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Legalism. What do you think of when you hear this word? Some people might think of someone who is a stick in the mud. Maybe even someone who relies on the Bible too much instead of following their hearts. Some might think of a strict religion with lots of rules. Others say it’s a “spirit” of criticism and division.

I believe one of the best ways to define legalism is as follows: Legalism entails the establishment of man-made rules and traditions as the benchmark for what is considered holy and right. This is precisely what the Pharisees did, imposing an unattainable burden where almost every action and word is deemed wrong and sinful by these standards. For example, I remember someone giving me an earful when I decided to place my Bible on the floor because my purse had fallen over, and I needed to pick it up. Some people believe that placing the Bible on the floor or putting any object on it means you are disrespecting God. Muslims hold a similar belief regarding the Quran. I believe this is truly what makes the distinction between regarding the Bible as the word of God and literally worshiping it. It’s a holy book. We need to read and study it. But it’s physically just an object. This mindset causes Christians to hold impossible standards for themselves and others.

If the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus It’s good enough for me. . . right?

Legalism looks like instructing women not to wear pants or makeup, permitting only specific foods at certain times, and adopting a skewed perspective on holiness, just to name a few. I know this from experience. When I first became a Christian, I attended what I would consider a highly legalistic church. This church had numerous stringent rules, such as women being forbidden to wear pants, allowing only one ear piercing per ear, prohibiting tattoos, disallowing music with drums (which included movies or shows featuring drums as well, as everything was perceived as either demonic or worldly), insisting on the exclusive use of the King James version of the Bible, prohibiting the placement of the Bible anywhere other than on a table or shelf, forbidding writing in it, and even dictating how bright and colorful your clothes could be.

A Burden that’s Breaking People’s Faith

This is the essence of legalism. Many Christians would be surprised to know that this is a significant factor contributing to many people’s deconstructing faith. It is a burden imposed by people, not by God, which gives the perception of an angry and distant God who is perpetually displeased with you, no matter how hard you try.

Here Christians must understand the difference between holiness and legalism. They are not the same. Holiness is being set apart, adhering to God’s standards rather than conforming to worldly norms. Legalism tells you to strictly adhere to man-made rules, often discouraging critical thinking. This distinction is key. For example, questioning someone who claims to have received a message from God is not legalism. This is practicing discernment, which is what we’re supposed to do. It raises a huge red flag when a teacher refuses to entertain questions or scrutiny regarding their teachings or messages.

Where’s the Love?

True Christianity involves reading the Bible, comprehending its content, and obeying God out of love. This is a reasonable expectation for those claiming to be Christians. It does not however mean we have to become overly critical or judgmental. Excessive legalism lacks grace. Legalism is aggressive and accusatory. Jesus removes burdens, while legalism restores them. This reminds me of the animated version of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” where the character Christian encounters Legality Hill, a mountain covered in countless rules resembling the Ten Commandments. An angry god at the top of the mountain instructs Christian to follow all the rules to reach him, ultimately showing the impossibility of such impossible demands. This is one of the best pictures of what legalism looks like.

Jesus saved His harshest words for the Pharisees who were the poster children of the day for legalism. Listen, He did not denounce their good deeds, but rather their hypocrisy and prioritization of tradition and human-made rules over God’s commands. Don’t miss this distinction. Many religious denominations, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and various Word of Faith teachings, adopt a works-based approach, where salvation depends on your actions rather than faith in Jesus alone. Extreme legalism often comes from fear and pride. People are afraid of being deceived. And in that fear of deception, they may become ungracious and overbearing towards other people. Think of a helicopter Christian, trying to protect everyone from anything bad ever happening to them. They overdo it.

It’s essential to stand for truth, the Gospel, and the core doctrines of what the Bible teaches, it is equally important not to impose an unreasonable burden on others without extending grace. Love doesn’t mean we’re pushovers. It means we speak truth. But we’re wise and discerning and not overbearing jerks about it. We’d be wise to remember the message in 1 Corinthians 13 about love. Without speaking and acting in love, our words become mere noise, like a clanging gong.

Recommended resources related to the topic:

Jesus, You and the Essentials of Christianity by Frank Turek (INSTRUCTOR Study Guide), (STUDENT Study Guide)

Another Gospel? by Alisa Childers (book)

Hell? The Truth about Eternity (MP3 Set), (DVD Set), and (Mp4 Download Set) by Dr. Frank Turek

How to Interpret Your Bible by Dr. Frank Turek DVD Complete Series, INSTRUCTOR Study Guide, and STUDENT Study Guide


Melissa Dougherty is a Christian Apologist best known for her YouTube channel as an ex-new ager. She has two associate’s degrees, one in Early Childhood Multicultural Education, and the other in Liberal Arts. She also has a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies at Southern Evangelical Seminary.


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