Thursday, March 27, 2008

INSIDE LOOK: When Rules Are Equated With Righteousness

My good friend Tamara (who, incidentally, made the most beautiful quilt for my newborn son) has many interesting and unique stories that she could share with us. When I approached her about writing an article to share with Making Home readers, we both felt most interested in having her share about her upbringing in a community that was similar to Mennonites.

I hope her experiences and memories shared here will benefit you as you seek God in your own life, and seek to relay Him to your own children accurately and biblically.

Growing up in a very conservative culture yields a person a unique perspective that is not easily explained to others. This writing, however, is an attempt at doing just that.

When I was little, my parents were a part of a conservative Christian denomination called the Wesleyan Holiness Movement. By the time I was born, my parents, who were once your typical worldly young couple raising typical children in typical American fashion, were firmly entrenched in a denomination that called its members to a strict interpretation of being “in the world but not of it.”

The little church that we attended when I was small was a quaint and serene little building with an unassuming name, set up on a hill, far back from the road, surrounded by trees and flowers that the pastor’s wife had planted. Three times a week, my little buckle shoes padded up the hill to the front doors of the church, my frilly hand-sewn dresses allowed me to slide precariously down the wooden pews, my chubby fingers turned to the appropriate page of the hymnal. There I learned memory verses each week and was rewarded with a sticker in Sunday school before I raced my cousin up the stairs, where we sat with our parents who would tolerate no “foolishness” in church. When I was of school age, I attended a little school sponsored by the same denomination.

But there was much more to our faith and practice than those simple, expected routines of Sunday morning services and Christian education. The Wesleyan Holiness tradition expected much more of their parishioners. A call to come out and be separate was taken to such an extreme that what we often were was a caricature, rather than examples of holiness. Women did not cut, or even trim, their hair. By the time a woman was married, she was expected to only wear her hair pinned up. No jewelry of any kind, including wedding rings. Women wore only dresses, never pants or shorts. Sleeves had to come below the elbow, dresses well below the knee. No one in our church or school owned a television. Family Life Radio, an extremely conservative Christian broadcast, provided our news and entertainment. We did not solicit restaurants that served alcohol. (I remember my mother gasping audibly when our pastor suggested a place for lunch that he did not realize served alcohol.) The list of man-made rules went on and on.

It is probably not hard to imagine what such rules induced. It was easy to tell who was “one of us” and who was not. While the church had a strong sense of community, that quickly carried over into judgment of those who did not fit the mold. This was especially true at our school, where gossip ran rampant. While the ladies there appeared outwardly feminine and passionately pursued their vision of Godliness, they were very quick to slander and judge anyone outside their community. While I look back on my old church with some fond memories, I have no good memories of my experience with the school I attended. As I grew older, I was subjected to more and more outrageous legalism, and I could not find a balance between what I was told was righteous by my authority figures, and what I read in Scripture.

I grew up feeling like a spectacle. One time when I was about 12, a lady in our church said she considered it an honor that people stared and whispered when she walked through the grocery store, because she knew she was being a martyr for Jesus. I wondered then if you could be a martyr for circumstances of your own making. I dreaded going out in public, because I was ashamed. I was ashamed of the attention that we drew in public, and I was ashamed of the bitter and judgmental scowls that my mother cast towards all the “worldly” people we encountered while out. As I became an adult, I have had to fight (sometimes not so successfully) self-consciousness and even reclusiveness.

As I look back on my growing up years in this regard, I would be dishonest if I said nothing good came of my early church experience. Several ladies at my church were great examples of femininity. All of them were homemakers whose homes were inviting and well-kept. The examples of hospitality within our little church were abundant. To this day I remember with fondness the smells of baking and candles that I associate with those ladies’ homes, the different ways each family made popcorn for an after-church fellowship, or the chocolate cake with sprinkles that one family always brought to church pot-lucks.

But there are so many examples of sin and self-righteousness that come from that experience as well. For years I listened to gossip and slander, saw looks of self-righteousness cast about the room, listened to completely unbiblical teaching, and watched as people attempted to prove themselves more holy than others. By God’s grace, I have overcome, or perhaps still am over-coming, the negative impact of it all.

When I was 16 and finally attending a different school, a teacher of mine who by divine Providence was also a Baptist minister, pulled me aside to talk to me. On that day I began to know a truly loving Savior, one who does not look on the outward appearance, but on the heart. I had been pin-balling between losing my faith completely, and wanting so desperately to know the God of Scripture and not the God of man’s design. I don’t know if that pastor knows it or not, but he was instrumental in my walk with Christ and in who I am today.

I struggle now as I write this. I struggle even as I think back to those early days of my Christian upbringing. I want to make sure that I am not disparaging, and yet at the same time I feel that I must be forthright and honest. As I have grown older, the stories have come back to me, of children who grew up there and now have completely abandoned the faith. This has been especially true of members of my own family who are very dear to me. They had nothing to hold them there, no truth that ever resonated with their spirit. They were taught a form of godliness that in the end could not withstand the pressures and temptations of life. Perhaps this is one reason why I am so adamant now that we simply must have Biblically sound teaching, Biblically sound reasons why we do things, else our man-made ship will not withstand the testing storms. We must cast off every sin, not just the sin of pride in our appearance or of not being “of the world,” but the sin of slander and gossip, of self-righteousness and legalism.

Having seen the effects of a more extreme form of putting words in God’s mouth, I often feel like I am constantly sounding an alarm to people who would stray even slightly from His Truth. And perhaps that is why, in His sovereignty, He placed me where He did growing up, and why He put godly wisdom in my path just before I could have easily drifted away. After seeing so many fall away from a faith that could not sustain, I am humbled and grateful each day that my Savior has used even these circumstances to draw me to Himself.


To read more of Tamara's musings and thoughts, you can visit her blog, Of Noble Character. She and her husband (good friends of ours) have four homeschooled and very pleasant & fun children. Native northerners, they wised up ;-) and moved to Texas, which is how we all met and became friends.

Wife, mother, teacher, quilter, reader, wonderful cook, student of the Word, political activist, and more, Tamara's a great "Titus 2" example for us all!

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