The Unintentional Legalist

Have you ever had an awakening so profound that everything you wholeheartedly believed got turned over on its head? I compare this experience to floating on the water above an iceberg, unaware of its formidable size beneath the surface. Then, a direct hit with the visible ice forces me to see what is underneath – my misunderstanding of God’s grace made me an unintentional legalist.  

The iceberg under the surface represents unexamined thoughts, behavior patterns, and beliefs kept hidden for years.

When I gave my life to Christ in 1977 at 19 in a church on the campus of Western Illinois University, I had no idea how to spot a performance-based church, so I joined one. I was willing to do anything for the cause of Christ, including a transfer to Eastern Illinois University during my Junior year to be in a more dynamic campus ministry in the same fellowship of churches. I learned to perform to the church’s standards and became a diligent, unquestioning rule follower at a high cost to my mental health and self-esteem. I had no idea at the time that I was not given the freedom or space to grow in the Holy Spirit. There wasn’t time for that.

I remained a member of this same fellowship as I transitioned through each stage of life: a college student, single, married, becoming a parent, getting divorced, and singlehood again. Though this Christian organization has made changes since 2003, and many members have been able to move beyond the damaging legalism of the past, I kept getting triggered by their Bible Study series that is used to bring people to salvation. So I can only tell my story rather than the story of others.

In 2022, it occurred to me that I had a lot of trauma I needed to unpack from my years in this fellowship of churches. I believe the Holy Spirit was revealing this to me. A friend referred me to a therapist out of Littleton, Colorado, who wrote the book Understanding Spiritual Abuse and Recovery. I started meeting with him, and the first book he had me read was Tired of Trying to Measure Up. That is when I finally understood how legalism had its grip on me.

After several months of meeting with my therapist, I realized that I had more of a relationship with a Christian organization than with Jesus, which resulted in defending the group’s beliefs at all costs. God replaced my security blanket in a performance-based system with security in Christ alone, which meant leaving the church I was a member of for over 40 years.

The longer you believe something, and the more you invest in it, the harder it is to change. Outside information is not welcomed.

I did a deep dive into the characteristics of legalism. One of the books I read to unpack this way of thinking was Spiritual Abuse Recovery Workbook By David Henke. He describes four characteristics of Legalism.

  • Position-conscious because the leaders are self-appointed and create a chain of command.
  • Conformists because critical thinking is not encouraged among the members.
  • Judgmental because they interpret what they see and assign motive and cause to it.
  • Hypocritical because they pay lip service to the concept of grace but teach that specific works are necessary for salvation.

I had all four characteristics. What started as unintentional (pure desire to follow Christ rather than be a rule follower) became intentional (becoming a full-blown legalist). For many years I lived with automatic thoughts that were unexamined which caused cognitive dissonance in me. I thank God for showing me that I don’t have to ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit if it is in disagreement with a group’s beliefs.

Performance-based churches may be hard to spot because they can demonstrate Godly characteristics. However, when left unchecked, Legalism will corrupt Christian organizations as they progress toward Legalism’s logical conclusion, mind control, and abuse.

And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. Romans 11:6

This profound statement by the apostle Paul had me asking, “Why would grace no longer be grace if based on works?” After picking up a great resource called Doctrines of the Bible that covers redemption, atonement, justification, sanctification, adoption, etc., I noticed how these Biblical themes point to salvation by grace, not by works. God revealed the true gospel to me in the Bible in a way I have never seen before.

Grace will no longer be Grace if I do not accept salvation as a gift to be received. I, Diane, am a sinner who cannot regenerate myself through anything I do. Legalism conformed me through outside forces for many years, but now the Holy Spirit is transforming me within through God’s power. Maturity in the Spirit is a process that takes time, and I’m making up for the lost time by no longer allowing myself to be in bondage to a system of works.

Since August, I have started to experience a grace-based ministry in the Denver area for the first time. I see the effects of grace in their lives – joy and freedom in Christ. However, processing the iceberg beneath the surface will take some time. Meanwhile, I am now able to continue to move forward by being intentional in living by grace, not by works.

Recovering from legalism can take years, especially if you do not have someone to help you frame what you have experienced. I have been in therapy with a counselor who specializes in people hurt by authoritarian, performance-based ministries. You can get information on his organization from this website:

10 thoughts on “The Unintentional Legalist”

  1. Well written Diane. I appreciate your thoughts. Power to you on your spiritual journey. I hope your love and talent of music will be an assistance to you. Jim.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I stopped playing piano but I do have one to play. I hope to get back into that.

  2. Hi Diane! You are amazing! What you have written here is exactly what I had felt for years.
    My life was not reflecting the teaching of Romans 11. Our church was preaching a different message. We had to move on in order to grow spiritually and let the spirit move freely in our lives.
    I hope your journey continues to bring you closer to God.

    1. Thanks Jackie for sharing your experience. I agree the spirit can be hindered and not move freely in our lives. So glad we both found a way to experience the freedom.

  3. Diane I love what God is doing in your life! For some of us, God flips things quickly, like for you. For me, it was a very gradual process that I finally got the courage and strength to leave the ICOC after 26 years in it… I left about 4 1/2 years ago. I too was bound by legalism. It wrecked havoc on my spiritual, mental, and physical health! As a result of so many years of trauma, my adrenal glands finally gave out (primary adrenal insufficiency) and I now have to take replacement hormone of hydrocortisone to just keep my blood pressure high enough to live. I’m so glad I got out before it caused even more harm. And I’m so glad the Holy Spirit opened your eyes!!! May you be blessed and discover the joy of the gospel… the good news of Christ! He loved us so much, he wants good for us and wants us to enjoy the freedom to choose in our lives. We choose love, joy, peace and all the fruits of the spirit. . . We are no longer slaves to sin or the rules of men!
    Love u

    1. Wow. I’m so sorry for the physical response you went through with your trauma. But your words declare freedom in Christ. I’m so happy for you.

  4. Thank you for posting this Diane and for sharing your insights and heart , what God is revealing to you.
    I especially like the succinctness of this line you wrote:
    “I realized that I had more of a relationship with a Christian organization than with Jesus, which resulted in defending the group’s beliefs at all costs.”
    This struck a chord with me to check my heart, plus it’s such a common human response (not just in churches). You’ve given me some good stuff to study and pray about on my own. Thank you!

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