Stories of legalism (I)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

We have a friend who never liked bread crust as a child. She would eat out the center of a slice of bread, nibbling away up to the edge of the crust, which she would leave on her plate. Her mother told her to eat it, but she refused. She simply didn’t like the crust. Sandwiches, dinner rolls, and toast would all be carefully deconstructed, the bread eaten, the crust left behind. Her mother told her that God watches us all the time, every moment, and saw everything. God saw her refusing to eat her crust. Every time she left a crust, God knew it, and added that crust to a house he was building for her in heaven. When she got there, she would find herself inside that house of crusts. She would have to eat her way out before she could be with Jesus. Our friend grew up to discover her mother’s oft-repeated fabled house of crusts was a lie even though she still isn’t fond of crusts.

Stories like that can shape our view of God, grace, and heaven.

When I fidgeted in church as a child, I was told that not liking worship meant I didn’t love God sufficiently. Was I reading my Bible regularly? Was there something I had done wrong that I hadn’t confessed? Worship in heaven was continuous, unceasing—and that was the standard for what is best—which I took to mean that heaven was one never-ending worship service. That struck me as so mind numbingly boring, so hopelessly dreadful I feared going to heaven. I didn’t want to go to hell of course, but the idea of heaven-as-worship-service almost made me ill.

Whatever else we may say about them, such stories told to get children to behave are a form of legalism. Let me define that term so there is (hopefully) no misunderstanding. Legalism is anything that suggests we can earn redemption, achieve or add to our own righteousness, or by accomplishing something (doing or not doing something) gain increased favor with God, or when rules are added to maintain conformity to some tradition. It is using the law to try to change someone, even though true change is always the work of grace. It is forgetting that law can never solve the deepest problems of the human heart. Whatever the motivation, such stories help children to see God primarily in terms of judgment and the faith primarily in terms of duty. We may get over the stories easily but find the subtle shaping of our hearts and imaginations much harder to leave behind.

This past summer a mother I know gave her 7-year old son a haircut. Short for the hot weather and ease of care, but sort of Mohawk style instead of the more common buzz cut all his friends were sporting. It wasn’t radical, just different, though the men at the prayer meeting of their fundamentalist church didn’t see it that way. They teased him mercilessly, all supposedly in good fun, and so relentlessly the boy finally cried. One of the brethren said to the boy’s father, laughing, that the boy would be careful about haircuts the rest of his life—a good lesson for a child to learn.

I find such abusive behavior appalling. For one thing, the haircut was the mother’s choice and they undercut her authority in a way that is stunning in its cruelty. For another, a buzz-cut is not more spiritual than a Mohawk. To maintain conformity by shunning and manipulating shame and guilt is practically speaking to be dismissive of grace. To imply that his haircut made him less welcome in and by the church is to forget the meaning of the gospel.

I tell these stories as illustrative of legalism, a plague that infects evangelical Christianity. God’s law is a true “delight” as David said (Psalm 1), but when rules proliferate and when law replaces grace legalism is the result and it is deadly.

Do you have stories of legalism? I’d love to have you leave them as comments in this conversation.

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When I was in university, I was part of a movement that was seeking to bring revival to the campus through prayer and confession of sin. I had such a poor understanding of what Christ's death and resurrection accomplished for us, (your "bad example" gospel presentation in Modernity v PostModernity was exactly what I thought at the time) I was intent on confessing every possible sin and removing "the sin of Achan" that might be keeping the revival of God's people from happening.
As I was praying in my dorm room one day I remembered that I had been on a scavenger hunt a few months before which required as an item "1 piece of toilet paper from a fast food restaurant" - I wanted to show off so I took a whole roll of tp from a mcDonalds. I realized that my sin of stealing might be holding back revival on our campus!
I promptly called the McDonalds, asked for the manager and told him I was going to bring back the tp and I wanted to pay for the used portion (not sure why I did not try to pay back 7 fold in line with Jesus command to Zaccheus). After being hung up on 3 times I finally drove the tp back to McD's and hoped God would be satisfied at my failed obedience.
I wish this were the only story of super-legalism I had from my younger years, but now it is certainly one of the most obsessive and over the top. Praise God that over the years he has taught me that Christ is my sufficient obedience that satisfies God - because I spent many years trying really, really hard.

December 6, 2010 at 12:13 PM

It's remarkable how much guilt can occur from legalistic standards. The freedom of grace is so sweet.

December 6, 2010 at 2:36 PM

Denis - Short answer: My entire experience in the AWANA program. Longer answer: When I was in the AWANA program at my parents' church, I constantly was treated more kindly than the other kids in the group. Why? I was one of the kids that could memorize anything. My best friend and I could finish the books in half the time it took anyone else to. As a result, we were the favored children. It was a status symbol for us that we had all these awards - pins, crowns, jewels, trophies, you name it. We saw ourselves as better than everyone else because we memorized so many verses. It's taken my years to get over this way of relating to the Scriptures. Rather than approaching them as a message of God's grace for humanity and, by implication, my need for that grace, I still sometimes relate to them as something I need to really, really know inside and out in order to be valuable in the church. I think getting involved in RUF and at my church in Lincoln has helped kill most of that toxic tendency in me, but I still struggle with it sometimes.

December 6, 2010 at 3:21 PM

Hi Denis, I converted to Christ in 1970 out of atheism. It was in a Pentecostal church and tho they were very loving the trappings included 5 no-nos:
I was raised an east coast Catholic and those 5 things were all we ever did, it seemed. But my conversion was so radical that I bought all the rest as peculiar Protestant baggage. It occurredto me that perhaps this was why

December 6, 2010 at 4:39 PM

I have an incredibly vivid memory of being in 5th grade at a Christian School. I was accused at lunch of talking after everyone was supposed to be quiet; a requirement before being dismissed for recess. In order to get to go to recess the teacher made me swear on the Bible (right hand and all) that I was not talking, as I had testified. I was 10 and just wanted to get to recess. I had no idea what I was doing. Later that year my mother died from cancer and I believed for many years that I caused it because I had swore on the Bible. I didn't even think that I had lied. It was the very act of swearing on the Bible that I believed made God unhappy with me. That was a difficult time. But
Praise God in Christ Jesus that we can enter the throne room of Grace because of the sacrifice of Love! It took many years before I felt truly welcome with God and even today I still struggle, but God is faithful and I trust in his goodness. Thanks Denis...great post. Gonna share it with my class tomorrow. We're discussin religion and many kids will resonate with this greatly. Blessings!

December 6, 2010 at 10:12 PM

A good story about someone resisting legalism. When I was a campus minister we had a young man who occasionally attended but was also involved in a weekly Bible study that met in his dorm on Friday afternoons at 2:00. This young man lived in town and went home most week-ends to play the piano in his home church. This Bible study was sponsored by another Christian ministry on campus.
One week the staff member leading the Bible study came in and said that he was concerned about these young men's commitment to Christ and because of that he was moving the Bible study to 5:30 Saturday mornings. He asked for a show of hands for all who would be attending. It took a minute or so but after much "encouragement" all of the men in the Bible study said they would be there except the young man who sometimes came to our meetings.
The staff member asked him to stay afterwards so he could talk to him and the young man said "Yea but it will have to be quick because I am going home". After all of them had left the staff member confronted this young man with the words: "I'm not sure if you are really committed to Christ". The young man replied by saying "Oh, I'm committed to Christ, I'm just not committed to this Bible study. It was at a great time for me on Friday afternoon just before going home but there is no way I'm coming at 5:30 on Saturday morning". End of discussion

December 6, 2010 at 10:25 PM

I don't know if this is a story of legalism or simply a story of mixing the gospel with pressures to conform to society. My junior year in high school, I quit the football team. I suppose I should add that this took place in a small town in Alabama, and every male whose heart beat and had two arms and two legs in working order was expected to play. One of the team's assistant coaches, who was also a member of my church, took me aside and asked me to reconsider, in light of how my Christian witness was going to be damaged by decision not to play football. Even then I thought it was one of the most outrageous statements I'd ever heard.

December 8, 2010 at 7:55 AM

When I was a child, my family attended a church for a few years that had a Children's Church service that ran simultaneously with the adult service. I think it was probably for grades 1-4, so the children ranged in age from about six years to age nine or ten.

I had forgotten until I read your blog post about the method they used to keep order. When you arrived at CC, the leaders would pin a white heart to you indicating your behavior status. If you were caught whispering or talking or wiggling, your paper heart would have to be changed to a grey heart, and a second trespass would get your heart changed to a black paper heart. The heart had to remain pinned on until your parents picked you up.
I was always to frightened of getting a black heart to move around or whisper much, but I remember getting a grey heart a few times. Some children would get black hearts every week and leave the room crying when they would be picked up by parents. It didn't matter to the leaders whether you were sorry for your childish infraction or not. The grey or black heart stayed on.

After a while, I became absolutely terrified of church. I was a good kid who couldn't deal well with adult disapproval.

I remember thinking that to be accurate, the leaders should have pinned black hearts on themselves.

December 8, 2010 at 11:11 AM

Jake, 5 Voices, Scott, Lee, Greg and Heather:

As your comments arrived, telling these stories, I was increasingly glad I had posted a blog on this topic.

I think that one of the worst aspects to legalism is the fact that so many Christians assume they are of little danger. They may go beyond biblical instruction, true, but the people involved mean well. They want purity, and see the myriad temptations in a decadent world, and so are merely trying to help. The legalism isn't meant to take the place of God's law, or be added to it--it's merely meant as a way to apply the law in a practical way.

All that is rationalization, of course.

Legalism, in all its forms, is dangerous to the soul. It is a foreign gospel, substituting man-made law for God's grace. It produces false guilt, which makes receiving forgiveness all the more difficult.

May we know, and show grace.
Thank you for your comments.

December 13, 2010 at 11:00 AM

Subject: legalism stories
denis, i cannot for some reason add these stories to your blog. So here you are: a) i have been a member of churches that say Christians should not dance nor drink wine. b) my wife grew up in a church in which the women could not wear pants or make up or go to the movies. c) another student of mine was told he could not listen to secular music; in fact, this same student was told that Christians had a curfew - 6 pm. d) my college pastor wanted all students to bring their albums to a burning party. just a few of my 'favorite' stories. luke

December 13, 2010 at 11:10 AM

I've been thinking of this blog all weekend. I just couldn't think of anything, though I know my past is littered with legalism. I also could not get the image of a crust castle out of my head.
I guess the thing that most stands out to me is the time(s) I destroyed my "worldly" music. Can I just say that some of the music I destroyed probably brought more pleasure to God than some of the "Christian" music peddled to believers? Whatever you do, do unto the glory of the Lord. I think that applies to music...just because your words are spiritual, does not make it good music, and just because the lyrics don't scream praise Jesus, doesn't mean it's worldly.

December 13, 2010 at 1:09 PM

Quite correct--music brings glory to God even if the music maker happens to deny the existence of God. That's one of the delicious ironies of the Christian perspective. There are lots of people who burned records and now wish them back, for good reason.
May I make a suggestion? The next time you eat bread, skip the crust, and offer it to him in gratitude that no crust house exists in heaven.

December 14, 2010 at 9:22 AM

I was reading your comments and thanks again so much for posting this. I have shared it with many people. But I think that I must ask for clarification on your comment about "meaning well." I can't say that I agree that pinning a black heart on a child is "meaning well" but rather seems very thoughtless and selfish. Meaning well to me brings the sense of seeing another's need and meeting it with a heart that breaks for their condition with benelovence and compassion. I do believe that they think that they are doing what's right but wonder how it might frustrate someone who was subjected to such a thing to hear that the people involved actually "meant well." Now living in the South and hearing phrases like, "good Christian" or "bless their heart" and "he means well" are simply passing phrases used to justify poor choices, character faults or covert selfishness in an attempt to avoid discussin the brokenness of the situation to any deeper level. Don't mean to critique the sense of what you were saying and I know that you were not making excuses for their actions. I have just really been struggling lately with the tension of knowing that these beliefs are so damaging to people and to what degree to call people out on it. Feel free to not keep this in the discussion as I digressed a bit from the topic. Love all that you do and felt a pang of chill when I saw that your daytime high temps were in the negatives!!!

December 14, 2010 at 11:30 PM

You make a very good point, and one that is very much to the point of this conversation. I'm happy to clarify what I mean--and I wouldn't want to be misunderstood about it, so thanks for bringing it up.

My meaning was limited: I can imagine legalisms being initially launched by people who mean well.

I grew up in a church tradition that is shot through with all sorts of legalism. My sense is that the people in that tradition really do have a deep desire to be holy as followers of God, and I can imagine that desire being the motivation (at least partially) for the formulation of ideas that were legalistic. That doesn't make it right, of course, nor any less deadly.

You are correct to question my choice of words, however, because Jesus' most scathing prose was directed at the legalists of his day. Legalism, regardless of what it is intended to accomplish denies, dismisses and undercuts grace. And that is a serious form of wickedness.

What I should have said is that even if legalists mean well, their legalism must always be resisted for what it is, an attack on the gospel. And since legalism tends to make people controlling, grim, and judgmental, legalists seldom mean well.

Thanks for commenting.

December 15, 2010 at 9:42 AM

Thanks for clarifying. You explained it so well! I couldn't agree more with you and given our exchange I'm wishing that we could meet for come coffee! We are dealing with some things here that speak to this post more than you know. I feel so blessed to have spent time with you and Margie! Although we haven't seen each other in quite a while we treasure our friendship. Love to you and your family during this Advent season!


December 15, 2010 at 9:25 PM

Thanks for your kind words--and a shared coffee would be a delight. Blessings.

December 15, 2010 at 9:29 PM

There are some good examples of legalism listed here.

There has been an emphasis here against fundamentalism and some of it is certainly justified. I grew up in fairly fundamentalist circles in the 60’s and I do remember seeing the legalism that you rightly identify. However, I live in the South and in a highly concentrated Southern Baptist demographics and the problem that is much, much more prevalent is quite the opposite….namely antinomianism. I see many more Christians that feel no obligation to follow the precepts laid out in Scripture. From where I sit, evangelicalism has been largely co-opted by the culture at large and is virtually indistinguishable from it. I will add that much of this accommodation has occured under the auspices of "engaging the culture". Antithesis is dead. Counter-cultural Christianity?….a rare bird indeed.

December 31, 2010 at 6:19 PM

Ah yes, the opposite problem.
Francis Schaeffer used to say that orthodox Christian belief and practice was like walking on a narrow path bordered on both sides by cliffs. Back away from one danger too far and you'll plunge into the opposite abyss.
Thanks for your counter-balancing comment.

December 31, 2010 at 6:56 PM

A child runs from a bully who intends to hurt him. He runs to his little brother who tells him to hide in a certain place. When the bully arrives and asks which way the boy's brother went the child lies and points the bully away from where his brother is hiding.
A legalist would say the child lied and needed to ask God for forgiveness. The problem is that a legalist does not understand the freedom that is afforded "in Christ" or by the golden rule. Things that are usually thought of as sin are acceptable or justified when the motive is concern for the welfare of someone else.
This provides a critical clue to how to correctly understand the Bible about things that the writers of the Bible said that don't seem to make sense.

May 25, 2013 at 10:23 AM

Motivation is part of our experience and life, and certainly is important when we are thinking through ethical issues. We cannot, however, simply reduce ethics or morality to motivation, even a good one like being concerned for another's welfare.
Thanks for commenting,

June 4, 2013 at 3:40 PM

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