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9 Signs Your Church is a Breeding Ground for Legalism

Insights| Church Life & Ministry | May 28, 2019

chains door lock legalism church
Eneida Nieves photo | Pexels

By Laura Petherbridge

“Hello. My Name is Laura. I’m a grace-killer.”

If there was a 12-step program for recovering grace-killers, aka legalists, I could be the founder. And that is how I would need to introduce myself.

It’s an embarrassing confession. It’s an essential confession. But it’s a victorious confession.

And a significant part to my voyage is that I spent the first 10 years of my walk with Jesus completely unaware that I was a legalist. I sincerely thought I was defending God and His Word.

That’s exactly how Satan deceives God’s people. Legalism—a perversion of holiness that masquerades as morality—can look and feel godly, respectable, virtuous, and beneficial. This is especially true if we’re surrounded with other grace-killers who cheer us on.

During my years as a legalist, I was knowledgeable in the Bible and I knew about the Pharisees. I believed I could detect legalism.

It wasn’t until I read a book by Chuck Swindoll called The Grace Awakening, which prompted me to ask God, “Am I a grace-killer?”

That’s when the Holy Spirit revealed truth.

You must be willing to consider whether legalism has infected you and your church. Here are a few questions to ask yourself which can help determine whether your church is fostering legalism.

  1. The people in your church have an “Us vs. Them” mentality: Those who believe in Jesus are good. Those who don’t believe in Him are bad.
  2. There’s talk about the church extending “too much grace” when it comes to a less-than-desirable person in the pew.
  3. You notice there seem to be many people who never believe they’re doing enough for God. They say things like, “I should pray more often” rather than “I love to pray.”
  4. Outsiders don’t visit often (perhaps because the church his known for its legalism). People who are deeply hurting due to their sins or poor choices feel humiliated and embarrassed around you or people in your congregation.
  5. Congregants actively avoid people who have a different worldview from them or who struggle with an outwardly visible sin.
  6. There’s a general attitude among church members that being right is more important than being kind.
  7. People are smug about their Bible knowledge and feel superior to those less educated about Scripture.
  8. People who are deeply hurting due to their sins/poor choices feel humiliated and embarrassed around you.
  9. This list has made you very uncomfortable, angry or indignant and you want to start defending yourself or your congregation—with Bible verses.

At this point you might be thinking I’m suggesting preachers and teachers water down the gospel to please people and culture. That’s not it at all.

The Bible is the inerrant Word of God and should be obeyed. Disobedience to God’s teachings results in severe consequences. Satan’s goal in getting us to believe we don’t need God’s truth is to steal, kill and destroy us with sin.

But what I’ve discovered in my freedom from legalism is a Pharisee loves the rules more than the person. A person who has shed legalism sees the person with a lens of compassion.

Now, when I see a person living in sin, my immediate reaction is gut-level grief and gentleness. Instead of spewing condemnation at him or her, I want to embrace them.

And I want to extend grace to them.

Is this a common practice in your church—extending grace when it’s needed?

Jesus never worried about extending too much grace. Every single time we see Jesus with someone living in sin—like the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, or the woman washing His feet with her tears—His first response is compassion and kindness.

Legalists eagerly surge to the end of the story where He instructs the sinner “go and sin no more.” It makes them feel superior and justified to point out another person’s sin.

But that isn’t where Jesus starts. His broken heart is weeping for His people who have been deceived. He lovingly lets them know they are safe with Him. Do you?

Once I stopped performing for God’s love, the temptation to sin lessened. No one needs to convince me sin is harmful. I trust God and His protective boundaries.

He is our shield. That truth removes the need to create and defend man-made barriers.

Are you instilling this confidence in those you lead?

Laura Petherbridge


Laura is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on relationships, stepfamilies, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is the author of several books, including The Smart Stepmom, and can be found at

Author: Narrow Path Ministries

Non-denominational, Independent, Bible believing Church

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