When Legalism is Bigger Than Jesus


When a church focuses more on legalism than on Jesus Christ, it creates an atmosphere in which the rules become more important than the relationship with God.

My first true eye-opening experience when it comes to legalism in the church came at a small group when one of the elders of the church, who in real life is employed in what most people would certainly consider a “high-paying profession” spoke on the subject of tithing.

“There’s no reason in the world why everyone can’t tithe,” he said.

The statement floored me.

It came from someone who sounded as if he were more interested in the “rules” of church than the people with whom he shares the pews.

Another small group leader bragged about giving more than 10% as if to say that if he could give in excess of that 10% minimum, everyone else could surely handle “just” 10%.

The fact is, there are reasons why people can’t tithe. The majority of those reasons relate to available cash, especially when a family has to choose between tithing and feeding their children. It’s a choice no one should have to make, but the reality of the situation is that it’s a choice some do have to make.

The pastor of that church, fortunately, talked about tithing at a later group and had a very different take: if you legitimately can’t afford the 10% that would represent a tithe, give what you can until you can afford the 10%. His message, at least, didn’t carry the implication that God would hurl lightning bolts at you if you weren’t giving that required tithe every single Sunday.

When you put the focus on how good you are because you follow the rules, it isn’t about Jesus: it’s about you.

For the Christians around you, it’s not Godly, no matter how much you give. It’s not admirable. It’s not Christ-like.

I was reminded of the statements about tithing I’ve heard in the past when I read a post titled, “8 Signs You Love Legalism More Than Jesus,” over at

These two points jumped out at me:

4. You compare your righteousness to other Christians.

5. You believe outsiders must behave before they belong.

Of course, no one said that second one when they talked about how faithfully they tithe because the Bible tells them to do so, but the implication was certainly there: if you weren’t doing it their way, you didn’t measure up…to them.

The ironic thing there is that by definition, even those who hold themselves to a higher standard are, by definition, falling short in some other way. If we believe that Jesus Christ was the only sinless man ever to walk on the earth, then we must believe that these boisterous Christians can’t be without sin themselves. I’ve wondered if these folks hoped that focusing on their own success following that rule might be some sort of smokescreen to dodge a different rule they might well be breaking.

To be fair, they might have been surprised to know that there were people in the room struggling with debt or other issues that might have made tithing — at least temporarily — an impossibility.

They might have even been happy to provide some sort of assistance to those people in need.

But they were so bogged down in the legalism of the situation, so obsessed with the rules, that they slammed the door on any possibility of a conversation about helping those in need.

That’s a shame.

Have you ever been part of a church where it was more about rules than about building a relationship with God? How did you handle it?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.