10 Signs of a Legalistic Church

I’ve been blathering about legalism all week. Legalism is an oft used word but perhaps we need to be more careful that we’re using it correctly.

Often what people don’t like about “legalism,” is that they are not in charge. Too many churches have been labeled “legalistic” that actually aren’t; you just didn’t like being corrected. Church discipline is a biblical concept (see point 5 below if you don’t think so! You might be a legalist!).

However, legalistic churches do exist and here are ten ways to identify them:

1) Everyone believes whatever the pastor says. In other words, they quote their guy more than the Bible. When asked a spiritual question, they consult sermon notes. Without their guy, they have no clue what to believe. There are no questions, as nothing good can come of those.

2) Everyone prays the same way. They use the same tones, inflections, terms, and probably say “amen” and “God” the exact same way.

3) Mole hills become mountains. Minors will be majored in. The pastor will let you know what minor issue is actually the major one and you are encouraged to be even more outraged than he is about it. Spanking children, role of women, modes of baptism, and various other issues become more vital than the Gospel itself. Outrage is synonymous with faith. Every week you leave church with something else to be mad about or afraid of.

4) External behavior trumps all. As long as the exterior is bending to the rules of the group, everything is cool. If the only sins you commit are the ones the group has agreed are fine, carry on.

5) Scripture is secondary. None will admit this, but you’ll soon realize that some other writing gives you “the key” that opens the mysteries of Scripture, or you’ll at least be informed what Scriptures we apply and which ones we ignore. Scripture is not the authority–certain approved verses of Scripture are the authority, which really means that the guy who decides what verses are approved is the authority!

6) Clothes and hair. All legalistic churches seem to care about these things excessively. There is either a dress code of some sort, or there is an incessant explanation of how cool they are for not having one. Ironically, codifying not having a dress code is, in effect, a dress code.

7) Us vs. Them. Increasingly you will be told how special your group is, how you are the defenders of truth embattled against the universe actively colluding against you. You see your involvement in this church as vital to the perseverance of truth and wisdom.

8) Introspection. Everyone in the group is concerned with themselves and how they measure up. The only time they look at another person is to compare and contrast, usually to show their superiority. Not a whole lot of love being displayed. The exception is when you momentarily become their “project.” They will win big points if they can reform the new guy!

9) Separation. Most legalistic churches are made up of people who routinely split churches. Church-splitting is a form of entertainment. Legalists have a hard time fellowshipping for any length of time. Legalists desire to run the show, which puts them at odds with those running the show. If just about everyone you meet in the church is there because of a church-split, lookout!

10) Lack of humor. The only laughs come at the expense of other groups they hate. There is no joy or freedom to make a joke. Creativity is stifled for the sake of conformity. Humor exists where freedom exists. Maybe this is just an opinion, but I’ll stick by it. A guy can’t take the risk of cracking a joke if he’s in fear of being judged about it.

In the end, Conformity is what legalism desires. Don’t rock the boat. They will kill you before they endure waves. Conformity means safety in numbers. The broad road that leads to destruction is filled with people who look and act the same. I firmly believe the narrow road is traveled by characters.