Legalism & Progressivism: Laying the Groundwork for a Conversation

I am going to do a series on legalism and progressivism. This is going to be an attempt at a dialog that is going to be kind, intellectually honest, and humble. I am not interested in agendas. I am interested in unity, hearing each other (even through differences) and still loving each other. I am not interested in straw men, false dichotomies, division, etc. I also demand that this conversation be done through the lens of the “have nothing to do with…” passages,

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” – 1 Tim 4:1-7

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” – 2 Tim 3:1-5

“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. 10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. 11 You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.” – Titus 3:9-11

Credit where it is due
A little bit about my own background. I grew up in a few pretty conservative congregations. One of the comments wanted me to have more clarity between conservatism and legalism and that is a fair thing to request. One doesn’t equal the other. When I talk about conservative churches, I am talking about churches I have had experience with that have some people I would call legalists present but that doesn’t mean I want to label the entire church legalistic. Either way, I love those people (both conservative and even more extreme…legalists) to death. They helped raise me in the faith. They assisted my parents in teaching me about Jesus. They even taught me about grace. They loved me, accepted me and continue to encourage me. I am indebted to several pretty conservative congregations in my formative years.

I am also indebted to several fairly progressive churches at some pivotal times in my life. They also taught me about Jesus. They taught me about grace. They taught me about how to be loving and accepting while still not tolerating sin. I love those people and have a deep debt of gratitude to them.

I am one of those people who can sit in a room full of theological conservatives or progressives and feel at home, make friends and learn from them both. I love that. Christianity is not about how you lean, it is about who you are following and I believe that conservative and progressive Christians are both doing their best to follow the Lord. That is alright by me.

Identifying the commonality
Both legalists and progressives love Jesus. Both want to please God. Both value obedience. Both are being worked on by the same Spirit (whether they recognize it or not doesn’t keep God from doing it). Both are reading the same Bible and both are trying to be intellectually honest with it. Both want to reach the lost. Both help the poor, have compassion, and do much good. We have much in common because it is the same God we worship, adore and are seeking a relationship with.

Are there differences? Sure. Are they significant? Some are. Are they insurrmountable? This side of heaven some of them might be for some. Our differences don’t make us any less brothers in Christ than race makes one person more or less human than another. At the end of the day we are all trying to love, serve and follow Christ and we all depend on God’s grace to shore up, redeem, and cleanse our many shortcomings.

So here we go…this is going to be the start of several posts. I am inviting you all into the conversation as long as you abide by what has already been said in the beginning of this post.

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

10 Responses to Legalism & Progressivism: Laying the Groundwork for a Conversation

  1. I am looking forward to the discussion.

  2. James Giordano says:

    Conservatisms does not equal legalism. Please don’t equate the two. Also, you might want to clarify what you mean by “progressivism.” Is it substantially different from the word “liberal.” I think liberal folks prefer the term because it implies progress. Change from a conservatve position can can be good, neutral, or bad. It’s not necessarily “progressive” though it can be. Also, could you clarify whether you are referrring to people and positions that are theologically “progressive”, politically “progressive” or both when you mention being indebted to several fairly progressive churches at some pivotal times in your life. Anyway, just wanted to encourage you to clarify the terms that will be part of the discussion. Hopefully, it will help avoid unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding.

  3. James Giordano says:

    I’m still not clear on what you mean when you say “progressive.” Do you mean theologically “progressive”, politically “progressive” or both? And when you refer to Christians who are “legalistic” do you mean folks who believe that keeping moral laws saves them? Or do you mean folks who believe that Christians ought to live their lives in a way that is holy and pure?

    • mattdabbs says:

      On your progressive question, I said in the post “theologically progressive.” Of your definitions/suggestions for clarification on legalism…the first one is accurate and the second is not. I would hope that progressives would endorse living life in a way that is holy and pure…that is why I think your second one is not descriptive of legalism. I will get into the terms more later. This is just an introductory post to get it going. Thanks again, hope that makes sense.

  4. I appreciate your tackling this task. I look forward to reading.

  5. This will be a difficult series to write, but I wish you God speed in it.

    There are many issues to discuss, perhaps the most important being how we read and understand the Bible. One elder, whom I would call very conservative or even legalistic, once told me when discussing the “lens” through which people read the Bible, “I don’t have a lens. I just accept it for what it says.” Unfortunately, I believe there are many people like that who deny that they have a “lens” of assumptions and preconceptions they bring to the study of the Scriptures. Getting these out so we can at least begin to recognize what our assumptions are should be helpful to this series.

    I look forward to how you treat the task you’ve set for yourself – and also to how people react to it. If reactions are along the lines you suggested at the beginning of this post, this series will be a blessing to all participants.

  6. This will be interesting. Looking forward to your thoughts.

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