In the past several years it has become more and more common for those raised in traditional, fundamentalist churches to recount their stories of pain and anguish experienced at the hands of legalistic church leaders and members. In some cases, I totally get it and empathize. In others, I'm grateful my upbringing was different from those of these brothers and sisters. Regardless of the specifics, it's clear there are many, many people in my generation who grew up hearing a false gospel and being held to legalistic standards that left them wondering if any of it was true at all.
So here we are, part of a generation working our way back through Scripture and trying to figure out what really is true. Some are finding true faith for the first time. At moments it's a beautiful thing to witness--orphans discovering we're loved not on our own merit, but because our Father made us so He could share His love with us and give us His name through the work of His Son.
But there are other moments that are hard to watch. Because sometimes in our journey to cast off the legalism (trust in our own goodness) of our youth, we end up replacing it with just a different form of legalism.
The legalism of the past had to do with what we wore, listened to, ate, drank, watched, who our friends were, where we went, etc.
And for sure, some of that remains. In fact, I think legalism is still a huge blind spot in our churches. I know it's frequently a blind spot in my own heart. I judge people constantly, based on my own rules of what Christians should or shouldn't do. It's a battle I have to fight daily.
But when we experience freedom from one form of bondage, it's so easy to run to the opposite extreme.
So we read heartwrenching stories of the painful pasts of brothers and sisters growing up enslaved by a conformity to "godly" appearance. And I appreciate and applaud the vulnerability and honesty of those who invite us in to their stories. It cannot be an easy thing.
But sometimes I'm discouraged that the answer--the light at the end of the tunnel after years of guilt and shame--is frequently another form of legalism. It's the idea that "true Christians do this" or "don't do this," only the "dos and don'ts" are different.
To be sure, true believers will be characterized by our love for one another and for our Savior. But we're so interested in telling each other what that love should look like that we risk another, different version of legalism.
If you suffered under legalism in homeschooling, you might send your kids to public school (for the record, I was homeschooled and now my kid's in public and I'm not saying anything bad about either option--I like 'em both).
If you suffered under legalism in what you wore or watched or listened to, you might judge those who are more conservative than you are now and pity them.
If you suffered under certain legalistic standards of what men and women should or shouldn't do, you might easily flip the system on its head and instead judge those who still believe in male leadership and hold them to your own standards.
It's not that the Bible doesn't have anything to say to these issues. It's just that our adherence to what the Bible says doesn't contribute anything to our salvation. It doesn't place us in a better standing with God than someone else.
And so, many of us find ourselves fighting somewhere between these extremes, feeling the familiar tug of legalism on all sides. Because trusting in our own merit can be just as much about social justice as it can be about not listening to music that includes backmasking (if you know, you know.)
Which brings me, after the longest introduction ever, to my friend Marci Preheim. Marci's story, told in her book Grace Is Free: One Woman's Journey from Fundamentalism to Failure to Faith (Cruciform Press), is a familiar one of fundamentalism, rebellion, and finally true faith. But what is so beautifully refreshing is that she doesn't point us to what true believers should say, do, wear, sing, eat, drink, or watch. Nor does she tell us to trust in our own merit by being strong, brave, or competent. Because she knows, like I feel daily, that we're not really all that strong or brave or competent. He made us, but He made us to need Him. I'm helpless.
Rather, she tells her story of finding freedom through abiding in Christ. It kind of really is that simple. And her book is amazingly practical, not by giving "to-do" lists, but by showing how abiding in Christ and depending on His merit applies to our daily lives. Be it friendships, sin, evangelism, marriage, fear, etc.--the gospel of grace applies, and abiding in Christ truly produces fruit.
So no matter if you grew up in the midst of fundamentalism or were in a gang (or both!), this book is for you. It's short (you could read it in a day or two easily), includes great review questions (perfect for a book club or Bible study), and is packed with Scripture.
I'm so grateful to be able to call Marci a friend. She is transparent about the grace she's been shown, and the grace she needs daily. God used her teaching on this topic to free me and many other women in our church a few years ago.
I pray He will do the same for others through this book. Get one for yourself, your sister, your brother, your friend, your daughter, your mother, and anyone else who needs the encouragement of knowing just how truly free grace is.