Repenting of Legalism

My parents raised me in the only way they knew how: in a relaxed variety of fundamentalism, a church that wasn’t exactly Baptist in denomination but Baptist-ish in practice and belief. King James wasn’t the only way but we had better wear skirt and pantyhose on Sundays. Youth group was more than hymn-sings and prayer meetings but we still ascribed to certain set of distinct do’s and don’ts when it came to how church was supposed to be done.

It wasn’t my parent’s fault but I grew up a legalist.

We believed in a defined collection of doctrines, and as I grew into teenage hood {and finally discovered that while my father knew a LOT, he didn’t know every.single.thing} I questioned whether or not my church knew everything too.

It said it did. It acted like it did. For all intents and purposes, it even felt like it did.

To believe anything else outside of our prescribed group of beliefs meant that a.) we needed to pray for you and invite you to Bible study, b.) you might not be a Christian, and c.) we needed to figure out how to make you understand that our way was correct.

Hopefully you didn’t believe in a post-tribulation rapture because if you did, how on earth would you survive it?

My whole church worldview shifted drastically when I met Chad at age 17 and began going to Charismatic church with him. {And that is it’s own set of crazy stories for another day.}

We got married and four years later I jumped off the deep end without a life vest or body armor into shark infested waters. Eventually I came back and walked a sometimes fast and sometimes arduous journey back to wholeness.

No matter how far or close I was from God and no matter what church I fell asleep in on Sunday mornings, a single thread wove it’s way through my years: legalism.

I always thought that my way was the best way and wanted everyone around me to follow suit.

My preferences in worship, what kind of music we listened to, what certain verses in the Bible actually meant, how church was supposed to look like and what a pastor should be allowed to say, if women should be up in front and if they were allowed to preside over a church service. I had certain convicted beliefs about each of them and I was right, right?

And even in my wasteland years, I still believed that my way was right and wanted desperately for everyone to come along the risky, rocky path with me. Let’s all run the gauntlet together because anyone who was too scared to do it was missing out.

It’s been over 8 years since I began a journey back to God, but even on my return I still wanted everyone to do it like me. I had stopped drinking so I got offended if anyone drank a beer around me. I refrained from secular music so I didn’t want anyone to play it. I sequestered myself from most television and movies and I didn’t even want to hear someone talk about what they were watching.

Without knowing it, and with all good intentions for my own healing, I remained a legalist.

A few years ago, I went through what I like to now call my Year of Grace. Over the span of about 12 months, a single, difficult-at-the-time relationship in my life wrung me out of the graceless-ness that lived in me. She taught me what extravagant love and what luxurious grace looked like and I’ve never been the same. I didn’t know, at the time, that the heart-wrenching working-through of that single relationship would teach me so much about what grace looked like, but I’m so glad it did.

I’d like to say that the experience totally cured me of of the disease of legalism. Because it didn’t. But it sure helped me along to a place of understanding and exhibiting grace. Even so, I still find legalistic tendencies cropping up in my heart when I see a group or a church doing things so differently than what I am comfortable with or believe things that seem as if they are in opposition to what I feel is correct.

Legalism is anytime that I say that my way is right {when it comes to things of preference, comfort and/or interpretation} and I think that everyone should jump on my bus with me and that everyone who does not is morally wrong.

If I think that your old-style worship with hymns and liturgy is not the way to do things, then I’m a legalist.

If I think that your way of doing house church is weird and wrong, then I’m a legalist.

If I think that your political position, your stance on gay marriage, your love or hatred of our government, your wealth status, your anything political is wrong and that you should agree with me, that is legalism.

No matter what side of the religious or political coin we land on, most of us are legalists in some way. It is our natural tendency to believe that what we have come to think about life is for everyone else also correct. And that makes us legalists.

There are very few deal breakers in life: Christ’s death and resurrection, His deity, His intense and luxurious love for the world are a few in my book. But most of life is full of preference and choice. {Even things like when and if a rapture is coming and if you are a Democrat, Republican or Libertarian.}

Let us show strength and conviction about those things are in fact deal-breakers, but all the rest? All of the style and preference stuff and what makes comfortable? Let us allow our friends and families to make their own beautiful mosaics of life and let us NOT allow the rest to create legalism in our hearts or in our communities.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle

Have you had to repent from legalism? How do you find legalism cropping up in your own life?



  1. Erica says

    I was so blessed by this! This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, having also been brought up in a rather legalistic Christian household. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.

  2. roseann elliott@ says

    Oh I know this journey well…grace…that word seemed like compromise…selling out…the group we fellowshipped with slowly got smaller and more narrow…while thanking God for this group and what a blessing it was…I could not see how arrogant my thoughts had become…the superior thinking that invaded my heart…than a severe mercy came…deep wounding and a painful split…but now I see…I had to have this…to be thrown out of my nest …like a baby bird…I was flapping so hard…thinking I would crash…and right before I hit the ground…I found my wings…and the wind that caught me up…Grace…so thankful for the freedom I am walking in…continuing to learn daily…continuing to see God’s love and grace for me…and now I can see it for others…so very thankful…

  3. Kerry says

    ugh! i can soooo relate! i hate how often i find myself thinking something along the lines of “i just wish they could get it like i get it!” (seems reasonable in my head but sounds so pathetic when i hear it out loud! :-))
    for me legalism has walked hand-in-hand with works righteousness (i can earn and/or maintain my salvation if i just follow the rules!) and the fear that love is conditional (if i follow the rules then I will be loved, and who doesn’t want to be loved?!). what an exhausting life that can be!!
    i spent over 30 years of my life living this way without even knowing it….so thankful that God helped me to see it in the last few years. it is still a struggle, but the first step is seeing/admitting the problem, right? :-)

    • Sarah Markley says

      yes, i do think it’s the first step! remember, we are all in this together. thank you so much for your comment!

  4. says

    Refreshing!!! Forwarded to friends and family… freeing us to love one another, holding on to what is most precious, letting go of false responsibility to be ‘right’.. allowing the Father to pursue hearts if change is needed, that’s His job~ as we focus on the change and relationship He is pursuing in our own hearts, that’s our job. Loving others without expectations sets them free to seek after a loving God..I’m INSPIRED! Thanks Sarah! I enjoy your ‘voice’!

  5. says

    “In essentials-unity, in non-essentials-liberty, in all things-charity.” Great post, and yes, legalism wraps it’s spindly, vine-like arms around my heart easily–but I’ve found that God brings people into my lives to help me realize this. He trims away the vine that seeks to choke out LIFE. At least that is the way it has worked for me. Those relationships have brought growth and insight.

  6. says

    Good points, Sarah. You have identified something that all of us struggle with. The biggest problem, by nature we are all legalists. We especially like the Law if it shows that I may be better than someone else. Certainly the Law shows us our sin, but it can never make us “more holy.” Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ does that, and that is 100% His work! Thank God for that!

    Thank you

  7. says

    Bravo!- so eloquently shared and everyone should be able to relate. It makes me think of John 5:39-

    ” You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. 40 But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.

    We always miss Jesus ( in every situation) when we try to live by a religious system with its rules instead of for a person.

  8. the babysitter says

    LOVE this post!….I too went to that same legalistic church. However, as I didn’t grow up there, rather was led there, I thought this WAS the right way. The ironic thing was that as much as I was learning to be rigid in my beliefs, I was also being taught about tolerance, forgivness, and acceptance by the group of tweenies, teens, and early 20’s that the lord brought to me. I found within me a person who could love and be loved, without scorn, without judgement. I praise god for allowing those “kids” to be themselves, and for showing me how to love despite it. This and this alone has formed me into the person I am today. I am capable of having a beautiful relationship with the lord without “repelling” those around me who don’t. U never know when that just right person will come along at that just right moment, who will need guidance and understanding (and wow does it happen often). God sure knew what he was doing with me back then.

    • Sarah Markley says

      yeah, and as i was saying in a different comment, that church is a very different place than it was in the 80s. It is grace filled and full of people who love Jesus. =) thanks for commenting, friend. i know who you are =)

  9. Karin says

    I too am a recovering legalist. I think that way of being for “church people” stems from wanting to get it right where God is concerned, and not displease him, even unwittingly. It comes from a time where credes were established to forge Christianity as a distinct belief from other beliefs. It is definitely something in need of balance, wisdom, grace and relaxed rest in knowing God’s grace. I too tend to feel that when it comes to our souls and eternity, the stakes are high, and I know Satan is nothing if not subtle. I think we orthodox and free-wheeling types need each other for constant balancing out of each other – while tethered and anchored down by the non-negotiables that you mentioned (great that you did!), like the cross and the resurrection.

  10. Karin says

    I just started reading “What Would I Believe If I Didn’t Believe Anything?” by Kent Ira Groff. Recommend~ totally fits with this.

  11. says

    Ah, yes!! It’s funny how I first saw legalism in others, and it took a while to see it in myself, but now I struggle against it as often as I can. We used to attend a church who taught “core verses noncore.” Probably one of the best lessons I learned there.

  12. elizabeth says

    Having had some encounters with religious legalism early in life that made an indelible impression on my mom, she then raised my siblings and me to be very aware of this issue . In an area thick with Baptists, we had ample opportunity to report to her our experiences and discuss how these people’s actions and words were almost always rigid, judgemental, and wrong. How ironic that her attempt to teach us how legalism was wrong, resulted in our belief that it was those judgemental Baptists who were wrong! The tendency comes to us naturally, indeed!

    • says

      “those judgemental baptists” – that label sits heavy on my heart right now. This is why I simply say I am a Christian. Period. because I don’t want to be weighted down with this label. That is very sad.

      • Sarah Markley says

        ahh. i think that in any denomination, any religion or even political views there are a lot of people (baptist or not) that think their way is the only right way.

        hoping and praying that we can all learn to love and accept one another. thank you both for your comments.

        • Robin in New Jersey says

          That’s why I tell people I am a born again Christian who happens to attend a Baptist church at the moment.

    • elizabeth says

      Oh April, I wish I had used quotation marks around those words, to show that I was trying to point out how I was actually the one being judgemental! I will say that some of the people I grew up around were particularly vocal about their ideas and judgements; some of the people at my church were just as bad, or worse, but seemed to be more polite and discreet with their criticisms.

      And I can identify with just wanting to say I was a Christian; another part of the reason we left that denomination. Since then, my husband and I have said we’re Christians who happen to go to a particular church!

      Thanks, Sarah!

  13. Stephanie says

    Thank you for this! While I didn’t grow up this way I attended & served in a church for 5 years of my adult life. I didn’t realize how legalistic I was until God moved us out of that church to another church surrounded by freedom filled & gracious people. I learned just this past year that the opposite of my judgement ways was GRACE! I get it now and this year is “my” grace year. Receiving it and definitely giving it.

  14. says

    Great Post Sara. Loved the way you drew it out and made us think.

    Having grown up much like you, I’ve learned to recognize the Pharisee in me when I “should on” people. When the thought crosses my mind that someone should do or not do something. I remember attending a comtemporary charasmatic service years ago and they broke half way through for donuts and coffee which were brought back to the chairs (not even pews!) I actually had the thought “they shouldn’t have donuts in church!”. Oh how I’ve grown.

      • Agnes says

        Interesting, because I was thinking that deal-breakers for one person might not be the same as a deal-breaker for another. For example , for me a deal-breaker is what I see as anti-Semitism in my church. I CAN’T collude with that, my spirit just won’t allow it. But gay marriage IS in our church, and while I’ve struggled with it, ultimately in my spirit it wasn’t enough to be a deal-breaker. A deal-breaker would be where I find myself moving forward to speak against it, without ANY hesitation. We all need to listen to our hearts and be honest about our convictions, it’s important. I think having strong convictions isn’t always a bad thing.. doesn’t need to be legalistic, but some things do need to be spoken out against sometimes. Great topic! :)

  15. Charise Christianson says

    I loved your article! I have a question though. I am wondering if you believe that “speaking the truth in love” is considered legalism. I have friends who are “Christians” and they get drunk, support homosexual relationships and so on..They are very liberal in their beliefs. Now I don’t go around and bash them or point my finger at them, but I do believe that the bible is very clear on God’s standards on how we are to live and conduct ourselves. I guess I am in a season where I am learning to have a balance. I came out of a spiritually abusive and legalistic church and I have deep wounds I need to be healed of. I don’t want to swing to the other side of that and just not say anything or be okay with everything. This article hits way close to home and I guess I am just trying to wrestle with balance. We are to speak what is true and sometimes that does make us legalistic because it can draw lines. But we are not suppose to have the mind of this world or to live like them and at the same time have the heart of Christ. I am praying for the Lord to help me with all of this. I hope I don’t come off as “pointing a finger” becaue I am not, I am just trying to unravel years of confusion. Thank you for your understanding! I really do love your blog and have been so blessed by it.

    • Sarah Markley says

      No you aren’t pointing a finger but raise a very good question. To be honest, i don’t know the answer. I do know how I have personally messed up in this area. How for someone i thought I was “speaking the truth in love” to, i chased her away because i led with truth and did not lead with grace and love. it is nearly impossible to do it well, in my opinion. I believe that the holy spirit convicts a heart and sometimes uses us to tell one another the truth. but in general as a christian culture, we tend too heavily on telling others what we think they should do. even though in that same situation, my friend was definitely in sin as defined by the bible, i still did not lead with the love and grace of jesus. i hope that helps a little. again, i struggle with this same thing but i know that i do have regrets in this area on leaning too heavily toward the truth and not enough toward love.

  16. says

    I think Charise makes a good point. There is such a fine line between legalism and “speaking the truth in love” with regard to the standards God sets for us. It’s something of a sensitive issue for me because I used to belong to a church that found its way deep into legalism(skirts only, etc.. – those were some dark, insecure days) and then, with a new pastor, has been finding its way out again. I think about this issue a lot, but drawing that line between upholding the standards taught by Christ and being legalistic can be really hard sometimes.

    • Sarah Markley says

      its interesting you say this. the church that i was referring to above (the one i grew up in) has since come a very long way. it has been under a new pastor for many years and is a very different place than when i was there. the people that are there are an amazing group of christ-followers and lovers of jesus. and yes, i agree…this is a place of struggle for me too.

  17. says

    Your blog was so wonderful today. And so timely. I just started blogging in December and I have been waiting for that email or comment from that person who was “concerned” about me and my doctrine and my recovery associations, etc. He wanted to set me straight. I sighed heavily and wrote him back a long email. (I am saving it so I can reuse parts of it next time, since I think there will be a next time). But then I opened your post and it was so great! So I forwarded the link to this guy and told him you are helping me to explain. Thanks for that. Thanks for your wonderful blog and your honest exploration of your faith. You inspire me so much and I relate to so much of what you write. Heather

    • Sarah Markley says

      wow, thank you so much heather. yes, it is never easy to get comments that either push or, at times, bully the writer. i welcome healthy conversation and disagreement but sometimes it can get ugly. i don’t think it will today. =) and so brave of you to be honest in your writing too!!

  18. tammy says

    I grew up a moravian, a small protestant denomination that not many have heard of yet many have been affected by if you look at protestant history. One of my favorite things about the moravian church has always been its motto: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” Your post reminded me so much of this.

  19. says

    I think that legalism is a life-long struggle for all of us (whether believers or not). There’s this innate desire to be right, to have a proper set of rules. It’s the undoing of this that is the death of self, I think.

    Anyway, you said it better… good words here.

  20. says

    love this post & the extremely intelligent discussion that follows it…

    three things emerge in my heart as i have “listened” to this instructive dialogue…two of them explicitly from the dialogue & another Jesus-thot, i think:

    my Jesus- thot is…
    how tender Christ is in His love for us, as He gently draws us out of ourselves & our broken backgrounds & into His glorious light…literally into His Presence…

    Jesus takes the TIME for us to grow up…
    He WAITS for us…
    LOVING us all the while…wow!

    from the dialogue…
    FIRST…”speaking the truth in love” is a hard thing to actually do. my mistake tends to be that i suppose that “in love” refers mostly to my own motivation…and…to a point, it does…

    but…there is something deeper here as well. being a passionate person, i sometimes confuse my own”strong feelings” for the Spirit’s leading.

    as good & true & strong as my feelings might be on an issue, or for a person’s well-being…these feelings are NOT ALWAYS an indication that the Holy Spirit HIMSELF is LEADING me to SAY something!

    sometimes He wants me to think…
    ALWAYS HE wants me to ask His permission to speak & act…just like Jesus did. Jesus’ only defense in John’s Gospel was, in essence, “I only do & say what the Father tells me to do & say…”

    so, the “in love” part of this phrase has BOTH to do with MY motivation & with the Father’s heart-of-Eternal-Love leading me to speak out at that time to that person…

    after all…it is His Story i am in…

    “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity (love)”…this saying is generally attributed to Augustine of Hippo, who was killed for Jesus’ sake in the 4th century.

    already, he had seen the young church split both by heresy & by well-meaning defenses against that heresy.

    while we should NOT stand silent while our brothers & sisters are being led into death by “wolves in sheep’s clothing”…neither should we violate both Jesus’ & the Apostle Paul’s explicit warnings to let God be the final judge…

    thank you, sarah, for sparking such a great dialogue!

    amazed by Jesus & loving you,


  21. Nicki says

    I moved from a traditional Anglican upbringing (with some convent school thrown in) to a charismatic Church after I got married.

    What I found interesting is that charismatics can be just as “legalistic” as the traditionalists in a different way. I’m still not comfortable with “giving a clap of praise”, I don’t raise my arms, I don’t dance and I only join hands if really necessary. I know that some people in the Church see that as, maybe not wrong exactly, but definitely as a bad reflection on my faith.

  22. says

    The film trailer will start out with you as the narrator
    and one actor. This web site is amongst the few exclusive hot ebony internet cam
    sites that offer large numbers of ebony cam girls for live
    sex shows for individuals of different interests.
    Your gadget girl can use her netbook anywhere she goes and
    with the Wi-Fi capabilities she can get online anywhere there is
    a Wi-Fi___33 hot spot.

  23. says

    I believe that the games you could choose from from the customer
    appreciation program were Dead Nation, Infamous, and Little Big
    Planet and a couple others I can’t recall. The coaches are truly helpful and friendly towards beginners.
    Some_text_are_here if Final Fantasy XIV Online with time limits of PS3-holdings – unknown.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *