I recently heard a sad story about a young lady (adult) who escaped a legalist home and tried to set up a life apart from the constant criticism and control. She went through several difficulties, but eventually ended up returning home. Back to the legalism, the judgment, the condemnation, the shame. No doubt the return of the prodigal was cause for celebration, but almost certainly not the celebration of parents to have their beloved daughter home. Instead, it was the celebration of the system, the affirmation that the daughter needed what the system gave and “did the right thing” by returning. And I expect that the other system followers consider themselves to be generous and gracious by allowing the shamed one to return.
Why would someone leave legalism because of the condemnation and then return to it? This happens often. People leave a legalistic church, then find their way back with their tails tucked between their legs in repentance. Or they simply find another legalistic church to attend. People leave behind a legalistic teacher but continue to read his books with a strange longing in their hearts. What pulls them back?
Legalism messes with your mind. It controls by manipulation of emotions and twisting of logic. The primary tools used by almost all legalistic groups are:
- Criticism – the constant criticism of any alternative thought, whether it is from the world or from the individual. Often the legalist system teaches more on what they are against than on what they believe. To harbor thoughts that are contrary to the established teaching is considered both foolish and evil. Those who try to leave find that little voice of condemnation goes with them.
- Comparison – Along with the constant criticism is the perpetual state of being compared with others. Children grow up being compared with others who are “doing it the right way.” Wives are provided with examples of how they should act. Men are compared (unfavorably) with the teacher. To “measure up” becomes the goal. No one wants to be at the bottom of the pile. Those who leave know that they will forever be the object of that comparison: “You don’t want to end up like so-and-so, do you?” Returning holds the promise of being celebrated and of being held a little higher than those who didn’t return.
- Cut-off – Separation has long been a hallmark of legalism. Because those outside the system, even close relatives, are seen as inferior or evil, there is little or no support structure outside. The world is a cruel place for those without support and encouragement. Things have been said and done, even in formerly close relationships, that have burned bridges. It is difficult to go to someone for help, when unkind and judgmental thoughts and actions have been committed toward that person.
- Cause and effect – “Bad things happen because of disobedience.” This false idea is hammered into the minds and hearts of legalistic followers from the earliest ages. They grow up knowing that anything bad is the result of their own sin. Once the person gains enough strength to leave the system, he or she will encounter challenges. The normal response is that the challenges come because of disobedience. This is communicated directly through any continuing contact with family or friends in the system, but it is also considered axiomatic by the person. The only way out of the trouble or challenge is to return to the system in repentance.
There’s more to say on this, so watch for tomorrow’s post!