For many years there has been the notion among some people that American Christianity is too concerned with doctrine and theology and less concerned with helping the needy and oppressed of society. This narrative, to a degree successfully promulgated, was fostered by those with a liberal mindset toward Christianity. More importantly, within the church community this narrative has been embraced by what has become known as Progressive Christianity. Progressives, both secular and religious, have effectively controlled the narrative that conservatives lack compassion, care for the poor and oppressed, and that they are too focused on morals and values issues that they ignore critical human needs. But is this narrative really true, or is this an argument developed by Progressive Christianity in opposition to the church’s historical emphasis on right beliefs?
What is Progressive Christianity?
Progressive Christianity, as defined by Roger Wosley in his book, Kissing Fish: Christianity For People Who Don’t Like Christianity, “Is an approach to the Christian faith that is influenced by post-liberalism and postmodernism and: proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as Christ, Savior, and Lord; emphasizes the Way and teachings of Jesus, not merely His person; emphasizes God’s immanence not merely God’s transcendence; leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism; emphasizes salvation here and now instead of primarily in heaven later; emphasizes being saved for robust, abundant/eternal life over being saved from hell; emphasizes the social/communal aspects of salvation instead of merely the personal; stresses social justice as integral to Christian discipleship; takes the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally, embracing a more interpretive, metaphorical understanding; emphasizes orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy (right actions over right beliefs); embraces reason as well as paradox and mystery — instead of blind allegiance to rigid doctrines and dogmas; does not consider homosexuality to be sinful; and does not claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God (is non-exclusive)” (Emphasis mine).
Progressive Christianity denies the essential doctrines of orthodox and evangelical Christianity with the view that the central focus of Christianity must be its social influence rather than its theological influence originating from the identity and work of Jesus Christ. In fact, on most Progressive Christian websites very little is said about Jesus, the atonement, sin, and salvation. Progressive Christianity is essentially a works philosophy under the guise of Christianity.
What Are The Core Beliefs Of Progressive Christianity?
As with any belief system, there must be a foundation that adherents refer to, either in the positive or the negative, to make sense of its belief structure. Progressive Christianity is influenced by the Bible, but not by the Bible solely. As mentioned above, Progressive Christianity begins with a set of assumptions that guide its perspective of the Bible. It is a faith “influenced by post-liberalism and postmodernism.” These perspectives are essentially anti-Christian in their worldview. Thus, to use them as the interpretive framework for the Bible is to deny the historical reliability of the Bible from the get go instead of letting the Bible speak for itself. Note the claims by Progressives concerning the Bible:
Regarding the Bible’s claim about the virgin birth of Jesus, Eric Alexander, writing in Progressive Christianity: Fact Or Fiction, says, “It is indeed probably a myth and not worth squabbling over its historicity.” However, defining the virgin birth of Jesus as myth effectively robs Jesus of his claims to divinity by denying the incarnation. If there was no incarnation then it follows that Jesus was not God in human flesh. This makes Jesus a simple man like any other instead of the “God-man” of orthodoxy.
According to Gregory C. Jenks, writing in Taking The Bible Seriously But Not Literally, “The events represented in the Bible [are] more often fictional than historical…the Bible may need to be read contrary to its literal and historical significance…For its own sake as much as for ours, the Bible needs a demotion.”
Fellow progressive, Dwight Welch agrees, stating that, “The moment Genesis is taken as a historical record is the moment that it can be dismissed. And unfortunately that means that whatever resources can be found in Genesis will likewise be dismissed” (A Progressive Christian Case For Original Sin, “Approaching Justice”).
Progressive Christianity rejects the Bible as an authoritative volume on the spiritual matters on which is speaks. “We believe that the Bible is a human construction and it is, therefore, full of both human promise and human error. We believe that no humanly constructed book can be the authoritative word of God” (Gretta Vosper, We Believe, Canadian Center For Progressive Christianity).
Foundationally, the Bible holds an influential place in progressive theology, but it is not the central influence. In fact, Progressive Christianity sources other religious documents and claims and incorporates them into its belief structure. In Progressive Christianity, Jesus isn’t the only way to God and other religions are valid. “The belief that Christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion. In contrast to mainstream Christianity’s lukewarm “tolerance” of other religions, progressive Christianity pro-actively asserts that it is not the best or the only. Progressive Christians take pains to claim simultaneously their own Christian faith and their support of the complete validity of other religions” (Grassroots Progressive Christianity, Hal Taussig).
Progressive Christianity’s incorporation of other belief systems into its own happens on every level, including worship where some old, traditional hymns are rewritten in keeping with their eclectic beliefs, such as this rendition of, That Old Time Religion: “Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me. It was good enough for Buddha, it was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for Mohammad, and it’s good enough for me…it was good enough for Krishna, it was good enough for Gandhi, it was good enough for Teresa, and it’s good enough for me” (Jim Burklo).
By rejecting the incarnation and demoting the Bible’s authority, Progressive Christianity does violence to the doctrine of sin. Its view is that there is no original sin from which man needs saving. “Humans haven’t ‘fallen’ from some idealized status or state of being, and there was no literal ‘original sin’ (Roger Wolsey, March 11, 2014). This view includes all kinds of sin, including sexual sin and homosexuality. “These groups are explicitly and thoroughly committed to feminism and affirmation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people” (Grassroots Progressive Christianity, Hal Taussig).
So, in the name of acceptance and affirmation, Progressive Christianity does away with the traditional understanding of sin and takes a stand directly opposite that of the Bible on man’s sin problem and need for a savior, specifically, from sin. It builds community around its redefinition instead of the Bible’s claims. However, you can find acceptance and affirmation from virtually any group: Latter Day Saints, the local mosque, a Buddhist temple, among atheist groups, the bar down the street, and even a Star Trek convention. But acceptance and affirmation don’t change us spiritually or make our beliefs correct. A vibrant spiritual life isn’t based solely upon community, though community is an important element. A vibrant spiritual life must be based on revealed truth—the truth about who Jesus is, what he has done, and what our proper response should be in light of that knowledge. These are all truths contained within the Bible, to which progressives give only a pseudo-acceptance.
Progressive Christianity doesn’t truly deal with sin and it rejects the substitutionary atonement of Christ. This is important, for without the substitutionary atonement of Christ there is no forgiveness of sin. If there is no forgiveness then there is no impartation of grace or mercy. Thus, we are still in our sin and there is no salvation and no relationship with God. Progressive Christianity paints Jesus as more of a philosopher than a redeemer, and is therefore a denial of the fundamentals of our faith and cannot rightly be called Christian.
Orthopraxy vs. Orthodoxy
The chief problem with progressive Christianity is what it does to the work of the gospel. In Orthodox or evangelical Christianity the Christian is tasked with spreading the message of the Gospel about Jesus to the world. But, in Progressive Christianity there is no gospel to spread. This is its greatest failure. Its community meetings and involvement do nothing about the sin problem because there is no atonement for sin and thus there is no need to spread the message about Jesus’ atonement. The implication of progressive Christianity’s central idea of universalism means that since all will be saved anyway there is no need to reach everyone with the gospel. The reality is that this doesn’t save anyone.
The tragedy of progressive Christianity is similar to the lawyer who came to question Jesus in Mark 12:28-34. “One of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”
Notice that the scribe had the correct answer about the scripture, but Jesus didn’t say he was in the kingdom, only that he was nor far from it. In other words, he was still outside the kingdom. What did the scribe lack? It was the understanding that Jesus was the one to whom the scribe’s supreme love was owed. Progressive Christianity makes the same error.
Progressive Christianity has some of the right answers when it comes to helping the poor and oppressed. But because it denies the atonement, the reason for Jesus’ coming, it essentially denies Jesus’ greatest work, and his person. This puts Progressive Christianity outside of orthodoxy. It seeks to obey principles of mercy, but it denies the ultimate mission of the Mercy Giver, and the Giver himself. In their noble desire for right behavior (orthopraxy), progressives have forgotten right beliefs (orthodoxy) when in reality the first should be a natural, organic procession from the latter.
Without a right view of Jesus and the atonement, Progressive Christianity falls under the category of a religious cult. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cults share this in common with progressives. They have many right behaviors, but their theology about Jesus, the atonement, and requirements for salvation place them outside of orthodoxy, which places them outside of biblically-based Christianity. There are many genuine Christians caught up in progressivism because of their heartfelt design to reach the poor and help the oppressed. But how are their good works any different from the good works of a mormon, or even the atheist who wants to relieve suffering? There is no difference. What makes a Christian a Christian is the holding fast to the person of Jesus, his sacrifice for sin, his resurrection, and exclusive devotion to God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Without these, Progressive Christianity isn’t really Christianity at all.