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What are the characteristics of a legalistic church?

Hello L,

Thank you for contacting BibleAsk.

A legalistic church is concerned about protecting its traditions and rules rather than fulfilling the mission of preaching the gospel and making disciples. Institutionalism takes the place of the great commission (Matthew 28:19). The church forgets why it was established, believing its primary purpose is to preserve its identity and establish self-righteousness. Its goal is to prosper itself rather than to be a light to the world.

An example of this is written in the Bible. After the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile, they were so afraid of losing their identity that they sought to safeguard the Sabbath by creating many rules and regulations to keep it. Many of these rules were not founded in the Scriptures, taking principals and ideas to extremes. These man made rules and traditions became more important than the principles upon which they were established, which is a holy relationship with the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28).

The religious leaders esteemed their outward rules in such high regard that they charged Jesus of Sabbath-breaking when He healed a sick person on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14). Christ’s emphasis on the value on doing good on the Sabbath and demonstrating acts of love in regard to true Sabbath keeping brought Christ into bitter conflict with the Jewish leaders. (Luke 6:8-10, Luke 13:15-16).

For this reason, Jesus said, “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).  It was a question of salvation by faith or by works. Jesus affirmed that those who worship God must do so “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23, 24). The danger of exalting human precepts and even human interpretations of divine requirements above the “weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23) is no less today than it was then.

Traditions are good when founded upon solid biblical principles, but when the traditions become more important than the principles they supposedly serve, the church’s activities become empty ceremonies without the power of the Holy Spirit. Outward ceremonies take the place of inward purity of heart and sincerity. “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Mark 7:6). A legalistic church’s remedy is heart work, which must be done individually and corporately (Psalms 51:10-13, 2 Chronicles 7:14).

In His service,

BibleAsk Team

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