For a number of years now there has been a growing movement appearing on the horizon that describes itself as "Progressive" Christianity. You might think the word progressive sounds attractive and exciting, especially when the word precedes Christianity. Merriam Webster says, the word progressive means something characterized by progress or when we make use or show interest in new ideas, findings, or opportunities.Who can find fault with that? If that's all it meant, that would be fine. But the difficulty comes, when you uncover what lies behind the use of the word progressive, especially when it is used in defining people's interpretation of Christianity.
Progressive Christianity seeks to reform orthodox Christianity by going beyond the verifiable historicity and exegesis of Biblical passages, by either reading a whole lot more into a passage, or by redacting passages to accommodate progressive motifs.
Progressive Christianity is a post-modern theological attempt to rebrand the term Liberal Christianity. Progressive Christianity aligns with the thinking of liberal theologians from modernity and post-modernity.
Progressive Christianity questions tradition, supports human diversity, and places a strong emphasis on social justice and environmental stewardship of the earth. So, what's wrong with these things? Nothing, on their own merit. As stand-alone issues, they can all be embraced from an orthodox evangelical Christian standpoint.
Problems arise, however, when these causes come in conflict with biblical truth. That's when Progressive Christianity seems willing to jettison biblical truth, or ignore it altogether, to accommodate whatever is the most vocal or pressing social justice issue of the day.
Progressives find it easier to take a "Thus says the Lord" statement and reinterpret it for today as "Thus said the Lord back then, but not now". In other words, God's Word is not transcendent and eternal, it is transient and historically restricted.
Accommodating people with what they want to hear has always been a danger in Christianity. People's aversion to hearing the truth, when it goes counter to their lifestyle, is not new. Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, "For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths."
Now, when Paul told Timothy this, he never told Timothy – "If you see these times coming you better get tickling their ears or you are going to be irrelevant with the times." Instead he told him, "But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you (2 Timothy 4:5)." In other words, maintain a level head, keep true to the gospel and your ministry, and whatever you do, resist every effort to reject the truth and accommodate people's whims.
As a National Pastor, I would love to see our churches be progressive by being creative, innovative and visionary, but I would never want to see them fall into a progressivism that believes the truth must be watered down for the sake of relevancy. That is not progressive, it is regressive.
How would we know progressive Christianity if we saw it? Here are some things you should be on the lookout for.
1. Progressive Christianity has Flexible Bible
One of the main differences between Progressive Christianity and Orthodox Christianity is the view they have of the Bible. Historically, Christians have viewed the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. They have believed in Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) where the Scriptures are our only guide for faith and practice.
Progressive Christianity generally abandons these terms, emphasizing a personal and subjective belief over accepting biblical commands or directives. For example, you might hear people say things like: "The Bible is just a human book compiled by human authors", or "That might have been true for the Apostle Paul in his day but he would've thought differently if he were living in our day", or, "The Bible "contains" the word of God but it is not the word of God.
2. The Subjective Realm is More Important than Objective Truth
In "Progressive" churches, personal experiences, feelings, interpretations and opinions tend to be valued more than objective truth. These churches have become breeding grounds for relativism. God's word is not appealed to for authoritative and absolute truth because feelings are considered more important.
When this happens, you start hearing things like: "I feel good about this, therefore it must be right," or "This Bible verse just doesn't cut it with me," or, "I thought such and such was a sin until I met some Christians who told me it's time for me to lighten up", or, here is one that you will hear often, "I just can’t believe a loving God would send someone to hell."
When feelings are appealed to as a factual way to interpret the Bible, there is no telling how much of God's Word will get twisted. I used to say, "Don't arrange the Bible to fit your lifestyle, arrange your lifestyle to fit the Bible." It is not a little makeover that we need, it's contrition and repentance – a total change in one's orientation, thinking and direction.
3. Two Millenia of Christianity is Open for Re-interpretation
Progressive Christians believe that tradition, dogma, and doctrine are all fair game for reinterpretation. Progressive Christians are open to re-defining and re-interpreting the Bible on a host of issues including hot-button moral issues, and cardinal doctrines such as the incarnation and the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
You will know you are in a Progressive Christian church when you hear things like: The resurrection of Jesus is not factual, its allegorical", "The church's historic position on sexuality is archaic and needs to get with the times", or "The idea of a literal hell is offensive to non-Christians and needs to be re-interpreted, or, "The substitutionary death of Jesus to atone for our sins was a form of Divine child abuse."
With progressive Christians, they may say they believe in doctrines like biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and biblical authority, but you should watch them do linguistic gymnastics around the inconvenient truths they don't like in the Bible.
Progressive Christians also like to emote all over the word love. Love becomes a catch-all term for everything non-confrontative, accommodating and affirming. You'll know you're in a progressive Christian church when you start to hear things like: "God wouldn't punish sinners – He is a God of love", or, "We've misunderstood the Bible for the first 2,000 years of church history and now we have to reinterpret all over again", or, "It's not our job to talk to anyone about their sin—it's just our job to love them."
Progressive Christianity practices historical and biblical revisionism. They would like to think that other Christians and theologians for the past 2,000 years got everything completely wrong and they have to fix it. No arrogance there! They also fond of picking and choosing their favourite passages in the Bible to the exclusion of other important truths.
4. Jesus' Message to Repent is Replaced by Social Justice Overtones
The very first message Jesus ever preached was after his experience of being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. We read in Matthew 4:17, "From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” His message to repent was for all people and all social-economic classes." Jesus wasn't partial. He didn't say only the rich need to repent – everyone needed to repent.
There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. This is a very profound part of what it means to live out the Christian faith. However, the core message of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was resurrected, and desires us to be reconciled to God. This is the only message that will bring freedom to the oppressed in all stations of life.
Many Progressive Christians find the concept of God sending His Son to die on a cross to be embarrassing or even appalling. The concept of blood atonement is de-emphasized or denied altogether while social justice and good works are enthroned in its place.
You'll know you're in a progressive Christian church when you hear things like: "Sin doesn't separate us from God—we are made in His image and He called us good," "God didn't actually require a sacrifice for our sins—the first Christians picked up on the pagan practice of animal sacrifice and told the Jesus story in similar terms", "We don't really need to preach the gospel—we just need to show love by bringing justice to the oppressed and provision to the needy."
Identifying the signs of "Progressive Christianity" is not always obvious – sometimes those signs are subtly mixed with a bit of truth. Progressive Christianity can be persuasive and enticing, but if carried to its logical end, it will completely disable the gospel of any salvific power.
Church let's be vigilant. Let's be progressive for Christ. But let's progressively follow Jesus's advice, “Watch out for false prophets” who “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
Remember what Paul said too, "I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes (Acts. 20:20)."The key word in that verse is needed. It may not be convenient to tell people what they need to hear from God's Word. But we are not out to win a popularity contest.
We cannot shrink back from our duty to share God's Word in grace and truth. Paul had said this because he was concerned that after his departure the church could face erroneous teaching. He said, "Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out! (Acts 20:30-31)"
And let us not forget Jude's warning to the church,
Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people. I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. The condemnation of such people was recorded long ago, for they have denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 1:3-4).
Let's be progressive churches that contend for the faith entrusted once for all time to his holy people!