It had been three whole months since I became a Christian. Three months since being transformed from creation of God to child of God. Three months since receiving the greatest gifts of comprehensive forgiveness and eternal salvation. Three months since my life changed from functionally existing to purposefully living. And after three months, I was…totally frustrated. I still loved Jesus. I still loved His Word. But His people…that was a different story.
It wasn’t that I had personal grievances with church people. There was just constant tension with conformity and condemnation. Essentially, I felt like they were pressuring me to conform and when I didn’t, I felt like they condemned me. To clarify, I knew that part of the Christian life was learning to conform to Christ’s character through the Holy Spirit. But that wasn’t what the tension was about. It was about conforming to a set of social and cultural preferences – the church people rules. Here’s an example:
A few months after becoming a Christian I met this guy during a nine-hour train trip to visit family. I let him know early on in the conversation I was not interested in anything romantic but would be open to new friends. Almost two weeks later I had invited him to come to a church bible study. Upon his arrival, members of my church greeted him guarded demeanors and cautious glances. I thought it was just because we came in a little late. However, as soon as bible study was over, before I could make introductions, a few church men approached him and began chatting with him. At first, I thought this was a good thing until I realized it was less of a “get-to-know-you” chat and more of a “get-a-confession” interrogation. Suddenly, I was whisked away to a corner of the sanctuary by several women with very concerned faces. They wanted to know who he was, how long I knew him, the status of our relationship, what was his background, and how often was I spending time with him. They asked everything except his name. I was irritated but could tell from the sincerity of their faces that they were genuinely worried for me. I quickly attempted to alleviate their concerns by telling them there wasn’t any relationship, existing or blooming. I shared that he was only a new acquaintance I met during a recent trip. My attempt to avail their worries was unsuccessful. A few days later, at a women’s small group meeting, I was advised of the dangers of accepting the attentions of a guy outside the church, especially someone I just met “off the street”. I was told I would be wise to no longer engage in the friendship since it was obvious he was attracted to me. But if he was interested in learning more about the church, he could be connected to one of the men at church who would be happy to answer questions and invite him to any men’s group activities.
My nature found their assumptions and attitudes repellant but my sensible side couldn’t deny that it was generally advisable that a young woman be cautious about a new male acquaintance. There was sense in that. But did being a Christian mean that it was sinful to have male friends? As future conversation continued, it didn’t take long for me to realize their concern was less about Christ and more about the church’s culture regarding male/female social practices. My little escapade had broken several unwritten church rules: (1) Thou shall not make male friends outside the church because they just want to have sex with you, (2) Thou shall only invite a man to church if you make prearrangements with a brother to “connect” with him immediately upon his arrival, and (3) Thou shall inform women in the church ahead of time that you’ve invited a man to church so they can help block him from sitting next to you during church.
All of this stemmed from a social preference against male/female friendships. There were many people in the church that believed such relationships couldn’t exist without sexual inclinations. The church rule that emerged was to have extremely monitored and highly guarded interactions between males and females, in and outside of the church. My new church family made me feel like not doing so was equivalent to inviting sexual immorality into my life.
Needless to say, my new acquaintance didn’t return to church. Quite frankly, I was thinking about following his example. But a part of me wondered if they were right. I did want to be free from sexual sin in obedience to Christ. I started to consider that following these rules would help me be successful.
Colossians 2:20-23 perfectly addresses such thoughts:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
If I was going to be a Christian, I had to come to terms with one truth, only God can save me from myself. I could make a million rules about relationships with men and still fall into sexual sin. Why? Because making rules will never cure me of my desire to sin. The cure is to draw close to Christ so He can change my desire from sin to Him.
I couldn’t articulate this at first to my church family back then but over time, and through many frustrating conversations, we were able to genuinely communicate about what was the real driving force behind all those church rules. And after a while, things began to become less about church culture and more about Christ conviction. I’m not saying I single handedly changed my church. God did that. But I, along with others, were used as instruments of change in the Holy Spirit’s hands. But that was just the beginning. The real test has been during the 14 years of Christian life that came afterward. Even now, it is so tempting, especially in a world addicted to self-help and will power, to begin to act like I can save myself. I may have never said it, but there have been times when my actions proclaimed, “I don’t need a Savior, I got it”. Whether it was making up my own religious rules to make me feel more righteous or imposing strict penalties on myself when I fell below my own expectations, the fact remained that they had “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh”. I constantly need to remind myself that God did not die for me so I can live miserably by my own flawed rules. He died so I can live abundantly by faith in Him.
Words for Syncing
Sync a little deeper…
What do you believe about the concept of will power?
How does will power compare with the message of the Gospel?
Why does it feel easier to follow rules than walk in faith?
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