The average legalist does not know that he or she is legalistic. I didn’t. I thought I was just following God’s Word. I didn’t think I was a Pharisee; I thought I was righteous.
Legalism is rightly considered a disease in the church, but most of its sufferers mistake its symptoms for holiness. They think they have the mind of Christ and that everyone else is carnal. Legalism, for all its damage, can actually manifest in very subtle ways.
Is there a practical way to discern if you have legalistic tendencies? If legalism is a type of spiritual disease, is there a way to quickly distinguish its symptoms?
Definitions of Legalism
We can start with a couple of helpful definitions:
“Legalism: Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code.” – The Tenth Edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
“Legalists are people who add personal preference to accepted doctrinal teaching, accept these additions as having equal weight with doctrinal teaching, and apply these additions in the judging of others.” – David Miller, Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism
“Legalism is the reduction of life to mere technicalities. It substitutes code for conscience, ritual for worship, rectitude for holiness, morality for purity.” – Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God
But I’m No Pharisee
In Matthew 23 and Luke 11 Jesus confronts the legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Most churchgoers are familiar with both passages—the symptoms appear obvious. Perhaps you, like me, can wonder how the Pharisees overlooked their own legalism. And how did their followers not see them for what they were?
The reason that both the Pharisees and their disciples failed to spot legalism was because their religious practices were a close counterfeit of genuine worship. The same is true for today’s legalists. Few see themselves as modern day Pharisees. Instead, they believe that they are particularly observant Christians.
Checklist of 30 Legalistic Tendencies
Are there modern examples of lifestyle patterns or habits which might indicate that someone has legalistic tendencies? Below are some suggestions.
- I am continually scandalized by the driving habits of others. Yes or No.
- I believe that God loves me more when I behave. Yes or No.
- When I write a check to my church, I tithe to the penny. Yes or No.
- I entirely avoid alcohol, makeup, or jewelry out of fear of contamination. Yes or No.
- I usually stand out from the crowd because of my formal or conservative attire. Yes or No.
- When I encounter another professing Christian, I find myself judging their appearance. Yes or No.
- My good friends are all from one church or denomination. Yes or No.
- When I miss a Sunday service, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
- When I miss any church activity, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
- There are only a few Bible teachers who truly teach God’s Word. Yes or No.
- When I sin, I feel guilty even after I ask God to forgive me. Yes or No.
- I believe that small children should behave like miniature adults. Yes or No.
- In a snow-covered parking lot, I feel anxious because I can’t see the parking lines. Yes or No.
- When someone gives me a gift or does something kind for me, I feel unsettled until I can reciprocate. Yes or No.
- I always clean my house thoroughly before anyone visits—even if they’re just popping by. Yes or No.
- I want my children to avoid contact with sinful people. Yes or No.
- I prefer to do things myself rather than accept help from people who are sloppy or less conscientious than I am. Yes or No.
- There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Yes or No.
- I believe that God is most glorified through my preferred style of music. Yes or No.
- I believe that all scripture is equally applicable to my life. Yes or No.
- I have had several conversion experiences but still doubt my salvation. Yes or No.
- I have a sneaking suspicion that if Jesus returned while I was sinning, I would go to hell. Yes or No.
- I take pleasure in reporting or punishing people who commit minor infractions. Yes or No.
- I like to make an example out of wrongdoers. Yes or No.
- I feel guilty when I exceed the speed limit by even a few miles per hour. Yes or No.
- I avoid certain behaviors primarily because they are wrong, rather than because they are harmful. Yes or No.
- I feel morally obligated to finish every book I start. Yes or No.
- Others could describe me as bitter and depressed rather than joyful and kind. Yes or No.
- I feel unlucky or cursed if I skip Bible reading or prayer. Yes or No.
- I believe that God is more like a policeman and less like a fireman. Yes or No.
Some of these are more crucial than others, but if you circled “yes” to a fair number, it’s likely that you struggle with a distorted view of God and his Word. It’s likely that you are legalistic.
Legalists, whatever they may say, are miserable people. Life is a ledger and they are always trying to measure up. They feel better only through their own perceived performance or by judging the bad behavior of others. It is a zero-sum game which never ends; you can never rest.
In Jesus Christ, God has crucified the law and fulfilled its requirements for perfection. If you have placed your faith in Christ, then when God looks at you he sees Jesus. God has saved you to a joyful, abundant life and to obedience lived out of gratitude; not to a cramped, fearful, nit-picky existence that chews lemons and keeps score and measures everyone against an impossible standard.
God, through grace, has something better.
I have at the very least found out that I am far more legalistic when I am in a car.
Ha! Me too. It is a catalytic environment.
Hahaaaa. Me too.
Great checklist… I am grateful that I have left legalism behind … the early years of my Christianity I was under a very legalistic ministry and I became the same.. thank God He rescued me from that too, but not before I did some damage to my kids!
Even that, He can heal.
Absolutely, Bev. Praise God!
Trusting God to heal the damage of legalism done to my children. I am not in legalism anymore, ptL, but I see those tendencies still in my character. I’m grateful that I can see them and I have a loving heavenly Father who helps me to see it.
I’m also grateful for your ministry. Blessings to you.
Thanks for your encouragement, Debbie. God can heal your children, and he can bless them and you. None of us is perfect. We all make mistakes, even grave mistakes. But God is faithful and it sounds like he has done a remarkable work in your life. Praise the Lord! Press on!
#13 made me LOL. A legalist would go mad in our parking lot at my workplace. We paved it late in the fall and it was too cold to paint the lines then! Even without snow, no lines :0 Not that we have had many days without snow this winter in downeast Maine! [about 120 inches in the last 6 weeks]
Can we add #31: I believe there is only one right translation/version of the Bible, and it happens to be the one I like to use.
Yes! Good one.
But… but … how many “yes” responses is too many? I need a rule, a specific number so I know if I am being legalistic or not!
So true! Guilty of most (or all) at least a million times in my life!
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I’ve been reading your website for many months now and have greatly appreciated the content. I can see myself in pretty much all of those 30 items. I was raised in VERY legalistic, rigid religious environment. It has only been in the past year that I’ve realized how abusive it has been…it has taken me a while to learn to that it is okay to think for myself, and that “god” is NOT who he claims to be. I struggle with self flagellation quite a bit. If I fail just slightly, I tend to question my salvation, and do a thorough job of making myself miserable. Learning new things is a slow process, especially when you’ve been programmed to believe that only one person posseses the “truth,” and to question is blasphemy. Thank you for writing…it is helping me heal.
Thanks for sharing, Heather. It’s so hard to get out of the negative self-talk which we formerly thought was God’s voice. Now that I have a son, I can at least realize that the level of love I have for him must be equal to or less than the love God has for me as his child. If I want good things for my son, if it breaks my heart when he gets hurt, and if I celebrate with him for every little victory, then God must do the same for me. And yet my default mentality is to believe that God wants to squish me under his thumb. It’s a long recovery, but there is true progress and genuine hope.
Hey Steve! Glad to see you back from your hiatus! We all missed you.
Oh yes the legalist bit! Glad I am done with it. Sometimes it comes creeping back up through the cracks, but the Holy Spirit sure knows how to obliterate those nasties if you are willing to listen to Him.
Hi steve, i have a unique situation regarding our church and pastors, so i was wondering if i could privately email you as i have found your site helpful but nothing really sets a clear path for me about what is happening. You see i have been in this church for 18years and i am starting to buck at some things that i dont think are right, i check them via the word but i am not trusting myself which i can explain better if i can have the chance. i need someone to help me as i have never reached out for help in 18 years as we are told that matters of the church stay in the church. please allow me to share my story and maybe you can shed some light on my path.. or in the least confirm what i believe God is showing me. It has come to a point of spiritual death or salvation and im hanging on by a thread right now.
Sure thing, Sezzy. Email me at email@example.com. I’ll do my best to answer your questions.
Hey Steve, well i know i said i’d send an email about our situation, but we had taken it to the lord and we feel to leave the church and as of today we resigned after 18yrs for me and 25yrs for my husband. We feel so liberated and our children even have changed in thier attitude already which is so encouraging. We just cant wait now for what God is going to do with us. Thanks for your site it was helpful in at least identifying those trade marks of a legalistic church. I had a confirmation from a brother in christ who we dont even know he was able to identify with us and gave some great advice. So Bless you guys.
Praise God! Blessings to your family.
I wanted to thank you for your words of encouragement thru this site. My daughter is involved in a Oneness Pentecostal church and I can answer yes for her on almost everyone of these on the list. She has been involved for 6 years now even though she was raised in a non-denominational bible teaching church. She is so far from the joy filled person she used to be and her family and I are worried sick. I have ran out of options on how to get her out of there. She lives in Columbus Ohio.
Wow! Some of these are real specific. Almost sounds like you’re calling out someone who may have seemed critical of you.
Do you feel guilty after playing cards (the devil’s pasteboards? What about the lottery, putting some money in a slot machine, what about smoking a cigarette, dancing, going to a tavern, your hair touches your collar, you use medical marijuana, you don’t wear a blue suit to church, your pastor preaches more about rules than evangelism, people literally gasp in horror if you smoke or drink, You say OH my God, You say a swear word that doesn’t take the Lord’s name as OH SH**t, You think black people are bad, you accept government help, food stamps, section 8 housing, you vote for a democrat I went to a legalistic church for five years. I could go on forever. All you can do is witness to everyone, read your bible daily, have home devotions, not own a TV, Your wife cannot work, if she is cutting the grass she has to wear a dress, you can only have sex in the missionary position, masturbation is a sin, I say anyone who says they never masturbated is a liar. You only had 30 I could give you 200+.