The Bondage of Legalism


legalism 5When I was eighteen years old someone knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to talk about God. His first name was John. At first I thought he was a Jehovah’s Witness.  As he began to speak it was obvious that this brave soul was from another religious organization of some sort. He asked me if I wanted to go through a short bible study which was called “search for truth.” I liked this guy and we became friends. I said “sure, but I don’t have a bible.” He gave me a King James Version of the bible and we began to go through this study.

The search for truth study took all the events in the Bible starting from Genesis and arranged them in order on a timeline. In the process of this study you followed the bloodline of the messiah. It was only 10 lessons long, but it was enough to give me a background on all the major biblical stories.

After the study I visited his church. The altar call came at the end of the service and I went up front and repented of my sins. I asked God to forgive me and cleanse me through the blood of Jesus. At that point a change started to work in me that I did not fully understand. I became interested in learning about the bible and many other topics. All of a sudden I had an interest in history and science. I had an interest in many subjects that I could have cared less about before we started this Bible study.

It was as if I was really waking up for the very first time in my life. I felt true freedom and liberty. I began to make some fundamental changes in my life. My language and vocabulary changed. I stopped using foul words and I began to gain an interest in world events. I found that being a Christian was liberating and my life had new meaning and purpose.

Just a few weeks after my trip to the altar I found myself in another church service with a very disturbing message. The pastor read from the book of Romans

Rom 13:1  Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

“Rom 13:2  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

Rom 13:3  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

Rom 13:4  For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Rom 13:5  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

Rom 13:6  For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Rom 13:7  Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. –KJV

After reading this passage the pastor then began to proclaim that he was the ruler of this local body of believers and that he was ordained by God. If we don’t follow his instructions then we will be damned. Not because his instructions were found in the bible itself, or that these rules are right or wrong, but we would be damned because we did not obey him and he had the rule over us being ordained by God. We would all go to hell for not following his rules! This was according to his interpretation of the word of God.

It was then that he proceeded to lay down the law. Women could not wear makeup. Women could not wear pants. They had to wear a skirt at all times. Women had to have their elbows and knees covered by clothing at all times. Any length to any shirt had to go past the elbows whenever they were in public or whenever guests would visit their home. Women could not cut their hair. They had to grow it long. They could not wear jewelry. Even wedding rings were frowned upon.

Men could not have long hair. They could not have beards and they could not have mustaches. Their knees and elbows had to be covered at all times by clothing when they were in public or when they had guests at their homes. They had to wear a tie when they ministered on the platform. They could not wear jewelry. We were allowed to wear a watch or a tie clip and that was it.

Everyone had to give a tithe of their income. Ten percent of what each person earned belonged to God. If you did not pay that money then you were robbing God. You were stealing from him and you were a thief.

In addition to all this the people were not allowed to own television sets. They could not go to movie theaters. Certain music was off-limits and several other restrictions were placed on them. If you disobeyed any of these standards it could cost you your salvation unless you repented. You would not go to hell because these rules were found in the bible. You would go to hell because you did not obey your pastor who was telling you to do these things. You were not obeying those who had the rule over you according to Romans chapter 13.

imagesNeedless to say I watched my new-found freedom vanish before my very eyes. All of a sudden I found my self placed under tremendous bondage. How was I going to keep all of these rules? As I began to look around the church I saw that everyone fit this mold. The women always wore dresses and no one was wearing makeup. I could lose my very salvation if I raised my hands and my shirt sleeve went past my elbow. Everyone had long-sleeved shirts.

They called this set of standards “Holiness Standards.” They were designed to keep people out of trouble. They were a set of guidelines that kept people from sin, or so they thought. These standards and guidelines became law and everyone had to follow them.

As I went home that day I was overwhelmed. My family had not yet heard the gospel. How will they react when I share this with them? I knew my father would reject it immediately. He loved to watch television and that one rule alone would be enough for him to reject everything. How in the world was I going to share this so-called gospel with my family so they could be saved? This good news came with tremendous burden.

I went through part of this bible study with my sister and she was in tears when she proclaimed that we need to share this with Mom and Dad. They need to know about Jesus. When I shared the new rules with her she rejected everything immediately. I know she was under the same condemnation I was dealing with. She never went to church with me. She began to question these rules. Eventually she dated a new boyfriend who was Mormon and she was converted to Mormonism by this guy. I think it was her way of rejecting all of these rules and clearing her conscience.

A short while later I left the church. They called it backsliding and I accepted that definition. I wanted to live for God but in reality I really did not think that I was capable of doing it. I was never truly saved. I was just a mere candidate for salvation. I figured that I could not keep all of these rules and I was going to hell anyway. I might as well live my little life and enjoy what little pleasure I could because there was no hope for me. I can’t tell you the despair that I dealt with on a daily basis.

The church I attended was called the United Pentecostal Church (UPC). At that time I attended a church in northern California. In order for someone to be saved they had to repent of their sins. They had to be baptized in Jesus’ Name only. They had to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues. Then once all of this was accomplished they had to live this Christian life by obeying the rules and even then they were only a mere candidate for salvation. It all depended on where they were in their walk with God. Are you prayed up? Do you have sin in your life? Do you need to repent? Are you paying your tithes? Did you speak in tongues? All of these were only some of the factors that determined whether or not you were saved and salvation came on a daily basis.

Needless to say I knew in my heart that I could never keep all of these rules. I was baptized in Jesus’ name but I never received the Holy Ghost with evidence of speaking in tongues. I tried to do this at the end of every service. I tried for about 3 months then I left the church. I came back and I tried some more than I left the church again. I came back again and for a period of 8 months I sought this experience with no luck at all. Finally I left all together. This time I was gone for a period of 5 years.

downloadAll of this so-called backsliding was not due to my rejection of God but it was God’s rejection of me. I felt that I was unworthy of anything God would do for me and that God really did not love me. I was never really saved anyway and I was just fooling myself. I might as well go into the world and live how I want to live. My desperation for God actually drove me further away as condemnation and fear of the ultimate rejection from God became a reality for me.

To make matters worse I spent some time studying biblical prophecy. I knew about the rapture and I knew about the second coming. I knew it could be any minute. In my mind because of these laws and my need for the baptism of the Holy Ghost, (which was something beyond my power to do) I had no way to be saved. I can’t tell you the tremendous amount of condemnation I was under as a result of this. If you want to talk about messing with someone’s mind then this was a very good example of it.

I was always under constant fear and I feared everything. In order for me to deal with this I started to run from God. I dove into music and I studied advanced guitar skills. I joined bands and played music. I avoided talking about God and I did not want to have anything to do with church. In my mind God did not love me and he had rejected me. I was called but I was not chosen. Now it was just a matter of time. If Jesus came back then it was all over. If I died then I would pay dearly for my sins. I was without hope and I did not know what to do. I dealt with tremendous despair on a daily basis.

Knowing that Jesus could come at any minute and thinking that there was no possible way for me to be saved really put me under tremendous condemnation and fear on a daily basis. I did anything I could to escape reality. I drank and I smoked pot. I did anything that would numb my brain and silence this voice of condemnation in my head.

Eventually I relocated to Southern California and a few weeks after I moved there I found myself in another UPC church service. When the altar call came I ran up to it. God filled me with the Holy Ghost and it was like a tremendous burden had lifted from me. I was not actually seeking this Holy Ghost baptism experience when I went down to that altar. All I wanted to do is to ask God to forgive me for making a mess out of my life. I just truly asked God to forgive me for everything I have done.

As I began to go to church again, I began to study God’s word. I began to learn a great deal about what the bible actually said. I saw where things were taken out of context. I began to understand that the scripture in Romans was actually referencing governments, not pastoral dictatorships.

“Romans 13:1 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.

6Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. 7Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority. NIV”

It was the next verse that I found truly liberating.

“Romans 13:8 Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law.”

I began to understand that I was under a bondage known by other denominations as legalism. After I started to go to church again the Holy Spirit began a deprogramming process in me, but I would struggle with legalism for years after I started to go to church on a regular basis.

I began to ask questions regarding many things that the church taught. The only response I seemed to get from people was that they were going to pray that God would give me the answers. “Don’t you want to know the answers too?” I thought to myself.

When I was in northern California I remember saying that Jesus had a beard and long hair. How can it be a sin to have beard? They told me that the reason we do not have beards is because they did not want to be identified with the hippy movement. In addition to this they said that no one knows what Jesus really looks like. Every picture of Jesus was painted centuries after He was on Earth and no one knows what He really looks like. It is possible that He never had a beard.

When I was in southern California I was doing a study on the prophecies that were fulfilled during Calvary. I found a scripture in Isaiah that said

“Isaiah 50:6 I offered my back to those who beat me and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard. I did not hide my face from mockery and spitting. 7Because the Sovereign lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore, I have set my face like a stone, determined to do his will. And I know that I will not be put to shame. –NIV

Here we see a prophecy about the cross and it proclaims that Jesus had a beard. When I showed this scripture to other church members the response was that Jesus was in jail overnight and this was probably about 3 days of growth.

THREE DAYS OF GROWTH? WHAT DID THE MOB USE TO PULL HIS BEARD OUT, TWEEZERS?

It was then that I first knew that the scriptures they were using to justify their rules were taken out of context. I understand the need for holiness in the church today but none of us have the power to be holy in ourselves! All our righteousness is like filthy rags to the Lord. We are all unclean.

God alone is holy. When God’s spirit dwells in us he begins to make us holy from the inside out, not the outside in. There is nothing we can do or say to proclaim that we are holy through our own actions! Any belief in this only brings legalism and bondage! It is actually through the indwelling of God’s spirit that we become holy. It is nothing we can do on our own.

Because God dwells in us changes begin to take place in our actions. We become new creatures. We are not the same person we were before we found the Lord. It is not the action of turning away from sin that makes us holy! We develop a sense of right and wrong based on God’s word and His spirit dwelling in us. He alone makes us holy! It is not what we do; it is what he has already done and what he is continuing to do. What I was taught to do to achieve holiness was nothing more than a group of traditions that were handed down and developed by men

“Col 2:8  Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” –KJV

“Mar 7:6  He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

Mar 7:7  Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

Mar 7:8  For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

Mar 7:9  And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” -KJV

legal 4This list of rules that are tied to salvation is nothing more than a “saved by works” gospel which is a different gospel than what the apostles originally preached. Holiness is important but it cannot be achieved simply by keeping a list of rules. The more I hung out with people from this denomination the more I discovered that I was not the only one who had a hard time keeping these rules.

Some church members had television sets hidden away in their bedrooms where no one would see them. Some of the ladies of the church liked to watch soap operas on these TV sets. I discovered this when I visited some of the friends I made in the church. This was clearly against these holiness standards that the church clung to with an iron fist. This was not the only rule they were having trouble with.

I was really glad to see that I was not alone in my struggles. Eventually I left the United Pentecostal Church and I started to attend a Church of God. This was a charismatic church based out of Cleveland, Tennessee. The real repair process started in this church and I began to really research the word of God. I started to study biblical prophecy and I also studied theology.

Shortly after this I got a new job. There was one coworker who did not get along with anyone. He wore shorts all the time and he liked to flirt and hit on women. Not only were his work habits bad but he would make the job of his coworkers harder for his own convenience. This guy was always up to something.

One day I come into work and he is over in the corner writing on a piece of paper. He is scribbling down bible verses and making notes. I asked him what he was doing. He explained to me that his uncle pastored a church and he was going there next week to preach. After questioning him some more I discovered that he actually had a UPC background but you would never know it. He was actually going to a United Pentecostal Church that his Uncle pastored and he was going to preach!

I wondered what the people who would receive his message would actually think if they were able to see his work habits. The fact that he wore shorts would disqualify him alone! While he probably considered himself saved I think the only person he was fooling outside of the congregation was himself.

In the end legalism does not produce any fruit whatsoever. All it really does is choke it off and it withers away. You wind up dealing with people who want to kill you because you don’t look like they look or act like they want you to act and all the while these people wind up being the biggest hypocrites! Jesus said

“Mat 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” –KJV

Looking back on the time I spent with the United Pentecostal Church I can honestly say that legalism is not their only problem. They have a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to the scriptures. I miss the worship services at the UPC church. They have great worship services. God found me through a young man who had the courage to knock on my door. I saw some miraculous things at that church and I could always sense the presence of the Lord. I saw people I was close with go through healings and other life changes. God is just as real at this church as he is in the Charismatic Church!

That being said the whole time I was involved with this church I never felt that God really loved me or that I was really saved except for the night I received the baptism of the Holy Ghost or as some would say, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The legalism was meant to protect me. It was there to help me overcome my struggles with my flesh. The old man in me had to submit to this legalism which was seen as a sense of liberty by the leaders of the church. But in the end all legalism was really successful in doing was keeping me in bondage.