The Great Set-Up

The Cost of Legalism

41m5E3JNhrL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_I have been re-reading a book I came across in the 1990’s; Breaking Free-Rescuing Families from the clutches of Legalism by David R. Miller. It was in the early 1990’s that my home church, at the time, was suddenly taken over by an extreme legalist. The man had been chosen to fill the position of senior pastor. He was replacing our recently resigned but much beloved shepherd. The King James uses the term hireling to describe someone who are only interested in their own wellbeing. Jesus uses the term in John 10 to describe the difference between a loving shepherd and someone who doesn’t care about the sheep. A hireling, as Jesus describes is one who runs away to save his own skin when the sheep are under attack. A hireling is a hired hand; someone who has been employed to do a job for material reward. Hirelings aren’t interested in the condition of the sheep, they are interested only in the paycheck. They are in it for personal gain. In the general sense of the word any one employed to do a job is a hireling. There are a considerable number of hirelings who are only in it for the paycheck. For those men and women being a pastor is just a job like any other job. However, The man our church hired to be a pastor ended up being the source of the attack. That isn’t a hireling. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In an effort to understand what was going on at the time I purchased books like Miller’s and The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. Hirelings run away. Wolves devour the sheep. (see my post on What Happens When Shepherds eat the Sheep)Screen Shot 2019-03-06 at 4.51.25 PM

In the 1990’s I was immature in ministry. I was immature in my understanding of the difference between the church as described in the New Testament and the church in our modern culture. I had never encountered someone like this in a ministry setting before. I had only known loving and caring individuals whose desire it was to love God, and heed the call of God upon their lives. That was a privilege I had no idea how cut throat it could be. I thought the church was a safe place full of grace and truth. I was about to get a huge lesson.

At that time, I was in recovery for codependency so things were coming to light in my life. As I read through the two books mentioned I was all of a sudden something clicked. It was like getting the key that unlocked some secret unseen door. What was behind that door wasn’t pretty but it was the truth. And knowing the truth was liberating. Once I began to understand what I was really dealing with I could get a better handle on how to go forward in my life.

The issues of legalism and spiritual abuse were more than words on a page. It was a living reality. I watched as our congregation was battered and berated until we dispersed and scattered. Under this egregious siege there wasn’t one individual in our church who was untouched. Whole families were demolished in this wearisome battle. The war over the church lasted about three years. The church lost the war and has never fully recovered. It reminds me of the pictures I saw of blown out churches during WWII. We were gutted. There were no survivors, on victims. While this particular attack came from one central figure, I cannot this one man. As a church we were set for being overtaken. Years of conditioning set us up to be assaulted and dominated by a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We never saw it coming, but the attack began long before this one man came on the scene.

I talk further about the issue of spiritual abuse in What happens when shepherds eat the sheep? and spiritual abuse part 1 and spiritual abuse part 2.

Today I don’t want to just talk about the damage done by one man. While our entire church family was laid bare and destroyed by the abuse, we were set up for it. It’s the set up that I want to talk about. What came into our church started long before this one man filled the pastorate. The hiring of a wolf was done as a result of something much more damaging. It was done because of the mindset of those in authority. That mindset was one of legalism. Legalism devours the lives of those who come under its regime.

Miller writes: “Legalism is a “schism” that can afflict and in fact has afflicted most religions. Legalism is the adding of basic presuppositions to a faith to make that faith more exclusive or less available to “outsiders” who do not think, act or believe as do the “true” believers. Legalism is one of many power maneuvers by faith leaders who seek to consolidate religious authority in the hands of a very few.” Christian legalism in recent years has taken root and grown in response to the very real degeneration of faith and morals, and is most noticeable in Western Europe and North America. Christian legalism found a seedbed in the exclusivity and retreatism of American fundamentalism, but has long since overgrown the hedges of any one form of Christianity. Christian legalism is seen in many groups who enthusiastically add rules and regulations to what traditionally has been standard Christian practice. 

The Good Shepherd lays his life down for the sheep. The hireling abandons the sheep. The wolf attacks and devours. The problem is that we don’t always recognize a wolf because many of us were raised by wolves. I was and I think it is safe to say that many of us have been. That might sound harsh. It is but so is the treatment. I love my parents, but their parenting ability was sorely lacking.  They simply repeated what had been done to them. They learned how to engage with others through how they were treated at home, as were their parents before them. My intention isn’t to go on a manhunt for bad parenting. No one is perfect. None of us does everything right all the time. We are human beings full of flaws and shortcomings. I was repeating my parents style of parenting until I was confronted by our family therapist. When I realized that I was actually doing the very thing I hated that my parents had done I was appalled. Thankfully I got help and things began to change. 

beige and gray wolf on the green grass
Photo by Adriaan Greyling on

What we don’t know can hurt us

I grew up in what is often called a closed system, meaning there is no room for discussion or self expression. Opinions other than that of my parents was not allowed. Absolute compliance was demanded. “Because I said so!” was the response to every question. There was never room for negotiations. Shame, withholding of love and arbitrary punishment were the means used to intimidate and coerce the obtain the desired behavior. My parents were physically, verbally and psychologically abusive. They instilled fear of reprimand to get us to comply to their unpredictable rules and often selfish demands. I was taught to behave, how to obey. That obedience isn’t one that comes from learning to self govern and understanding that there are natural consequences for our behavior. I wasn’t taught how to think for myself, make my own decisions or how to evaluate the world around me. I was taught not to question those in authority. The repercussions were harsh, swift and kept me in place. My parents didn’t want independent children who thought for themselves. They wanted servants who moved on command to service their whims.

What I learned as a result was that my feelings didn’t matter, my opinions weren’t valued. I ended up entering adulthood ill equipped to make decisions and set appropriate boundaries. I didn’t know how to defend myself against other abusers. Subconsciously, I expected others in authority to treat me the same way as my parents. So even though I hated the way I was treated I didn’t know how to think any other way. I ended up in a dysfunctional church long before the massacre of our congregation took place. I was comfortable there because it was familiar. While our original pastor was loving and a true shepherd, the elder board, which ran the church behind the scenes was made up of authoritarian and legalistic leaders. They drove away our loving shepherd. When the shepherd was no longer there to protect the congregation from the elders the sheep got picked off one at a time. It was done behind the scenes so that the rest of the congregation had no clue until they became the next victim.

The Authoritarian Regime

When I learned about the different parenting styles I discovered that this style of leading was not limited to families. Many churches and corporations are run by authoritarian regimes. While I don’t want to get into an exhaustive study on parenting styles, I will touch on what is referred to as the three styles of parenting. Those three are Authoritarian, Authoritative and Passive/Indulgent.

Authoritarian parenting is a restrictive, punishment-heavy parenting style in which parents make their children follow their directions with little to no explanation or feedback and focus on the child’s and family’s perception and status.

Authoritative parenting is characterized by a child-centered approach that holds high expectations of maturity. Authoritative parents can understand how their children are feeling and teach them how to regulate their feelings. Even with high expectations of maturity, authoritative parents are usually forgiving of any possible shortcomings.

Indulgent parenting, also called permissive, non-directive, lenient or libertarian, is characterized as having few behavioral expectations for the child. “Indulgent parenting is a style of parenting in which parents are very involved with their children but place few demands or controls on them”. Parents are nurturing and accepting, and are responsive to the child’s needs and wishes. Indulgent parents do not require children to regulate themselves or behave appropriately. As adults, children of indulgent parents will pay less attention to avoiding behaviors which cause aggression in others

Permissive parents try to be “friends” with their child, and do not play a parental role. The expectations of the child are very low, and there is little discipline. Permissive parents also allow children to make their own decisions, giving them advice as a friend would. This type of parenting is very lax, with few punishments or rules.

This quote is an excerpt from Wikipedia 

When you grow up in authoritarian governed household depression, anxiety, self doubt, low self-esteem, poor self image and a sense powerlessness are often the conditions you are left with. I ended up leaving home at the age of eighteen. I walked away from my parents and went to live near my Grandfather who was loving and nurturing and more prone to being passive and indulgent. I hated my parents for the way they treated me. I wanted nothing to do with them, but I was so bound by their hold over my life that I often gave in to their demands even into adulthood. I appeased them, but I did not respect them. It took years of therapy, support groups and the healing love of Jesus in my life to get to a place where I could accept that my parents were victims as well.

When I had to come to terms with the fact that I was mirroring many of their parenting styles I was appalled. Discovering that I too was an authoritarian parent was a catalyst. My initial response was self hatred. That wasn’t a big leap. I already didn’t have a high opinion of myself to start with. Thankfully my therapist didn’t leave me in self loathing. She offered parenting classes where I learned how to parent in an authoritative manner. It was hard work. The authoritarian overlord I had become didn’t just sit down and shut up easily. I was confronted with myself every day. And every day I had to make the choice to live differently than I had been taught.

I will forever be grateful to the therapist who walked me through those years. She was full of grace and mercy, yet confronting. She confronted me differently than I had been confronted in the past. She did it while showing me that I had alternatives. She took the time to teach me how to do it differently. I wasn’t left on my own to figure it out for myself. She resourced me and equipped me with tools I didn’t have before. When I left home to venture out into adulthood I did not have the skills to have a healthy relationship with opposite sex. I didn’t possess the ability to negotiate a job interview. I didn’t have the confidence I needed to make decisions. I was a mess. My parents didn’t do me any favors by demanding compliance. It made their job easier, but mine much harder. I was devoured by them. I was left an easy victim to be devoured by others. While I don’t believe my parents intended that outcome it happened nonetheless.

I read everything I could get my hands on which including parenting styles, codependency and family dysfunction. There are tons of resources available today that weren’t twenty five years ago. Today we can go online, Google® a topic and a plethora of information is at our finger tips. That wasn’t the case when I was looking for help. Society at the time rewarded the authoritarian parenting style. Children who could be seen and not heard was the standard I grew up with. Obedient little soldiers were preferred over self expressive delinquents. Uniformity and compliance was expected by society. The 1950’s may be idealized by TV shows like Happy Days and the Fonz but it was a time in which our country lived in fear of the H-Bomb and a Communist takeover; after all it was the Cold War.

Children raised in authoritarian parented homes become easy prey for a legalistic church system. The authoritarian home is governed by a similar set of arbitrary rules as the legalistic church. These aren’t written rules per-say. They are the unwritten rules of behavior. Compliance to the rules is valued above individuality and freedom. It is a fear based environment in which tactics of intimidation and coercion are used to keep people in line. Those who comply are accepted. Those who are un-compliant are treated as outcasts and often shunned and even blacklisted. So if you want to gain approval you comply to what is socially acceptable within that community.

It’s like living in a gated community where everyone within that community has to comply with a certain standard set up by the ones in charge. We all trim our bushes this way, therefore you are expected to trim your bushes this way. I have a friend who lives in one of those over 50’s communities. It’s a community within a community. It’s like a little town within a town. All the houses are built by the same builder. When you purchase a home in that community you sign an agreement that you will only paint the outside of your house using certain colors. Those so called colors are all beige. And I don’t mean to imply a wide range of beige shades. No, just certain beiges. And this is strictly enforced. As a result the outward appearance of the community never changes. All the houses look exactly as they did ten years ago. And ten years from now it will look exactly the same. The value is outward appearance above individuality. Some are okay with the compliance because they want the other benefits of being a part of that particular community. It’s like living in a senior center. There are social activities up the kazoo. Social connection is the biggest benefit of living in such a community. There is always someone to connect with, always a place to go and people to see, if you so desire. It gives people a sense of belonging much in the same way as a church does.

When families, churches and ministries are run like this the cost is high. The cost may be extracted slowly and some may be willing to pay that price. For those who have been raised under the authoritarian regime we are not only left with an inability to stand up for yourself, but an inability to fully accept the forgiveness and love of God. We may get saved only to fall into the demands of the dysfunctional and authoritarian demands of those in authority. When we don’t question the authority of those we submit to we become puppets of the system in which the dysfunction is allowed to thrive.

When we engage in an authoritarian style of leadership, we not only support an anti-biblical system put actively perpetuate its longevity.  Not only do we have a hard time truly accepting God’s unconditional love but we end up being judgmental and critical. We think we are judging rightly when all we really are doing is acting as a judge. We judge ourselves harshly. We judge others with the same measure we use on ourselves. Legalists can’t help but fall into judgment. Rather than simply loving others and engaging in relationship they examine everyone and everything with great scrutiny. Everything comes under a microscope. Rarely does anything pass inspection. Those of us who have been raised under such scrutiny have an especially hard time not criticizing and condemning. It’s really all we have ever known. It’s hard work erasing the internal voices and re-recording loving and nurturing messages.

It is possible to come out of legalism. It is important to see that we have a relationship with our church, much in the same way we have relationship with people. We become dependent up on church for our social interaction, and spiritual nurturing. It is the place we get affirmed and feel a sense of belonging which is central to human relationship. In order to come out of an abusive church it is important to see it as an abusive system. To escape its clutches is vital to treat it the same way one comes out of an abusive relationship. In many ways the abusive church system has similar characteristics as a narcissist.

Codependents and Narcissists. 

Codependency is a disorder of a “lost self.” Codependents have lost their connection to their innate self. Instead, their thinking and behavior revolve around a person, substance, or process. Narcissists also suffer from a lack of connection to their true self. In its place, they’re identified with their ideal self. Their inner deprivation and lack connection to their real self makes them dependent on others for validation. Consequently, like other codependents, their self-image, thinking, and behavior are other-oriented in order to stabilize and validate their self-esteem and fragile ego.


Children develop different ways of coping with the anxiety, insecurity, and hostility that they experience growing up in dysfunctional families. Internalized shame can result despite parents’ good intentions and lack of overt abuse. To feel safe, children adopt coping patterns that give arise to an ideal self. One strategy is to accommodate other people and seek their love, affection, and approval. Another is to seek recognition, mastery, and domination over others. Stereotypical codependents fall into the first category, and narcissists the second. They seek power and control of their environment in order to get their needs met. Their pursuit of prestige, superiority, and power help them to avoid feeling inferior, vulnerable, needy, and helpless at all costs. These ideals are natural human needs; however, for codependents and narcissists they’re compulsive and thus neurotic. Additionally, the more a person pursues their ideal self, the further they depart from their real self, which only increases their insecurity, false self, and sense of shame.

Ironically, despite declared high self-regard, narcissists crave recognition from others and have an insatiable need to be admired – to get their “narcissistic supply.” This makes them as dependent on recognition from others as an addict is on their addiction. I find the advice from  this Psychology Today article helpful. Below is an excerpt from the article.

  • Separation. Separating from the narcissistic abuser is key. This means physical and emotional separation, although the physical side of the separation is much easier.

  • Acknowledge your choice. Exploring the relationship through coaching or therapy to see the gaslighting, emotional abuse, criticism, control, and the addictive aspects of the relationship is hard work, but it also provides the opportunity to recognize, acknowledge, and affirm your positive choices to get away and to avoid being held as an emotional prisoner in the relationship.

  • Develop a support network. Just as you are working to get away and become emotionally free from trauma bonding and abuse, the narcissist is working to bring you back under his control. It is important to develop a network of professionals, friends, and trusted family members who understand your goals and are actively, positively, and compassionately there to support you in your journey forward.

Often codependents end up in relationship with narcissists. I copied the following definition of Narcissism from an article on It is often defined in terms of being the opposite of codependency. A narcissist is said to be someone who is excessively involved with his or her self, who feels entitled and places his or her own feelings, needs, and desires above those of anyone else in a relationship, and who lacks compassion and empathy.”

Legalist are Controlling

Legalists, motivated through codependent or narcissistic internal messaging, use control and manipulation to get the desired action from others. When we are dependent upon others for our sense of safety, happiness, wellbeing, and self worth what other people say and do is paramount to our well being.

Those who dictate through authoritarian demands are often codependent and/or narcissistic. They place their need for controlling over the needs of others. This might be a parent, sibling, friend, significant other, pastor, elder or anyone. This type of person often uses control in place of compassion, even if it is portray as compassion. They tell you, it is because they love you that they want you to comply, or give in to their demands.   It is not love. It is bondage. It isn’t biblical. It isn’t the heart of our Heavenly Father. It is a codependent version of love, which is a skewed and distorted version.

close up photo of woman with her hands tied with rope
Photo by Engin Akyurt on

Ask for Help

I’ve only skimmed the issue here. For those who may be in an abusive relationship I advise getting help. Talk to a licensed counselor outside of your circle of friends and family. There are a lot of resources online. Educate yourself on issues of dysfunction, codependency and abuse. If you are in a physically abusive relationship reach out for help. Here’s a link for a text helpline – or text 741741.

I got help. I went to a therapist to deal with my internal issues. And no, I didn’t go to a Christian counselor. Coming out of a legalistically authoritarian church culture I found it was important to NOT have the dictates of the church ruling over my recovery. There is a point at which, as recovering legalists, that we have to learn trust God over those in authority positions. We also have to learn to trust our own discernment. We have to learn to trust that God will lead us. He will guide us because His word says He will. What the word doesn’t say is that you need a professional legalist to rule over you and dictate how you should live. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. And the Holy Spirit isn’t a legalist. But legalists have a hard time trusting themselves and fully trusting God.

We aren’t born legalistic. We become legalists through what we learn. It is learned behavior. And learned behavior can be unlearned. Coming out of legalistic church systems isn’t easy but it can be done. Getting support is paramount. We can break free as long as we’re willing to ask for help and do the work necessary to learn how to love ourselves!

In a healthy authoritative rather than authoritarian church environment those in authority give grace. There is forgiveness and love. There is accountability and expectations for maturing as believers but it is not done in a condemning or critical manner. It is done in love, within the context of relationship and is should have the focus of what is best for the individual not what is best for appearance sake. Families and churches which demonstrate an authoritative approach to leadership are motivated by love and extend grace, forgiveness and guidance those in their care. When we feel loved and cared for we thrive. When we are not being devoured by those around us we have the opportunity to grow and become the individual God created us to be.