Is My Church Legalistic?


Q: I have been a member of a “fundamental, Bible-believing” church for six years and recently, some things have come to light that concern me. First, our church is adamant about the clear gospel in that it is not of works and that you can’t ever earn your way into heaven. I know it’s a free gift and that is the core of our teaching.

However, there are strict rules for the members—no going to movies, no listening to anything that resembles Christian rock music—men must wear suits and women must wear dresses or skirts in church. Our pastor calls these requirements “standards.”

My most disturbing concern is when people leave our church, we are no longer allowed to fellowship with them. Other red flags I see include intimidation and fear of the leadership. We are told to be at church “whenever the doors are open” and often feel guilty for missing any service or church function. There is also the teaching that we are the only true church (including our three affiliate churches).

Would these practices and beliefs be legalistic in your opinion, even though salvation by grace is preached?

A: Your experience is one of the most basic contradictions that exists within legalistic religion (both within Christendom as well as other religions). One message is preached, but another message is practiced, yea, even enforced and demanded. In your case, the word “grace” is used. The correct enunciation of grace as a biblical teaching is proclaimed. But when it comes down to the rubber hitting the road, when it comes down to practice, grace is denied and religious legalism rules supreme.

If a person cannot earn their way into heaven, what if they are not a part of your church (or the three affiliates)? What happens to them? If a person cannot earn their way into heaven, what about those folks who say they are Christian (by being a member of your church and its three affiliates) but go to movies, listen to rock music (Christian or otherwise), and don’t dress in the manner prescribed by your pastor? What happens to people in your own church who don’t attend church “every time the door is open”—are they in danger of losing their salvation because of their lax attendance at an earthly religious address?

You speak of intimidation and fear—the very opposite of God’s love. You speak of people who leave your church becoming pariahs—so that you can’t even speak to these former friends. By whose authority is your church making such a pronouncement? Their own—and that of religion? They are certainly not shunning these former members on behalf of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

Then of course you bring up that core religious teaching—expressed in a variety of ways—but at its most crude and prideful, exclusive expression, it is that “our church is the one and only true church.” This teaching is absolute perversion and distortion of the truth. The body of Christ is universal, and God has his own wherever he wants them. No legally incorporated spiritual entity can claim an exclusive franchise to represent God on earth (however hard they try and loudly they may fulminate!).

Your church and pastor would probably say that its former members and the world at large (including the vast majority of professing Christians) are letting down the standards, and therefore, because they don’t have the fruits of repentance, they probably aren’t “true” Christians.

When such a thing happens religion has exalted a code of conduct over grace, a code of conduct that interprets and defines whether God’s grace is present or not! Based on your report, there is no doubt in my mind that legalism is deeply rooted in this church—and I believe, dogmatically, that in such a place, while the word “grace” might be used, religion is lord, not Jesus.