if he had just obeyed the rules and stopped speaking after that first hour?
The apostles preaching and healing
This kind of reminds me of how Jesus’s disciples, in the book of Acts, went about sharing the gospel and healing people.
The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people.
Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed. Acts 5:12, 16 NIV
And what was the result of this preaching and healing?
Well, it says in Acts,
more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. Acts 5: 14 NIV
When churches follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit, amazing things happen, one of which just might be new people coming to your church.
Legalism is jealous of the freedom of the Spirit
Now the other thing that happened as a result of the disciples preaching and healing was the way some of the religious leaders of the day reacted to the healings and more people believing in Jesus.
Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. Acts 5:17, 18 NIV
Now, there’s a lot more to that story. An angel opens the doors of the jail and tells the apostles to go preach the gospel. You can read the rest of it in Acts 5, starting with verse 19.
So, what’s really going on here? The apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit but the religious leaders are filled with jealousy. They’re losing their power over the people because the gospel is being preached and people are believing in Jesus.
But it goes a little deeper than that. Why didn’t the religious leaders see and accept the truth the apostles were preaching, and which Jesus had preached earlier?
Legalism of the Pharisees
There are all kinds of reasons, but one of the most obvious ones is that many of the religious leaders back then were more interested in obeying the traditions of their culture and religious practices which had grown up over the centuries, than experiencing the presence of God’s spirit of love.
How do we know this? It’s because of something Jesus said to those religious leaders, perhaps some of the very same ones who were trying to stop the apostles from preaching.
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?
You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ [Isaiah 29:13]” Matthew 15:1-3, 7-9 NIV
Legalism in church
When a church focuses more on trying to obey and enforce all these “merely human rules,” Jesus was talking about, and thinks this is the most important part of church membership, it misses the real purpose of church, which is to glorify God, strengthen the members spiritually, and share the gospel with their community.
This is called legalism. It’s an effort to regulate behavior and keep people in control. It does not nurture an individual’s relationship with God, the practice of their faith, or their spiritual growth.
I’ve talked to people in various churches who were trying desperately to obey all the rules their church had instituted. They were always in fear of not being good enough, not being spiritual enough, not having enough faith, not really understanding why they had to do all these things, or even disagreeing with them, but trying to do them anyway so they would be accepted as a good church member.
And if they failed on any one thing, they were sometimes even called out by the church leadership, often in front of the whole church. This creates an atmosphere of distrust and judgmental-ism, not to mention fear.
This focus on rules instead of nurturing each member’s relationship with God, is a slow path to death for a church.
The irony of legalism
And I find this kind of ironic because many of the churches who tend to be legalistic also emphasize the teaching that we are saved by faith and not works of the law.
Paul puts it this way,
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8, 9 NIV
So it’s not about doing the works of the law.
And yet these same churches stress the need to do the works of following all the rules they have established. In other words, they say someone is not a member in good standing or a true Christian unless they do all these things. Their faith is dependent on whether they comply with all the rules instead of their relationship with God. This is the exact opposite of what Paul is saying in Ephesians.
Some examples of legalism
So you may be wondering, Hey James, what are some examples of legalism?
Great question. It takes shape in many forms, but as I said, it’s an attitude of trying to control people’s behavior and appearance. For example, some churches have very strict codes of what kinds of clothes you can wear.
I’ve even heard of a church whose members weren’t supposed to laugh in church because the leaders thought it was disrespectful to God.
It can be more serious though, for example, when a church dictates how you are supposed to behave, how often you must attend church, pray, and read your Bible, and how much money you have give to the church.
Obeying God’s laws is not legalism
Does this mean we shouldn’t be concerned about obeying God’s moral and spiritual laws? Of course not.
Obeying God’s laws because of your love for God is very different than following man-made rules and thinking that makes you righteous.
Jesus gave us some amazing guidelines, or spiritual laws, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the Gospels.
Jesus didn’t want us to obey him because we’re afraid of being judged by the church, or because a church has turned what he said into a bunch of man-made rules and regulations. The only real reason to obey the rules or commands Jesus gave us, is because of our love for him. He said,
If you love me, you will keep my commands. John 14:15 CSB
But legalism is not loving Jesus. And it’s not new. Jesus had to deal with it in the religious leaders of his day.
I’ve already mentioned the time in Matthew 15 when Jesus accuses the Pharisees of breaking the commandments of God in order to keep their traditions.
Legalism in the Bible
Another example that comes to mind is when the Pharisees repeatedly accused Jesus of breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath day. They were so caught up in their literal interpretation of the commandment to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy, that they didn’t see how healing was a perfect way to honor the Sabbath because it restored the completeness of God’s creation.
And in the early church, Jews who now believed in Jesus were insisting that Gentiles who accepted Jesus should be circumcised. This caused quite a debate. The church ended up having a big counsel in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. You can read about this in Acts, Chapter 15.
Fortunately, the legalism of demanding the new believers be circumcised, did not win the day.
So why does legalism kill the church?
It reminds me of a goldfish my friend had as a kid. She was told by the guy at the pet store that her fish would only get two to three inches long. But her family had a large outdoor cement fish pond in their back yard. So, she put the fish in there. Every spring they invited us over to help clean out the pond. We first had to catch all the fish and put them in a big tank, then clean out the silt before we put clean water in.
When my friend caught her fish, which wasn’t supposed to ever be bigger than two or three inches, it was about 9 inches long. Why? Because it’s habitat was not a tiny little aquarium. It was not restricted by its environment.
I realize this isn’t a perfect analogy because being in a little aquarium would not have killed the goldfish, but it would have seriously restricted its ability to grow.
That’s what legalism does to a person and a whole church. It restricts the spiritual environment and prevents the natural growth and development of faith.
It’s like putting someone in a straitjacket and complaining that they can’t play the piano very well.
Legalism is a decoy for the human mind
Legalism turns obedience to God, following Christ, and being moved by the Holy Spirit into rules to obey, formulas to follow, that require little if any turning to God in prayer for help and guidance.
It gives the human mind something to do to think it’s righteous. You start thinking you are holy and righteous because of how you obey all the rules, not because you’re getting to know God better. There’s no real spiritual regeneration and transformation. It’s just outward words and actions.
I can speak from experience here. I used to be very legalistic but I didn’t realize it. And I would probably not have thought the word applied to me.
When I got serious about my faith in high school, I wanted to do everything the right way. I wanted to be the best Christian I could. I started copying what I thought was the “correct” way to behave. I did all the things a good Christian was supposed to.
Now there’s nothing wrong with trying to be a good Christian, but I started thinking that because I was doing all these things, I was better than others. There was a lot of human effort on my part, but how much spiritual growth was going on back then is up for debate. It was mostly in my head.
But God has been very patient with me. Regardless of my somewhat legalistic approach to practicing my faith, I was very sincere. And God has washed away, over many years, this legalistic approach I had way back then.
Legalism is a poor substitute for spiritual inspiration. Just follow the rules. Just quote this Bible verse. Just do this or that.
Difference between obeying God’s laws and man’s rules
So, how do you tell the difference between the spiritual laws of God that we should obey, and the man-made rules that are often treated as divine law by a legalistic church?
Jesus, as always give us the answer. It’s very simple.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Matthew 7:16-18 NIV
What is the fruit of obeying certain rules and laws? Do you feel closer to God with more love in your heart for your neighbor? Do you feel self-righteous when you obey the rules and judgmental of those who don’t or do you condemn yourself when you disobey them and feel judged by the church?
What is the fruit of your actions?
Take an honest look
We all need to take an honest look at ourselves and our churches. Sometimes, as individuals we may not be legalistic at all, but in our churches, as a collective body, legalism sneaks in the back door.
Have you ever heard yourself or someone at church say, “That’s not the way we do it.” “We have to follow the rules.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. There probably need to be some rules. Your church may have a set of by-laws or guidelines. That is totally appropriate, but these by-laws or guidelines should promote spiritual growth and not prohibit it. They should be an enabling document, a framework to build on, not a cage or a straitjacket.
Recently, a friend told my wife that her church revised their by-laws and cut them from 30 plus pages down to 6. What a breath of fresh air. I can just see new opportunities for the Holy Spirit to move in that church.
Freedom of the Spirit
Jesus didn’t come to give us so many little rules and regulations that we just nitpick our way through church activities. He came to set us free. He said,
I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. John 10:10 NKJV
That includes you and me.
Remedy for legalism
So, what’s the remedy for a legalistic attitude?
Well, probably the first step is to become aware of this tendency, whether in yourself or in your church. It’s usually easier to see it in someone else. And if you point it out to your church leadership, they may not appreciate being accused of thinking and behaving this way.
But the most important thing you can do, whenever you notice legalism, is to pray for and practice humility. Be willing to set aside your preconceptions about how something should be done. God may have a much better plan than you or some church committee could ever come up with.
And if people at church are open to discussing it, I would suggest praying together as a church to be more receptive to the moving of the Holy Spirit in your midst.
Paul puts it this way.
Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 KJV
I love the New Living Translation of these verses,
Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 NLT
Do not stifle the Spirit
When someone suggests a new way to do something or something new altogether that’s never been done before, don’t just automatically dismiss the idea. Go to God in prayer. Ask for guidance and spiritual discernment. But just because an idea is new, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. It could just be another human opinion, which a legalistic mindset could grab hold of and demand obedience to.
Does the Holy Spirit ever get stifled at your church? Unfortunately this happens sometimes. Not necessarily on purpose, but because the people in charge are used to deciding on what happens.
What if our churches were more like the group of believers who were praying in Acts, Chapter 13?
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Acts 13:1, 2 NIV
Fasting and praying
The church leaders were fasting and praying. They were seeking God’s guidance on how best to share the Gospel. They weren’t each discussing and promoting their personal opinions. The Holy Spirit spoke audibly, so all could hear, to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a special calling.
What if, in our churches, instead of debating all the pros and cons of a bunch of human opinions on what to do, we were fasting and praying like those folks in Antioch were and actually heard the Holy Spirit tell us what to do?
I want to come back to that story at the beginning of this episode about the speaker in Africa who broke with his own expectations and traditions and kept talking to the audience and then prayed for them.
He did not stifle or quench the Holy Spirit but responded to it. How can you and I do that?
In last week’s Episode 205, Robin Jennings mentioned the revival at Asbury University in Kentucky earlier this year. It was an outpouring of the Spirit and people didn’t leave. They wanted more. They wanted to feel more of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. It went on for just over two weeks.
How is the Holy Spirit appearing in your church?
Not to say this should or could happen at every church service or event, and it can’t be forced to happen, but what if you were so inspired by the sermon this next Sunday at church, that you just didn’t want to leave? You wanted more. And so did everyone else.
Instead of standing around talking about where to eat, where you went on vacation, or who was going to win the football game, everyone was so moved by the presence of the Holy Spirit, you just kept worshiping God in one way or another? You talked about things of the Spirit. You broke out into a spontaneous hymn sing.
What if someone started doing something like that? Would you think it was weird or wrong? Would it make you feel uncomfortable?
Have you ever, in a church setting, not done or said what the Holy Spirit was prompting you to do or say because you were afraid people would think you were crazy?
Now, I don’t have the perfect answer for all these questions. But I want to encourage you and your church to do a little self-examination to see if there is any legalism lurking in your midst. It can be pretty subtle at times.
And I also encourage you to pray for the moving of the Holy Spirit upon the waters. The remedy for legalism is the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is present and at work in your church right now. You can recognize this presence and respond accordingly.
Photo Credit: Max Williams
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Acts 5:12, 16 NIV
12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people.
16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.
Acts 5: 14 NIV
14 more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
Acts 5:17, 18 NIV
17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.
18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.
Matthew 15:1-3, 7-9 NIV
1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked,
2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?
7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’[Isaiah 29:13]”
Ephesians 2:8, 9 NIV
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—
9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
John 14:15 CSB
15 If you love me, you will keep my commands.
Matthew 7:16-18 NIV
16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
John 10:10 NKJV
10 I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 KJV
19 Quench not the Spirit.
20 Despise not prophesyings.
21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 NLT
19 Do not stifle the Holy Spirit.
20 Do not scoff at prophecies,
21 but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good.
Acts 13:1, 2 NIV
1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.
2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”