As a little girl, I attended church in a beautiful old brick sanctuary with stained glass windows. We had neat little padded kneeling things that flipped down for prayer time but you could also sit on it and rest your head on the pew to sleep until church was over. I remember my dad dropping us off in his taxi and waiting for him to be out of sight before I stomped up the walkway trying to undo the dress bow that would poke me in the back and get me in trouble when I tried to wiggle against the pressure from the back of the pew. I don’t remember hearing about Jesus coming to die for my sins, or that he rose again, and that it is possible to have eternal life with him in my confirmation classes though. What could have, should have been an event that showed me the one true King and how I can have him in my life, was not. I was a good religion person but knew nothing of the real relationship I could have with Jesus.
When I did finally meet Jesus I was 22 years old. Up until then I had been on a sort of remote control from my childhood religion. My kids knew the song Jesus Loves Me and we prayed, Now I lay Me Down to Sleep at bed time. We attended a church that was unlike the church of my child hood, and there, I met Jesus.
When I fully understood that God loved me so much He gave His one and only Son to die for me, (John 3:16) and that because of my separation from God – this death was necessary to heal the rift and make a way for us to be right with God again. And, that if I accept this free gift of grace, I could have a full life and eternal life with Him, (John 10:10) I felt as if my eyes and my heart were opened. I wanted nothing but to live for Him and love Him and receive the love He had for me. I was feeling unburdened and happy. Living for Jesus was truly amazing. Until the Pharisee in me took over.
Besides the great introduction to Jesus, a whole lot of stuff I should no longer do was presented in the form of the church covenant (and people’s opinion). These things included: no drinking alcohol, no makeup, no R rated movies, no worldly music, and Christian fiction only, please. We should only sing old hymns in church, no mixing up the order of service. When my husband was licensed to preach I learned more things for the list. According to some, I did not look like, dress like, talk like, and behave like a Pastor’s wife. Not sure what that meant, I contemplated wearing my hair in a bun, cat’s eye glasses and gingham dresses. This after all is what my thought of a Pastor’s wife was. It was very frustrating, until a wise older Believer (sis in Him) told me to be who Jesus made me to be because if I tried to mold myself to people’s ideals of who I should be, I would always disappoint someone but worst of all, I would have a wall between the real me and Jesus. That was liberating. While sometimes I annoy even myself, I am who He made me to be and I do seek to improve, but I am what I am.
All these extra rules of how a Christian must live was a real struggle for me and other people. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, some religions have opted to add a lot of extra rules to their religion. Matthew 23 tells us all the rules and regulations the Pharisees imposed on the people. And how they loved to have special things to make them seem more righteous than everyone else. They made rules for everyone else that they did not follow themselves, and they wanted special titles to differentiate themselves from the common folk. In modern churches, in my opinion, church covenants or rules that I reckon started out with good intentions, actually bind people. With all the extra rules you turn into a sort of nanny state, with other believers toeing the line, but also watching lest someone else stray. It happened to me on both ends.
I became a good Pharisee. I told my teenage brothers they were going to hell, not because they didn’t know Jesus, but because they listened to rock and roll and had questionable posters on their walls. I told my parents they were going to hell because they didn’t know Jesus and because they smoked and drank beer. Also, they bought lottery tickets and were known to dance at parties. My intention was that they would see the error of their ways and come to Jesus, but for a while it was simply a barrier between us. Me judging and them living their life thinking their daughter had become some sort of Jesus freak. I do own up to being a Jesus Freak, but back then, ashamed to say, I was also a Pharisee freak.
We had a pretty bad break off at one of our churches which turned me off the church and it’s people for quite a while. But, the Word does say you should not give up meeting together with other believers (Hebrews 10:24-25 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.) Thing is, we were wounded and while some of it had scarred up, I was afraid some wounds would rip open and start bleeding right in front of people. (Meaning I would blow up, throw up or have a meltdown in front of them. Not the kind of first impression one wants to make.)
Finally, after much prayer we went back to a church. When it came time to join the church we read the covenant and at the top it said, ‘you agree to not drink alcohol’. That was it for me. I’m not a lush but I had determined that I was not going to live a life that was framed in a bunch of extra rules and regulations that were outside of the Bible just because some person or organization thought it should be that way. The Bible says that when I am saved I am a part of the church. Acts 2 is an excellent testament to this. Nowhere does the Bible say I shouldn’t wear makeup, abstain from alcohol, wear only suits and ties on Sunday, or pantyhose, not cut my hair, not have music in church, only sing old hymns, only sing contemporary songs, don’t lift your hands, you must lift your hands. The list of manmade rules is quite exhaustive. And ever changing. And completely binding. Sometimes the rules, regulations and the arguments that ensue cause more than strife, it can make us ineffective in doing His work. We face the same danger the apostles had when dealing with legalistic people.
In Mark 9 14-29 we are told the accounting of the disciples arguing with the Scribes (or religious teachers) and Jesus comes up and asks what’s going on. They explain the situation, seems a demon won’t come out of a kid, and the dad implores Jesus to help. At the end of the chapter the disciples ask why they had been unable to perform this particular miracle and Jesus says because that kind of thing required MUCH PRAYER. The disciples had been too busy arguing with the religious teachers that they had neglected the most important thing: PRAYER.
I reckon being a Pharisee is hard work. I think of Paul who confronted Peter in Galatians 2. Poor Peter, always doing the wrong thing, it seems. I readily identify with him. Here Peter is in Antioch and living a free life with the gentiles. But, then, when the religious folk arrive he stops doing that and starts following the rules again. Hypocrite and so wrong, because he was putting what man thought over what he was there to do! He was called to spread the gospel to the gentiles and Paul was called to spread it to the Jews….and even worse others starting following his pattern of hypocrisy. It’s got to be draining to hold fast to a bunch of man-made rules and regulations when Jesus himself says he came to die so we can be free.(John 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed). It’s kind of missing the point.
I can sometimes slip into the Pharisee role. And the Holy Spirit nudges me almost immediately and I repent. Phew, the freedom of living in Christ’s love is not even comparable to living the bound life of hypocrisy and rules. Now, I know some folks reading this will think maybe I’m being judgmental of those who live their religion this way, but believe me, I am not. I simply don’t want folks to miss the free and wonderful life they can have in Jesus. Because if the Son makes you free, well, you will be free indeed…
By Linda Mae Baldwin | Freelance writer