Many conservative Christians continue to ponder why people are leaving their churches. The answer lies in the tight-gripped theologies found in blogs like this one which squeeze the Spirit, and the entire idea of faith, out of churches, and ultimately out of our lives.
If you read this blog, and like a few of my friends on Facebook, posted it on their timeline, I wonder: what are you trying to communicate and to whom?
To the author, the same question: what are you trying to communicate, to whom, and to what end?
I’m not sure what it means to be a ‘progressive Christian’ and I don’t know how that label is helpful, other than for ‘Historic Christians’ (as the author calls them) to cordon off a group of people who threaten their buttoned up understanding of scripture, God, and the purpose of life.
I want to apologize on behalf of greater ‘Christianity’ to those who have found God to not fit inside the box that Childers’ builds. Keep on my brothers and sisters, and know that there are many, many, people who stand with you in seeing God as more than can be described in words on pages.
That said, I want to speak to each point the author made. Particularly, I want to raise some questions. The purpose of these questions is 1) to cause those who agree with Childers’ words to see these ideas in a new light and 2) to provide an opportunity for those who agree to respond and create a space for thoughtful dialogue. The full text of Childers’ blog is quoted verbatim below, in grey highlight, with my responses following.
Several years ago, my husband and I began attending a local Evangelical, non-denominational church, and we loved it. We cherished the sense of community we found among the loving and authentic people we met there, and the intelligent, “outside the box” pastor who led our flock with thought-provoking and insightful sermons. Sadly, the church started going off the rails theologically, and after about a year and a half, we made the difficult decision to leave. Today that church is a self-titled “Progressive Christian Community.”Back then I had never heard of “Progressive Christianity,” and even now it is difficult to pin down what actually qualifies someone as a Progressive Christian, due to the diversity of beliefs that fall under that designation. However, there are signs—certain phrases and ideas—that seem to be consistent in Progressive circles. Here are 5 danger signs to watch for in your church:
1. There is a lowered view of the Bible
How would you define a ‘low’ and ‘high’ view of the Bible? And what are the purposes behind these definitions? What authority does anyone have to decide which views of the Bible are low or high?
One of the main differences between Progressive Christianity and Historic Christianity is its view of the Bible. Historically, Christians have viewed the Bible as the Word of God and authoritative for our lives.
Also Historically, we have seen Blacks as lesser beings than white humans and many, interestingly enough, have cited scripture to help affirm their pro-slavery position.
Progressive Christianity generally abandons these terms, emphasizing personal belief over biblical mandate.
What is the difference between the man Paul, recording his ‘personal beliefs’ into books which were later included in the bible, and people today ‘emphasizing’ their personal beliefs? If your response includes something like ‘God directly inspired Paul to write the words he wrote’ (implying that Paul had no free will as he wrote, but that God was merely using his humanity as an instrument to record ideas) – what causes you to believe this?
Comments you might hear:
The Bible is a human book…
I’m not sure what it means to say ‘The Bible is a human book’. If what you are trying to say is that ‘progressive Christians’ believe that the Bible was written by humans– I am curious what the alternative to this is?
I disagree with the Apostle Paul on that issue…
What is your position on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16?
The Bible condones immorality, so we are obligated to reject what it says in certain places…
I’m not sure that the Bible condones immorality, but I would say that there are stories told in the Bible which definitely tell of immoral behavior. What should we do with these stories?
The Bible “contains” the word of God…
How would you describe the relationship between the idea ‘The Bible’ and the idea ‘the word of God’? Does The Bible not contain the word of God?
2. Feelings are emphasized over facts
In Progressive churches, personal experiences, feelings, and opinions tend to be valued above objective truth. As the Bible ceases to be viewed as God’s definitive word, what a person feels to be true becomes the ultimate authority for faith and practice.
Who gets to decide what is and is not objective truth?
Comments you might hear:
That Bible verse doesn’t resonate with me….
This is a confusing idea. What do you mean by ‘resonate’? How do the following verses ‘resonate’ with you?
1 Samuel 15:3
1 Timothy 2:12
1 Peter 2:18
I thought homosexuality was a sin until I met and befriended some gay people….
I’ll use the slavery example again- what is your position on slavery and how do you back that up against 1 Peter 2:18? I imagine some of the enlightenment conversations happening in our country just 150 years ago sounded something like ‘I thought slavery was the way of the world, until I realized that they are humans just like us…’
I just can’t believe Jesus would send good people to hell….
Is that an unfair belief? What about God’s character causes you to believe that he would send ‘good people’ to hell?
3. Essential Christian doctrines are open for re-interpretation
Progressive author John Pavlovitz wrote, “There are no sacred cows [in Progressive Christianity]….Tradition, dogma, and doctrine are all fair game, because all pass through the hands of flawed humanity.”
Were the men who wrote the words which are now included in the Bible a different type of humans than we are today? If yes, what causes you to believe this?
Progressive Christians are often open to re-defining and re-interpreting the Bible on hot-button moral issues like homosexuality and abortion, and also cardinal doctrines such as the virgin conception and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The only sacred cow is “no sacred cows.”
My slavery example applies here as well, but let’s go with a new one. We see examples in scripture of men having many wives. (Genesis 4:19, 1 Kings 11:3) – how do these verses ‘resonate’ with you? What would our world be like if our Christian ancestors had not been ‘open to re-defining and re-interpreting the Bible’?
Comments you might hear:
The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t have to be factual to speak truth….
I think you must mean ‘God’s truth’ when you say ‘truth’ – obviously, it is possible to say true things regardless of whether Jesus resurrected.
The church’s historic position on sexuality is archaic and needs to be updated within a modern framework…
See above example of Genesis 4:19, 1 Kings 11:3
The idea of a literal hell is offensive to non-Christians and needs to be reinterpreted….
Is the God you believe in limited to fear-based tactics in order ‘save’ people?
4. Historic terms are re-defined
There are some Progressive Christians who say they affirm doctrines like biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and authority, but they have to do linguistic gymnastics to make those words mean what they want them to mean.
What do you mean to communicate about the Bible by labeling it ‘inerrant’?
I remember asking a Pastor, “Do you believe the Bible is divinely inspired?” He answered confidently, “Yes, of course!” However, I mistakenly assumed that when using the word “inspired,” we both meant the same thing. He clarified months later what he meant—that the Bible is inspired in the same way and on the same level as many other Christian books, songs, and sermons. This, of course, is not how Christians have historically understood the doctrine of divine inspiration.
How would you describe the difference between how the Bible was inspired and how a book written about God today is inspired? Please cite sources.
Another word that tends to get a Progressive make-over is the word “love.” When plucked out of its biblical context, it becomes a catch-all term for everything non-confrontative, pleasant, and affirming.
I’m confused about what is being communicated here. What definition of love are you hoping we all stick to?
Comments you might hear:
God wouldn’t punish sinners—He is love….
What about God’s character causes you to believe he would punish sinners?
Sure, the Bible is authoritative—but we’ve misunderstood it for the first 2,000 years of church history…
See above examples of times when we have culturally ‘changed our minds’ about ideas in the bible.
It’s not our job to talk to anyone about sin—it’s our job to just love them….
What is sin? How do you know? In your understanding of ‘sin’ – can some things be ‘sinful’ for some and not ‘sinful’ for others? How do you know and who decides?
5. The heart of the gospel message shifts from sin and redemption to social justice
How would you describe the difference between what you mean by ‘gospel message’ and what you mean by ‘social justice’?
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 real and profoundly important part of what it means to live out our Christian faith. However, the core message of Christianity—the gospel—is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed.
Of all the ideas in the Bible, who is to say which message is ‘core’ and which message is secondary?
Also, Franciscans, a group of Christians with roots dating back to 1209, and started by Saint Francis of Assisi have been believing a subversively different narrative about the ‘Gospel’ for hundreds of years.
Some thoughts from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr,
‘If God uses and needs violence to attain God’s purposes, maybe Jesus did not really mean what he said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5): “Blessed are the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers.”
Why would God need a “blood sacrifice” before God could love what God had created? Is God that needy, unloving, rule-bound, and unforgiving?
In this post, I’m not intending to assert that these Franciscan ideas are necessarily true- but more to point out that the ‘Historical Christian’ narrative you describe is not nearly narrow as you have communicated.
Many Progressive Christians today find the concept of God willing His Son to die on the cross to be embarrassing or even appalling. Sometimes referred to as “cosmic child abuse,” the idea of blood atonement is de-emphasized or denied altogether, with social justice and good works enthroned in its place.
Comments you might hear:
Sin doesn’t separate us from God—we are made in His image and He called us good….
Are we not made in His image and did He not call 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….
What assurance do you have that God did require a sacrifice for our sins? How do you know?
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…
Can you give an example in Scripture when Jesus is ‘preaching the gospel’ as you see it? The stories that I read demonstrate Jesus’ ministry as doing just that- bringing justice to the oppressed and provision to the needy…
Identifying the signs is not always obvious—sometimes they are subtle and mixed with a lot of truth. Progressive Christianity can be persuasive and enticing, but carried out to its logical end, it is an assault on the foundational framework of Christianity, leaving it disarmed of its saving power.
Aha- Christianity carried out to its logical end. What about any of our ideas of Christianity is logical? Who is to say that any of us are so-knowing enough to be able to determine the logical end of our faith? Who has given you the authority to tell us, ultimately, to tell God, that a given set of ideas disarm God’s plan of its saving power? That is quite a lofty statement.
We shouldn’t be surprised to find some of these ideas infiltrating our churches. Jesus warned us, “Watch out for false prophets” who “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
Another lofty statement about a large group of God-loving people. I have a lot of questions about this. But I’ll settle for leaving Luke 6:42 here.
So if you spot any of these 5 danger signs in your place of worship, it might be time to pray about finding fellowship in a more biblically faithful church community.
I’d be interested to know who gets to decide which church communities are and are not ‘biblically faithful’. What is the definition of ‘biblically faithful’? How do you know?