Fundamentalist vs. Progressive Christians | World Challenge

Fundamentalist vs. Progressive Christians

Rachel Chimits
September 23, 2020

Some believers argue that we should withdraw from popular culture while others think we should adjust our tenets to the modern ethos, but who is right?

Silence, Shūsaku Endō’s novel about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the early 1600s, follows a zealous young Jesuit priest in Japan. Near the end of the book, he is captured with a group of native believers who, he is informed, will be tortured and killed one-by-one until he recants his faith. He finds himself in jail with an older ex-priest named Ferreira, listening to the moans of the dying Christians. 

“[O]n this, the most important night of his whole life, he should be disturbed by such a vile and discordant noise — this realization suddenly filled him with rage. He felt that his life was simply being trifled with; and when the groaning ceased for a moment, he began to beat on the wall. But the guards, like those disciples who in Gethsemane slept in utter indifference to the torment of that man, did not get up.”

When Ferreira asks him to deny God in order to save the believers being tortured, the young priest replies, “In return for these earthly sufferings, those people will receive a reward of eternal joy.”

“’Don’t deceive yourself! said Ferreira. ‘Don’t disguise your own weakness with those beautiful words.’

“’My weakness?’ The priest shook his head; yet he had no self-confidence. ‘What do you mean? It’s because I believe in the salvation of these people…’

“’You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say that you will apostatize, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refuse to do so. It’s because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me.’ Until now Ferreira’s words had burst out as a single breath of anger, but now his voice gradually weakened as he said: ‘Yet I was the same as you. On that cold, black night I, too, was as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here…’

“’For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: ‘Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.’”

Up to this point, the young priest has fanatically followed all of the conventions and rules of the Jesuit faith and demanded that the Japanese believers conform to his rigid, European traditions. Ferreira, on the other hand, pushes him toward a life of absorption into the culture, taking a nonbelieving wife, obeying Japanese Shinto traditions and living as a Christian almost indistinguishable from the culture.

Which is better? Which is worse? Who is right?

Free From All Concerns or Convictions

The “hyper-grace” movement has become one of the biggest movements in the modern evangelical church. It echoes, in many ways, the movement of progressive, postmodern thought in our culture.

Your experience is the most important part of your identity. Your feelings matter more than the facts. If you feel forgiven, then you are! God loves you exactly how you are, warts and sinful habits included. Confession and repentance belong in the camp of those legalistic, modern Pharisees. God just wants his children to be happy, healthy and wealthy.

The Bible has been long overdue for an update so that Christians don’t have to sound like cultural Luddites when they discuss issues like abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism and social justice. Speaking of outdated, why are we still talking about hell?

“The past several decades we have seen a dramatic decline in doctrinal and biblical preaching. We have gone from theology to therapy in the pulpits,” the Joseph Mattera blog explains.

“This is nothing new. For centuries the Body of Christ has wrestled with something called antinomianism (anti means against; nomos means law). This is the belief that the moral law of the Old Testament has been done away with, and that, once we are in Christ, there is free grace in which we can almost live any way we want since we are not under the law but under grace.”

The primary problem is that Christ called out sin, pretty stridently in some cases. He drove racketeers out of the temple with a whip and sharply rebuked his own disciples on a few occasions. The hyper-grace mentality simply isn’t biblical.

Compelling Truth summed it up this way. “While teaching God's great mercy and grace for His followers is good and needed, we need to study and understand God's holiness and justice as well. We need to know the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27). We are instructed to ‘pursue righteousness’ (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22; 3:16). In other words, we have not arrived and must grow spiritually, which includes confession of sin. How can we experience the spiritual discipline that Hebrews 12:11 talks about that leads to a ‘fruit of righteousness’ if that is not in response to our understood errors and immaturities?”

Unfortunately, the response to hyper-grace is often to swing all the way over to the polar opposite.

Hauling the Cross Up the Hill

Rigid, “fundamentalist” Christians firmly believe in the law and literal interpretations of scripture. Jesus died to snatch you from the eternal flames, but you’ve got a lot of work to do before you’re anywhere near forgiven.

Paul warned the Corinthian church that if they took communion in an unworthy manner, they would become sick and die (see 1 Corinthians 11:26-32). If you don’t confess all your sins before taking the bread and juice, you’ll face fatal judgment from heaven. God smote Uzzah dead for touching the ark of the covenant irreverently. He could still smite people who come into church disrespectfully too, so take off your hat, son.

Secular movies, music and people can corrupt your soul and endanger your own salvation, so contact with the outside world must be done judiciously, i.e. as little as possible. Christians exist in the world to call out its sin and warn godless reprobates of their eminent doom. Be ye warned: hell is a lot closer than heaven.

Pastor Erik Raymond pointed out that this mentality leads to four major issues.

  1. Legalism holds individuals to unbiblical standards.

  2. Legalism makes God’s pleasure in us based on personal performance.

  3. Legalism squashes mercy and humility as people strive for spiritual supremacy.  

  4. Legalism demotes Jesus’ sufficient righteousness in favor of our own merits.

In his famous sermon of seven woes, Christ said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in….

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:11-13, 27-28, ESV).

There’s little love to be found in legalism, and this often leaves moralistic individuals who care more about the rules than the suffering people around them.

Marshall Segal, writer and managing editor for Desiring God, noted, “Those who use grace to justify sin and those who obey to justify themselves have one great problem in common: self, not Christ, is at the center. Everything — grace and law, faith, work, and church, Christ and everyone else — revolves around me. But if Christ becomes the blazing sun, the irresistible center of gravity, then grace will truly reign in us and bear the fruit of real righteousness.”

Living in an Important Tension

People usually incline toward legalism or license in response to the burden of sin on our conscience, but how do we find a healthy response to Christ’s redemption and our ongoing struggle with sin?

In a newsletter, David Wilkerson, “[W]hen we sin, we are accused by two powerful forces. The first is Satan, whom the Bible calls ‘the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night’ (Revelation 12:10, NKJV). The devil stands before the heavenly Father, accusing us of every fresh failure and demanding, ‘God, if you are holy, you'll do something about this. You've got to condemn him to the same hell you've damned me to for my pride.’

“The second powerful force that accuses us is our own conscience. ‘Their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them’ (Romans 2:15). We stand before God with our head hanging low because our conscience lets us know ‘I am guilty before God.’

“God does not deny our guilt because he cannot lie. He never sees us as innocent because we are plainly guilty before him, caught in the web of sin. Indeed, our justification has nothing to with our being innocent. When we are pardoned by God because of the cross, it is as guilty law-breakers. He never vindicates us but instead forgives us, pardoning our sins by his grace and mercy alone.

“’I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins’ (Isaiah 43:25). ‘You have cast all my sins behind Your back’ (Isaiah 38:17). ‘You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea’ (Micah 7:19).”

On one hand, we must squarely acknowledge the depth and breadth of our own sinfulness as well as the overwhelming vastness and holiness of God.

On the other hand, God has taken the punishment for our sin, seen that justice was done and graciously given us his love. That freedom should bring joy and a delight in the goodness of our Savior. These two combinations of knowledge and emotion aren’t incompatible; in fact, each is only truly possible when they come hand-in-hand.

Sliding into either legalism or license is easier because it requires less rerouting, less effort, less conflict; but the tension between holy fear of God and celebration of redemption is where new life grows best.