Why I Left Legalistic Pentecostalism

By: Mary Combs

I wish to begin by expressing my love and appreciation for all those who touched, shaped, and molded my spiritual life during the 46 years I spent in my former religious organization (or denomination). It was in this religious circle that I was born both naturally and spiritually. I first gave my heart to the Lord at the age of six. So, I cherish wonderful childhood and adult memories of the years, experiences and friendships while in this group.

My husband obtained his ministerial credentials in 1964, just shortly before we were married, and immediately entered the ministry. After meeting and marrying my husband, we recognized we shared the same spiritual desires and immediately began pursuing them together. Little did we know where this pursuit would take us!

It was in the mid 1980’s that the Lord brought us into a new spiritual season. Supernaturally, we began to hunger after the Lord in a way we had never hungered before. I can clearly remember those days! By no mistake, the Lord was visiting us in unusual ways as a result of our new and increased hunger for Him. At this time, we had been involved in pastoral ministry for approximately twenty years.

During this period of spiritual renewal, my husband and I became aware that we knew a denomination; we knew its’ doctrines and dogmas; we knew the do's and don’ts, the “standards of holiness” (as dress codes were commonly referred to, but pertained mostly to women constituents); but did not know God to this same degree! It occurred to us that we were involved in idolatry - pure and simple! (Idolatry is the act of worshiping someone or something more than, or in place of, God!)

These idolatrous acts we were performing were disguised as righteous, holy rituals and traditions! As we drew closer to God - His Spirit dwelling in us more and more - this knowledge of idolatry in our spiritual walk loomed ever before us. We were forced to deal with these issues in our own hearts.

It was not long until we understood that our self-imposed worship of dress standards, the length of hair on women, the worship of the mode by which we baptized people, Godhead issues which were discussed vehemently, our stance against worldly entertainment, sports and television, were really meaningless to God if, in actuality, we were serving them more than Him! They are all doctrines and ideologies of men! Yes, there are scriptures which mention some of these topics, but for the most part, we taught them out of context, from a prejudicial, exclusive, and judgmental point of view. Jesus sharply rebuked the Pharisees for doing exactly the same thing! (Matthew 23)

(At this particular time in our lives, my husband was Pastor of a growing, successful church, as well as being a member of the district board in the state where we were pastoring. We had both served, from time to time, on other national and district committees as well.)

As a result of this hunger to know the Lord in a greater measure, the Lord began drawing us into long periods of prayer and study of the Word. Amazingly, the simplicity of the gospel, which was taught by Jesus, became of utmost importance to us. We came to the understanding that we were guilty of complicating the gospel by being more obedient to doctrines of men than the principles of Godliness.

Simultaneously, the Lord began opening our eyes to many more of the inconsistencies of our beliefs. My husband decided to be obedient to the tug of the Lord on his heart and began gradually leading our congregation into the areas the Lord was leading the two of us. His intentions and motives were pure, but unfortunately, there were those among us who would not be led, and what’s more, made it their business to fabricate stories about what was happening among us to suit their own carnal intents. They perceived, while being coaxed by others outside our congregation, that we were intending to leave our denominational roots. On the contrary, we had no intentions of leaving our beloved denomination at that time. Being clueless to all the rumors, we moved blindly ahead in pursuit of where our Godly hunger was taking us.

Following hard after God, with intentions of remaining steadfast in our denomination, came to a screeching halt in the fall of 1992 when we had to make a decision between following the mandates of the organization, or to follow after God with integrity! It was ironic that this decision would face us after all the months and years of searching after the Lord... a decision we had never anticipated, and one that came upon us by surprise! We were amazed that the Lord would lead us out of the denomination we had loved and were loyal to for so many years. We didn’t quite understand everything that was happening to us at that time, but now, years later, we know our steps were Divinely ordered.

(At the time of our departure from our former religious circle, we had been in the pastoral ministry for nearly thirty years, and had never been a part of any other religious group in our lives!)

After our exodus from religion, my husband set about reestablishing our church congregation (since many members left deciding to remain with the organization we were no longer a part of). We experienced an emptiness for a time, realizing the people we had loved for so many years were no longer a part of our local church family. And, yes, it wasn’t easy reestablishing our lives without the friends and associates we had been comfortable with for so long. But, the Lord remained faithful and helped us in every way!

Shortly after our transition, it occurred to me that the dress standards of our former denomination were no longer necessary. Why be identified with a group who had discarded us (so to speak) for following after God? Since I no longer needed to identify myself with this group, I had the freedom to please the Lord only.

Even though my husband had already received an understanding regarding the non-essentials of our background teaching, I felt I had to study and pray about them for myself! After all, changing my outward appearance, after so many years of living in this religious lifestyle, was major. Eminently I realized that these “standards of holiness” were not salvation issues. I had to ask myself... “will I be able to live for God without these religious crutches?” Up to that point and time, I had never dealt with that issue before! Obviously, the answer to that question was yes. If a woman, coming out of legalism has a pre-established relationship with the Lord which is stronger than these issues, that woman can make it!

It was a shock to my arrogant, religious, piety when I learned the word modesty in scripture means to blend in. It occurred to me that I had never blended into my culture! On the contrary I had always drawn attention to myself, taking the attention that belonged to the Lord, centering it on me - another idolatrous act - by virtue of my outward appearance. All the years I lived under legalism, I received many, many comments from non-believers about my hair... the way I dressed... etc., but very few ever exclaimed “I see Jesus in you!” Regrettably, most women who follow a legalistic mind set are usually sober faced and withdrawn when away from their familiar religious environment, not reflecting Jesus in any way! After my spiritual eyes were opened, I felt a release from the Lord to change my appearance.

Since leaving our former religious group, I have learned that the stoic, Victorian appearance of legalistic Pentecostal women is very scary and unapproachable to most outsiders... a mind set I had never considered until leaving this life style myself. So... what kind of testimony could I possibly have had, except that I was walking in step with my own religious peers?

Another eye-opener was the realization that my outward appearance is NOT seen by God... only by men. I have always loved the Lord with my whole heart. After changing my outward appearance, I realized nothing had changed between me and the Lord... my heart was still turned toward God... my heart being the only part of me that He sees! (1 Samuel 16:7)

And what’s more, having only Jesus to deal with on these issues is the simplest part of all! While living under the law, I always doubted my acceptance by God. Now I never worry about His love for me. The greatest freedom of all, is to know He loves ME! I am free of condemnation (which comes from men)! It’s also a joy to have the freedom to accept other believers as truly being members of the body of Christ. I have found there are many more genuine believers in Jesus than I ever imagined... many more on the outside of legalism than on the inside!

It’s so nice being able to associate with ALL Christians without feeling the pressure of having to change them to our brand of religiosity! We are free to fellowship on the level of respect for our mutual relationships in Christ. Contrary to legalistic opinions, these associations do not weaken a person’s spirituality. If anything, they enhance it by knowing God is able to save whosoever He wills!

If you are reading this article and have contemplated making the same changes my husband and I made, let me encourage you to seek the Lord for His wisdom and guidance. He will be your Counselor! While seeking the Lord, pray against the spirit of fear which accompanies the decision to abandon legalism. What is there to fear with the Lord on our side? We belong to HIM, not a denomination or organization! He purchased us with His own blood! NOTHING or NO ONE is able to pluck you from the hand of God!


Posted April 25, 2000

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