By the book

I remember when and where I first learned the word.

I was 18 and sitting on a folding chair among a crowd in an enormous gymnasium-converted auditorium. It was dark in the giant room; only the stage was lit. Eager to be an excellent Christian, I was at a conference sponsored by The Navigators (an international, interdenominational Christian ministry) with a couple thousand college students. I attentively listened to the preacher, highlighted verses, and scribbled some “A-ha!” insights in the margins of my clumpy Catholic Bible.

That’s when I first learned the word legalistic.

Basically, as I understand it, to be legalistic is to subscribe to specific faith practices and beliefs just because one feels like they should. Motivated and guided by ideas of “ought to,” Christians are slowed from having an authentic love life with God, community and self. All matters of Christian living are directed by how one follows a rule book of their religion.

A legalistic faith is immature. Being told what to do and following right along is the stuff of childhood.

The introduction to the concept of a legalistic faith life was revolutionary for me. Eventually, essential, personal convictions about faith evolved from what I learned. These are some of the things I still think about a lot:

  • A faith not challenged is not a faith at all.
  • The most important thing I can ever do is help a person know they are loved.
  • Faith in God is all about relationship, not rules or right-thinking.

Of course, rules do matter and they have a role. Proper belief and proper practice help us unite and be a stronger community.

The concern is really about rigidity. Religious rigidity is a thing that Scripture cautions us about. We’re called to focus on knowing and loving Christ, not to be rule masters.

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.Romans 12:2

Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.  -2 Corinthians 3: 4-6

As highlighted here, Pope Francis recently said some smart things about rigidity too. For example, he warned against “exaggerated tendencies toward doctrinal or disciplinary ‘safety.'”

Pope Francis also said that “if we remain within the parameters of our ‘traditional culture’ we will end up nullifying the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Whoa–what!? Doesn’t the Church like tradition? I think what he’s saying is that we need to remain open to the Holy Spirit; the Spirit who is very busy expressing compassion in the messy world but not so busy attending to our tidy rule books.

If you like rules, don’t worry. There are totally times when rules matter and it’s best to do things “by the book.”

I bought a giant book with my birthday money this year. It’s what got me thinking about all of this.

Thanks Mom and Dad!
(Photo credit:

I sort of need the book. I’ve started trying to complete a MA part time. (Considering my ADD and my dislike of self-discipline, I’m hoping that I’ll be allowed about 99 years to get the degree done. Please pray for me!)

Being enrolled in grad school means that I’m writing research papers again, and this has caused me to learn something new about myself. I realized I actually enjoy the technicalities of writing! Figuring out the rules of proper footnotes is disturbingly fun for me!

Maybe I’m too nerdy for my own good. Or, maybe I am comforted by the black-and-white morality of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Really, I have another guess about why I like the laws of citations. I am a woman who is involved in the matters of a messy and gray-shaded faith full time. Math is a struggle for me so I don’t interact much with absolutes. So, at last I found a place where I can go back to some of my adolescent faith habits; where right-and-wrong is straight-forward and judgement is clear. After all, isn’t it easier when all we have to do is figure out what the rules are and then conform?

Chicago Manual of Style is my new love that allows me revert to being immature. It’s really nice to just do what I am told again, even though it’s just in the formation of my footnotes.

When it comes to following Jesus, though, I’m very glad Jesus keeps me grown up. I’m so thankful God and I have an adult relationship, and this relationship is based on Love.

Love motivates me to be faithful and follow rules for the right reasons. I really want to please the love of my life.

The rules, though?

Yeah, not too clear-cut. And that’s OK with me!

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    1. Hey Kathy, Thanks for the comment! This was a really fun post to write. I am so sorry about the bacon ad, and any other ad that has ever appeared in the blog. 🙁 I decided to pay the fee on WordPress making the site now ad-free. If any readers want to donate to the upkeep of the blog, here’s my community’s donation website: Thanks!! Peace, Sister Julia

  1. Legalism is more specifically a belief that our standing before God is determined by our works. It leaves no room for grace in our interactions with others. Its also akin to saying to God that Jesus’ work was not good enough.

    The gospel declares ALL our efforts tainted by sin (even after salvation). This is why scripture declares that we have NOTHING to boast about before God. All we can do is offer a life lived in gratitude of His work and humbly accept His help and guidance each step of the way.

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