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I Grew Up in a Legalistic Church. Now What?

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When I wrote Leaving Legalism, I was coming at the whole project from one perspective: mine. As I began to write, it shouldn’t have been surprising to find that other people would offer me stories of their own experiences inside the parameters of legalism, and those stories would vary widely.

One experience keeps appearing, however, and I wanted to take the time to address those of you who spent your childhoods in churches that defined your faith by keeping the rules and good religious behavior. So many of you grew up in legalistic churches, and you’re struggling to find your way through a faith that doesn’t present itself as a list of behaviors.

Here’s a little sampling of what you’re telling me:

My parents became believers when I was in kindergarten. One of the first things they did in their new life as church members was yank me out of a traditional school environment so they could homeschool me. Even as a kid, I knew they were driven by fear: of what their church leaders would think, of the world, of their own inadequacies as newly-Christian parents.
I was a very enthusiastic Christian as a teenager, and I was involved in youth group and I sang on the worship team. I checked all the right boxes, kept my nose clean, didn’t sleep around, and pledged myself to the purity movement. To me, keeping the rules defined my faith because that’s what I was taught in the church where I grew up.

I hear a lot from young adults who were raised in the homeschool movement, in very rigid communities, in uber conservative churches. Was there anyone who was homeschooled in the 1990’s/early 2000’s who wasn’t touched by this approach to life and faith? It seems that overwhelmingly, the answer is no. If you weren’t in a legalistic home and church, you knew many kids who were.

But I am also hearing from adults who were raised in subsets of Christianity, in rigid churches, in cults, and in churches that stuck to orthodox Christian theology but behaved like cults. More on that distinction in a later post.

So, now what? You’ve left legalism behind, you haven’t completely run away from faith in Christ, but there is just so much collateral damage.

 

Three Things to Consider If You Grew Up in a Legalistic Church

The church you grew up in doesn’t have the last word on what it means to follow Christ.

I know they want you to think they do, but unless they are Jesus, they don’t. The Bible, the Holy Spirit—they have the last word on what it means to follow Christ. There’s a lot wider berth in regards to behavior than a lot of religious institutions would lead you to believe.

This is one of the reasons I spent a chapter discussing what it means to learn to abide in Christ. We have to learn to recognize his voice, and we do that by hanging out with him, just as we would with someone we are trying to get to know. Once we can confidently distinguish his voice from that of people who might mean well (or not), we can declare, as Martin Luther did, that we are compelled by our faith in Christ to make the choices we are making.

No One on Earth is Doing Church Perfectly.

But they want you to believe that they’re doing it perfectly. Or right.

Ever heard the old story of the believer who storms out of one church to declare that they’re going to a church that’s doing it “right”? “We’ve found the perfect church!”, they announce. And then some wiser, usually older believer quips, “Until you show up.”

Listen: We’ve all got it wrong. Even you. Even me. Even my brother with the Doctorate of Divinity. Even [insert the theologian you most admire]. And one day, when there is a new heaven and we get to inhabit a new earth, we will see where we were wrong about so many things, and we will ooze grace to each other because our eyes will be on the only One who ever gets it right.  

But we can ooze that same grace right here. Right now. Shall we?

Your Faith in Christ Will Look Very, Very Different Than Your Parents’  

 And that’s as it should be, even if you hadn’t been raised in legalism.

It’s simple. Your faith in Christ is your faith in Christ. It could be a straighter path or a wild winding ride resembling the twisting, narrow curves of Lombard Street. It will most certainly take detours that don’t resemble anyone else’s detours, and it will take you places you never thought you’d ever see or experience. 

Unless, of course, you stay in legalism. Legalism is all about control and predictable outcomes, so if that’s what makes us feel comfortable, that’s generally what we choose. I just can’t seem to find any examples of a lifeless, structured faith like that in scripture. 


Needing a community to walk through your exodus from legalism with you? Join us in the closed Facebook group called Leaving Legalism.

Read the book, too. It is meant to help you find freedom.


I Left Legalism. Now What?

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You’ve left legalism. Now what?

“I’m so relieved”, she told me through tears over a Panera salad. “But at the same time, I feel displaced. I’m not even sure I know what I believe anymore.”

Thus goes the opening to a conversation I’ve had over and over again since Leaving Legalism was published.

Always varying in context and details, but invariably emotionally charged, the stories that have been relayed to me by readers are heartbreaking, poignant, and never easy to hear. I feel I’m carrying a weight and a burden for so many who have left legalism, but it’s a burden I’ll gladly bear for the sake of the gospel. For the sake of reminding us all of what Jesus did for each and every one of us. I’m praying for you.

Most of those stories end with a giant question mark. Now what? I left legalism, but I am lost. What’s next?

READING LEAVING LEGALISM IS A SOLID PLACE TO START.

If you haven’t read Leaving Legalism, start there. I wrote it as a guide to help you find a path back to Jesus. It might be hard to read and digest, and the questions at the end of each chapter are designed to get you to rip the band-aid off the wounds and allow the light to heal them. It won’t be easy, but it will be very, very good. And a great place to begin.

GETTING COUNSELING IS NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS.

I am also going to toss the idea of getting some legitimate counseling out to you. So many of us were taught that counseling or therapy is only for the really messed-up, but not for the super spiritual. I’m here to tell you: That’s a load of garbage. Know what’s really messed-up? A religious system that measures our spirituality by our behavior and not by the righteousness of Christ. If you need counseling to process all of that religious behaviorism, then be sure you get it. Don’t let anyone stop you. Ask someone in your church if they know of a solid counselor or therapist they could recommend.

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FINDING A COMMUNITY THAT FOLLOWS CHRIST ALONE IS IMPORTANT.

“One of the best things my wife and I did after leaving our former church was find a church where the gospel was held in high regard and freedom in Christ taught without fear.

Honestly, though, we second-guessed ourselves a lot. What if this church turns out to be just as legalistic as the last?”

Finding a church community that follows Christ and Christ alone is an extremely important step. And if within that church leadership there is someone who can smell legalism from a mile back and offer you the freedom to land, heal, and grow in their church, then that’s a very good place to be.

No church will be perfect; I trust you know that already. But a church led by transparency, by men and women who are the “chief confessors”*, who lead with love and grace and mercy . . . there is a church that can offer you an ER, triage, an ICU, and a recovery floor.

GRACE GOES BOTH WAYS.

Give yourself grace. Lots and lots of grace. For the choices you made in the past, for the way you treated other brothers and sisters in Christ, for the amount of time it may take for you to heal from all of the collateral damage.

And then turn to give grace to those who hurt you.

That’s easier said than done, no? For me, yes. We were the walking wounded, and our wounds weren’t entirely self-inflicted. We had been gossiped about, stabbed in the back during elders’ meetings, pushed out of social situations, and effectively shunned. And we helped start the church.

It was a long time before I wasn’t angry, and that’s okay, too. There was grace for my anger and the Holy Spirit was faithfully leading me out of that sinful heart-set. It took years (literally, five years), but God had taught me that because He loved me so completely, I could turn and love those who had filleted me and my family.

So now what? Now rest. And if you’ve read the end of Leaving Legalism, you know:

Breathe in, breathe out, and move on.

I’ll have more posts about taking the next steps after walking out of legalism in the weeks to come, so be sure to join the newsletter below.

*chief confessors take the command to confess sins seriously, and lead the congregation by their own confessions first


Beyond Leaving Legalism: More Resources For Hurting People

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Hello, favorite readers!

Now that Leaving Legalism has launched and is in the hands of all kinds of people who needed to hear its message, I wanted to let you know about a few additional resources.

affiliate link (In case you haven’t gotten your copy yet!)

Certainly, once you’ve read the book and worked through the helpful questions, you’ll be left with an additional need to pinpoint the issues that still come up from time to time. I’m not leaving you hanging!

First, a new series of follow-up posts will be coming to your inbox in the next few weeks. I’ll be addressing questions such as, “I left legalism. Now what?”, and “My family has ostracized me. I don’t know what to do about that.” These are tough issues to wrestle with, and my whole goal is to continue to point you back to the gospel and to the Bible for solid answers and reconciliation.

Secondly, there is a private group on Facebook called, appropriately, Leaving Legalism. It is a safe place for discussion, questions, and encouragement. We’d love to have you there. Click the link in the previous sentence or this one right here: Leaving Legalism Facebook Group.

Third, it is my heart’s desire that the message of Leaving Legalism get out to as many people as possible. Because I’m still raising a large family, I am quite guarded about my speaking availability, but I am starting to open up 2019 for conferences, women’s retreats, and one-day events. I’d love to talk to you about yours. Click here for speaking inquiries.

Fourth, speaking of speaking events, my husband Fletch and I will be at Sandy Cove Ministries this February for a weekend marriage getaway, and we’d love to have you there! We’ll be talking lots about hope-shifting and marriage and living free! (Even cooler than us? Andrew Peterson will be the Saturday night concert.)

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That’s it! Let’s connect. And if you know someone hurting from the aftermath of legalism, invite them along. There’s room for everyone at this table.