I am grew up in churches that were legalistic. They did not grasp and teach the doctrines of grace. Legalism always leads to sectarianism, and this was the case with the churches I was raised in. (“Churches” because my family attended several.) These congregations were sure that churches in other denominations were going to hell. But they were also sure that a lot of the congregations in our own denomination were going to hell.
God blessed me with the mentors to help me work my way out of that. And I worked my way out of it by studying the Bible. I came to see that a lot of the doctrines I had been taught simply weren’t in the Bible.
Through the years, I’ve had a lot of friends who, like me, journeyed from being legalistic to being “progressive.” (Though I hate calling myself a progressive because it is too broad a brush.) As a campus minister, I’ve also seen many students who have made that journey.
I am always excited when someone leaves legalism with their faith intact, because that is not common. I rejoice in that.
What worries me is not that people are leaving legalism. What worries me is that some people reject legalism but end up with some very dangerous habits. These habits develop because people, to use an overused cliche, throw the baby out with the bathwater. They push away legalism, but push away biblical beliefs in the process.
The Three Dangers of a Bible-less Progressivism
In my experience, there are three beliefs that people often push away when they reject legalism. All three are biblical and should not be rejected.
1.) The importance of doctrine. One way that people often reject legalistic doctrines is by rejecting the importance of doctrine at all. Having grown up in churches that fought about which doctrines were right and which doctrines sent people to hell, they grow tired of the whole thing. Christianity is about a relationship. It’s not about all these doctrines. They don’t matter. You just need to love God.
But this is not the view of Jesus, Paul, John, or any other Biblical authors. Doctrine is important. It matters what we believe. In fact, what we believe about doctrine affect our lives.
For example, Paul seems very concerned with the doctrines of grace in Galatians. He doesn’t dismiss doctrine with talk of Christianity only being a relationship. He is worried about the Galatians turning aside from the true teachings about the gospel.
One way this manifests itself is in a lack of interest in studying the bible, except for some light devotional reading.
2.) The seriousness of sin. Sometimes people leave legalism and run to what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace”. They think that what they do no longer matters, because God will forgive them. Leaving legalism, they no longer find sin serious. They do not make efforts to turn away from their sins.
I think this partly occurs because legalism makes one feel crushed under the weight of sin, since grace is not embraced and taught. They react against this by suddenly acting like they do not take sin seriously. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have left legalism and become very accepting of the sin in their lives. I worry that this will lead to them leaving the faith.
3.) The dangers of false teachers. I won’t say much about this one, because it is similar to #1. People who grow up in legalism were raised hearing everyone called a false teacher. The label was misused, and so people overreact when they leave legalism by rejecting the label at all. In fact, a lot of these people believe that you are not being loving when you talk about false teachers.
But the New Testament uses it often, and we are unbiblical if we do not believe that the church should identify false teachings and warn against them.
What I’d Like to See
Of course, I want people to leave legalism. But I do not want them to leave simply because they are hurt by legalism. I don’t want to them reject it merely because they hate it.
I want people to leave legalism because they are driven away from it by the Bible. They understand that the Bible teaches a conception of grace that is incompatible with legalism.
When people become progressives merely because they hate legalism, they are in great danger of rejecting the three important doctrines I mentioned above.
People need to leave legalism through an understanding of the Biblical doctrine of grace. They need to grow in their love of God’s Word through the process. That’s what I want to see. That’s what I hope I see more of.