At one point in my ministry I worked with a sizeable group of people who were being led by a legalist teacher. He had rules and standards for almost everything in life. It’s hard to imagine the level of influence these teachers can achieve in the lives of their people. Somehow the system designed by the teacher accounted for almost every facet of life: including intimate relations between husband and wife, daily diet and health, and personal dress and grooming.
It is one thing, however, to conform in action to what an authority dictates and it is quite another to agree that the action is good. For example, the women were told to wear skirts all the time, that slacks were for men. While the women conformed, at least in public, many of them felt the rule was arbitrary and silly. Their feelings did not conform to the system. So what do you suppose they did? Of course, they wore pants, even jeans, whenever they could and not get caught. The same inconsistency was in the keeping of many other rules.
I began to see some of these people in counseling relationships. They suffered from a great deal of stress. In order to maintain their feelings and opinions as valid, they had to compromise and deceive. They worried about getting caught and branded as rebels or failures. They felt anger when they thought about the rules with which they didn’t agree. Then they felt guilty for being angry because the teacher said that anger was evil and came out of sin. Whichever way they turned, they were failures and traitors, either to the system that demanded conformity or to their own hearts that desired to be free. They chastised themselves for keeping the rules and for breaking them.
Legalism usually tries to establish a culture around its people to reinforce teachings and reveal wrong thinking. Outsiders are seen as dangerous and evil. Only those who conform truly belong and belonging is everything. If a person should become strong enough to leave the group, there is often nowhere to go. Feelings that do not conform could be very costly. So “friends” come alongside to tell others how to think. “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way,” they say.
But what I feel is as close to me as I know how to get. I could be wrong about things. I may have wrong feelings, ones that should be adjusted by better thinking, but I have to make those changes myself. If I do not, if I simply submit to the group or the system, I will begin to lose myself. Fake feelings are not my feelings. If I give up and reject my feelings so I will fit in, then not even I will be able to recognize myself.