it's not the rules that are the problem


When the speaker walked up to the platform, he pulled a piece of fencing behind him. It looked like a Norman Rockwell-style white picket fence, complete with painted grass along the bottom. He set it up where the podium ordinarily was and launched into his chapel message. During the course of his talk, he moved around the white picket fence, moving closer, then farther away, at times knocking it over and jumping over it pell-mell. He was using it as illustration, and it was simple enough, powerful enough, to stick with me. It provided a helpful mental image, especially when coupled with the main thrust of his message:

Fences are there to protect us.

Fences keep us safe– they keep dogs inside the yard, they keep children from running out into the street. Some fences can even keep things out– like the seven-foot-tall chain link fences with barbed wire that surrounded campus. Fences, he said, are good. And not just the literal fences– especially not the actual fences we pin around our yards. No, the most important fences are those we use to protect our hearts, our spirits, our morality, our souls.

It’s not hard to tell what sin actually is, he claimed. Take sex, for example. Obviously, having sex (and by this we all knew he meant heterosexual vaginal intercourse), is a sin. That’s crystal clear, he said, and we all nodded along. But what about everything else? he asked us. What about… kissing? French kissing? Cuddling? Are these things sin, too? And he told us, no, probably not, but shouldn’t we avoid doing them anyway? Remember your fences— they are only there to protect us. To keep us from sin. If we never even cross the fence, there’s no way we can go anywhere close to the sin.


When I talk about the way I was raised– which, in real life, is not very often– I get a lot of significant looks. And I’ve found it doesn’t typically matter how brief I try to keep it, or how minimal a detail I reveal. Mouths drop open. Eyebrows disappear into hairlines. They choke, their eyes go wide, and they start sputtering things like “what?!” or “that’s insane!” or “holy shit, how did you survive that?”

And “that” is almost always legalism.

And that? That is nothing.

It’s easy for me to talk about the legalism my childhood, teen years, and college years were absolutely drenched in. Legalism was a huge part of my life, and it affected almost everything I did, almost every choice I made. It determined what I would wear, what I would read, what I would watch, what I would listen to, what I would pay attention to, the people I would believe, the news sources I could trust, the people I chose as my friends. Legalism, in my life, was virtually all-consuming.

But it’s the part of my life that I think is funny.

I tell stories about how the Dean of Student Life at my undergrad college had previously worked as a prison warden– and was proud of it. I joke about people carrying rulers around to make sure that my skirt was exactly three inches below my knee. I bandy around with all the crazy stories– all the ways that my life experience was so horribly different from theirs. About how boys and girls couldn’t sit next to each other, how there always had to be at least an entire chair or a foot of space between them. How we sewed all the kick pleats in our skirt shut, because skirt slits are like playing peek-a-boo with the backs of our calves. How I have five-minute-long songs memorized on why the King James is the only good Bible.

It’s the part of me that rarely ever bothers me at all, really. Living under it was oppressive, don’t get me wrong, but now… it’s mostly just something I can brush off and ignore. It’s fodder for good stories, and that’s about it.

So, when I start trying to talk about my experience, trying to explain what exactly about it that was so horrific, I am eternally frustrated by the fact that the only thing many people seem to hear is the legalism. And they respond with sympathy– “oh my goodness! All you went through was so horrible! I can’t imagine trying to live under the weight of all those rules! How like the Pharisees they were! Legalism is so awful!”

And then they move on, almost completely untouched, and I want to scream and pull my hair out because, to me, it feels like they’ve completely missed the point. Yes, legalism is awful. You won’t get any argument from me.

But legalism isn’t the problem.

Rules– they can be good. Healthy, even. Even when there’s a lot of them. Just because a system has what seems to be the presence of a lot of arbitrary rules doesn’t necessarily make it bad. I can understand why that seems counter-intuitive– to us Westerners, where individuality, autonomy, and independence are some of the most crucial parts of our identity, rules seem innately oppressive. Less rules somehow equals more freedom, and freedom is good. But that’s not always the case. Even though it’s difficult for me to understand Shari’ah  law, I can understand that the rules are not what make it oppressive in some places.

It’s the beliefs enforcing the rules.

But I have a much harder time explaining that, and when I start talking about a subject that includes some level of legalism– like “modesty,” for example– it suddenly takes over the conversation and it’s like we can’t focus on anything else. I want to talk about the beliefs, the entire complicated, messy, nuanced system that under-girds all the legalism, but then it all gets de-railed with one aside of “oh, I totally understand what you mean! Aren’t those rules so ridiculous? We just need to get rid of the rules, and then everything will be peachy!”

Or, I’ll read an article, blog, a facebook post, and they’ll build an entire argument around “we have to keep the spirit alive, but just get rid of all these pesky rules. Freedom in Christ, yo!”

And all I want to do is start stomping my feet and shouting “no, no, NO, NO, NO!”

Because the spirit, the beliefs, the ideas, the system that keeps the legalism alive is the problem. There’s nothing there worth protecting, and all of it deserves to be destroyed. Because this system is built on an ugly foundation of power, abuse, domination, and control. The people who perpetuate it aren’t there because they genuinely love people and want to protect them. Legalism gives them the power to wield massive control over entire groups of people– but they can only do that not because of the rules, but because of belief.

Belief in a God whose most dominant, over-riding characteristic is a demand for absolute righteousness, for the acknowledgement of his children that they are completely broken, miserable, worms, barely even worthy of his attention. Belief in a God that is so gracious and loving that he daily overcomes his disgust, his revulsion, to reach out of heaven and show mercy to us. Belief that we, as humans, must exercise all of our resources, all of our attention, in a daily battle to crucify our flesh and take up our cross— but these words mean something different, something harsh and bleak and wretched. Belief that everything about our human experience is tainted, stained, and worthless– that there isn’t anything that can be enjoyed, because all of it is unclean. Our bodies, our music, our entertainments, our world– all of it is is ruthlessly designed to pull us off the straight and narrow, and that if anything feels good, it must be bad, and if we enjoy something, it is only because our hearts are deceitfully wicked and who can know it. We must not ever follow our heart, trust our instincts, go with our gut, because that is only lust and once it has conceived it brings forth death.

That is what is underneath it all– dark, creeping, insidious.

That is what I want to shine a light on and expose. That is what I fight.

Because I believe something different.

I believe in a God whose most all-consuming characteristic is love, and it is that love that drives everything else he does. I believe him when he says that his very existence is that of love, and I trust in him because he loves us so much that he is angry with what we do to ourselves. He hates the oppression, the power systems, everything that exists that allows one person enslave another.

I believe in a God that is so gracious, merciful, and loving, that it compels him to continually create a world where justice and equality will be true of all of us, a place where there will be no fear, no doubt, no pain, and that he works with us, his creation, to build this world.

I believe that we, as humans, must exercise all of our resources, devote all of our attention, to loving our neighbor.

I believe that God looked on everything that he had made and called it good.

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  • D

    “I have five-minute-long songs memorized on why the King James is the only good Bible.”

    Oh….oh my. I….I watched it.

    • It is hysterical, isn’t it?

      • The content of the words may be dubious, but let’s be fair: their musicianship is impeccable.

        • D

          The harmonies, the melodies, the symphonies…

      • D

        I laughed, I cried….

        ….it moved me, Bob.

        (apologies in advance if Veggie Tales was too worldly for you to have been exposed to back in the day)

    • So did I. Like a train wreck. I couldn’t look away.

  • Would I ever love to sit and have a long, long conversation over coffee with you; I think we’d be friends.

    • I love internet friends, too. 😀

      • Elmo

        Internet friends — how else could I feel that a person who lives on the other side of the world and whom I have not set eyes upon for over 30 years is one of my closest friends.

  • Yes! As I was reading your post, I thought– the problem is not so much that the skirt must be 3 inches below the knee, it’s that people had the right and power to carry a ruler to measure your skirt with. That’s spiritual abuse. The rule is silly and unnecessary, but it’s small potatoes compared to oppression of never knowing when someone’s going to violate your boundaries like that, and tell you that you should be grateful.

    • Yes, exactly, Kristen. And another amazing post, Samantha

  • This is really, really good. And really important. Keep saying stuff like this. Please.

  • I can’t help but think how lucky I was to have the parents that I did when our church started going down this road. I escaped these horrible experiences. Most of my friends from that era did not.

  • D

    Rules by themselves are nothing. But when people believe that men’s rules come from God, that gives godlike power to men.

    • That’s it in a nutshell. Differences of opinion on seemingly minor issues then become Eternal Questions (TM) that sever relationships.

  • I’ve never thought about it like this before but you’re right. The rules can be laughed off but the beliefs are damaging. I’ve had conversations about legalism before and was never able to put my finger on this, that the persons response bothered me because she was still espousing the same beliefs, in essence saying the people who hurt me had just done it wrong. Well THEY were to legalistic, not full of enough love, didnt really have the Holy Spirit. Whatever – but she wouldn’t acknowledge that the beliefs themselves were the problem.
    Thx for writing this, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

    • notleia

      I second this. It was like a missing domino that made the lines fall much more smoothly and artistically in my head.

  • A recovering Christian fundamentalist in Great Britain once told me that nonfundamentalists make the mistake of believing that God is a mammal. He then launched into a diatribe about how God is really an alien being from another world and that we should not expect him to have any of the qualities that human beings or other mammals display. The Old Testament posits a God that sits in front of the mirror preening and admiring himself all day while watching closely to make sure that not even 0.00001 mg of a valuable substance He possesses, referred to as “glory,” does not sneak out of his being unawares and thereby “diminish” him somehow. It sounds as if the Guy might have some sort of nervous breakdown if some of it ever did escape.

    Now I am going to say something absolutely awful that Christian fundamentalists forget. This view of God is an Old Testament view. The Old Testament is a covenant that God made with Israel and the Jewish people. We of Gentile descent were never a party to that covenant or the terms of the deal—nor are we now. When Jesus “fulfilled” the old covenant on the cross, it basically went away for Christians. Paul even belabors the point in Galatians. We Gentiles were grafted in under a new covenant. One of my favorite Southern Baptist pastors says that Jesus was God’s answer to the bad reputation He acquired in the Old Testament. As the book of Hebrews says, God is really like Jesus. Not in a single place in the New Testament have I ever see Jesus preening himself in a mirror and dipsticking his glory every few seconds to make sure it’s all still there.

    Christian fundamentalism is basically one really huge, human-created nervous breakdown over what to do with the Old Testament now that it is mostly obsolete. If you have ever cleaned out your office at home, it is like a really worn out old book. It really needs to go in the trash can, the contents are largely outdated and superceded—but some sentimental inner crisis keeps you from chucking it. This the chief problem Christian fundamentalism has. It is so concerned and worried about what to do with the Old Testament that it has (for all intents and purposes) forgotten the new covenant, the New Testament, and Jesus, which it pretty much views as little more than a fire insurance policy.

    • D

      “He said to them, ‘Every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.'”

    • One of the biggest problems with Christian fundamentalists is that they don’t (and don’t know how to) properly interpret the Old Testament. I mean, The Old Testament is the Jewish Torah, and it’s not like these Christian ministers ever study under a Rabbi. In truth, most Jewish scholars are laughing their pants off at all the warped ideas fundamentalists are teaching from *their* holy book. I’m currently reading Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin, and it’s proving to be an eye-opener.

      • FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – Podunk Bible College and Scriptural Womanhood Finishing School is pleased to welcome the newest member of its faculty. Rabbi Shmuley Goldfarb joins us as Dean of Old Testament Studies. We are also happy to report that Rabbi Shmuley has agreed to take part, alongside Ray Comfort, in our latest debate series: How to Witness to the Jewish People. Mazel tov, Rabbi!

        (Things you’ll never see coming out of a Bible college’s press office.)

      • I have that book!! YES, when we are not banging our heads against the wall at every stupid ‘legalistic’ thing Christian fundies are doing to give our books a bad reputation, it is pretty damn funny. Except for the real people hurt, that’s not funny. You know, it never ceases to amaze me that Christians claiming the more loving Jesus Christ over the ‘angry’ Yahweh where the ones who came up with Original Sin, and exclusive rights to heaven. How far have you gotten? If you’ve made it to page 130, the Second Commonwealth, you’ll get a better understanding of the Pharisees side of the story. I’ve had to come to understand there are two concepts of Pharisee, the Christian one and the Jewish one. Whenever I read Christians talking about people acting like Pharisees, or being pharisaical, I take a deep breath and remember the context.

        When you get to page 478, about the Pirke Avot, for the record that’s fairly easy to find. It’s the most popular book of Jewish ethics, and you can just google it to find an online copy, check on Amazon, or any major Jewish book retail. It’s the easiest part of the Mishnah, the beginning of the Talmud, to read and understand. When you get to (or if you’ve already gotten there) the part on Jewish ethics and beliefs, you’ll get why most of us roll our eyes at fundy Christian claims of morality. You can be an incredibly ethical person and be Christian, but the level of time, thought and detail in Jewish ethics are nothing to sneeze at.

  • Beth

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. You are spot on.

  • Thanks for the KJV song. I was raised to believe that the KJV was the only word of God. We even burned other translations (mostly RSV) when they fell into our hands. I was into my 20s (about 1963) when I began the painful process of verifying this stance.

    However, I never heard the KJV song. Must have gotten out of the KJV crowd before it took off!

  • Well, I can spit this out, or let it stew. “This view of God is an Old Testament view. The Old Testament is a covenant that God made with Israel and the Jewish people.” Perhaps you don’t know much about Judaism, perhaps you could use a copy of “Jewish Literacy” that April’s reading. Perhaps I should just take a deep breath and let it out, one more Christian POV that I shouldn’t expect any differently. ” . . . what to do with the Old Testament now that it is mostly obsolete. If you have ever cleaned out your office at home, it is like a really worn out old book. It really needs to go in the trash can, the contents are largely outdated and superceded . . .” After all, I’ve never lived with fundamentalism of any type, Christian or Jewish. Jewish fundamentalism is just as fucked up and cruel as Christian fundamentalism, but then again, we are not all fundamentalists.

    Or maybe if the moderator doesn’t delete this, I think I’ll share a few insights from the people who still read that book which you think should really should just go in the recycling bin by the plastic and cans. How about the fact that we are not created intrinsically tainted by sin, but that we are created with the potential for both great evil and great good. That we are capable of doing good, and should rejoice in that ability and nurture it. That this world, here, now, this physical world is good, and we will be held accountable for all of the joyful things we could enjoy but don’t, thus denying the goodness of God’s creation. That we should take care of our bodies and respect them, neither giving in to every hedonistic whim or denying the reasonable pleasures of the world in aestheticism.

    How about the belief that all human beings are capable of being righteous before God, not just Jews, or not just Christians. “The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come.” It wasn’t the followers of the Old Testament who tortured others to “save their souls” but the followers of the New.

    Or maybe I should just calm down, take that deep breath, and remind myself of where I am, relatively speaking, on the internet. This is a blog for people coming out of Christian Fundamentalism, a safe place to rant, think, and reassess. I will readily concede that Christian fundamentalism uses the Old Testament to hurt people in ways most Jews would never consider using the Torah, and it is normal and healthy to hate that which has hurt you. So with that out of my system, I’m off to do the dishes.

    • Thank you. 🙂

      • You’re welcome. I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent; that guy just hit a nerve wrong, I explained why to him. I followed the link from Love, Joy, Feminism. I really like what you are doing reclaiming and correcting your understanding of words from fundamentalism, I think it is a great thing to do.

        And actually address the point of this whole post, I think you finally really got to the heart of what legalism is: using manipulative laws to control people. Because you are right that there needs to be some law, some agreed upon sense of social order and protections.

    • Margaret

      Thank you

  • Hilary. I perhaps overplayed my hand in trying to make a point. I love many things in the Old Testament and have no plans to throw mine out. My chief concern is that Christian fundamentalists spend way too much time there. Christian fundamentalists are some of the most earnest 3,000-year-old Old Testament Jews on the planet, which is a really big problem. Many of today’s Jews are some of the best “Christians” on the planet in terms of how they understand Old Testament scripture and the true nature of God.

    Perhaps I should have said that Christian fundamentalists are so fixated on the Old Testament that one can hardly understand why they even bother with the New Testament.

    • I don’t want to get to weighted down in this, but I’d like to point out that while I was familiar with the Old Testament, most of my fundamentalist experience involved incredibly heavy emphasis on the Pauline Corpus, almost to the exclusion of anything else. I think reducing the Christian fundamentalist interaction with the Bible to strictly Old Testament is inaccurate.

    • Many of today’s Jews are some of the best “Christians” on the planet in terms of how they understand Old Testament scripture and the true nature of God.

      It’s a good thing that you put Christians in quotation marks there, dover1952, but I’ll go ahead and point out one critical difference that comes instantly to my mind: whatever any Jews may comprehend about the Old Testament, they do not read it with any Christology that would be relevant to the Christian Church. A Christology repeatedly affirmed in the numerous quotations of the Old Testament throughout the New. Indeed, in response to your remark also that “Christian fundamentalists spend way too much time [in the Old Testament],” I should say that it’s not so much a matter of the amount of time as it is of the quality of the time. A Jew will not agree with, for instance, how any number of passages in the Old Testament point to Jesus Christ, but this or that kind of misguided Christian will make a poor use of his time by ignoring such Christological readings in favor of abusive or self-serving interpretations of the Law (or reading and misinterpreting the Proverbs or the Psalms as though they were statutes of law or what-have-you). And this is not too far afield of the post above, I think, since the post concluded with the point that legal interpretation is abused for evil purposes. This seems also to be what you criticize too.

    • Dover, I appreciate your response. Normally I have a very thick skin when it comes to comments about the OT on Christian or atheist blogs, and I usually don’t take anything personally. I think with you it was just personal timing. This weekend I read “Basic Judaism” by Milton Steinberg, c. 1947. When I got to the part about the Kingdom of God, I read this:

      “In what social order have the principles of justice, mercy, and mutual helpfulness been fittingly observed? What community is there so good as to testify, not by words or speech but by deeds and institutions, to a God of goodness? . . . To this perfected society of perfected men the Tradition gives the name: Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom lies not in the future only. In outline it is already at hand and perceptible. . . . Is there not in the midst of the sinfulness of a wicked world much that is warm, sweet, right and compassionate?” In the margins of my book someone wrote in pencil, “10 years before these words the ashes of our bodies darkened the sky, yet they are still true.”

      This was published in 1947, so he must have been working on it in 1945-1946. Less than 10 years after the Holocaust, before there was a state of Israel, this Rabbi was able to proclaim that the world still contained compassion and goodness. Because that is our belief, that no matter how much evil there is, there is also goodness in the world. Juxtapose this belief with what Samantha was taught about the world being sinful:

      “Belief that everything about our human experience is tainted, stained, and worthless – that there isn’t anything that can be enjoyed, because all of it is unclean. Our bodies, our music, our entertainments, our world– all of it is is ruthlessly designed to pull us off the straight and narrow, and that if anything feels good, it must be bad . . .”

      Then to read what you said about the Old Testament being obsolete, that anything of value in it was replaced with the New, it kinda got to me. But with a day’s reflection I’m not angry at what you wrote or related from that other person, because when you’ve been hurt by the Old Testament in fundamentalist hands – either Christian or Jewish – like I said it is natural to hate something that has deeply hurt you.

  • Koko

    Preach it! And keep preaching. Please.

  • Margaret

    This post is really helpful. I came from a legalistic background, but not an abusive one, and I’ve been trying to understand the difference. My church had rules, but it was a large denomination, and I had lived in different parts of the country, where I saw different parts of the rules emphasized. I could be respectful of the local rules, but not feel compelled to follow them. But after a while, I got tired of it and found another church.

    One thing that’s been helpful to me is that I’ve found a loving congregation in a denomination that takes a different stance than the one I grew up in. My new church says “yes we sin, but Christ did the work to save us AND He is big enough and strong enough to keep us safe in Him.” This was a big change for me (from fearing that I would accidentally fall away if I wasn’t vigilant enough.)

    It gives me more freedom to focus on how to love like Christ.

    I’ve also been reading the Old Testament more. It turns out that God continually sought to build a relationship with his people and they kept turning away. I had never understood the reason for the Exile before. It wasn’t because of their sin, or that they didn’t follow the rules of worship well enough. It was because WHEN they sinned, they forgot mercy and justice. His basic rules are “Love me and love your neighbour.” It was when they were not showing mercy and justice to others that He stepped in and “reminded” them.

    I would really like to learn more about reading the Bible from a Jewish point of view. Thanks to April K. for the book suggestion.

    • Margaret, I second the suggestion for “Jewish Literacy.” Its about 400 pages, but divided into sections, and each topic is explained in 1-2 pages so you can read around for exactly what you are interested in.

      If you’re interested in looking at the Torah through Jewish eyes, I found some sites you could look at. This is from Reform Judaism, which is what I am. On the conservative to liberal scale, it’s liberal, close to the United Church of Christ comparably. (My MIL is a UCC pastor, so I know the comparison is accurate to both.)

      Jews study the Torah on a public schedule, so each week we are all reading the same portion, also called parasha Hebrew. We’re not all agreeing on how to interpret, understand, or apply it, but it’s like being in the ultimate book club: we’re all reading the same book at the same time. It starts in the beginning at Genesis on Simchat Torah, and ends the last part of Deuteronomy after a year’s cycle on Simchat Torah, which is a holiday at the end of September this year.

      Explanation for Torah reading cycle:
      Explanation for our wacky calendar:
      The guy running Judaism 101 website is Orthodox. Very traditional, but not batshit crazy fundamentalist. We have those, called Haredi, who are our hard core Jewish fundies.

      This is the weekly parshah from the Chabad website. It includes the most famous commentator of all, Rashi, an 11th century French Rabbi who also had a vineyard.

      I’m not Chabad, they are a variation of Orthodox, but this is a good example of traditional reading and interpretation. If you like historical novels, you can learn about Rashi and medieval Judaism in the books “Rashi’s Daughters.”

      From my experience studying a little of the New Testament, Jews and Christians aren’t really reading the same book when it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Torah is in Hebrew, whole and complete unto itself. It is the tribal records of the Hebrews and Israelites, and the basis for the Talmud which is the book of Rabbinic Judaism. The Old Testament, in contrast, is a translation that is used by Christians to point the way to Christ, and it prefigures him even though he is never mentioned by name.

      It’s like we are looking at a huge, detailed, and expansive tapestry, but viewing it through very different glasses. Christian glasses taint all the colors into shades of red, orange, and yellow with one level of depth perception, and Jewish glasses see things all in shades of green, blue, and purple with an entirely different level of depth perception. It’s very disorienting to me to try and read the OT with Christian glasses on, seeing Christ peeping out from behind the familiar scenery.

      I hope this is interesting and helpful.

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  • The_L

    So much this. I grew up going to a private school run by the local CoG, AND going to Catholic Mass every week. That is a recipe for self-loathing if you’re emotionally sensitive. Lucky me, I was extremely sensitive and got to deal with the conflicting feelings of wanting to “end it all” so no one had to put up with my brokenness, and of not wanting to go to hell for committing suicide. Plus, what if I attempted and failed? My parents would freak out and everybody would give me all this care and attention I didn’t deserve.

    That’s right. When I was in high school I was too depressed to attempt suicide. I feel queasy just remembering it.

  • Armando

    Oh, my….
    By the end, I was moved tears, because your words resonated so true to my core.

    Two word: Beautiful. Breathtaking.

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  • Spot on. We should encourage each other in Loving God and loving each other.
    1. To love each other is to be just in our dealings with all others……”love thy neighbour as thyself”…..or even more than thyself at times.
    2. To love God is to make our bodies a Holy Habitation for God, since He specifically and specially created our bodies as the many little thrones from which He dwells and rules this earth in Heavenly peace. The Holy seat of God in us through the Holy Spirit makes us Kings of the earth and this exactly is what subdues all other forms of God’s creation under us. Without the Holy and Righteous precepts of God( HOLY Spirit) in us, we are just like the beast of the field who perish.

    I am glad you understand modesty , for without moderation we would be caught up in the dark revelry of wantoness pontificated by Antichristianity.
    Good post.

  • I’d really never thought of it this way. But it sounds so true. It’s not the fence that is the problem…it’s the belief that whatever is on the other side of the fence is dangerous.

  • Sweet16