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 old pastor was also 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.
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Have a great day! ~Tim