The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Legalism, Part 1 of 14)

I’ve only had a few interactions with Kevin Pendergrass over the years, but I’ve been intrigued by his story. Just a few short years ago, Kevin had a reputation among many as a “sound” gospel preacher, or, if you ask others, they might say he had a reputation as an “ultra-conservative”.  Yet over a relatively short time, Kevin changed drastically. According to some, he “left the faith” and joined the ranks of liberalism. According to others, “he came to understand his own shortcomings and his desperate need for God’s grace.” Regardless of your opinion of Kevin Pendergrass, the fact that someone could change so drastically in such a short period of time is intriguing. (If you want to get a feel for yourself, you can read some of Kevin’s recent articles here).

Kevin grew up running in many of the same circles I did. He graduated from the East Tennessee School of Preaching (now the Southeast Institute of Biblical Studies), and spent over six years living in Oklahoma working as preacher, debater, and co-host for “The Gospel of Christ”, a television show that has been supported by several congregations I’ve been associated with.

I first had interactions with Kevin back when he was at preaching school and I was in college. Although there were some points of doctrine where he and I disagreed, I’ve always respected Kevin. Even in our disagreements, I have been impressed by Kevin’s knowledge of scripture, his logic, and his ability to skillfully combine the two when he makes his arguments. More than anything, Kevin has always struck me as someone who loves the truth and is willing to follow the truth wherever it leads.

After college I lost contact with Kevin for several years. Then a few months ago I noticed an article on Facebook which he had written, and I was shocked. Kevin had changed his position, drastically, on several points of doctrine. Kevin had apparently swung from one extreme to another. Yes, I had several disagreements with him in the past, but now I found myself disagreeing with him on a number of issues – issues that I think are important.

Shortly thereafter I learned that Kevin was working on a book on legalism. This was a book I definitely wanted to read for multiple reasons.

For one, I have had it “up to here” with the accusation of “legalism” being thrown out against churches simply because they emphasize Scripture as an authoritative standard for right and wrong, teach against sin, emphasize obedience, or hold other Christians accountable to the whole counsel of God. And more than that, I’ve had it “up to here” with church bashing books, written by bitter souls who seem to look for every possible shortcoming of Christians to tear down the church which Jesus loves.  In part, I wanted to read this book so I could be better prepared to make counter arguments against such false accusations.

But secondly, I wanted to read this book because of the respect I have for Kevin. Whatever can be said about Kevin, nobody can accuse Kevin of being ignorant of scripture, insincere in his pursuit of truth, or illogical in his thinking. That’s why I was so curious. Why would Kevin, of all people, write a book to bash the church for being too legalistic? What had happened with Kevin? Why had he changed? I couldn’t wait to read this book.

The book is entitled “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. If you are interested, I encourage you to purchase the book here.

After I received Kevin’s book and started reading it, I’ve had several ask me to “share my thoughts” on his book. So I planned on writing a book review. But once I got started, I quickly realized that the depth and the importance of the topic of “legalism” demands much more than a quick book review. So what started as a book review has quickly developed into a multi-part series on legalism.

Even if you aren’t familiar with Kevin Pendergrass or his story, there is a good chance that you know of stories similar to his. Kevin is certainly not the only Christian to leave “conservative” churches behind. This story happens often. Why is this? Why do so many accuse the church of being too legalistic? Could they be right? Does the church need to make changes to avoid legalism?

Throughout this series I plan on conversing with several of the ideas discussed in Kevin’s book. From the start I want to say that I greatly enjoyed reading Kevin’s book, and I recommend that you read it. After a couple of introductory posts, I want to share some specific things that I really appreciated about this book. After that I plan on giving an overview of Kevin’s argument as it is presented in the book. Then I plan on spending several posts addressing what I see as the book’s major flaw and flushing out some of the implications of this flaw. Finally, once we have developed a biblical understanding of legalism, I want to discuss how our understanding of legalism can help the church to navigate some tricky issues.

Continue reading part 2 here: Admitting My Bias (Legalism, Part 2 of 14)