Leaving Legalism

How Religion Ruins Christmas

How Religion Ruins Christmas

In the autumn of 2010, we took our three teenaged boys to Washington D.C. for a week. There, in the last stretch of summertime’s heat and beauty, we explored national monuments and museums and history and culture.

While we were visiting the capitol, the Smithsonian American Art Museum was featuring an impressive exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings in the private collections of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. You can watch a short video about their friendly competition to collect the pieces here.

Amongst the more than 4,000 works Mr. Rockwell produced in his lifetime, several stick out in my mind and memory, and of those, one in particular has left an indelible impression. It’s titled “Sunday Morning”, but because of copyright restrictions, I cannot post it. If you want to see the picture itself from an Amazon link, click here .

In one masterfully detailed snapshot of real life, Rockwell sums up the stench of our religious piety and behaviorism in a single vibrant shot, doesn’t he? There’s a woman who rather missed the essential command of the faith that drives her religion: Love your neighbor as yourself. Husband sits at home, obviously judged for his lack of righteousness, while she marches the children off to Sunday School. I just can’t imagine why he wouldn’t be compelled to follow.

“But religion isn’t a bad thing!” we are tempted to think.

And I know what you mean. Religion, we think, is part and parcel of faith. The problem is with our verbiage. What the word religion has come to mean is not what it could have meant. It could have meant a relationship with God that informs our allegiances and transforms our lives.

But the definition most commonly assigned to the word religion has nothing to do with a relationship with the living God, and it relies almost entirely on the doing rather than the being. On the works and the effort and the repeating of certain behaviors and not at all on the spending time in the presence of, being changed by, or profoundly understanding our worth because of God.

RELIGION ruins Christmas.

Christmas, in all its simplicity and juxtapositional extravagance, is meant to be experienced, not adhered to. It is meant to show us the Son of God. Our humanity. His deity. His lovingkindness. His great, spectacular, over-the-top light show of love for his people.

We are meant to gape, open-mouthed, like the children we are, and desire to follow him wherever he goes because we want to be just like that guy. The promise of the relationship of humans to God is that he will, in fact, make us just like him as we follow behind as children of the living God.

Can you imagine that Normal Rockwell painting? There would be no one left complacently on a chair because the whole neighborhood of humanity would be running to catch up with the One at the head of the line. Religion doesn’t do that. The love of God does.

Religion doesn't compel us to follow. The love of God does.

I Left Legalism and My Family Doesn't Approve

I Left Legalism & My Family Doesn't Approve

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Out of a small book with a big heart has come questions from readers like you. Earnestly trying to figure out this whole “leaving legalism thing”, your struggles are honest and deep, and multi-faceted.

Family relationships are rarely simple.

We’re left with the question of how to love people when they don’t agree with our choice to leave a rigid church environment, and it’s not simple, because family relationships rarely are. And now with the holidays upon us, the notion of spending time with family members who ooze disapproval is stressful, disheartening, and a genuine downer. It can leave us feeling like we’ve taken two steps backwards.

I Left Legalism and My Family Doesn't Approve

Don’t think for a minute you’re alone in this. Here’s just one of numerous notes I’ve received, but I’m keeping this one as anonymous as possible for obvious reasons:

Question for you: When you leave legalism, but have family (my parents) who have not, how do you walk well with them? We packed our bags 11 years ago for the sake of the gospel, have grown in the gospel, but are looked down on because we live it out differently, i.e., enjoy alcohol, smoke a pipe (well, my hubs, not me), friendship with homosexuals, walk with drug addicts—all sorts of very different things from my Baptist roots.

I still feel there are times I am creating a checklist, and making laws for my life, and feel I am doing something wrong (like hubs shouldn’t smoke a pipe, but it’s more because of what my family would think of him, but Lord knows I am not posting pics on Facebook of that!) Is there a fine line of sharing, and being careful to not offend? I don’t know? But I do get a smack in the head from the Spirit, that I am not resting in the grace and freedom He gives. sigh.

I feel at times my identity is still wanting approval from my earthly father, trying to shake that, but thankful how Jesus is showing me these things! I feel so close to real freedom, and have been away from legalism for awhile, but man those roots run deep!

A Question of Identity

I think a lot of us struggle with our identity: Who am I? What is my mission in life? Who am I not? For those essentially rejecting what shaped their childhoods by those who communicated that identity to them, the issue of identity can be especially confusing.

Now is the time to stop and define who you are. If you’re still walking in Christian faith, your identity is formed by what God, through Jesus Christ, did for you when he chose to enter our fallen world and put his life on the line for our sake. It’s all his work, his plan, and his unparalleled goodness that we get to claim, through grace.

It’s why the video that plays on this site’s homepage reads, “Grace will change your life.” At the core of our lives is our identity—who we are—and the grace of God is the all-encompassing formation of who we are.

How Understanding Our Identity Makes a Difference

Now let’s connect the dots between knowing our identity and being around family members who don’t approve of our choices.

For those of us who were caught up in legalistic environments, whether by choice or parentage, the attempt to please man usually takes precedence over a desire to please God. Even if our goal was to please God, we had a mixed-up, works-based definition of what that means. The truth is, God is already pleased with us. Because of what Jesus has already done, because of Calvary, because of the cross, because of the faith He’s given to us, God is already pleased.

Let that sink in.

For so many of us, the idea that we already have won the affection of the creator of the universe simply because His son died on our behalf is a concept very far removed from our law-loving hearts and minds. It doesn’t seem right. In a universe where everything else must be earned, the free approval of God Himself just blows our minds.

Take the idea that we can’t reconcile free approval (grace) for ourselves and apply it to our earthly relationships, and there we see how easy it is to assume we must earn the love of God. If my earthly father is disappointed in me, surely my heavenly father must also be. If I have to perform for the approval of the people in my church, surely I must perform for God, too.

Again, now is the time to stop and define who you are.

What do you believe? Do you believe Jesus when he declared that he had finished all the work there was to be done when he hung on the cross and took our sin into his death?

Do you believe that God takes delight in you? His Word tells us as much:

Psalm 18:19 He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me. (ESV)

Isaiah 62:3-5 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (ESV)

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There are so many more verses and passages that tell us how God delights in us. You can search and find and dwell on them, and I encourage you to do so.

The critic, or legalist, will of course point out that there are equally passages that talk about God’s hatred for the wicked, and that’s true. But here’s the thing: You are not the wicked. You have been redeemed. You are made clean and pure by the work of Christ. To say otherwise is just really bad theology.

So, Then, How Do I Hang Out With My Family?

Let’s make this whole discussion about identity and believing the truth about whose you are inform how we now deal with family and friends who don’t approve of our choice to leave their brand of legalism.

You’re going to be in situations where your family doesn’t approve of your clothing choices, your food preparation, your current church, your parenting, your job situation, your friends, your hobbies, and on and on. . .

When their opinions are being voiced, you have the opportunity to remind yourself (and spouse and kids and friends) that God is already pleased with you. Remind yourself (say it in your head, loudly) that you are loved by God and nothing can change that. Smile outwardly. Usher your kids out of the room. Leave, if you have to. But remember, always remember, that your identity—who you are—is in Jesus Christ, and he is very, very pleased with you.

Luke addressed the physical leaving of family in his gospel: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”(14:26) Sometimes following Christ means leaving behind the family and life that would have you believe that you must earn your salvation in some fashion, because following Christ means believing the truth of the gospel instead of the pronouncements of legalists.

Leaving legalism can be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. A disapproving family heaps guilt and shame tenfold over the guilt and shame we are trying to leave. But don’t forget Whose you are and what He’s done for you. Remember, now is the time to stop and define who you are. Now, before the holiday gatherings commence.


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.