Well these ideas have been kicking around in my soul for some time now so I decided to put them down “on paper” to get them out in the open & off of my chest.
Historically speaking, I’ve wrestled significantly with legalism in certain aspects of Christianity to which I was mightily exposed in my younger years (5th grade through Grad School) & whose tentacles I’ve been attempting to dislodge ever since.
Fifth Grade was a pivotal year in my life for that was when my family, at my father’s insistence, following “God’s leading” left our long-time Methodist church to attend what was then called Bethesda Missionary Temple (now known as Bethesda Christian Church). There were/are many good things about Bethesda overall, but here I am addressing a huge negative–legalism.
So these are obviously my own opinions and are not based on researching this topic necessarily, just sharing from my experiences. Back in the 70’s Bethesda appeared to exert an inordinate amount of control over their members’ lives–& my dad took to heart every one of the dictates & imposed them outside of church in our family’s life too. Here are some of the mandates that fall outside of scriptural authority in my opinion:
- No drinking of alcohol (scripture allows moderation & no drunkenness)
- No dancing (except married couples in the privacy of their own home)
- No card playing
- Women must wear dresses/skirts (my dad made Mom & I do so outside of church)
- No rated-R movies
Anyway, those are the major “rules” I remember & some of them had a Very negative impact on my life for years. I’m guessing that some of these “mandates” grew out of the “holiness movement” that may have in part birthed Bethesda in the early 20th century. It’s also possible (likely probable) that other “Bethesdans” didn’t as strictly enforce such “rules” in their private lives as did my dad so my experiences may not necessarily be reflective of others there.
The forced dress/skirt-wearing went on for me during 5th & 6th grade & for my mom perhaps a year longer. It was difficult/impossible to explain to classmates/peers when someone who never wore anything but pants to school for years suddenly only & ever wore dresses/skirts for nearly 2 years. This “dress code” continued at the college/grad school I attended (ORU) so further plagued me directly for another 6 years of early adulthood…At Bethesda, if a woman did come to church in pants she would be seated by ushers in the back & under the balcony. Many years later Bethesda ultimately lightened up on this restriction, but those damaging aspects had already invaded my soul…
The other biggie that impacted my earlier years was the “no dancing” mandate. I didn’t personally see a scriptural prohibition that applied, though a loose interpretation of “do not cause your brother to stumble” could perhaps underpin this & the drinking & card prohibitions…I was an overt Christian from a very young age & attended public school K-12 so was already on the “rejection track” for my faith. The artificial, imo, no dancing mandate further & unnecessarily alienated me from peers & prevented me from experiencing certain cultural rites of passage like Prom or Homecoming. I did attend the 6th grade square dance, which was apparently “allowed” by the church, & danced but only with other girls because no boys asked me & when I asked one on “girl’s choice” he practically screamed “No Way! Gross!” & told me to go dance with one of my girlfriends…I also attended my 9th Grade Dinner Dance but never danced except secretly before a mirror in the ladies room, sometimes with tears running down my face…
The legalism imposed on my life intensified when I was heading off to college to ORU–a place my parents wanted me to attend much more than my own desire to hopefully go to the University of Michigan. Anyway, ORU made students sign an “honor code” every year that listed the many rules imposed. If you were caught in an honor code violation you could be subject to discipline even if you were out of state on a break from school & supposedly ORU had spies everywhere keeping tabs on the potentially wayward students! Before heading out to OK for ORU my dad “forced” me to join Bethesda, something I really didn’t want to do, but was too weak to prevent. This added a layer of legalism on top of what ORU imposed in that now I was “honor” bound to keep the BMT rules even if those actions weren’t forbidden by my campus. This presented a real dilemma for me in restraining myself from “harmless” activities, like card playing with friends, not for conscience’s sake but for the sake of “my word” given to an organization I was “forced” to pledge some degree of obedience to…
I’m not saying that I managed those challenges well, for there was a pretty deep well of anger built up over years of perceived religious & familial “abuses” of my God-given right to have my actions dictated by my own conscience, in keeping with scriptural truth, not institutional non-scriptural behavior codes. I have always fully assented to God’s right to impose a behavioral code & though certainly have never fully lived up to His standards, I surrender my will freely to Him & seek to follow Christ with my whole heart & don’t try to weasel my way out from clear-cut scriptural truth regarding behaviors (ie no drunkenness & sex only belongs within marriage, etc.)…
Anyway, going from Bethesda to ORU was in some ways out of the frying pan & into the fire as far as legalism went. Here were some of the mandates from ORU:
- No drinking
- No smoking
- No sex outside of marriage
- Females must wear a dress/skirt M-F to class, chapel, & cafeteria
- Males must be clean-shaven with only certain smaller mustaches allowed
- Girls will have a curfew imposed on them for the entirety of their ORU experience
- Guys will have a curfew Only their first semester as freshman
- Girls (legal adults) cannot sleep away from campus without written permission from their parents
- Single-sex dorms with only brief open houses allowing the opposite sex to visit under very controlled circumstances
I actually can’t remember if ORU also had a no dancing rule but since there were no dances ever on campus that topic might be rather moot.
One tidbit of ORU life was the propaganda value of a series of paintings of the “12 Disciples of Jesus”. Only Judas, of the 12, was shown with a beard! As if men from Israel during Christ’s ministry always shaved their faces fully, unless they were His betrayer!
The lies that were told were subtle at times in that by imposing certain restrictions there were implications that the rules were biblically based when at least some of them were surely just the impositions of men. A blatant lie encountered impacted one of my grad school classmates directly. She was a single mom, divorced or widowed, who came to Tulsa from Tennessee. She had been heavily recruited by ORU’s grad school which had made specific promises to the point that she agreed to leave behind her TN life, sell most of her possessions & come to ORU as some type of promised land situation. She had been told that Everything would be provided for her & her children, housing, furniture, etc. When she got to Tulsa many of the promises made fell through & she was in a desperate state trying to get herself & her family situated. She never would have crossed the country if she would have known in advance the reality of what she would have to face…
Another aspect of the “lie” was the mass marketing campaign that brought periodic pilgrims to the Oral Roberts Campus. One of my friends observed 2 elderly ladies pulling the exact same “personal letter” from their purses. The literally both believed that Oral Roberts wrote to them Personally to request them to become Prayer Partners & to “plant seeds” financially in his ministry. Some people were rumored to send all of their limited income to Oral believing that his prayers would mean they would receive back “30, 60, or 100 fold” (or times) what they had given. It was heart-breaking to see someone flash a “letter from Oral” with an outline of a hand on it–where they were to place their hand so that Oral could personally pray for them & their needs….anyway this isn’t a post about potentially “fleecing the flock” & I’m not necessarily judging Oral’s or any other person’s “ministry” but these things were, and still are frankly, quite disturbing.
Another “lie” I encountered directly while in Oklahoma happened when I worked at the Oral Roberts hospital complex called the City of Faith (it’s now one of the Cancer Care Centers of America, I believe, in Tulsa). Anyway I worked with adult psychiatric patients many of whom came specifically to the City of Faith because they believed that Oral would come & lay hands on them & they would be healed of their afflictions (though I don’t believe any such promises were made so these were likely personal assumptions on their part). Anyway, one day while working there we received word that Richard Roberts, Oral’s son, was going to be coming to our unit within an hour so we were to assemble the patients in the day room (I worked on the locked unit so these were the patients with the most severe & debilitating psychological issues). Anyway hours went by so we finally fed the patients & eventually news trickled up to our unit that Richard wasn’t coming after all. This caused major set-backs for most if not all of our fragile patients. It was such a brutal blow to their pointlessly raised hopes & could have been avoided entirely by not telling patients of RR’s allegedly pending visit until he was actually (if ever) on his way. This was horribly cruel to people who were already reeling from the various traumas of their lives & an infliction of needless, thoughtless pain.
The discrimination against females was something that weighed very heavily upon me while at ORU. I heard tales of a student who got pregnant & was kicked out of school while her boyfriend was allowed to stay–the hypocrisy. I experienced this disparate treatment directly during my Senior Year. I lived in Graduate Housing, an apartment, as a Senior but the Curfew System was imposed on women even there. Once I had my boyfriend over, also a student, after curfew & we were caught because I kept the light on! Anyway I was penalized, I think 50 hours of “community service” in one of the campus offices while he experienced no restrictions.
In later years we found ourselves attending a small CMA church (Christian Missionary Alliance) that was part of the Great Lakes District. Apparently, at least this district, (if not the entire CMA) restricts women in ministry in the US! These same women can serve overseas on an equivalent footing, I believe, to men & be paid accordingly but once they are stateside they are placed in some type of subordinate role. In fact our recent pastor & his wife had equivalent graduate level training but he can be “ordained” but she cannot due to being female. This is, at least to me, hypocrisy of the highest order and not in keeping with scriptural truth as I understand it.
Ironically, my view of women in ministry has likely been impacted by my Bethesda background for that church was founded and pastored by a woman for many years. And many years after her death her granddaughter filled the role of senior pastor for a season after her own father, the founder’s son, stepped down in that dynastic-style ministry…hmm…
Well, getting from legalism & lies to liberty is a long-term, ongoing process. I cannot say that I have fully arrived. Nor can I claim that my pathway was exemplary. Here are some things I did to try to address the legalism, not all healthy:
- Wear shorts under dresses as a kid to increase playground freedom
- Wear tennis shoes with dresses in college to increase freedom of movement
- Forge my parent’s signature on an overnight permission form to babysit for a local family heading out of town
- Drank a free margarita while on break from school while in California
- Speak to the Dean of Women to discussion my sex discrimination concerns
- Allow myself to play cards on campus
- Grant myself permission to let go of bondage-based rules gradually
- Dance at a wedding & a couple of social events
- Watch movies of my choosing
- Purpose to Not needlessly burden my kids with non-biblical mandates
- Walk away from various churches whose policies & practices were wounding
- Speak with friends & help them cope with personal fallout of lies/legalism
- Pray with & for a disabled student who was abandoned/ignored at the prayer altar by nationally known “healing ministry” figures
- Continue to “work out my salvation with fear & trembling” in these arenas
- Minimize contact with those still trapped in bondage who don’t desire to be set free but more seem to want to drag me back into the morass
- Purpose to be open & direct with my kids on the pitfalls of spiritual abuse
God has been very good to me & I am quite thankful for a relatively healthy grounding in biblical truth, much of which can be attributed to Bethesda’s strengths. My relationship with the Lord is foundational for my life & was begun at a very early age & has permeated all seasons of my life. I am blessed in many ways & God is in the process of healing some of the wounds of my heart in various domains. We all remain works in process as long as we live on the planet.
I’m so thankful for certain key scriptures that point toward freedom & liberty in Christ. These are a comfort to me and a spiritual antidote for the poisonous lies & legalism that were imposed on my life for so many years. Praise the Lord that he has ultimately gotten (& is getting) the victory!
Also, here a few posts on one of my other blogs that might bless you if this post has touched you at all:
May God Bless & Keep you. May He heal us all of our wounds & set us free to serve him wholeheartedly unencumbered by the burdens of baggage imposed by men! In Christ’s Love, Valerie