True wisdom comes to each of us
when we realize how little we
understand about life, ourselves,
and the world around us.
when we realize how little we
understand about life, ourselves,
and the world around us.
Please take a few minutes to watch this video before you read this post.
The video clip you watched is an excerpt from a sermon delivered by Rick Atchley, Minister for The Hills Church in Fort Worth, Texas. I discovered this video in 2019, and it is, to my knowledge, the best explanation I've ever seen of some of the problems in the theology taught in conservative Churches of Christ. The Churches of Christ are autonomous Christian congregations that are part of the Stone-Campbell Movement, a Christian movement that began in the United States during the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. Churches of Christ are known for being the most conservative wing of this movement, and this wing is the religious tradition I was raised in.
As someone who was raised in one of these churches, I was taught no one outside conservative Churches of Christ is a true Christian. Those outside conservative Churches of Christ include not only non-Christians (like atheists, Muslims, and Hindus) but also what many conservative Churches of Christ would call denominationalists (like Baptists, Catholics, and Presbyterians) and “liberal” Churches of Christ, like the Hills Church I just mentioned above. Until the early 2000s, I had no reason to question this doctrine. Yet, two events occurred in my childhood that motivated me to question it. One, in the early 2000s, my parents decided to homeschool my siblings and I and gave us literature written by denominationalists that revealed certain truths about the Christian worldview that I was never taught in the Church of Christ. Two, I started reading the work of Church of Christ writers outside the congregation I was raised in and started to see that my congregation was wrong about many issues. While I could have ignored the literature I was reading, these two discoveries helped me realize the Church of Christ might not have a monopoly on the truth, and because of that, the sectarian, legalistic mindset I was raised to have might be hindering my spiritual growth.
In 2005, I, motivated by curiosity, a desire to grow, and a desire to be reasonable and open-minded, unintentionally embarked on a long journey out of the legalistic theology I was taught, and I have had to completely abandon it and replace it with a better one. This post is the first in a long series of posts I plan to compose that will reveal how I’ve made my journey out of the legalism of conservative Churches of Christ.
What is Legalism?
Before I even begin this series, I think it's necessary for me to define what legalism is, for some might not be familiar with this word. I also need to properly define this word because some in the Church of Christ believe there's nothing wrong with being a legalist. They believe legalism is simply "strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit" (“Legalism”). While this is certainly one definition of legalism that captures how legalists are preoccupied with technicalities, it doesn't capture on how legalists confuse their own human creeds with the Bible and make their creeds into tests of fellowship. The best definition of legalism I know of comes from another blogger named Tyler Boyd on a website called The Christian Exile. In his lengthy critique of preacher Kevin Pendergrass' book A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace, Boyd defines legalism this way:
"'Legalism' should thus be understood as the mistake Christians make when they exalt sectarian practices, beliefs, or creeds, which compromise the sufficiency of God’s grace given through Christ.
With this in mind, we can recognize that legalism does in fact destroy grace. Legalism is the charge made against other Christians that, even though they have obeyed the gospel, and even though they give faithful, obedient, allegiance to Jesus as Lord, that God’s grace is insufficient to cover their sins. Legalism destroys grace" (Boyd 2019).
Even though I started writing this series in 2019 and published several parts of it, I lost interest in it and turned my focus to other pursuits. I knew so many members of conservative Churches of Christ are so thoroughly ingrained in and blinded by their legalistic theology that any effort I made to help them out of legalism would probably prove to be nothing but a foolish waste of my time and energy.
However, throughout 2019, I was able to correspond with many other members of the Church of Christ on Facebook who have seen the same problems I see in our theology and who have escaped legalism in diverse ways. Corresponding with these Christians has led me to a Church of Christ here in Indianapolis, Indiana that is trying to come out of legalism, and I’ve decided to leave the congregation my family and I are members of to become a member of that congregation. While I still harbor no delusions that I’ll be able to convince many members of conservative Churches of Christ to change their minds about anything, I believe rewriting this series of blog posts will both help me bypass the long and burdensome task of trying to vocally explain why I’ve decided to leave and encourage members of conservative Churches of Christ to consider the possibility they're wrong.
An Overview of the Series
My journey out of legalism has been complex and messy, like the journeys of many Christians who've risen out of legalism. To help my readers understand this journey, I plan to focus the posts in this series on the most important discoveries I've made about the theology and behavior of conservative Churches of Christ and how I think I should respond to both. The second post in this series will reveal my childhood in the Church of Christ and how the sectarian, legalistic theology I was taught influenced the way I understood and interacted with non-Christians. The third post will disclose how and why my parents transferred my siblings and I from public school to homeschool and how the denominational literature my parents gave us to study revealed certain truths about the Christian worldview that I was never taught in the Church of Christ. The fourth post will describe how and why I started reading the theological literature of Churches of Christ outside the congregation I was raised in and how reading this literature enabled me to discover how the sectarian, legalistic theology I was taught had caused my congregation to misunderstand many issues. The fifth post will reveal how all the discoveries I had made up to that point motivated me to be more open-minded in my studies. This post will also reveal how applying this more open-minded approach lead to me to diverse works of theology, philosophy, and history from writers both in and outside the Church of Christ.
The sixth post will explain how this extensive reading helped me see that conservative Churches of Christ teach a confusing, inconsistent combination of perfectionism and tolerance that has divided them ever since the 1800s. The seventh post will reveal what I think are the origins of the inconsistencies in Church of Christ theology. The eighth post will explore how I think conservative Churches of Christ can resolve the inconsistencies in their theology by improving their understanding of God's grace. The ninth post will discuss how the culture of many conservative Churches of Christ, including the one I'm currently a member of, is resistant to change and why I believe most attempts to help conservative Churches of Christ resolve the inconsistencies in their theology are probably doomed to failure. The tenth post will explain why I think it's best for a Christian like me to change his membership to a healthier Church of Christ. The eleventh and final post will reveal the positive and negative effects my journey out of legalism has had on my spirituality, and it will explain how I hope to grow in the future.
The Difficulties of Penning this Series
Although I was a Bible teacher for five years, I’m neither a preacher nor a theologian. I’m simply a Christian who loves God and is deeply concerned about properly understanding His Word. Hence, I won’t use a lot of the lingo preachers and theologians might use in their compositions. In these posts, I’ll be speaking frankly and plainly. However, while any disciple of Christ can benefit from these posts, my primary audience is the Church of Christ. So, some of the concepts I'll discuss might be unfamiliar to those outside this fellowship.
Sadly, because the Church of Christ has such a long history of harassing, belittling, ostracizing, or ignoring anyone who attempts to talk about problems in their traditions, many members of conservative Churches of Christ might believe I'm writing these posts out of ignorance or rebelliousness. I don’t believe I’m ignorant, and anyone who knows me knows I'm not rebellious. But after 15 years of study, I'm now convinced that some of the doctrines taught by conservative Churches of Christ are wrong.
Writing this series is challenging, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. The topics I'm trying to discuss in these posts are complex, and it's difficult to summarize 15 years of your life in a few blog posts. It's also hard to discuss problems in a religious tradition with those who haven't seen these problems on their own. So, it will take a while for me to complete this series.
I hope any members of conservative Churches of Christ reading these posts will show the same open-mindedness to me that they expect non-Christians to show to them whenever they attempt to convert them. And I hope that what I write in these posts will help members of conservative Churches of Christ understand that I didn't choose to leave the Church of Christ I'm a member of because I'm ignorant or rebellious. I chose to change my membership to a healthier Church of Christ because that's where I believe God has been directing me for the past 15 years.
May God bless you all, and be on the lookout for my next post.
Boyd, Tyler. “Does Faithfulness Destroy Grace? (Legalism, Part 9 of 14).” The Christian Exile, 26 June 2019, thechristianexile.com/2019/06/24/does-faithfulness-destroy-grace-legalism-part-9-of-14/.
“Legalism.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/legalism?s=t.
My name is Jacob Stubbs. I have a bachelor's degree in English from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and I am a writer an an artist.