How Legalism Kills the Church

jesusphariseesIn the early 70’s, a book circulated among the high school & college students at my church.  It was called, Why Churches Die. I just found it revised and updated on Amazon (2007).  I remember it being an excellent book, based on solid research.  Churches die for many reasons, the author explained. But as I remember it, the central one is LEGALISM.

Amen. If there is one core reason why the American church has missed the target, and why our whole nation tumbles downhill,  it is legalism. For a thousand years, until 1905 when it was banned, China practiced a form of torture and execution called, The Death of a Thousand Cuts. It’s self-explanatory, but you can check it out on Wikipedia if you’re feeling gruesome today.

Legalism is the church’s death of a thousand cuts.

Never forget that the Pharisees saw themselves as good guys. Jesus still ripped into them.

Legalism is invisible to the legalist.

What is legalism? There are many varieties. At root, legalism is our attempt to offer God the produce of our own hands. Like Cain, we imagine God is pleased with the harvest of human righteousness. We become do-gooders, moralists, or crusaders for a cause… in our own strength.

But our own strength never pleases God. Human effort, unaided by the Holy Spirit, not energized by the Word of God, cannot please God.

  • “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.” Isaiah 64:6, NKJV. (At our best, we’re like filthy rags)
  • ““God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” Acts 17:24, NKJV.

solomonstempleThe church–and I include myself, and convict myself–has gone on in her own strength. We have invited Jesus into Temples Made With Hands (human strength). We have been busy for Jesus (Martha), without first listening and loving at his feet (Mary). We are too busy fixing the world, and not busy fixing the mess in our own hearts.  This inner wholeness comes only through the Word and the Spirit.

The power for Christian living must be supernatural. And here is the great fault of our churches and pastors… We give Christians an ever expanding “to-do” list UNCOUPLED from the supernatural power to do it.  The essence of legalism, don’t you think?

  • “having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” 2 Timothy 3:5, NKJV.

So our churches offer a litany of really good things to do (truly good): end hunger, fight AIDS, love the loveless, do righteousness, be a better husband, be a better wife, be a better steward, conquer your addictions, nurture your marriage, be a witness, watch your language, don’t gossip, dress modestly, avoid worldly entanglements, follow God’s laws, support missions, pray… the list is endless.

The problem is that we have uncoupled this list from the power of God. Two generations of Christians have NOT been trained in harnessing the power of God. So we do them in our own strength: legalism. We do them hyped up on temporary human emotion/adrenaline: legalism.

I am for all these things, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I am NOT for them when we do them apart from the supernatural power of God. And here is the heart of the heart of the problem: not one in ten Christians knows how to access the supernatural power of God. This returns us to our default position: do what we do the way we’ve always done stuff, by our own power, which is not acceptable to God.

Christianity is not simply an improvement on our unregenerate state. It is a whole new creation. We become a new spiritual species. It is a supernatural life (I’m not talking signs and wonders here; I’m talking about the Holy Spirit filling an increasingly mature, Scripture saturated, doctrine-loving soul). Church is not a psych-job; it is a supernatural renovation by the indwelling Christ.

Legalism is invisible to the legalist. Put yourself in the Pharisees’ shoes. You’re just trying to be a good person, and love God, and follow his laws… and then you have this long-haired, wandering carpenter/Rabbi yelling at you.  Of course you’re going to get indignant! Of course you’re going to deny his charges!  What does he charge you with?

  • ““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” Matthew 23:27, NKJV.

Your behavior is right on, but your heart is a mess. Your behavior springs from a source other than the indwelling Christ, the power of God. You are offering God the produce of human effort, unaided by the Spirit, not energized by the Word. And God may love you, but he hates your offerings.

  • “Therefore the LORD said: “Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths And honor Me with their lips, But have removed their hearts far from Me, And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men,” Isaiah 29:13, NKJV.
  • ““To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Says the LORD. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats. “When you come to appear before Me, Who has required this from your hand, To trample My courts?” Isaiah 1:11, 12, NKJV.

The impact of legalism is horrendous. It gets churches bickering over worship wars. It makes generations distrust each other. It causes Christians to judge one another. It makes us superficial. It makes us hypocrites. How many churches still argue over music? How many churches fight over petty things? One pastor I knew removed an unneeded pew from the choir loft, and his board called a special meeting over it.  Yikes!  God help us!

Legalism has the twin results of (1) preoccupying Christians with stupid intramural warfare, and (2) barricading the doors to lost people. We don’t see it that way, though. We see it as “defending the purity of the church.” Right.

Unsaved people can smell our legalism. We can’t, but they can. It may take a while to sniff it out, but they’ll find it.  And once they find it, they’ll be heading for the hills as fast as their unregenerate legs can carry them.

So the church descends into a squabbling pack of Protectors: protecting the church from innovation,  protecting their own self-interests, protecting “the way it’s always been,” protecting their rights to a low-cost country club.  (Was that harsh?) A thousand cuts… each one small… each one no big deal… but cumulatively deadly.

How far from the servant-Church God had in mind when he came to indwell us!  Revival cannot come to a legalistic Church. Before we crusade to fix even one more social ill, we need the power of God. We need to reawaken our hearts to the GRACE of God. We need to send down roots into the love and mercy of God. We need to pause in our doing that we might concentrate on our growing and learning and healing.  I know it’s counter-intuitive. But so was the monastic movement (not that I’m a big fan), but they got something right: the contemplation of God is the strength of the church.

jesuspowerOr, as A.W. Tozer wrote, “No church has ever risen above its conception of God.” Who is God to you? What do you know of him? Do you know his wonderful attributes? His powerful names? His glorious works? When we have best selling books on the nature and attributes of God, on the significance of Calvary, and on walking the fulness of the Spirit, you’ll know that revival is just around the corner.

Your God is too small.

Legalism makes a people-centered Church. Grace makes a God-centered church that loves people.

We need to operate in the power of God.

I’ll blog on that next week.  Thanks for hanging in there with my rant.


20 thoughts on “How Legalism Kills the Church

  1. A couple of thoughts…

    1) Posts and sermons like those are why we love the Gift in you. Velvet sledgehammers hurt but bring life-altering truth.

    2) I pray that each of us have someone in our lives who possesses a “legalism radar” and has the relationship with us to let us know when it lights up.

    3) Funny. I just blogged about how much of our current economic situation is about bringing us back to our knees, back to the knowledge of God Almighty, the one without whom we are NOTHING and can do NOTHING–I believe we are in a corporate Legalism Revolution. ( I pray that we Christians (self included) “get it” early so that we can be a solution rather than a repellent.

    Thank you for the rant, if you want to call it that. I see it more Simon Cowell-ish–that is, honest and true.

  2. If you need future article ideas, I have one for you:

    Let’s say I know someone who has a big chip on his/her shoulder towards legalism after a blatant legalistic upbringing… and let’s say this person sometimes just might possibly still be fighting the bad taste left in his/her mouth and just might possibly in the very slightest way end up being overly critical of things he or she probably shouldn’t be critical of… and and and let’s say this person was very much aware of the fact that being judgmental of the judgmental is still judgmental, but that knowledge sometimes wasn’t sufficient to prevent such “judgment” from immediately arising within his/her heart at times when it was absolutely inappropriate… and and and and let’s say this person read your blog with the intentions of learning and correction…

    Do you think you could write a future article for this hypothetical person on how to deal with such a condition?

  3. I always thought legalism was rules apart from God or more specifically not biblical. Let’s face it, we need rules, God wants us to follow His statutes, but I think the real problem is self righteousness (righteousness apart from God), we think, even unconsiously, that we are better than others based on many things but alot of times based on the rules we follow. When we truly get that we are the same as the worst person you can think of and treat others accordingly then we can live our rules while truely biblically loving others.

  4. In light of the last “hypothetical” comment, which actually left me a little confused on where Donny finally stood, let me offer this testimony: When the light finally went on for me that I was a Pharisee and I wanted to repent of such a legalistic mindset, I asked God to strip me of my self-righteous robes and crossed the line over to the camp of the sinners and tax collectors. There, I have to admit, I donned a new robe of judgment focused on those wicked Pharisees, in whose camp I used to be firmly entrenched. In my “humility” I felt I needed to raise my voice in defense of the publicans and lash out at the stiff-necked legalists who sat in the pews. Hmmm…. Judgment and condemnation emanates from both sides of the fence.
    Grace, grace, grace. I do believe that our testimony of God’s never ending grace in our lives will humble the Pharisees AND the publicans, to bring us to a point of surrender to God’s amazing love which fills us up to the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:19)
    As Major Ian Thomas writes (I believe it is in one of his books), we are offered a vehicle with an incredibly powerful engine, and we end up pushing it around! We need to simply “GET IN” and turn it on and take off!! God, teach us to do this!
    One last question, though, Bill: How do we train our children to do what is right, and yet help them not look at their peers with judgment for THEIR not doing things right? How do we help them be obedient but not become little pharisees?

  5. Pastor Bill,
    Another one out of the park, brother. Thanks so much

    re: how do we train our children…. that’s a toughie… mostly we need to be good examples and remember to not only teach our children right and wrong, but also about grace and love. If the message of Love is first and foremost on our lips, the rest will follow naturally. The bible says that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Love comes first, then behavior follows.

    AW Tozer Theological Seminary

  6. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord,
    and he shall lift you up. James 4:10

    The Lord has me asking, how?

    These two words submit and surrender have been coming to me as I pray;
    “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”

    I love the promise God gives me after I humble myself.

    I find I cannot condemn anyone (including myself)
    when I am in the place of humility.

    Prayerfully serving.

  7. How marvelous!!! Right on, brother Dr. G! You are so hot! Wow!

    Rather than try so darn hard to become, we must admit and allow our new spiritual species, powered only by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, to “filling an increasingly mature, Scripture-saturated, doctrine-loving soul.” Sounds pretty simple really – it’s HIS work and not our work.

    As for getting along with fellow believers – IF only we could think of our fellow “Body parts” as our beloved children/grambabies maturing before our eyes in grace with our “supernatural love” for them as their parents/grandparents, wouldn’t we be so much more gentle and loving and forgiving and “tolerant” and encouraging, etc….? Legalist Christians are the nit-pickers who bite and devour each other because they do not love (Gal 5:15).

    If “legalism is invisible to the legalist,” how is there any hope for them? Is it up to fellow believers to “deliver” them, or can we actually depend upon the Holy Spirit to enlighten and grow them out of their legalism?

    Great blog, Dr. G!

  8. Can’t preach grace enough. Thanks.
    I don’t know if you read Quitting Church by Julia Duin. It’s an investigation into why people are leaving evangelical churches. The reasons she pinpoints don’t contradict what you state, but they don’t explicitly agree, i.e. she doesn’t say people are leaving because of legalism. What it does come down to is that the Christian church is preaching an incorrect concept of God. We seem to be naturally afraid of a God of grace. So, churches don’t teach what can be a difficult idea. And if we don’t preach a God of grace, we don’t treat each other with grace. And that is what Ms. Duin would say, that we don’t treat each other as God wants us to because we don’t really like how God treats us (because of poor teaching). Correct the teaching and we correct a host of church problems.

  9. I agree. The church has no room for legalistic righteousness. I like what Paul says here.

    But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4-11

  10. I’m so glad men of God are standing up and shouting the truth that God is Big. No, even bigger than that. No, even bigger than that. (I stole that nugget of wisdom from Andy Stanley).

    This is a journey my husband and I have been on for 10 years; discovering that legalism is the Killer of Relationship with God. Praise God He has been opening my eyeballs to Truth and Freedom. Also, I like to write with Unnecessary Capitalism.

    I’m so looking forward to reading your book!

  11. I’m curious as to how the writer of this article was baptized and if they have received the baptism of the Holy Ghost?

  12. For years I have sat in the pews listening to sermons from a whole host of Pastors, Evangelists, and Missionaries. Through each and every message ran the same thread of the Pentecostal message. God has priorities and the first two that very are important to him are money and legalism. Bible reading, prayer, and worship are all well and good but nothing and I mean absolutely nothing is more important to the church and God than money and legalism. Without legalism there is disobedience and disobedience is sin. God will not bless disobedience no matter how much money you give. If you expect to be blessed in your giving then you must, must, must also embrace legalism. Everything you think say or do is under God’s microscope and his extremely intense scrutiny. You can feel it and sense it God is watching like a dark brooding angry cloud.

  13. For years I have sat in the pews listening to sermons from a whole host of Pastors, Evangelists, and Missionaries. Through each and every message ran the same thread of the Pentecostal message. God has priorities and the first two that very are important to him are money and legalism. Bible reading, prayer, and worship are all well and good but nothing and I mean absolutely nothing is more important to the church and God than money and legalism. Without legalism there is disobedience and disobedience is sin. God will not bless disobedience no matter how much money you give. If you expect to be blessed in your giving then you must, must, must also embrace legalism. Everything you think say or do is under God’s microscope and his extremely intense scrutiny. You can feel it and sense it God is watching like a dark brooding angry cloud.

    We must sell everything that we own and live with as little as possible. Don’t waste your time procreating that just takes money away from the church. Don’t waste your time buying real estate that just takes money away from church. Find a cheap place to live in the worst part of town and wear a bullet proof vest. Don’t waste your money on restaurants that just takes money away from the church. Don’t waste your time on social gatherings that just takes money away from the church. Don’t waste your time visiting family that just takes money way from the church. Live like a homeless person and give all you have to the church. Isolate yourself and own nothing but a dollar store toothbrush. Give all you have the church and die as quickly as possible.

  14. Great blog! Ive recently becom aware of leglism and it’s deadly influence in my own life. Jesus lifted a great weight off of me when He delivered me. Now, I want Him to use me o bring such information as this to others. A house divided against itself cannot stand and yet we have so many denominations of Christians who know the “right” way… God help us all! Thank you for what you’ve allowed God to do here through you!

  15. Ahh good ol’ legalism…
    I was raised kind of legalistic up to the point to where I was about eh 14, I’m 17 now. And now that I’m old enough to start taking responsibilities I do thank my parents from restricting me about things, and in the end seeing what happend to my friends. But it does destroy people. The purpose of the cross is for us to lose the weight and to be forgive, which is what most people don’t understand. Funny I know, but although we need to avoid legalism, we can’t go around being hypocrites. They say you are what you eat, so if you take in junk ex: movies, music, games…they can turn you wrong, also too much of anything is a bad thing. I do listen to secular, and watch movies that others wouldn’t concider “appropriate.” I know that I can handle certain things, because of disernment from the holy spirit. Which is what I’m trying to do through witnessing. If we don’t change legalism, we can lose the world to satan. Which is why I tell my friends that although good deeds wont get you to heaven but the cross willl, that doesn’t mean you can go around getting drunk every weekend. People need to realize that although we are saved we need to know our weaknesses and avoid them. And that legalism is a terrible thing and must be stopped…

  16. Pingback: “Neither shall ye touch it” – Eve, the first Legalist (who killed you) « JimInMontana's Blog

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