I had my friend, Kendra Fletcher on the podcast recently, and I want you to hear more of her message. I always say that legalism is taking your conviction and putting it on someone else. But legalism robs our joy. There is freedom when we walk away from legalism, friends, and Kendra has learned it firsthand.
On the edge of a swimming pool, legs dangling and dipping into cool water up to our knees, sun beating relentlessly on our bare shoulders, kids splashing and yelling and whooping and hollering, she sighed, raised her hand to shade her squinting eyes, and then quietly confessed to me, “I’m done with the church.”
I wish I’d been shocked or even remotely surprised, but I’d heard this one before. I’d had the same sentiment expressed to me by frustrated teenagers, jaded young adults, homemakers, white-collar workers, plumbers, and pastors. So many people hurting, and so many willing to walk away from a community that was supposed to love them like Jesus. Those churches didn’t love them like Jesus; they tried to be Jesus. And down that misguided path lay the wreckage of its wake.
The damage cuts way down deep.
While there are so many things to sort through when we’re leaving bad religion, one of the most difficult things about being a recovering member of a rigid, our-way-is-the-right-and-only-way, legalistic church is the response we get from people who didn’t know us when we were a part of those communities and who learn our stories after the fact.
“What? Really? That seems so crazy!”
And it is. But harder than responding to their disbelief is the fact that most of us simply feel foolish. A response of incredulity always makes me feel as if the other person thinks I must be a moron; I mean, how can an otherwise seemingly intelligent adult fall prey to such extremism?
I haven’t done an extensive period of research into the psychology of why and how people join legalistic communities, but I know this: It likely isn’t their intelligence that is driving their choices.
More often than not, it is a felt need that makes us join in, whether slowly like the proverbial frog in the kettle or a quick noisy splash straight into the deep end. For us, it was a progression driven by our fear and pride.
Parenting lit a fire underneath us that caused us to stop focusing on the source of our hope (God) and start looking around for methods and theories and promises to feed our fears. If you’ve ever parented anyone, you likely understand the fear. Add to our anxiety that we were going to royally mess up our kids was our pride; we were going to do it right, and we would only listen to the voices that told us exactly how to do it right.
It might not have been parenting that drove my friend at the swimming pool to embrace a legalistic church. Just as there is infinite variety in humanity, there are a thousand other catalysts that combine to create the perfect storm in the life of someone who finds his or herself eventually the victim of the spiritual abuse that invariably accompanies bad religion. When we’ve been wrecked by it, we find ourselves gutted and hopeless.
I did, too. But I have a hope that spurs me to believe that there is healing for even the deepest recesses of our pain. Have you lost that hope? Leaving legalism is a watershed event that can either cause us to run as far and fast from Christ and His followers as possible, or drive us right into the sheltering, loving, merciful, accepting arms of the One who created us to be free.
I believe, wholeheartedly, that we can heal. I believe that we can learn, once again, to love God, others, and even ourselves. That’s the beautiful conclusion to leaving legalism. We can run from bad religion, but we can find freedom and hope in the arms of the living God.