The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Our Attitude Toward the Conservative Leaders, Part 2

cooperation.jpgSo, what’s the solution to the persistence of legalism in the Churches of Christ? Well, for some of us, maybe you, I’m persuaded God wants us to teach grace to the conservative Churches of Christ and rescue his children from a false gospel and, for many, misery. How do we do it? I’m still sorting it out, but let me make a few suggestions —

a. First, we have to get our own churches straight. The most convicting testimony to God’s good grace is a healthy congregation actively pursuing the mission of God in a visible way.

This doesn’t happen quickly, but the natural result of learning grace is learning to extend grace to others — by becoming a deeply loving, united church, by being active to help people in the community, and by being evangelistic. Just by becoming a Christ-like church, many will be convicted that your theology is sound. I speak from years of experience. It works.

We must teach grace explicitly and plainly in the classrooms of our churches — in all adult classes. And we must do so repeatedly. And we must reinforce the lessons from the pulpit (Bible classes come first, I think). Over time, our members with share what they learn with friends in other congregations. (It helps to have lesson outlines or a good book for them to study.)

b. We cannot dismiss our conservative brothers and sisters as beneath us or unworthy of our attention. Neither can we let them hold us back, or else we’ll never get the first step accomplished! It’s not about being bound by their scruples, but we do extend fellowship and love to them. They will often choose to separate from us, but the separation will be against our wishes. And we never, ever retaliate.

c. We look for opportunities to share the gospel with our conservative brothers. Maybe this is in private study sessions over breakfast. Maybe it’s sharing a blog or book with a friend at a sister congregation. Maybe it’s teaching a summer series at a church rethinking its views. Maybe its quiet visits among elders and ministers to study together.

The key passage is —

(2 Tim 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

The Churches of Christ have a long history of angry, condescending, caustic argumentation. We’ve been trained to treat those we disagree with contemptuously. And it doesn’t work.

When we escape legalism, we sometimes bring our most unattractive habits with us, and so we seek to beat the conservatives into submission through this sort of argument. I don’t think it works. Rather, we need to “argue” by forming a community of believers that is truly a community pursuing God’s mission. We add to that passionate, convicted argument. We don’t pretend that legalism is in any sense okay. We call sin sin. But we say it out of love.

It’s not an easy thing, and I wouldn’t pretend to have mastered it. But I at least know what how I’m supposed to argue.

I’m open to suggestions — specific or general — about how we win the conservative Churches of Christ to grace. I don’t think I have the answer, but surely this is part of it.

One last note: for those who are members of congregations consumed with legalism, you may well be the very person to lovingly and gently work within the church to change it. But if your efforts prove futile, move on. Serve God where you are, but serve God. And if your church won’t respond to your pleadings, go where you can serve God best.

And don’t dare sacrifice your children in order to stay and make things better. It’s not worth their souls. You may have to leave for the sake of your children and teach from outside the congregation — or take on another ministry altogether in another place.


11 Responses

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. Especially, I agree with the comment about our children. Parents should be willing (eager) to quit their jobs and move when necessary to find a place where their children will have the best chance to know God.

  2. I agree with the premise that a particular congregation may have a poor, if not bad, influence on the spiritual growth of children.

    However, the other side of the issue is that the spiritual development of children is the responsibility of parents, not the congregation.

    The balance between those two positions can be very difficult to determine or maintain.

  3. I agree that the parents have that responsibility. However, the question here is how many obstacles are you willing to place in their path? Parents who move to provide a better spiritual environment for their children are taking their responsibility seriously.

  4. “I’m open to suggestions — specific or general — about how we win the conservative Churches of Christ to grace. I don’t think I have the answer, but surely this is part of it.”

    Disclaimer – I am a grace-focused, conservative minister, serving as a missionary with a legalistic congregation.

    I appreciate the comments, thoughts and especially the sincerity behind them. I share in the earnest desire to unify the Church. I would love to see that happen in my life time. And that is the reason I am working with the congregation where I am at – struggling to push them towards the center.

    There’s two fundamental issues at play here. First, the primary roadblock is a difference of opinion on doctrine. As long as this difference exists, change will be hard to come by. When “liberal” brothers and sisters are dismissive of the doctrinal concerns as legalistic the gap widens and the disdain grows. I can’t stress this point enough.

    Second, the “conservative” or “legalistic” brothers and sisters are steeped in generations of traditions that they are literally scared to let go of. There is definitely a fear factor. Those who have thoughts opposing the legalism are reluctant to express them for fear of being ostracized. I pray, teach and work every day to break through this barrier. I hope, at least within my congregation, that I can have a positive impact on this -Perhaps even a positive impact on more in the area.

  5. J,

    Thanks greatly for the thoughts. You are a hero of the faith for the work you do.

    Let me emphasize this point: those who are steeped in legalism come in different packages —

    * Some have already figured out that legalism is wrong and are delighted when someone finally gives them an explanation for how what they instinctively know is true is in fact scriptural. Some will respond happily to a 20 minute sermon that says: it’s okay, you’re right.

    * Some have their doubts but insist on having it explained step by step. They aren’t willing to trust their intuition. They need the arguments (this was me).

    These people require a lot more teaching but (a) they are glad to do the study with some help and (b) once persuaded will have the tools to persuade others. You just have to approach them with a full toolbox.

    * Finally, some are scared to death of being wrong. They can’t let go of the old way of thinking because they don’t trust their own reasoning. These are the elders who let the old preacher handle the doctrine. These are the people who won’t listen to any lesson other than “5 acts” and “5 steps.”

    Some never change. Some only change when they (or a child) is divorced or they are found guilty of some horrible sin — and realize they need grace and can’t find it in the old doctrine.

    I truly think God sometimes opens people’s eyes by exposing their sins.

    These folks are tough to persuade because they’re afraid to listen.

    Maybe the cure is to build a strong, gracious congregation around them and let them see what grace can do for a church.

    But this means not running them off while not letting their scruples choke the church. In other words, it requires a lot of patience and a lot of love.

    And even then, it doesn’t always work.

  6. For a supposedly “non-doctrinal church” the Episcopal church has plenty of legalists too,we just have a lot more progressives; so dismissing conservatives as uneducated or some other condescending term comes pretty natural which isn’t any better than conservatives damning progressives.

    The early church had issues over similar problems with legalism. Paul did sort things out with Peter over the issue of Gentiles and circumcision, so issues can be worked out at least in the short term.
    Unfortunately, I don’t necessarily believe we will all be wholly reconciled (I mean unity of the entire one catholic church) until Jesus returns. Am i wrong?

  7. You might find this sermon by C. J. Mahaney helpful. I know I did. He has a slightly different take on the question.

    The sermon is based on Galatians 3:1-5, but it contains a lot of echos from Matthew 7: 1-5.

    Interrogating the Legalist Within

  8. There is an idea among some of our brothers that some how you can teach the same error as traditionalists about how God has chosen to save sinners and still be teaching and embracing grace.

    Grace can never be divorced from the gospel of Christ. It is a flawed understanding of the gospel that binds hearts and minds in legalism. It is only the truth about what God has accomplished based Christ’s worth and work that sets men free, and that IS grace.

    At the very heart of the doctrine of salvation is this undeniable truth. “By the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous”. (Romans 5:19)


  9. What Alan said …

    It’s tough enough raising kids without having to un-teach what they hear from the pulpit and in the classes — especially when they’ll hear at least once a year about how bad it is to run the preacher down in the car on the way home (which I agree with).

    Children are very literal thinkers. You can’t really teach them to respect God’s church and its leaders while contradicting them routinely.

  10. A HUGE thank you to Witness Protection for the link to C. J. Mahaney’s sermon on legalism – Food for my soul!

    I loved his point about how Paul was more passionate in this letter (Galatians) than any other – even with all the perversions, pride and boasting within the Corinthian church.

    It is the theft of glory that is the highest offense – ONLY GOD THROUGH JESUS – ONLY, ONLY, ONLY!

  11. “Theft of Glory”

    Wow, just wow! Mind blowing phrase.

    Taking the glory from Jesus and placing it in our hands. Making ourselves god(s). Just wow!

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