A Fundamental Apology: My Journey Out of Legalism

The darker contours of fundamentalism’s shadow hung over my relationships, conversations, and ministry for too many years. I had a legalistic bent and expected everyone to conform to my standards. I lacked compassion and acted as if grace was merely an abstract idea to be studied instead of a reality to be declared, embraced, offered, and received. I was wrong. I am sorry.

My journey out of legalism came through a series of events where I had to take a step back and question what I was hearing. The first was a youth rally, where the preacher devoted fifteen minutes to speaking against men wearing flip-flops or shorts in the sanctuary. Another was at a chapel service at the college I attended, where speaking against the denomination’s flagship college because they allowed women to wear pants became a sermon topic. Despite growing up in that environment and having that perspective taught in the early years of my theological training, I knew that something wasn’t right.

After one semester at that college, I left, and my theological paradigm’s trajectory shifted. However, the darker aspects of legalism and fundamentalism haunted me personally and reared their ugly head in my interactions with others through teaching and ministry. I had traded concrete legalism for philosophical. Instead of the external rules to signify one’s devotion to God, I was convinced it was internal fervor that must serve as the metric of our faith.

Thinking that I’d abandoned a Pharisaic outlook, I pressed into zeal for Christ, without realizing I’d exchanged one brand of self-righteousness for another. If we were delighted enough in Christ, I thought everything would fall in line. The problem was that the focus was still on a person’s performance. Neither our heart nor our works can bear the weight of our iniquity.

Through years of seminary, teaching, ministry, failure, and sin, my understanding of the Christian life fundamentally changed. I have to be careful not to overcorrect and lash out too harshly at those who share a commitment to orthodox Christianity, albeit from a perspective with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

My journey doesn’t excuse the blind acceptance of religion and the peddling of works righteousness I engaged in, but hopefully, it provides context. To those I withheld grace from, those I hit over the head with the law in their struggling, those I preached down to, and those I silently judged, please consider my sincere apology.

Let me also take a moment to clarify this apology. There is a lot of conversation about deconstructing your faith, which isn’t happening here. My faith hasn’t eroded as I’ve journeyed away from the religious elements that accompanied me during the first two decades of my spiritual walk. Instead, it’s grown deeper through being further rooted in the very core of Christianity: Christ and the Gospel.

So, while I regret the self-righteousness that emanated from me like toxic radiation in those days, I still embrace and unashamedly stand on the atoning work of Christ for sinners. If you’re hurting, broken, defeated, or depressed, then I’ve got good news for you as well as myself. We don’t need new rules, standards, or more profound pious devotion. We need Christ, and He is for us. I make no apologies for that glorious reality.

Chris Dunn
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