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We Swallowed Camels: Reflections of a Legalist

“There are no disputable matters,” my pastor said to the small group of men gathered for fellowship on a Saturday morning in the late 1990s. Mid-October maples flamed outside the church windows while Canada geese honked overhead. Leaf crumbs littered the floor.

I liked to sit on the side of the table where I could look out the windows. The cobalt sky and orange leaves seemed soothing and bright. God knew there was little enough comfort in the dim room. I smelled the mildew of old carpet and the tang of sweat seeping from beneath my collar. Our Men’s Fellowship met for three hours of instruction from my pastor every other week. There was no place to hide, and little room to think.

“The idea of a broad neutral area of amoral issues is evangelical fantasy,” my pastor said. “In this spiritual battle there is no demilitarized zone. There is only black and white; wrong and right. Every voice in your head is either from God or from Satan. So beware of mushy thinking.” We blinked and took notes.

This is new, I thought. It sounds kind of legalistic. I wondered momentarily about Romans 14 and 15 and 1 Corinthians 8, passages which speak of relating to other believers who are weak in their faith. Those passages seemed to embrace a rich theology of grayness. Aren’t disputable matters healthy? And why haven’t we ever discussed these core chapters before, or applied them to our church? We spend long enough in Exodus and Deuteronomy. I’d like to learn more what Paul means in 1 Corinthians.

My pastor gunned down my duckling thoughts before they took flight. “There is only wrong or right,” he said. “Satan wants you to think that you can do things that are amoral, but that makes you the god of those areas of your life. In reality, human beings are only responders, and all we can do is respond to thoughts insinuated into our minds by either God or Satan.”

He recognized our confusion and provided some helpful areas of application: “For example, what I do in the morning is ask God which pants I should wear, which color shirt, and so forth. I ask him to help me while I’m shaving. I inquire of the Lord before reading any book or going for a walk. Saints in history have spoken of ‘practicing the presence of God.’ God has a specific will for you in each and every situation in life, and your job is to be humbly obedient and responsive to that will. Anything less is sin.”

I looked up from my yellow steno pad long enough to open wide and swallow a hairy camel.

“Legalists are people who add personal preference to accepted doctrinal teaching, accept these additions as having equal weight with doctrinal teaching, and apply these additions in the judging of others.” – David Miller

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” – Matthew 23:23-24

Legalists fear shades of gray. I know that I did. I found security in certainty and staked my salvation on my ability to dance over eggshells.

In my former church, we mandated minutia and matters of personal preference. Saying that there was no nuance in life, we saw only black and white. Biblical tensions became a source of anxiety to us. Instead, we calculated and quantified—spilling ink until we thought we’d found the one true answer to every issue.

We found safe harbor in the shallow waters of our own minds. We fled the roiling sea of life with its boiling waves and incredible complexity. Instead, we made our own understanding a boat and stayed afloat by commanding the wind and the waves to cease.

Certainty seemed to give us control. If you can know—we thought—really know that you are right, you need never fear being wrong. Wrongness is bad—it is sin and shame and hell—we knew this full well. Mistakes seemed catastrophic. In the Bible, God sets two paths and two paths only before people: wrong and right, death and life. Every step we take brings us closer to heaven or hell.

Such thinking paralyzed us. We felt ourselves in desperate risk of displeasing God every second. This kept us searching for certainty in minutia with the result that we ceased to evangelize the lost or minister to the poor. I, for one, was so caught up in “rightness” and “oughtness” that I never took time to live out the gospel.   

The inevitable fruit of legalism for us was an attention to detail so regimented that it became debilitating. Perfectionism allows no idle strolling, no rose-smelling, no worship through Sabbath rest. Instead, we believed that life was in the details—and our ability to figure them out—rather than in the blood of Christ. Though we said that Christ’s death was sufficient to save us, in reality we believed that we must fill up by our own intense devotion to detail what was lacking in the merits of Christ.

Behind perfectionism lies fear, plain and simple. We feared everything. Fear of not meeting a certain standard; fear of displeasing people; fear of the unknown; fear of God. To live in perfectionism is to view life as a mint-colored ice-cream cone quickly melting, its base blown to bits and all the green rushing in a chaotic swirl down the sugar-cone shards and onto your cool, clean tuxedo. Legalists observe the chaos of life and spend every second trying to lick order back into their day.

If a church leader can teach or act this way, he or she can guarantee a flock riddled with anxiety and crushed beneath the weight of a million urgent details. Such a leader will major on the minors and minor on the majors. They will skew the worldview of their people until they begin to think that every little matter is equally important. This leads quickly to personal paralysis and an inability to make significant life decisions. It also creates an awful inter-linear commentary on God’s Word—adding the leader’s interpretation to Holy Writ and compelling his or her people to follow layers of instruction to avoid transgressing God’s supposed laws.

Folks schooled in legalism will confuse the temporal with the eternal and will believe that God himself relates to them with an attitude that can only be described as “nit-picking.” They will cultivate a worldview where the trivial and the inconsequential become the ultimate and the primary. Such off-balanced thinking ends up making people believe that God is always displeased with them. This causes them to turn away from God rather than toward him. Such beaten sheep focus obsessively on their own lives until they can think of nothing else but trying to measure up.

The telescope of perfectionism aims at the heavens but ends at the navel.

Like me, it strains out a gnat but swallows a camel.

2 comments on “We Swallowed Camels: Reflections of a Legalist

  1. “Though we said that Christ’s death was sufficient to save us, in reality we believed that we must fill up by our own intense devotion to detail what was lacking in the merits of Christ.

    Behind perfectionism lies fear, plain and simple. We feared everything.”

    This describes my background exactly! Thanks for writing.

    • Hi Angela, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry that you experienced spiritual abuse and legalism–those experiences can really scar a person. But I pray that you are finding hope, healing and a safe community to become a part of. God has good plans for you (Jer. 29:11). Press on!

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