Going Back to My Old Legalistic Church

I had an odd (and unexpected) experience recently. After being absent for perhaps thirty years I went back to my old legalistic church—sort of.

Seeing Old Friends

Occasionally, there is a reunion of people I knew from my old hometown. But this one was different than any I attended before. The reunion was scheduled for the city park, but heavy-rain bulletins went out early in the day and the venue was changed to the fellowship hall of my old church.

However, there was a twist; it seems that some time earlier the congregation started meeting for services in the old fellowship hall for the convenience of those who couldn’t climb the sanctuary stairs. The old sanctuary now serves as the fellowship hall.

What a surprise to me!

Voyage into Deeper Legalism

Joining this church in 1970 was, in many ways, an improvement over my previous church, but it was also more legalistic.

The pastor while I went there was a good man, but he was an old-line holiness preacher who had strong convictions about prohibited behavior. In addition to the usual prohibitions like movies, drinking, mixed swimming, and such, he also preached against wedding bands and sinful sports (that would be baseball and football). He taught the women and girls they should not cut their hair at all—not even a trim.

He was against girls wearing skirts above the knee when the style was about three inches above the knee; pants for girls were out of the question. When floor-length maxis suddenly became popular I thought, ‘This is great! Now the girls can wear fashionable dresses and still be modest.’ But the pastor warned the girls against wearing those worldly maxis.

The pastor did everything he could to help us not look like the world.

I always wore slicked-back hair—covered in Wild Root Cream Oil, neatly parted, and combed back into a wave on one side. But one day I had little time to prepare for church, so after I washed my hair I just combed it wet. During the service my hair dried out and fell softly around my face. The girls loved it and suggested that I wear it that way.

To be able to wear my hair natural, I had to cut it significantly on one side because the side I combed back was quite long. The pastor got all over me about having ‘long’ hair, which seemed odd because I had to cut it in order to wear it naturally. His concern for me hit a soft spot in my heart, and I cut it just for him. I decided never to do that again.

The Uneasy Reunion

I was unprepared as I walked into the old sanctuary after an absence of thirty years. The stained glass windows were still there, but the pews were gone. The stage where the pastor preached, and where I often sang with the choir, was there—but without the piano, organ, and choir seats.

I often played bass guitar on that stage during worship services. Seeing it really brought back memories, and it was eerie and uncomfortable.

Like me, many of the people at the reunion previously attended this church and had not been inside the sanctuary for a long time. Several commented that it was much smaller than they remembered, and I agreed.

[Spoiler alert: my blog photo is a couple years old and my hair is now longer than shoulder length.]

As I looked around I saw that some of the people at the reunion wore knee length shorts, and I noticed only one lady wearing a dress; the rest were in slacks, jeans, or long shorts. The women had short hair, and people were wearing makeup and jewelry.

I thought about the pastor the entire time. He is deceased, but had he been there I am sure he would have been extremely distressed; I was quite uneasy—sad to know how much this scenario would hurt him.

And I felt very self-conscious of my long hair.

There was a lady there—she and I had been in youth group together so long ago—and I asked her:

‘When you were 18 did you ever imagine that one day you would be in this building wearing shorts and no one would throw you out?’

She laughed out loud, a bit nervously, and replied, ‘I have been thinking the same thing.’

I felt that way about my hair, and I am sure we were not the only ones with similar thoughts.

The Hurt of Legalism

Apparently the strict legalism had no lasting hold on the people in the room, but it is a shame that legalism hurt so many people and drove them away from that church, which was a wonderful church in many ways.

I imagine that the church, after all these years, is not as legalistic as it was then—I hope this is the case. Today, many churches are not so extreme in their legalism, but legalism of any sort is not the way to live. Rather than deal with rules and being judged by others, we should simply live by Jesus’ principle of love—love the Father, love ourselves, and love others as we love ourselves.

Legalism is hurtful and unnecessary.

I invite your comments and observations below.
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please sign up in the column to the right so you don’t miss future posts.
Have a great day! ~Tim
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11 Responses to Going Back to My Old Legalistic Church

  1. mrhackman says:

    I grew up in a similar church . legalism is exhausting 🙂

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  2. Lynn says:

    This was a good read, Tim. It presents a great deal of hope. Change sometimes come quietly and softly, even to an old legalistic church. How fortunate to get a glimpse into something from the past. I suspect it helps you feel more free now, does it? The comment about how much smaller the room seemed seemed symbolic – like the old past was remembered bigger and more frightening, but the reality is that you are all so much stronger in your relationship with God that the old past can’t harm you – the past is actually small. (Hope that makes sense.)

    By the way, had to smile hearing your hair is long now. Good for you! My gentleman spent his career in the military & short hair was required. He has reverted back to the hair of his youth now – long! For a while, I thought I preferred it short, but understanding the deep personal freedom it represents (not only from his career but other issues) I totally support having it long.

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  3. Lynn, I really like your symbolic interpretation of the church seeming smaller than we remembered because it less powerful and frightening. That did not occur to me, but I think you are right.

    And thank you for supporting long hair!

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  4. fiddlrts says:

    Obviously, you need a new photo for your blog 😉

    It is interesting to me how legalism inevitably focuses on cultural externals. Looking different for the sake of looking different, which is why the trendy long dresses were taboo.

    It seems to me that “thank God I do not dress like other (wo)men” is our modern Christian version “I thank God I am not like other men.” The locus of modern legalism.

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    • You are so on target, Fiddlrts. The idea is to act and look as different from other people as you can! This is especially tough on young people.

      I like your very appropriate comparison to the pharisaical ‘I thank God I am not like other men.’ Legalism today is very similar to the legalism Jesus confronted.

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  5. Chas says:

    The thing that interested me in your post was the way that the pastor preached by prohibition and condemnation, and by that managed to create in you feelings of guilt. It is clear that many of those prohibitions were his own ideas, which could not have been justified by any Biblical references. He trapped others in his own prison through wrongly exercising the authority that had been granted to him. Now the problem: why did God permit this to happen? There are probably many reasons, but one of these is that we are now discussing it. As you have pointed out before, Tim, Jesus’ purpose was to show us the way to be free of man’s reasoning, and his erroneous perception of God. As it says, Jesus did not condemn. He came to free us from the law (and through that to experience the Love of God).

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