About Me

I Was a Five-Year Old Legalist!

Legalism is the worst feeling in the world. I know from experience.

A Quick(ish) Story:

Even a 5-year-old who's right about everything can still mix up his shoes.

Even a 5-year-old who’s right about everything can still mix up his shoes.

One of the great oddities of my life is that I can’t remember anything before I turned five. I’m pretty sure that means I need therapy. My memories start at five. I have memories from church when I was five. I started playing Jr. Tee-ball when I was five. I remember going to my best friend, Kendrick’s, birthday party when I was five; but I don’t remember anything before then.

What I remember most about five was my kindergarten. I remember arriving early each day. My dad would drop me off on his way to work. I was usually the 1st student there. Everyday, I’d hop out of his 1974 yellow Ford Pinto (that car was ballin’!), and I would sit in the corner of the large playroom. As other kids arrived they would get out toys and play together, but I just sat in the corner, wedged between a large, worn, brown, particle board bookshelf and an even larger counter.

I would sit there and sing songs to myself. Most songs I had learned in church: “Softly and Tenderly,” “Oh, Why Not Tonight,” “Just as I Am”, etc….I suppose I had a thing for “invitation songs”. But I never really engaged the other kids at school. I kept to myself and hardly ever played with anybody. Why? The kindergarten I went to was a “Baptist” kindergarten.

I had been taught – by the time I was five – that only the people who went to my church were real Christians. I knew at five that those “evil Baptists,” with their instrumental music, choir robes, and “pastors” – not preachers – weren’t the kind of people I was supposed to be around.

In fact, before my parents enrolled me in school, I overheard them “discussing” it, so I knew I ought to be concerned and prepared to not let the Baptists co-opt the purity of my faith. That Christmas as the kindergarten was preparing for the Christmas pageant, I was vehemently opposed – I said that too: “I’m vehemently opposed” (I had an advanced vocabulary for five). I didn’t want to participate in this unbiblical, man-made tradition. It was something “the denominations” did.

My parents forced me into it – obviously because they were not as devoted as I.

By the time I was five, I had become a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool sectarian. At five, I was a Jr. theologian. I had figured out how it all should work. As a child, there was no way for me to know how childish that was.

What Happened To Me

Along my religious path, someone convinced me that my religious performance determined my position before God. Looking back at the years I wrapped legalism around me, I can now see why I was so personally mean-spirited and sour. Legalism makes you that way. Once you’ve chosen the path of deciding the propriety of everyone’s Christian practice, you only know two kinds of people; friends and enemies. Your friends are those who hold to the same, precise understanding you hold and your enemies are everyone else. People with lots of enemies are always mean!

You know legalistic people. To the legalist, everything is a “purity test.” And though they’d never say so, they secretly need you to pass their test before they will free their hearts to love you. When you can’t or you don’t, they’ll either sit in the corner or lodge a vehement protest.

What I didn’t know at five and what many of my legalist friends don’t know is legalism never draws people nearer to God! It pushes them away. Whether it’s Church of Christ legalism, Calvinists legalism, Neo-Reformed legalism, or the legalisms of liberal theology, it’s all a pitiful attempt to control God.

We think we can control how God feels about us by doing or not doing something written on a made up list we carry in our hearts. God will love us more or love us better or grant us particular blessings because we’ve untwisted the mysteries of God like some eternal Rubick’s Cube.

Spiritual Illusions

Legalism is the David Blaine of spiritual experience. It appears as if something mystical is occurring , but down deep we know the levitation is optical illusion. If, like me at five, we believe that certain acts can help us earn God’s favor, we might as well carry a lucky rabbit’s foot. Legalists, you are free to protest everything by standing in a busy college quad or from behind the pulpit of a macho-mega-church and scream about your fixed, determined, pre-ordained doctrine. But please know that most of us who have traveled your path realize your religion is the Siegfried & Roy of spirituality…only with more sequins.

Rest assured in this: God’s love for me and you is as locked and certain as anything ever has been or could be. Jesus will love us when we are good and when we aren’t; when we are right and when we are wrong.

There’s nothing we can do about that, praise God.

If you’re living in a narrative that tells you God’s love for you is contingent on your performance, you’ve been told a lie. There is not a scripture in the Bible where Jesus tells us that God only loves us when we get it all right.

God loves you, just as you are, not as you might be some day.

Embrace that.


  • Jeff Slater

    Good stuff, Sean! I can really relate to this, having been raised in the same kind of church environment. And I still struggle with understanding and fully enjoying the unconditional love of God. I needed this today — thanks! Jeff http://jeffslater.net

    • If you’re like me, Jeff. It doesn’t simply go away. The seeds are still there. Only a deep embrace of the profound grace and love of God can cure it. That’s something I’m still on the hunt for. Thanks for the comment.

  • Thanks so much for this post! I relate to this story in a very personal way, as I can remember being a young kid who felt genuine scorn for people I knew who were of “the denominations”. What kind of system produces that feeling in a little kid? I am resolved to protect my own kids from this mindset. Thanks again!

    • Agree, David. To be that determined, judgmental, and exclusive at five has to be taught. Kids don’t naturally think that way. It reminds me of kids who are sexist and/or racist before they can barely read. Someone did that to them on purpose. What does it say about those people?

  • Jerry Frazier

    Hmm, I wonder where we’d be if Jesus had been a legalist? It’d probably be just me and Him…….and “maybe” the Holy Spirit…….as crazy as that sounds, haven’t you run across this kind of teaching? I have.

  • Kevin

    been there and done that when it comes to being in a conservative COC. some of it was bordering on sectarian or legalistic. I love my brothers and sisters who grew up in the COC tradtition; however, I am not going to let it run me. I’m tied to Jesus and to be more like Him and I’m so glad to go to a church that focuses on Jesus first and everything else afterward.

  • Good stuff. I know many that need it.

  • Margaret McCoy

    I was in a very legalistic church. Every Sunday it seemed to me the pastor was just interested in blasting us for something we did or didn’t do. I felt something was horrible wrong but because he was ordained in my particular denomination I thought maybe the problem was mine. If you questioned the pastor he publically chastised you. I heard a minister say on television one time, “one of the first things God gives us when we get saved is His righteousness.” An explosion of truth hit me and the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to my own fleshly efforts at trying to make myself righteous. I then realized what was wrong with the church I was attending. They didn’t know the true gospel message. They were teaching legalism. Thank you brother for sharing this.

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