Leticia, Colombia, c. 1996  Reluctantly, the missionary admitted to an American audience that his wife wore slacks on their mission field in Colombia. Knowing the conservative nature of this congregation, the missionary correctly feared that his honesty might prompt this church to cease supporting them. 

For the next two years, the church board debated the issue. 

There was a simple explanation. Motor scooters are the best way to get around in Leticia. And the most modest way to ride a motor scooter is with slacks, not a dress or skirt which blows up or easily rides up on the thighs.  Those who wanted to advertise their wares wore the more revealing skirts or dresses.  

Must missionaries wear clothing to satisfy the mission committee back home? The mission committee is not present to be pleased. The Colombian culture interprets clothing differently than some American congregations.  Should slacks-wearing, motor-scooter-riding women missionaries be afraid that some missions committee chairman is going to pop out from behind a tropical bush, clipboard in hand to catch the naughty missionary?  Ridiculous. Pressing down an American standard on a South American culture that sees the matter differently is wrong! 

But for some legalistic American congregations, slacks are slacks, and women are not to wear them, period (Deuteronomy 22:5)!  What foolish legalism. This Colombian missionary’s support was dropped. And, yes, this is a true story.  

Tegucigalpa, Honduras c. 2014   I was with Charles, long-time missionary to Honduras and long-time friend from my Bible college days in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  We were on a dusty road in a mountainous region of Honduras.  Overnight he had frozen a plastic water bottle for each of us. We set off early in the morning, the sun prophesying a warm day.   

Knowing we would be gone until 10:00 P.M.-ish and that it would be hot, I had asked Charles, “Should I wear shorts—be as cool as possible?” 

“No, regular long pants would be best,” he said.  Since I wilt in hot weather, I  asked more questions, the gist of which was I wanted to be as cool as possible.  “Brother Keith, if you go in shorts, they will assume you are not a Christian and try to evangelize you.”

True enough, after an hour’s drive and a 50-minute hike down to a humble church of 25 people, the members were dressed in their best.  Though the humidity was through the roof and the temperature a warm 85 degrees, the pastor was wearing a long sleeve shirt. The mid-section of his shirt was dark with perspiration, but it was thoroughly buttoned. My question is, “Are we more spiritual if we are hot and uncomfortable?”

In Iloilo, Philippines, the six-year-old first grade girls wear layers and layers of clothing long before puberty to be dressed as they will be when they are twice as old. Let’s let a child be a child.   

Legalism is an attempt to please God by having standards that are higher than His.  Possibly an attempt to contribute to our salvation by doing things that have the husk of the visible, but the kernel of self.  Legalism exhausts people who honestly want to please God, but go about it the wrong way.  Legalism is often performing to be seen by others. 

Adding to It    Messing with the Bible is a NO, NO.  And the first perversion of It was not to take away from It, but add to It. Eve said, “And we can’t touch it” (Genesis 3:3). Adding to the standards of God (becoming legalistic) results in exhaustion from unnecessary competition to be Most Righteous (“I am stricter than you are,”  “I am more separated than you are,”  “I read my Bible more than you read yours.”)  Legalism can be a self-protective effort be appear more spiritual and it kills the genuine motive for service (which is love for Jesus Christ).