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.