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10 Signs of Spiritual Abuse and Legalism

10 Signs of Spiritual Abuse and Legalism

A legalistic church emphasizes externals and becomes preoccupied with trivial matters.


Captives in spiritual bondage need to be set free.

Pastors that demand obedience to church leadership instead of  God need to be exposed. We were once in a church where the pastor made us ask permission to use the restroom—and often denied it!

The church was driven by a sense of obligation. Service was viewed as something we “had to do,” no exceptions.  Condemning other churches was a weekly teaching from the pulpit. Condemning members that left the church was normal. No one ever spoke to ex-members.


How can you tell if your church is slipping into legalism or spiritual abuse?  Pray for God to open your eyes and examine what you see:

  1. Do you see faith in God or dependency on church?
  2. Is everyone expected to obey rules and/or standards beyond scripture?
  3. Do you always feel condemned for falling short?
  4. Are church rules set and decisions made by one person or a small elitist group?
  5. Is guilt and shame used to manipulate members?
  6. Is there a constant feeling of anxiety and insecurity?
  7. Do they major on the minors? I.e., going to a movie is a horrible sin but showing love and mercy are overlooked.
  8. Are people who disagree with the rules automatically condemned?
  9. Was the church founded on pride and elitism, i.e., no others churches know the truth?
  10.  Do they focus on things like trying to be good enough instead of faith alone in Christ alone for salvation?

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness,  gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance.

The fruit of legalism is pride, self-righteousness, judgmental and critical attitudes, superiority, conflict, worry, demanding compliance, aggression, extremes, manipulation, elitism, and plain ol’ nastiness.

Religion tries to change people from the outside in; Jesus said to clean the inside first.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Mat 23:25

There are many good resources to help you get out or heal from legalism or spiritual abuse. Get out and start healing!

Internet Resources

  • Battered Sheep Ministry is a place of encouragement for sheep who have been wounded and victimized by authoritarian and legalistic churches.
  • Spiritualabuse.org  The focus of this site is spiritual abuse in Bible-based churches.

Book Resources

If you like stories I suggest Wisdom Hunter: A Novel. If you need freedom from pressure and stress, see The Pressure’s Off: There’s a New Way to Live by Larry Crabb.

This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. Matthew 15:8


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About Robin Sampson


  1. This is so sad! I can’t remember the scripture but God says that we will be held accountable for drawing folks away from the Lord with things like this.

  2. Ginnie

    I agree Robin, but I admit, I’m struggling. We’ve had people leave our Messianic congregation to become more Talmudic (we are Torah Observant), and it grieves my heart.

    I worry, am I being legalistic because I’m having a hard time dealing w/ this? Where do I meet them so that they know the door is always open, but not get overly involved? What is the loving way to handle this? It really saddens me, and I don’t know what to do about it.

    I want to show the Fruit of the Spirit, I think I don’t quite know how (how far to go w/ it, and still maintain boundaries for my children, family, etc). This is what we believe and why, this is what they believe. I feel like we need boundaries to lessen any confusion. My children are young, newly turned 9 and 6.

    Thank you.

  3. My husband and I belonged to a spiritually abusive (I believe it is a Bible-based cult) for many years. This past Sunday I became teary eyed during the worship service of my new church and thanked God for the upteenth time that we were no longer a part of Trinity Foundation. I have belonged to 7-8 churches in my lifetime, but this is the first “church” that continues to provoke such emotions even though we left nine years ago.

    Thank you for posting this information.It is important for Christians to understand that not all churches are benign.

    Wendy Duncan
    Author: I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult

  4. Excellent resource, Robin.

    I did a series of podcasts last summer on this topic and it seems like, even in the past year, this issue is more widespread.

    One thing I have noticed in recent months is that, in our zeal to stand for righteousness as evangelicals, there is a renewed call for church discipline. But the list of disciplinary offenses is growing, too and many times means “let’s try to shut down those who disagree with the nonessentials the leaders are teaching.”

    Thanks for this article…I will be linking here.


  5. I agree with this and have experienced that myself. It is painful, to say the last, to be in a church like that. I have also experienced friendships like this as well. They expect perfection out of the friend, monitor everything they do and are quick to correct if we make a decision they don’t agree with. They condemn any new friendships we have that they don’t agree with. That Pharisee judgmentalism becomes quite abusive and controlling. I think those people live in fear and are insecure in their relationships as well as their relationship with our Lord. If these kind of people continue to live in isolation from all people they feel are in sin then two things come to my mind. Eventually they will have no friends, because we’re all sinners to begin with, and/or they will live in their own condemnation while thinking they know it all and leave themselves completely blind. Just as Jesus said. After coming out of a legalistic church and friendships I have been able to see much clearer now and have come to an amazing understanding of what grace really is. Such freedom!

  6. This is what struck me:
    The Fruit of Legalism is pride, self-righteousness, judgmental and critical attitudes, superiority, conflict, worry, demanding compliance, aggression, extremes, manipulation, elitism, and plain ol’ nastiness.

    What is frustrating is when people call themselves christians, put up the banner of grace for themselves and condemn everyone else.

    That is when I have seen the above “fruit” displayed. There is no good fruit coming from these people. It is truly sad. I have had friends who used to be the sweetest, most caring people who were so cautious in how they spoke to others, always in love and meekness – the fruit of the Spirit. I wished I was like them in that regard, because they were just always thinking of others and how their words might affect them.

    It is sad to see how the legalism of grace (ironic, huh?) has turned them into people who will speak their mind freely, in their grace, to the ruin of others and friendships and their own agendas. It seems weird, but their religion of grace is a lopsided grace for them alone.
    It is really sad, Robin.

    I pray that these people will come back to the realization of how their own abuse of grace is harming themselves and others.

  7. Hi Robin,

    Glad to find your post on spiritual abuse. It is important to raise the awareness about this important topic.

    I thought that you might be interested in my doctoral research and book called: ‘Spiritual Abuse Recovery’.

    I have information on my website: http://www.churchexiters.com.

    People can contact me at: info@churchexiters.com

    All the best,
    Dr. Barb Orlowski

  8. michelle

    religious abuse is one of the hardest to get free from because it is so wide spread and accepted as “biblical” by Christians. The freedom in getting out of it is so freeing. I can love my children and family so much better since I got out from under it, and most of all, I can enjoy God so much more (freedom without all the bondages).

  9. Confused

    I’d just like to say that I am in an organization that I would have to answer yes to every question above. But leaving is proving to be the very hardest thing I have ever done. I don’t know quite how to do it. I pray daily for God to lead and guide and make himself so real that I will know without a shadow of a doubt I’m doing the right thing. I have a lot of responsibility there and I don’t want to discourage anyone by leaving and I don’t know if I will find something better elsewhere. I have been taught my whole life this church was the only church with the whole truth. Looking for another church is just unheard of. We have so much family there and leaving will make relationships awkward. The PK parents will go crazy praying us back and will consider us backslid. My children have been born and raised there and don’t want to leave their friends. But..there are many reason why we should leave, the main one being I am not happy there and haven’t been for 20 years. I’m so tired of being examined and found wanting by critical and judgemental people that think if you should be in church whenever the door is open and that is literally 5 times per week. My husband, raised in a PK home, was ridiculed and put down so much that it is ingrained in him that he will never be good enough to make it. When he comes to church more than his usual, he is watched by family members…looking to see if he is showing conviction no doubt. I just don’t know what to do.

  10. A good Christian suspense novel on spiritual abuse is “The Church of Jezebel, Hijacking the Gospel.”
    It is available on Amazon, etc.

  11. Thanks for sharing this article. Hope everyone can read this for them to see the reality of life.

  12. jeff elohim

    I, “j.elohim”, entered the ark when I was 17.
    Since then, I went to / participated in / joined for up to a decade = over 45 different chruches, prayer groups, bible studies . etc .
    Through all of those and through all of that time, I was tempted often to leave the ark.
    The chruches, and many jobs, and many people,
    all tempted me, just like prostitutes tempt(/or try to) any one within their view.
    Almost no one wants to enter the ark themselves, or is willing to leave their family, friends, chruch, group, job and so on to enter the ark.
    Almost everyone wants me to leave the ark, and almost everyone wants anyone who they see in the ark to leave the ark.
    as for me, and those with me, we will never leave the ark. We have eternal life, with joy, peace and righteousness abiding with the Creator Himself in Yahshua. (and problems, lots of problems, while still living on the earth). …
    … time for one hint here – did you know that Yahshua NEVER invited someone to be His unless they had first talked with ABBA?
    if you want to be His,
    talk now with ABBA… He is ready and He is the Only One Who can accomplish this-no one else can.

  13. please read our story here….we have lost our son to this “church”. http://onemothersjourney7.blogspot.com/

  14. Über Genius

    Great post!

    We need these types of questionnaires to help us differentiate between churches that challenge us to grow and mature in Christ and churches that manipulate and lord over the flock violating 1 Peter 5:3.

    Another questionnaire might highlight dictatorial vs facilitative leadership styles.

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