Friday, September 11, 2015

The dangers of legalism: my story of shame in the IFBC


by: Nicole

My church didn’t intentionally try to hurt me. I look back now and know that, although I questioned it many times growing up. It was a legit gospel preaching, revival hosting, evangelistic church with a full list of what gospel-living looked like for its members. Modest dress, conservative music, and prohibition were prominently on that list. Along with strong condemnation against extra-marital affairs, remarriage, and God-forbid divorce. Those were the three unmentionable sins. Homosexuality hadn’t been invented yet.

I remember clearly a time where my family was at the pinnacle of church approval. My dad led the teen group, was a deacon, and every Sunday led the worship service and directed the choir. My mom was the perfect stay-at-home mother of three, then four sparkling children and managed to teach Sunday School and sing in the choir. I remember feeling so proud of our family every Sunday. We were highlighted by my parents’ obvious presence doing for the good of our church. I was bathed in love and acceptance. It was the happiest time of our lives.

But after my parents’ marriage fell apart and we were living in a different state, but going to a similar church all shame broke loose on my family. Not the embarrassed-because-I-didn’t-sing-the-right-words-to-the-song kind of shame, but the shame that still follows me with anxiety and nausea around churches. The shame I can’t seem to let go of. What if they find out who I really am? Who my family is? That kind of shame.

The gist of our family’s story is that my dad slowly abandoned my family over a period of years and left the faith. But in doing so, he left behind a wife and four children devastated by his choices. I wish I could say that our church family sheltered us during that time. That they loved on us and poured their hearts into us. That they affirmed that what my dad did was wrong, but that his decisions didn’t make us a less valuable part of the church. But they didn’t. At least not from my perspective.

The message from the pulpit, but even more importantly from the people was that my family didn’t belong unless we could play the part. Sin was denounced and no one in the congregation spoke up about the sin in their families; fear of disclosure silenced everyone. The only stories of similar sin I heard about were the whispered conversations of gossip. Godly people didn’t come from messed up families. If they did, they learned to hide it. I certainly learned to hide.

Shaming came in two categories: Direct and Indirect.

Direct shame was obvious. My mom was no longer the woman that other women wanted to get advice from or build a relationship with. She was that woman. We weren’t invited into social spheres any more. We could come to church, but no one wanted to actually associate themselves with us.

Indirectly we were shamed by well-intentioned caring people. I remember many people coming up to me as a little girl and asking me if I missed my daddy. A fair question, but not an empathetic one. Of course I missed him. But their concern was still wrapped around a carefully constructed list of “Do” that my family by its very nature could not uphold. They didn’t offer me grace. They gawked at me like I was an exotic exhibit. Their family didn’t go through that kind of pain. Their family was sin-free. No one told their stories. I know now that they had them buried in closets, but in our legalistic church there was no room for honest transparency and admitting brokenness.

So we grieved. Alone. In silence. With great shame and no help.


In sharing my story I do not want to bring vengeance against the system I grew up under. Rather I want to share to warn against the deceitful trappings of legalism.

 And I want to note that over the years that particular church morphed and changed with different pastors and different perspectives. The problem wasn’t with our church necessarily, or with any group of people within our church. The problem was and still is the legalism that has plagued believers since the beginning of the church.

Legalism places a list of man-made rules on top of Scripture. At its best it calls them “standards” and doesn’t require others to live by that same list. But even then, legalistic churches applaud those with the highest standards: “We waited until marriage to kiss!” “We only listen to Christian music where both the words and the music are not secular.” “We are always in church every week for every service.” Standards are a matter of the heart, that’s for sure, and I have some myself, we all do. But a church that applauds the highest standards is in essence saying: “The highest standards are the most godly standards” and “God loves those who live by the most rigid rules the most.”

Legalism then uses shame as its key tool in controlling its adherents. Legalism says that it will withhold respect, compassion, and understanding from those that disagree with its list whether in philosophy or practice. 

For my family this is where it got particularly difficult. We kept all the rules, except the significant ones my dad broke. I mean we were all there (except my dad) at EVERY service, we wore the correct dress code at all times, my mom was involved in multiple church ministries, we only listened to approved music, and I memorized all my AWANA verses. But we didn’t make the cut because there was obviously a problem in our home when my dad never showed up at church. And I felt that if the church knew all that went on behind our closed doors—oh goodness—no one would have talked to us again. My dad wasn’t breaking some odd church rules; he was clearly breaking God’s law, and there was no way to redeem that, not even by keeping all the rules of the church.

Fundamentally, legalism says that God’s grace isn’t enough. Once saved you must do something to earn God’s favor. Paul spoke out so adamantly about legalism throughout the New Testament because it makes less of Jesus. His death is insufficient—for the approval of the church and God—rules must be followed.

What happened to being justified (declared righteous) before God because of Jesus dying in our place, not because of any work that we have done or will ever do?! All a believer has to stand on is Jesus’ death and resurrection. My works—no matter how good, even in keeping the law of God, cannot save, nor do they earn me “brownie points.” Paul says it best: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:2/ Rom 3)


What does grace practically change? When I am around believers who understand that it’s not their works that save them, nor is it their effort that perfects them, I have the freedom to be a sinner saved by grace. I have the freedom to express the deep pain I went through as a little girl. I have the freedom to rejoice in God’s saving work. And I have the freedom to reach out towards whoever enters my life: the LGBT community, the divorced/remarried family, the liar, the orphan, the sexual abuser, the drunk because I can say as Paul did: And such was I, but I have been washed, I have been sanctified, I have been justified. 

Within the bounds of grace I am and forever will be on equal footing with them. I am a sinner saved by grace! I am a sinner. And by none of my own working, I am a redeemed child of God.  

6 comments:

Coffeegirl13 said...

Wow, this is powerful, Nicole. Thank you for your open honesty and courage in speaking up about such a dangerous issue in so many churches today. It's so exciting to see the journey of grace our Lord has brought you on these last 4 years, I thank God for you and the short time we got to journey together. May He bless you richly and keep you safely in the shadow of His wings. <3

Tori Grant said...

Thank you for your bravery in sharing your experience with legalism. Your insights about how shame and legalism go together are spot-on!

lsmcnutt said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I can relate to the feeling that I had to live a perfect life. I can remember trying so hard to keep God's approval. Some teach that we are saved by grace, but then we must follow all the rules to keep His love. What terrible theology! They wouldn't state it quite that way, but their inability to extend love and grace to others speaks volumes.

Hannah said...

Thank you for sharing your story.
That is so hard. An painful.
The shame the shame. It's still something I'm working through to try to understand who God actually is.

This is a great break down of the problems with legalism.
Great job :)

And again, thank you for sharing.

Dale Fincher said...

Beautifully and graciously written about a ubiquitous problem. Courage to understand it and then speak up about it is extraordinarily rare.

Thank you for being an advocate for those who know they need grace. For your courage to turn your story of pain into healing for others (2 Cor 1). Jesus was crucified by legalists to break those chains. Those with ears to hear will be free.

You did not deserve the treatment you received. And you are not alone.

Michelle Martin said...

A hard story. I grew up in a church that was the opposite- they overdid grace. Grace meant one could sin all they wanted and God wouldn't hold them accountable- hurt and abuse people, and it was all washed away by the blood of Jesus, as long as you were a Christian it was OK.I was told to forgive even if repentance didn't come... smile and honor others even as they continued to crush my spirit day after day. Now I see salvation by grace as forgiveness combined with repentance, where God's unconditional love AND our response come together. Your church put it all on you, which was wrong. Be perfect. My church put it all on God, like He was a vending machine that dispensed responsibility-free tickets to heaven. Maybe it's BOTH, because God wants a relationship. And that takes two.
But either way it goes, it's wrong. We do need grace. But we also need to be moved enough by that grace to love others. Either edge produces a lack of love, and he who does not love does not know God, for God IS love (1Jn 4:8)