If you’re stuck in a legalistic church, it may be time to leave
Being in a legalistic church is like being stuck in a small, tight box with little freedom. In today’s podcast, I have a conversation with my friend Emily Louis, a worthiness coach and the host of the Abundant Grace Podcast, who left legalism for God’s abundant grace.
Here’s our conversation:
Abundant Grace Podcast
Me: What impelled you to start your podcast, Abundant Grace? What’s your goal, how is it helping people?
Emily: I started Abundant Grace because when I realized I didn’t have to prove my worth or earn God’s grace, which sound s funny. I grew up in church, I grew up around the gospel, but there was definitely this message of God save us. But then it’s up to you to to be good or God is going to leave you. That was my core fear, God walking away from me. So I tried to tow the line and do all the things. When God broke into my story, there were some faith crisis moments and He used those to bring me to grace-cased resources that completely changed my life.
They freed me from doing and performing and achieving, because His love wasn’t going anywhere. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Me: What do you mean God wasn’t going anywhere?
Emily: God wasn’t going to leave me if I didn’t measure up. That helped free me from so many limitations and helped me understand and heal my relationship with God that I wanted other people to experience the same. That’s why I originally started coaching and started the podcast.
Me: And when did you start the podcast? How long have you been going?
Emily: Yeah, I’ve been going for 2 ½ years. I started it in August of 2020
Me: Oh! Right in the middle of the supreme pandemic time.
Emily: Yes, I did.
Me: How has it been for you? Has it been a good step for you and the people who are listening?
Emily: Yes, it’s been a really good step. It’s been fun to share my healing journey with other people and help them get transformation and freedom. I love hearing from people when they listen to the show and they are experiencing mindset shifts around who they are and who God says that they are. And they’re learning who God says that they are as beloved, and chosen, and not forsaken and that God isn’t going anywhere.
It is just so fun to do this work. It is such a privilege and such a gift.
Me: I love your show. It gives people permission to be who God made them to be.
You’ve really broken out of some limitations that were imposed upon you by church, and this happens to a lot of us, and by what you think you’re supposed to do at church, and what people say.
Breaking out of the box of legalism
I’d like to focus on that a little bit today because of your story, breaking out of these boxes, these limitations the church imposes on us and then we impose on ourselves, with all the false expectations and unachievable goals.
I’d love for you to share a little of your journey with my listeners and explain how you’ve gotten to this new place of freedom and authenticity and not being afraid of what other people think.
Emily: It has been quite a journey. God writes the best stories. I’m very grateful for the transformation. I’ll give you a specific example of something that happened and it’s related to starting my podcast.
I had the perception, and was taught this, that as a “good” Christian wife, a “good” Christian mom, a “good” Christian, that my role was to be a stay-at-home mom, not work outside the home, and take care of my kids and home school.
Feeling a nudge from God
So when I started to feel the nudge to start something, and I didn’t know what it would be yet, I resisted it so hard. It was outside of the box I had built for myself and had been constructed for me. So I was sure that couldn’t be from God. God brought it up to me over the course of a few years, trying to get me to start something. And I had no ideas what it was. But I was just so resistant.
I remember, I was vacuuming my living room one day, and I was crying, asking God to take this desire away from me, because I was sure that it was sinful, that somehow it was wrong for me to want to do something else.
I finally verbalized it to my husband. And was like, “You should do something.” And he prayed over it that God would direct it and it would be amazing, whatever it is.
Through that I found my direction of starting a podcast. Bu that was one of the boxes I had to navigate out of. There can be so many expectations that we have of ourselves when we’re performing and when we’re trying to “keep God happy” and trying to keep other people happy.
I was even embarrassed to tell people I was starting a business, because I cared what people thought more than the calling God had.
So, breaking out of that and saying, “No, I’m starting a business.” Whoever’s listening, you may have something else that comes to mind that feel like God is nudging you towards. Maybe it’s bringing a meal to a neighbor, or starting a business, or starting a new ministry.
But we sometimes have to let go of what we thought our life was supposed to look like and those rules we have, in order to step into everything God wants us to.
Me: That is so true. Just as an aside, we home schooled our kids. I was a stay-at-home dad for ten years. It was not because I thought I was supposed to, it was an answer to prayer. I didn’t really want to home school the kids, but that’s the way God nudged me. And it was a beautiful thing.
What I hear you saying, is that it has to be a result of prayer, instead of all these expectations of what other people think. I was already a stay-at-home dad. We had to get to the point of where we didn’t care what other people thought.
Our parents didn’t have a clue of what that meant at first. Whatever you’re doing, it has to be a result of prayer.
Was there anything in the Bible that helped you get out of that specific box, any verses or stories that inspired you in that situation, or something else, that helped you break out of some of these limitations?
Emily: Galatians comes to mind, where we have been set free. We have been set free from the bondage of the law and we can go to these rules and the rules that we apply on ourselves or the expectations that come from religious communities or society, can make us feel there is one narrow way of doing things. God is actually a lot more creative than that.
David Benner says it this way: “Your uniqueness is of inestimable value to God.” In Galatians it talks about the freedom that we have. We’ve been set free from the law. We’ve been set free from trying to measure up because grace has been gifted to us.
Me: Here it is.
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Galatians 5:1 KJV
The Holy Spirit is unpredictable
Emily: Yeah! Because the rules, and the box, they’re predictable. Even if we can’t follow the rules exactly, they sometimes feel more predictable than following the Holy Spirit. If we say: This is what we’re supposed to be doing, I can do that. But out in the wild where the Holy Spirit is guiding, it’s less predictable.
Me: Why do you think people find comfort in the box, in the rules and the legalism? Why do some people find that comfortable and some people don’t?
Emily: I went along with it. I was the goody two shoes girl. I was very proud to wear the label of legalist, because I thought that meant that I had better standards than you. There’s a lot of pride involved to have those rules and feel you’re meeting them.
Another thing is almost guaranteed results. Legalism is rules on the outside that somehow you’re hoping will impact your heart. God’s sanctification works from the inside out, and the results are a lot slower. The results are a lot slower than when you just slap a rule on, like a prohibition against drinking or cussing or going here or going there, dressing this way, talking that way.
That provides instantaneous outward results so it feels more productive than waiting for the transformation to happen from the inside out.
Rebelling against legalism
Me: What sparked you to rebel against the legalism and that it doesn’t satisfy.
Emily: The pressure is exhausting. After a while it’s really hard to live under the weight of your own performance. On the days that you nail it, you’re like, “Yes! I checked all the boxes. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m feeling enough today.” And tomorrow if you don’t meet them all, it’s really defeating. You’re like: “I am just not enough. I’m never going to be good enough. I just don’t measure up.”
Jesus promises to take our successes and our failures and we don’t have to perform and ride that crazy roller coaster. So that was attractive to me, getting off of that hamster wheel of trying to fit and do all of the things.
Me: I love this verse from Romans.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:2 NIV
This is how J. B. Phillips translates it:
Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity. Romans 12:2 J. B. Phillips
The world tries to squeeze us into its mold, but sometimes the legalistic approach tries to squeeze us into these rituals, even dogmatically, how we pray. You used the word untethered. When you’re untethered, you have freedom. You have freedom to hear the Holy Spirit talking to you.
If all you have to do is obey the rules, you don’t have to think any more. You don’t have to pray any more.
Do you think that’s what the problem was with the Pharisees? How do you think Jesus would talk to some of the legalistic churches today?
Emily: I think he would say what he said to one of the churches in Revelation,
I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Revelation 2:4 NKJV
We can get to this point where we’re following all the rules like the Pharisees. If you’ve never read the book, Accidental Pharisees (affiliate link) by Larry Osborne, it’s a really good read about pride and following rules.
Two simple commands
We can get to this place where we’re following all the rules and Jesus spoke to this when he was here. He’s like: “Guys, the rules are not it. It’s not about keeping the rules. Here, I’m going to give you two simple commands to sum this all up for you. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
So we have loving God, loving your neighbor, and loving yourself all wrapped up in these commands that summarize all the commands that we’re trying to follow. And we’re missing the point when we’re just following the rules for the sake of following the rules.
Me: I just did a podcast episode about how Jesus loved his disciples. Everything he did was about love, even when he rebuked them. He wasn’t trying to check boxes. He was trying to get the idea of how much God loved them across.
Sometimes we want to obey all the rules in a group because we want to fit in. Where does that desire come from?
Wanting to fit in
Emily: We’re all wired for belonging. We need love and connection. Whether it’s said or not, it can be felt that if I do “this” I’ll feel accepted. So I’m going to do “this” because I want to be accepted. I want to belong.
We need community. We need that connection with people. It comes from something beautiful that God created that’s can be warped.
The opposite is true. When we’re authentic with who we really are, we actually attract people who care about who we are. We repel people who won’t value us for who we are.
So it can be a lie that if you do certain things you’ll fit in, when you’re only accepted as long as you do those things. Or you can be true to who you are, your beliefs, and who God is asking you to be, and you’ll attract people who value you.
Me: Isn’t it ironic that people are trying to fit in someplace they don’t really belong? They’re trying to fit in with things that aren’t their authentic self. Then there’s no happiness.
The blind man, the crowd, and Jesus
Is there anything Jesus ever said to someone when they were trying to fit in and he helped them be themselves?
Emily: The first thing that comes to mind is the blind man on the side of the road and was disturbing the crowd. The disciples were shushing the crowd but Jesus wanted to help the man.
We can shush ourselves and our own needs. Or we can shush other people and say, “You’re being too much. You’re being too loud.” But the blind man would not be shushed. He spoke up for what he needed and Jesus gave it to him.
Me: That reminds me of the time people brought little children to Jesus for him to bless. And he’s loving it. The disciples tried to stop them, but Jesus said “Let them come. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.”
The blind man wasn’t afraid to be who he was. That’s the first act of love, to be who you are then others will know who they’re loving.
Relationship with God
Let’s switch gears. Would you share your concept of and relationship with God growing up and how that has changed as you’ve found more freedom from these imposed things you broke away from?
Emily: My relationship with God used to based very much on what I was doing. And He felt distant. That could in large part be a downplaying of the Holy Spirit. I didn’t recognize God’s presence with me and was constantly afraid He was going to leave me.
So I did all of the “right” things. I read ten pages of the Bible every day in high school. But prayer was very hard because when you’re talking to someone that feels distant, it feels like nothing is happening.
One of the things that has shifted is prayer. Knowing that you’re allowed to not be “proper” with prayer is a pretty big deal.
One day I was sharing with her
casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 NKJV
Throwing things at God
I was trying to explain the word “casting” to my three or four year old. I said it’s like throwing things. We can throw things at God. We can come before Him with boldness.
Thinking of some of the things I was told about God, I could say, “If this is who You really are, I don’t want anything to do with you.” That can feel like a scary prayer.
Being able to voice this allows you a closeness with God like you would tell a friend. The more we can be authentic with who we are, the more we allow ourselves to be loved in those places and God removes the shame around who we are. And it draws us closer to Him when we’re real rather than who we think we’re supposed to be with Him.
Me: How do you see God now?
Emily: He’s close. He’s not going anywhere or threatening to leave. He’s constantly orchestrating in my life. I can see His hand working every day. He’s encouraging and speaking to me. That is so much different from somebody who’s distant and I’m afraid is going to exact some harsh punishment because I didn’t measure up.
Me: John says “God is love.” That’s exactly who we want God to be. Was it difficult for you to break away from some religious traditions, doctrines, or religious perspectives you were taught when you were younger?
Emily: Sometimes I’ll just have an automatic response, because I don’t want to be wrong. There have been things that are difficult to let go of.
People are sometimes surprised when I encourage them to stop doing some good things. If reading your Bible is dry and just a habit and you’re doing just because you think you’re supposed to, maybe you need to take a break from that. Or maybe just read a verse a day instead of so much a day. There may be traditions in our lives that are good but may not be fruitful in our lives if we’re just doing them to do them.
Me: Anything specific?
Embracing eternal life now
Emily: We talk about heaven is a future place. But Jesus brought heaven down to earth. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, it’s about bringing heaven to earth.
Jesus came to give us eternal life now, abundant life now. Heaven is not just some place after we die.
Another would be women’s roles. I’ve shifted from being a stay-at-home mom to owning a business. And I had the privilege of preaching the first time recently at our new local church.
Me: What would you say to someone who is not quite all the way there yet and maybe still holding onto some of these traditionalized ways of thinking about things, like women’s roles? I did a podcast episode about women in the Bible doing non-traditional things.
Emily: You don’t have to get it right, right away. We don’t need to figure everything out all at once. Give yourself grace for the journey you’re on.
Finding your worth
Me: Tell me about your work helping people find their true worth.
Emily: People are told by the church even, that they are not enough. Sometimes our sins are talked about more than our belovedness, who we already are, who God has called us to be. God loves us even though we have sinned.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8 NKJV
We’ve always been valuable and worthy in God’s eyes. But religious culture says we’re supposed to wear our sinner label most of the time.
Society and commercials make you feel not enough.
But you are worthy and you are enough just the way you are.
Me: Jesus said to everyone at the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” He saw everyone’s worth, even if they had sinned. Think of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus showed her real worth.
Jesus came to show us our true worth. What’s the key to admitting to yourself that you are worthy?
Untwisting false narratives
Emily: Words are powerful. Affirm the truth about yourself. Find something that feels true: I am beloved of God. I am worthy. Remind yourself of that.
Untwist the narratives that make you feel unworthy. Untangle and get to the bottom of those beliefs of why you feel more or less valuable.
Are you finding your worth on something you do instead of what is innate within you?
Me: So, it’s about how you identify yourself.
Emily: Where do you find that. It all stems from your beliefs about who you are. Write out who you are on a piece of paper and see how long it takes to get to, “I am beloved of God.” Everything else is a role that you fill. But what is your core identity, something that never changes, no matter what?
God sees our value
Me: What if we started with that and go from there instead of what we do and the external things that happen to us? I like to get back to the first chapter of Genesis
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; Genesis 1:26 NKJV
That’s who we really are. God always sees our value. Tell me about God’s unconditional love for us.
Emily: God’s love expands past love in that He doesn’t just love you. He actually likes you too. He doesn’t just tolerate you. God’s love is so expansive. He loves you without reservation.
He looks past our imperfections as if they’re not even there. He loves you, not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are.
His love is so abundant.
Letting God love us
Me: Jesus saw people with that kind of love. Why do you think it’s hard for someone to accept that God loves us this way?
Emily: It’s hard because there aren’t other examples of it in the world. The world works on merit. But God just loves us unconditionally. We don’t know it outside of Jesus and God.
It’s vulnerable to let God’s love into our hearts that feel shame and let Him shine light and see our hurts. We don’t want to be perceived as weak and needy.
We need to pray to have our ability to be loved be increased. If someone is struggling with feeling worthy of love, the first thing I would remove the shame. There’s no need to be embarrassed.
After we remove the shame, ask “Why are you trying to earn or prove something to God or people to be loved?”
The hardest box to leave
Me: Lets come back to this idea of getting out of boxes. What is the hardest box you’ve had to get out of?
Emily: Leaving the church I was brought up in. They taught me that was the only right place to be and that if I left my life would fall apart.
Me: How did that feel when you actually left?
Emily: Such freedom and a relief.
Me: When should someone stay in a church and when should they stay?
Emily: Jot down a list of non-negotiables. If there’s abuse, absolutely walk away. What will you not allow? What are your boundaries?
Listening to God’s voice
We have to get good at hearing God’s voice, when He says “Go” and when He says “Stay.” Here are some tips for hearing God’s voice: Get alone, and get still. Too often we pray a lot and forget to listen.
Me: What is God doing in your life right now?
Emily: He’s continuing to pull me out of my comfort zone and what feels safe. I feel ready to step outside of what other people think more than ever. I am confidently following His voice so I’m not second guessing Him based on what others are saying.
Your relationship with God is so unique to you. You don’t have to force yourself or your relationship with God into a box. Find what works for you.
Three final questions:
- If you could talk to any Bible character other than Jesus, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Emily: Mary Madeleine because she was the first one to proclaim that Jesus rose again. She had that closeness to him. How did you not recognize him not standing there?
- Is there any Bible character you especially identify with?
Emily: I relate to Paul, especially in Galatians and Ephesians, because he was very zealous with rules and the Pharisees and I can see where I’ve been that.
- This podcast is about getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus. How would you describe Jesus’s original message of how he wanted us to live our lives?
Emily: Micah 6:8 NKJV
8 And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God.
Jesus embodied that. That’s what we need to do.
Emily Lewis is a worthiness coach who specializes in helping people stop feeling like they aren’t enough so that they can confidently be themselves. After navigating spiritual abuse herself and finding her voice, she is passionate about people unapologetically being their full, authentic self.
Through coaching and her podcast, Abundant Grace, she helps people get breakthroughs in their relationship with God and themselves so they can own their worthiness and live with bold confidence.
Emily lives in a small town in Montana with her husband Bill and their 4 young girls.
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Galatians 5:1 KJV
1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
Romans 12:2 NIV
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2 J. B. Phillips
2 Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.
Revelation 2:4 NKJV
4 I have this against you, that you have left your first love.
1 Peter 5:7 NKJV
7 casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
Romans 5:8 NKJV
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Genesis 1:26 NKJV
26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;