Legalism is a major problem within the church today. Those who engage in legalism are teaching unbiblical ideas and pressing them on the congregation. John Piper defines legalism as “Legalism is the conviction that law-keeping is now, after the fall, the ground of our acceptance with God.” Here are five problems with legalism in the church.
1. Trying to Earn Favor Before God
The number one problem of legalism is that legalism teaches us that we must try to earn favor before God through our actions. Instead of resting in the sure promise of salvation through Jesus’ finished work, legalistic individuals try to teach that we need to earn favor before God through our actions.
This is unbiblical because there is nothing that we could do that could merit God’s favor. We are all sinners, and we all fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Salvation was only given to us because we placed faith in Christ.
We did not receive salvation because of anything that we did, nor is salvation based on anything we have to continue to do throughout our lives.
Paul tells us plainly, “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).
The main theme within legalism is that this concept is very much rooted in pride or one’s own “self-righteousness.” Those who are legalistic normally see themselves as “better” than other Christians because they act, behave, or do things in a certain way.
It is a dangerous business to become legalistic because if one follows legalism, they will lose their focus on the gospel. Trying to earn favor before God by our own efforts or merit is not biblical.
God loves us because He created us, and we are forgiven of our sins because of placing faith in Jesus. There is nothing we ever could do to earn merit before God.
2. Teachings Based on Unbiblical Rules
Another problem of legalism in the church is that its teachings are based on unbiblical rules. “You can’t listen to that,” “You can’t watch that,” or “You can’t wear that” are some of the legalistic rules placed on congregations across the world.
As Christians, we are all given freedom in Christ. Galatians 5:1 tells us, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” While we all have freedom in Christ, we do need to be careful with our freedom (1 Peter 2:16).
With our freedom, we can listen to the music we enjoy, watch movies or television shows we enjoy, or wear what we would like to wear.
Of course, we shouldn’t listen to, watch, or wear things that would cause us to sin, develop bad habits, or present a negative image of Christ to the world.
Legalistic churches and legalistic individuals believe you can only listen to a certain kind of music, watch a certain kind of movie, or only wear “church going” clothes.
When legalistic individuals press these rules onto others, it can push them away from Christ, especially unbelievers.
Legalistic churches are one of the number one reasons why unbelievers believe Christianity is made up of rules one has to follow in order to make God love you.
As we know as believers, God doesn’t love us based on what we do, and we cannot obtain merit with God by our “self-righteousness.” Thus, teachings based on unbiblical truths are reasons why legalism is a major problem in the church today.
3. Superiority Complex
A third problem of legalism in the church is the problem of the “superiority complex.” Most times, legalistic churches and legalistic individuals struggle with a superiority complex, in which they view themselves as being more “righteous,” more “holy,” or “worthier” than others.
It is a dangerous business when individuals start viewing themselves as better than others. The Bible tells us we are all equal (Romans 10:12). Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
All people are equal because we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). No matter what we look like, come from, or what language we speak, we are all equal.
Christians do not have to look a certain way in order to be a Christian, nor do we have to be of a certain ethnicity to be a Christian.
Legalistic individuals try to restrict Christianity to a certain social standing or idea, which is simply not Christian at all. It is best for Christians to avoid legalistic teachings and to choose to adhere to the biblical teachings of the Bible.
4. Looks Down on Jesus’ Sacrifice
A fourth problem of legalism in the church is the fact that legalism looks down on Jesus’ sacrifice. Rather than viewing the truth that Jesus’ death on the cross was sufficient, legalism believes we have to continue to please God through our actions.
This is a very audacious statement to make, as Jesus’ death on the cross was sufficient to pay for our sins. Jesus was literally God in the flesh, and he lived a sinless life (Colossians 1:19).
Nobody else has ever lived a perfect life free of sin. Since Jesus lived a sinless life, He was able to be the sinless sacrifice for our sins.
No human could ever live a sinless life because we are all born into sin, and we all freely choose to sin (Romans 5:12; Ecclesiastes 7:20). Only by God in the flesh dying for us could we be forgiven of our sins.
Legalistic individuals claiming that we have to merit God’s favor on our own completely undermines Jesus’ sacrifice. As stressed throughout this article, there is nothing we can do to merit God’s favor on our own.
We are only seen as righteous before God because of our decision to place faith in Christ. Within theology, this is known as imputed righteousness.
5. Causes Rifts Between Believers
A fifth problem of legalism in the church is that it causes rifts between believers. God wants the church to be unified together.
Paul tells us, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
When legalism comes into the church, it starts causing divisions between those who believe in legalism and those who don’t. As those who know legalism is wrong and unbiblical, we need to help point others to the fact that legalism is not right.
Most likely, when we confront those who believe in legalism, they will not take it well and might even be hostile toward us. Even if they are, it is best to educate the church congregation on the truth of legalism and the many errors it contains.
Legalism has no place in a believer’s life because it will only pull us away from God. Despite the teachings of legalism, no one can earn merit or favor before God.
Only by placing faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, can we be made righteous. Salvation cannot be obtained by efforts, nor can we “earn” it. Salvation has always been based on placing faith in Christ — not by anything that we do.
For further reading:
What Is the Difference Between Obedience and Legalism?
Why Is Shame Connected to the Church?
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Vivian Bricker loves Jesus, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master's degree in Christian Ministry with a deep academic emphasis in theology. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, reading, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, she is embarking on other adventures.