Have you ever found yourself trapped in a legalistic community, looking for God somewhere in all the man-made standards and expectations? Do you know someone whose faith journey revolves more around rules than a relationship with God?
Good news: I’ve been doing some reading and soul searching with some help from Kendra Fletcher’s Leaving Legalism and I am here to tell you that there’s help and hope for those who bound by the chains of legalism. Legalism may be a part of your past or present, but it doesn’t have to be a part of your future.
*I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.
Post contains affiliate links; see disclosure for details.
Merriam-Webster defines legalism as “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.”
Hear me out, I’m a rule-following ISTJ gal, an Enneagram 1. I embrace order, standards, and tradition more than I care to admit. I share all of that with you because it would be easy for me to let these things control my life as a Christ follower, but all of that’s off the table when it comes to God and what he requires of me. And since God doesn’t require those things from me, giving them too much control over me would result in a legalistic faith.Legalism may be a part of your past or present, but it doesn’t have to be a part of your future.
Legalism is a suffocating mindset and it’s hard to shake, so it makes me want to shout in the best way when a sister shares her story of running away from legalism and back into the arms of our loving Father. That’s why I’m excited to share Kendra Fletcher’s latest book, Leaving Legalism, with you today.
Leaving Legalism: A Review
Legalism is a hard subject to write about. On one hand, you’re aware of how ironically judgmental it could come across to suggest someone is walking out their faith the wrong way. On the other, you want so desperately to share the hope, light, and freedom that comes from walking away from a legalistic community.
In Leaving Legalism, Kendra Fletcher goes there and she does it with compassion and grace. She shares her story of entering a legalistic church environment, her journey away from legalism, and the decade in between. What’s more, she shares how let go of the past, move on in life and faith, and rest in the arms of God.
Kendra shares this glimpse into what legalism looked like for her family:
“Life as we knew it was rule-bound, narrow, and rigid. It camped on outward signs of an inward faith that threw its hope into methods rather than the Savior, into our good choices, and works, rather than what Jesus had already accomplished at the the cross.”
That quote from chapter one of Leaving Legalism sticks with me in lots of ways. In particular, the outward signs, hope in methods, good choices, and works stand out.
Friend, our concerns, good intentions, and checklists of self-imposed standards have complicated the gospel; that’s why legalism is such a dangerous, crushing mindset.
4 Signs You Might Be Living in Legalism
Another thing that’s so awful about legalism is that it can be hard to recognize or accept when you’re so deeply rooted in it.
I’ve never been involved in a legalistic church setting, but I can tell you that the trap of legalism is close to my heart. My husband spent most of his formative years in a legalistic church and moved away from it when we met as teenagers.
Nearly twenty years have passed since we met and began dating. We began serving in ministry together in 2001, married in 2002, and recently planted a church.
Because so much of our story as a couple revolves around serving the local church, we’ve seen the stronghold that comes with legalism time and time again. It continues to break my heart when I talk to believers who are living in legalism or have experienced it in their faith journeys.
Here are strongholds of legalism we’ve encountered the most in our years of ministry:
1. The methods, standards, or laws you live by aren’t Bible-based and yet you treat them as if they’re scripture.
“They swung the proverbial pendulum. This movie was allowed, but not this one. Their children could read these classics, but not those. Dress lengths had to be this long, boy’s clothing in this style, Bible reading and church attendance mandatory. Food had to be homemade.” – Kendra Fletcher, Leaving Legalism
One sign you may be living in legalism is that choices, preferences, and standards you adhere to as a community are taught as if they’re equal to the Gospel.
Keep in mind that no believer walks around shouting this from the rooftops; this is an easy point to deny and dismiss because we would all say that God’s Word by itself is our source and guide for living. However, saying it and truly living that way aren’t the same.
Our good intentions — whether personal intentions or as a part of our churches — lead us to establish standards and create boundaries so that we can do our best to honor God with our lives. Unfortunately, good intentions and all, those standards and boundaries are often based on preferences or fear.
2. You expect other believers to follow the same man-made code your community follows.
There’s nothing wrong with establishing boundaries and making good choices. The problem comes when we think others must hold on to our methods, choices, and exact convictions. The common denominator of Jesus and God’s grace is no longer enough to view other believers as brothers and sisters.
“It’s not wrong to have rules or standards in place in your own home or for your own life, of course. The problem is that, in our own humanity, we so badly want to place our hope in something — sometimes anything — and we so often place it in the tools that God has given us rather than in God Himself.”
The thing to keep in mind here is that we all have different stories, backgrounds, inclinations, struggles, strengths, and weaknesses. Better yet, we’ve all got different roles to play for the Kingdom.
Since we all have these differences, it makes sense that we’re going to have differences in the way the Holy Spirit guides us to live out the faith in the day-to-day. Legalism enters the picture when we’re more interested in correcting these differences than celebrating them.
3. You’re resentful and judgmental of those who don’t do it your way.
What begins with a personal choice to adhere moves into expectation, prideful comparison, and even resentment toward those who walk out the faith differently.
It’s us versus them. What’s worse is that our comparisons and judgments are often based on things we’ve never experienced for ourselves or taken time to understand. Instead, we bash other churches and believers for doing things differently.
“We were taught to treat God with reverence.”
“That man’s a heretic.”
“Their music is shallow.”
“They don’t even preach from the Bible there.”
“That’s not church. They might as well be at a rock concert.”
If your conversations frequently involve remarks like these, you might be living in legalism.
4. You’re more invested in winning others to your way of living than winning them to Jesus.
“The modern church lingo and cultural practices where I am in the world (North America) aren’t the same as those practiced by believers in Africa or South America or Asia or the Philippines. Heck, I’m from California, and our flip flop/t-shirt/hang loose style isn’t practiced in a lot of churches in the other 49 United States. In fact, all of our modern and cultural practices aren’t how the church behaved at any other time in history, either.
Yet so many of us find ourselves evangelizing a lifestyle instead of a savior.” – Kendra Fletcher, Leaving Legalism
You might be living in legalism if your going and telling isn’t so much about Jesus, but more about the way you do church, education, parenting, health, or life in general. When you wrap Jesus in the middle of any of that, you’re most likely forgetting that those options aren’t available for everyone in this big world.
Anytime you’re more interesting in winning someone over to something that’s not implementable everywhere, you’re not really talking about the gospel message. Instead you’re talking about how you do life.
Leaving Legalism and Running to God
Just so we’re clear, methods, good choices, and works can all be great things. They can even surface as a result of following Christ, but none of these are go hand in hand with our salvation and they should never happen because we’re pushing proof to the surface in hopes of proving something to God, ourselves, or those around us.
All of this becomes legalism any time we include ourselves into our source of salvation or righteousness. We’re never rescued, redeemed, or righteous because of something we’ve done or continue to do. It’s because of what God did for us through Jesus.
That’s why Kendra’s message is one for all believers. It doesn’t take much for any of us to slip into these mindsets and lose sight of our Savior.
Here’s what Kendra tackles in Leaving Legalism:
- How the pendulum swings from law to grace
- Why rules feel safe
- How we evangelize a lifestyle more than Jesus
- Your true identity in Christ
- Trusting that Jesus provided our right standing with God
- How the gift of Jesus is more than enough
- How to move forward
Kendra also includes questions for reflection at the end of each chapter and additional resources for leaving legalism behind.
Bottom Line: Even for those who have never been personally involved in a legalistic community, Leaving Legalism is a book I gladly recommend. Just like a friend sitting across the table from you, Kendra shares her journey away from legalism, but also gives much-needed encouragement for moving forward.
You absolutely need her message in your heart, whether for yourself or to share with someone else who needs help letting go of the striving and the strongholds and running back to the arms of God.
Where to Connect
You can find Leaving Legalism at Amazon and get connected with Kendra by visiting KendraFletcher.com.
While you’re at it, you’ll also want to check out Kendra’s first book, Lost and Found: Losing Religion, Finding Grace. Lastly, you can also connect with Kendra on your favorite social media platforms. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.