I have a guest post that went up today over at Convergent Books! This is my second post for them, and I’m proud to be a part of the community. I very much appreciate what Convergent is doing– they’re willing to ask hard questions, and coming from an religious imprint that’s rather incredible.
Legalism is so pervasive it has become invisible. Growing up, I would have denied any accusation that my church was legalistic. We didn’t force our rules on anyone; they were simply our personal convictions. But as I moved into less conservative environments, and as my definition of legalism changed, I kept running into the same claim: I’d be at a church, and if I saw legalism coloring the way the community approached things, I would be told, “we’re not legalistic! They’re legalistic!” “They,” of course, would be some other church that was seen as having more—and more restrictive—rules.
To many people, legalism means “excessive adherence to law,” and that is the central part of the problem. “Excessive” has a different meaning depending on whoever is making the rule, whether it’s a church leader or an individual. In the church my family attended when I was a child, we followed a long list of rules: women couldn’t wear pants, men couldn’t wear shorts, we couldn’t go to movie theaters, girls couldn’t sit next to boys, and we couldn’t use any version of the Bible besides the King James. The rules made us stand out. Other residents of our town could easily identify people who attended our church. We were “that crazy church.” You know we were extreme when even the Southern Baptists on the north side of town would condemn us for our legalism.