The Soul-Sucking Art of Legalism

Mar 10

The Soul-Sucking Art of Legalism

Hello, my name is Darlene Hull and I am a legalist.

Sometimes I feel like I should introduce myself like that just to warn people.  I’m not sure where this came from but legalism is such a part of my life that it affects everything.  The first time I actually noticed it was way back in the 80’s when I read Richard Rohr’s book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective and saw myself as a one.  In fact, reading his book made me think someone was actually watching over my shoulder peeking into my life, it was freaky! (As an aside, I also have a strong Nine wing which can make me lazy and unfocused. I can tell you from experience that it’s quite a challenge to live life as a lazy, unfocused perfectionist…)

In the early 2000’s a very interesting revelation from God led me into the headcovering movement.  This was not something anyone practiced in my family or connections.  I didn’t even know there was a movement, but one evening before bed I read 1 Corinthians 11:6 (which I had read hundreds of times before with no ill-effect):

For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

Now, I’m not here to debate theology, but the truth is that verse smacked me between the eyes and I started researching.  I did not want to cover my head.  I did not want to enter into a movement that only wore dresses.  I tried to ignore the strength of that revelation, but it would not let me go.  Three weeks after reading that verse I started wearing a headcovering.

I have to say that once I started I found there was something beautiful about putting on a headcovering every day as a symbol of my relationship with God.  I covered faithfully for about 4 years and actually quite enjoyed it once I got started.  However, the headcovering movement today is the start of a rabbit hole that is easy to get lost in, and I found myself getting lost.  The movement itself is very legalistic and dictates that women can only wear dresses.  They must be 100% submitted to their husbands (Tom liked that part!) they cannot serve in the church in any kind of leadership role (bye bye worship leading, teaching Bible studies, etc) and many are even into reviving the old testament celebrations and food laws.  I found myself daily wondering if I was “allowed” to do many of my normal activites.  If the kids wanted to go swimming, for example,  I had to figure out how to wear a head-covering in the pool – and then decide what kind of bathing suit was acceptable.  Most websites I checked out for the “correct” style liked this kind of early 1900’s style (though they prefered to have less leg showing):


I wish I were kidding.

Around the 4 year mark (I can be VERY slow about these things) I finally realized that spending my day asking myself questions like “Can I ski in a dress?” or “Am I allowed to lead just women in worship or is that also bad?” were questions that distracted me from living.  Jesus says in John 10:10b

 I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.

Focusing on this minutae, having no voice whatsoever (I know that completely shocks some of you that this was even possible for me!) and not serving in any area of my giftedness (all that was left to me were domestic skills, and you know what a train wreck THAT is!) was sucking the life out of me.  No longer was I able to focus on loving people (Am I allowed to sing a song to this hurting person if there are men in the room?)  I was fully focused on stupid things.

Finally at an evening service at my church the youth pastor gave a talk on living in the freedom of Christ.  The lights went on, and that night I removed my covering for good (though, as I said before, I miss the daily “putting on of Christ” in symbolic form, and I’ve kept a couple of my headcoverings “just in case”).

I believe God lead me to this extreme version of legalism because I was blind to my own legalistic tendencies.  I’d love to tell you that I’ve been fully cured, but this is not the case.  I wear legalism like a badge of honour,  though I have been working hard on checking those tendencies.  My first instinct is still to judge, but often now I can choke back the hurtful words before they come spewing out of my mouth.  I can turn down the volume of criticism and turn up the volume of gratitude and appreciation.

This whole thing has seriously affected my relationship with God.  Try as I might He’s still on His throne with a big stick. It was so bad and so strong in my spirit that I had to leave the church.  If a pastor preached on “10 ways to improve your walk with God” I had that checklist emblazoned in my mind and was rigid about keeping those 10 things happening. If he preached on the importance of reading scripture and challenged us to read through the Bible every year, out came the checklist and I was “bad” if I didn’t follow through.  There were many nights when I held myself to reading all 15 chapters I’d missed that week in the book of Leviticus. Heaven help us! I was like a crack addict for rules and regulations.

I’ve been away from the corporate church now for 4-5 years. Every time I try to go back this raises its ugly head.  So I am learning to find fellowship elsewhere.  God has led me to some amazing friendships with women who walk alongside me.  We encourage each other without judgement and with much laughter.  They are a blessing to me, and are able to show me the generous, loving heart of God.  Some of these women would recoil at the label “Christian”, but are still able to demonstrate the heart of God to me. I find that fascinating.

What remains to learn is my ability to sit quietly at the feet of God and learn from Him.  The second I open a Bible there is the pressure to read according to a pattern, a schedule.  To haul out my highlighter and my Strong’s Concordance and delve deep – for the sake of delving deep. When I sing worship songs I’m critical of my performance.  When I pray I feel I need a checklist.  It has been a struggle.

Lately I’ve stumbled upon Ann Voskamp‘s wonderful book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are and it’s like cold water on a parched soul.  It’s about gratitude, but it goes MUCH deeper than what passes for gratitude in most places.  I have the audio book and I’m on my second run through.  I’ll probably buy the book (again – I keep giving away my copies before I get a chance to sit down with it).  I’ve pretty much sworn off physical books – no more room on my shelves and no more room for more shelves – but this is just that kind of book.

I’ve not started her gratitude challenge, because that opens up all those other, stupid, legalistic nonsense requirements in me, but it is teaching me to ask deeper questions, and I hope that in pursuing those questions I’ll meet the true nature of God that will banish all of this second guessing regarding my own worth in His eyes.

There are many sins that we come against with harshness in the church – adultery, homosexuality, tatoos – but I don’t believe there is anything so soul destroying as the pervasiveness of our own legalism.


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  1. Alice /

    Hi Darlene… As you know I am convinced that, whatever I do or don’t do, God wakes up (as it were) every morning and says, “thank God I have Alice” I am very sure that He/She says the same about you!


  2. admin /

    Indeed He does – now if only I could treat myself so kindly…


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