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Legalsim in the local institutional church | Spiritual abuse
Some thoughts concerning legalism; "legalistic Christians"; 
and legalistic organizations.
Why were the leaders of Jesus’ and Paul’s day spreading legalistic teaching?  Was it simply a matter of being right?  It’s more serious than that.  Look at Galatians 6:12-13:

                           “Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, 
                             simply that they many not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.  For those who are                                                 circumcised do not even keep the law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised,                                 that they may boast in your flesh.”

You see, living with Jesus as your only source of life and acceptance is a confrontation to those who seek God’s approval on the basis of their own religious behavior.

This then explains the pressure you feel to perform religious behaviors in spiritually abusive contexts.  If you perform as they say you must: 

1)  it will make them look good

2)  their self-righteousness will escape the scrutiny of the cross of Christ as the only means to God’s favor 

3)  it will allow them to examine you instead of themselves

 4) they will be able to “boast in” or gain a sense of validation from your religious performance.

Can you see the abusive dynamic?  Here we have religious people trying to meet their own spiritual needs through someone else’s religious performance.  And it’s all cloaked in the language of "being holy" and "helping others to live holy lives."   (1)

The weight we are describing is called legalism.  

It is a form of religious perfectionism that focuses on the careful performance and avoidance of certain behaviors.  It teaches people to gain a sense of spiritual acceptance based on their performance, instead of accepting it as a gift on the basis of Christ.

Leaders are given to the church to protect the flock from legalists who push religious performance as the means to right standing or favor with God.  Paul tells Titus that the rebellious men must be silenced.  (Titus Chapter 1) 

Unfortunately, in many churches, not only are the leaders not protecting the flock against those who push religious performance, THEY are the pushers and in bondage to performance themselves.  Perhaps that’s why people in a lot of churches (leaders especially) are so tired, shamed and wounded.

We believe that all of us, as Christians, need to be on guard – not only against specific leaders and systems that throw their spiritual weight around, but against the subtle use of “formulas” and doctrines that are so often used to press good people of the faith into conformity with a religious system instead of conformity to Christ.  (1)

The best definition of legalism is that which emanates from the mouth of Jesus recorded in Matthews Gospel, chapter 15 verses 8 and 9:  

                                          “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth , 
                                            and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is 
                                            far from me.  But in vain do they worship me, teaching 
                                            for doctrines the commandments of men.”    (2)

Legalism is a “schism” that can afflict, and in fact has afflicted, most religions.

Legalism is the adding of basic presuppositions to a faith to make that faith more exclusive or less available to “outsiders” who do not think, act, or believe as do the “true” believers.  

Legalism is one of the many power maneuvers by church leaders who seek to consolidate religious authority in the hands of a very few.

Legalism is a snare for Christians, but it is for many a soft, warm, comfortable snare, one that feels safe and is secure as long as things are going well.  

Legalism, with the need for spiritual security that lies behind it, is an opiate for many Christians, a spiritual narcotic designed to compensate for a largely graceless form of religious belief.  

Legalism offers Christian families security as long as they practice what a church, Christian institution, or authority figure commands.  (2)

Legalistic Christians” have their own “gurus,” authority figures in church, who are happy to prescribe rules for living.  (2)

All families and all religions are vulnerable to the excesses of legalism, and anyone identifying with such a religion is a potential recruit for the “morality police” always found in legalistic groups.
Yes, we know that legalism emphasizes externals more than internals, while it proclaims just the opposite.  

Legalists of all stripes are comfortable with the idea that to observe a person’s behavior is to know that person’s character, while they ignore the motives behind the conformity.

Legalism preaches, whether implicitly or explicitly, the importance of each one watching one another  - to keep each other close to the Lord of course, but watching, nevertheless.  Frequently it encourages reporting back to an authority figure so the “body of believers” can be kept pure.

Legalism is a perversion of true Christianity.  In examining it, Christians must ask themselves if they have assigned their God-given freedom to run their lives and manage their families according to their understanding of God’s leading over to an authority figure.  

Being freed from “Christian legalism” means going back to the freedom God has promised in true Christianity.  Being free means that each Christian today can expose the secret Pharisee hiding in all, just as Jesus helped His people to do in the days he walked the earth.  

Being free from legalism does not mean our family has changed our religious beliefs, but rather that we no longer have to look outside our own family and our own Bible for direction.  Our lives are still evangelical, but now for different reasons.  (2)

Legalism has much in common with alcoholism and any other kind of addiction.  (2)

Legalism teaches that externals reveal internals, and its leaders first evolve into Christian detectives, looking for (something) that will reveal what this person is “really” like on the inside.  In the end such legalistic Christian leaders become monsters through the abuses of power that always follow this philosophy.  

Hence, ordinary Christians become mice who will allow their leaders to become beneficent monsters, Christian dictators, Bible-based ayatollahs who can’t wait to add their own “interpretations” to traditional Christian teachings.  (2)

Legalistic Christians” think differently from other Christians because they have perverted their ideas by deviating from the directions God has commanded or by adding human preferences to what God has commanded.  (2)

This is the error of legalism.  

Legalism adds individual or corporate preferences to God’s Word and places these man-made additions on an equal standing with God’s Word.  (2)

All “legalistic Christians,” those who value externals more than internals, expect others to tell them what they should do and how they should think.  (2)

Legalists seek answers, not challenges.  However, legalists do not like searching for answers, spiritual or otherwise.  Rather, they feel comfortable in being told what is true and correct by people they believe they can trust.

To a legalist, an ambiguity is a sign of failure, a pain stimulus in need of anesthesia.

Legalism is the morphine that numbs the pain of uncertainty.

Legalism offers answers to its adherents.  If a clear answer is not to be found in the Bible, leadership will simply proclaim an answer to the people, and the people will accept it.  I know; I have been there.  And it really feels good knowing there are answers for everything. 

But the time comes when the man-made answer fails and we realize that God all along expected us to trust and obey Him and the Holy Spirit in spite of the gray surrounding us at the time.  (2)

Christian legalism” can be likened to a virus, a sickness of the body that can invade any Christian family with devastating results.  

Legalism was repeatedly condemned by Jesus.  Yet legalism enters the body of Christ, the church, infecting and rendering dysfunctional all it touches.  

But legalism differs from physical, viral illness in that it is usually contracted voluntarily - a disease of choice for most, a free-will sickness.  

Those who choose legalism do so because it meets their most basic spiritual or psychological needs in some important way.  Such needs may be for security and safety, for acceptance in an exclusive group, or for feeling superior to others.  (2)

Legalism usurps the decision-making liberties of Christians and hands them over to authority figures eager to receive them.  Christians may choose to become legalists, but once that choice is made, any remnants of individual freedom to choose are quickly lost.  

Legalism unchecked will destroy the testimony of a Christian family by making things (appearances, associations, choice of school or neighborhood) more important to them than other people.  (2)

Legalism turns rational, normal, confident Christians into weaklings who are unable to make choices without official approval.  They are willing to believe the most outlandish statements spoken by an authority figure in the church.  

Legalism inevitably turns the people into church mice and Christian leaders into authoritarian monsters.  (2)

Christian legalism” is a perversion of Christian love and liberty and is leading great numbers of believers into radical, reclusive, isolated lifestyles. 

Legalists believe it necessary to keep family problems – even normal, developmental concerns – away from public knowledge lest “outsiders” think the Christian God is unable to heal a hurting family.  (2)

Legalism in not of God, though legalists believe they are God’s special people.  

Legalism corrupts the necessary love within a family and teaches that authority figures outside the family know best.  

Legalism teaches that the authoritative position on any subject is universally correct, and to challenge the scriptural basis for decisions made by authority figures is disloyal and lacking in true faith in God.

To challenge authority in a legalistic church is risky business.  Thousands of legalistic churches are quick to respond to any challenge to their exclusive brand of Christian living or thinking.  (2)

Legalists’ children learn that what they look like is at least as important, any maybe more important, than what they are on the inside.  Put another way, legalism teaches Christian living as a performance art for the benefit of those who may be watching.  (2)

Why do Christians allow their minds to be controlled by legalistic authority figures?  

Why do some of them accept unquestionably the right of another human being to tell them that his thoughts on Christian living are more powerful than their own?

It usually does not happen suddenly, but subtly and over a period of time "legalistic Christians" are influenced to assimilate some irrational ideas into their own thinking.  Christians living in legalism have allowed themselves to be persuaded to trust a human authority figure who can logically and persuasively convince others of his right to lead. 

Every legalist  is a conformist with a deep need to test the wind to see which way the spiritual authority breezes blow and then to move with the breeze rather than against it.  

Many of us Christians have heard surprising statements coming from a church pulpit.  In my former church, I might have questioned how, if anyone in his or her right mind could believe such drivel, and wonder what the problem was.   Remember that this was a legalistic church where people had been taught that no one challenges "God's man."  Members simply do not question authority figures in legalistic churches or organizations without running the risk of someone questioning their spiritually.

Legalism takes its toll. 

Every family touched by "Christian legalism" is damaged.  My own family lost valuable time and experience to the artificial limitations of a legalistic system; others will lose:

-Parent-child relationships
-Fellowship opportunities, and more.

This can all be avoided when we learn to trust God and take Him at His word.  He will not leave us or forsake us.  He holds on to us, not we to Him, and He cannot not fail us.

The price of legalism is high, and appears to be getting higher.

But we can make our families "grace-full" again and know the unconditional love and acceptance God has offered us all along.  (2)

Those who have been deeply involved in legalism will be forever in the process of breaking free from this modern perversion of Christianity.  Recovering legalists may become freer but not totally free, because the teachings and social pressures will have become a permanent part of them and will remain so as long as they live.  The best they can hope to be released from the controlling effects of legalism, enabling them to be able to rise a little closer to God and feel the unconditional warmth of His love.  They can be directed by God's Spirit rather than a human authority figure.  They can learn to love others again, without condition, just as God loves them.

Recovering legalists will have to relearn how to enjoy an unfettered fellowship with everyone of like faith.  They are free to fellowship with people from denominations they once were taught were ungodly and unworthy of their company.  They are free of their once firmly held barricade mentality; free to attack the gates of hell with a bucket of water.  They are now free to love their children and each other as unconditionally as God loves His children, love without limit or excuse, love without apology.

Arguing is futile with legalists.  Only love will have effect.  Love facilitates freedom, not debate and controversy.  A legalist will never be "rationalized" away from legalism but can be loved into being free.

Two factors are indispensable when trying to help a Christian legalist:  unconditional love and personal Bible study.

Unconditional love is the "thorn in the side" that moves a person.  Unconditional love is the kind of love God shows to us and that Jesus lived.  Unconditional love cares what people do, but cares for the people more than their behavior.  Unconditional love enables us to separate sin from the sinner and see the person beneath.  Unconditional love convicts of hatred, bigotry, arrogance, and isolationism.  Unconditional love, mixed with patience, works for these goals and achieves them.

Bible study will help Christians see the extremism of the system that has been oppressing them.  Bible study reveals God's attitude about the sins of legalism.  Passages such as these will help:

Matthew 15:8   "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me."

Matthew 23:1-5  "Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples saying, The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat:  All therefore what they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works:  for they say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; 
but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do for to be seen of men."

Luke 11:17  "But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth."

Luke 15:1-2  "Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.  And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them."

Matthew 15:9  "But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."

God bless you as you deal with this issue in your own Christian environment.  Remember, only your submersion in the unconditional love of God and in His Word, make you strong enough to break down the barriers of legalism.  (2)

(1) David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen, "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse", (Bethany House, 1991)  

(2) David R. Miller, "Breaking Free - Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism", 

 (Baker Book House, 1992)

Read Also:  

The Christian Church: Distorted and Deformed

Ken Cascio

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