What if legalism is keeping us from knowing and experiencing the resurrected Christ?

Yesterday we celebrated Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, defeated sin, and sent the Holy Spirit to be with us so that we could live in His power.

But I’m worried that many of us aren’t experiencing that because we’re living with a false gospel, a false sense of what the Christian life should look like. So I want to dedicate this week to looking at warning signs that you may be following a legalistic view of Christianity–whether it’s in your marriage, your parenting philosophy, or your church.

I want to start just by sharing a personal story.

When I was 16, I went on a missions trip to the Philippines with Teen Missions International.

Teen Missions International 1986

My friend Matthew and I ready to board the bus to take us to boot camp!

It’s an organization run out of Merritt Island, Florida, which takes groups of teenagers all over the world for missions projects every summer. Usually the teams are about 6-8 weeks in duration, and they start with a brutal one week book camp in Florida (in a swamp with snakes and alligators) where you supposedly learn team-building, and then end with a debriefing trip (ours was in China).

There were many good things about that summer. I met some great friends. I saw the world. I learned to have a consistent quiet time with God. I memorized a lot of Scripture.

Teen MIssions International Devotions

Our team doing devotions at boot camp in Florida.

But there were other things that were not so great, and over the years as I’ve tried to process it I’ve come to realize more and more what didn’t feel right at the time and why it didn’t feel right.

The team had 6 leaders–3 men and 3 women. The head leaders were a couple, who brought their two children, who were likely 5 and 7, along the trip with us. The other leaders were subordinate to them.

The head male leader could be charming, but he was very, very strict.

We had rules about everything–when we got up, went to bed, did our devotions, who we talked to, when we were allowed free time.

But it was the overall emphasis that rubbed me wrong. It started with the theme of the summer–“The Way Up is Down”. We learned about Joseph, and how he was exalted, but first he had to be sold into slavery and thrown unjustly into prison. We learned about other Bible characters who endured tremendous hardships, but then were blessed by God.

The motto? We had to abase ourselves and be humble and be treated badly if we wanted God to bless us. And then they proceeded to live that out all summer, putting us through hard work and telling us that “the way up is down”. That was the point of boot camp, too. It was absolutely brutal, with hardly any sleep, living in mud, and having to do super hard work. That may work well for the military, who need to be prepared to live in harsh conditions. It was totally unnecessary for us. And treating us kindly and teaching us about Jesus would have been a much better route, in my opinion. Instead, they wanted us to endure horrible food, a mosquito and snake infested swamp, not have showers, dig holes that had no purpose, etc.

Teen Missions International Obstacle Course

The obstacle course at bootcamp

I’ve found that people don’t mind enduring hardship when there really isn’t an option and you just have to get through it. But creating intense hardship for its own sake just feels wrong. And that’s what much of the summer was about.

The excitement of teen missions trips can really deceive you if you don't know what you're getting yourself into!

Besides, the whole concept of “the way up is down” isn’t even biblical.

It is not that suffering makes you godly. It is that God can use suffering to grow our characters, and in our suffering God is there. But there is nothing inherently good about suffering, and we should not pursue suffering for suffering’s sake. We should only ever pursue God’s best. At times that will lead to our suffering, but suffering is not, in and of itself, a goal of the Christian life.

I wrote more about this in a post a few years ago on how we see domestic abuse. Too many women are taught that God will use their suffering, and thus they should endure for a time. I told more of the story of the missions trip there, too.

I was only 16 at the time of that missions trip, and I wasn’t a theologian by any means. But this view that God wanted us to suffer and that God rejoiced when we endured hardship seemed very off to me. If I tried to talk about it, though, I was told that I needed to repent for not believing the Bible.

They had a chest of books that we were allowed to read for half an hour before bed. I’ve always been a really fast reader, so I read through most of them that summer. But they were all focused on how to completely and utterly submit to God even if it kills you. Most were Christian biographies; they were about people who had suffered when they went against authority and did well when they surrendered to authority. It was really monotonous.

In general, though, that summer we didn’t have much time to talk or read our Bibles because we were doing construction work.

Our job was to build a kindergarten for a church so that they could minister to more kids. So we poured concrete and laid rebar and did all kinds of things like that.

Teen Missions International 1986--legalistic missions trip

The site of our kindergarten construction

We worked about 10 hours a day, and it was absolutely and utterly exhausting. I am not cut out for that!

Missions Trip with Teen Missions International

Me digging a hole. I think I was smiling because a guy was taking the picture.

Teen Missions International construction scene in Philippines

A typical construction scene.

Not just that, but looking back it seemed so silly. We did no evangelism. We didn’t really talk to any of the local people at all. We went to a school once and sang some songs, but that was it. Instead, we spent five weeks putting up a building. And we all paid an awful lot of money to be there. It strikes me that it would have been much better to pay local people to build the building (thus feeding the local economy), and then, if we wanted an intense team building time, we could have done that in North America much more cheaply. Or if we really wanted to see the world, we could have done 4 weeks of team building in North America and two weeks of travelling. It would have cost so little to pay local people to build that building, and it would have blessed them with work, and we really didn’t see much of the Philippines or anything. We drove through some slums; we had dinner at a really rich person’s house in the congregation who roasted a pig for us (which was amazing), but we didn’t have a chance to talk to any of the kids really or make any real friends there.

I did enjoy the three of the four “junior” leaders. They were all in their twenties or early thirties and single. Most were teachers (which was why they had the summer off). They related to us well and you could talk to them easily.

The youngest female leader, though, was very strict and hard to talk to, even though she was only in her early twenties (and we had people on our team who were 19). She demanded respect, and it was very awkward.

But the worst were this head couple.

I believe he was 29 and she was 31, and they had been married for 10 years at this point. She rarely said boo, and worked a ton in the kitchen. But boy was she harsh to her kids! They were constantly yelled at. The thing that stands out to me most was the frequent spanking sessions in the bedroom beside the large room where the girls slept. It seemed as if they were being disciplined for the sake of being disciplined, since we could never figure out what the infractions were. In retrospect I think the female head leader was just very overworked, having to cook for 35 people 3 meals a day, plus supervise two young boys. I think she was just exhausted.

UPDATE: Since writing this, I have learned that the head leader on my 1986 Philippines team has now become the director of Teen Missions (as of fall 2018). His brand of legalism and authoritarianism are now at the top of the organization, which makes my experience more relevant than ever.

I also found that the junior leaders who were actually very wise counsellors, and who got along well with the kids, would clam up as soon as this couple came into the room. Quite frankly, I experienced them as tyrants, and I don’t think I was the only one.

We had several girls that summer who disclosed sexual abuse at home to some of the junior leaders.

When they did, I remember them being forced to stay in their room all day, and not allowed to socialize or work. The reason given was that they needed time on their own to pray. My memories on this are a little fuzzy, but it seemed like every time anyone was upset about anything, instead of being encouraged to talk it out, they were just confined to their room. Perhaps something was also done to protect them when they got home or to notify authorities, but I have no knowledge of that.

We were required to write letters home quite frequently (which was no problem; I wanted to do that), but all of our letters were read before they were sent and we were reprimanded if we complained about anything. The letters to us were read as well. I remember writing to my mom in code, hoping they wouldn’t figure it out.

I had a friend who was on another team with Team Missions that year. He went to Europe, and did mostly evangelism. His experience was nothing like mine. And so I don’t think that what I felt was necessarily true in all cases. And I have no idea if that letter reading thing was just our team or was for all teams at Teen Missions.

I did feel, however, that the theme “The Way Up is Down”, the “punishment” if you revealed any emotional hurt, the authoritarian nature of the leaders left a distinct impression of their version of Christianity: absolute obedience to authority, without rocking the boat, was the only acceptable behaviour. If you veered from that at all you were ostracized.

For our debriefing, we joined two other teams in Manila and later in China.

Teen Missions International Debrief in China

Sightseeing at our debrief

The head of Teen Missions at the time, Bob Bland, actually was at our debriefing session.

Part of the session was a memory verse competition. Over the summer we’d been encouraged to memorize 40 verses, and then we had a “quiz” on different aspects of the verses, team against team. I knew those verses backwards and forwards. I’m super good at memorizing (and my girls inherited that, both being on the international team for Bible quizzing. Katie actually memorized 9 whole books of the New Testament; Rebecca, who didn’t quiz for quite as long, memorized 6). So, by outward appearances, I should have been praised for doing so well.

Instead, I remember thinking that a lot of the rules for quizzing were silly, and I spoke up. So Bob Bland singled me out and took a walk with me and told me that I had a rebellious spirit, and that God was not happy with me. I remember being very surprised because I hadn’t gotten in trouble or been punished for anything (I had never been punished all summer, just given “the look” and told not to ask questions). I wasn’t the model construction worker by any means, but I never refused to work. I simply spoke up during devotions when I didn’t agree, and if there were rules that seemed ridiculous (like confining sad people to their room) I would say something.

At the time I didn’t really care what he thought; by then I had lost all respect for these leaders who didn’t seem to act like Jesus whatsoever (and the spanking thing had really gotten to me). But that memory came back to me last week when I was reading an article that talked about those who had grown up like the Duggars, believing a very legalistic view of the family (as promoted by Bill Gothard). These survivor stories are so sad. We simply must speak up against this!

As I look back, I remember that I was not the only one upset at the time. I was likely the most upset, but I was not the only one. I was, however, the only girl who regularly challenged authority. I think that’s why I was therefore the one singled out for chastisement.

Admittedly this all happened thirty years ago, and my memories are hazy. I may have misinterpreted some things because I was not used to legalism or to authoritarianism, and so it was super jarring to me. Perhaps others would not have found it so bleak. And I don’t know what Teen Missions is like now. I do know that I would never send one of my children there. But as I was reading about the ramifications of the Gothard theology it hit me that I had actually been part of that culture for a summer. We didn’t know that before we joined, and I’ve never been in the middle of anything like it since. But I can’t tell you how completely WRONG it felt, and how I chafed all summer at it. My heart goes out to children who are raised in it.

I have been back on five missions trips since, and none have been remotely like that.

My husband and mom will be leading one we’re taking to a children’s home in Kenya this summer (and hopefully our kids and their husbands will be part of that). I’m a huge fan of missions trips. But what I would say is, before you ever send your child to a camp or to a missions organization or to a college or anything like that, investigate it well. Make sure there isn’t some authoritarian, legalistic theology going on. Make sure it’s life giving, rather than life sapping. And make sure it’s not abusive. Too many things in the Christian world sound great on the outside, but when you see the up close and personal, you realize that they don’t reflect Jesus at all.

Tomorrow I want to give you 10 warning signs that a philosophy, group, or church may be legalistic rather than Spirit filled. Those signs were all present with Teen Missions, and I see them in all too many other places, too. Then later this week we’ll look at how to free our marriages and our parenting from these rules so that we get back to a true life-giving relationship with Christ.

Were you ever involved in a legalistic group that made you miserable? How did you find freedom again? Let’s talk in the comments!

UPDATE: I received many emails and messages after writing this post. Two of them were longer-type stories of other people’s experiences with the organization. I got their permission to tell their stories, and you can read it here: Stories of spiritual abuse at Teen Missions International.

I have also been sent many other stories of abuse at Teen Missions, and I list them all at the bottom of the second post about Teen Missions and abuse.

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