Each summer, the Junior High Youth Group at our church makes the trek from the hot and dusty flatlands of West Texas to the cool mountains of Gunnison, Colorado for a weeklong summer camp known as The Great Escape. One particular summer, I was able to go along as one of the adult chaperones for the week.
This particular week in late June happened to be the week when 80’s pop sensation Michael Jackson died. For the kids on the trip, this announcement didn’t warrant even a brief pause amid the current round of capture-the-flag. The reaction among the adults, however, was noticeably different.
After expressing a moment of surprise, most of us immediately and enthusiastically followed up with our favorite memories of listening to ‘Pretty Young Thing’ in our headphones on the bus ride to school, or the rousing cheer routine of ‘Beat It’ at a Friday Football Pep Rally, or gathering around the TV at a friend’s house to watch the world premier of ‘Thriller’.
Similarly, this past weekend, the Progressive Christian community was shocked and saddened by the loss of Rachel Held Evans, a beloved blogger, author, and speaker. I was unfamiliar with her work until somewhat recently, but scrolling through Twitter on the Monday following the announcement of her death, I learned a few valuable things:
- Her voice earned her as many loud opponents as it did loyal fans.
- Even those who objected to her ideological and theological conclusions expressed an appreciation for her sincerity, her passion, and her talent.
- Her fans expressed the highest degrees of gratitude for the effect she had on their lives and their faith.
I saw phrases such as “woman of valor” … “a voice for all those marginalized by the church” … “a forceful and winsome voice for progressive evangelicalism” … “a breath of fresh air”.
Others made more heartfelt, personal statements about the specific effects she’d had on their lives, like “I only sat in awe at her conferences, and love her writing” … “She reshaped ‘Christian’ for a generation & for all time” … “I will say she helped me become comfortable in my EX-vangelical skin” … “[she] introduced me to a loving God and Progressive Christianity.”
It is this last statement which brings me to the point of this post:
What is Progressive Christianity?
(For the sake of clarity, my use of the term ‘Progressive Christianity’ does not necessarily imply that every single individual who considers himself to be a Progressive Christian will embrace each and every item below or every single detail provided. The following serves as a summary of the research I’ve independently pursued.)
Where Did Progressive Christianity Come From?
If you’ve heard the term ‘Progressive Christianity’ but have been unsure what it actually means, you are not alone.
The term itself has only fairly recently been adopted, beginning with a group called The Center for Progressive Christianity, founded in 1994. Its roots lay in earlier movements such as the Social Gospel Tradition and the Emergent Church as well as what has been commonly known as Christian Liberalism.
Progressive Christianity is not so much a term that describes a concrete set of well-defined religious thought or governing tenets which establish criteria for membership. Instead, it is a general term that hovers expansively over a loosely gathered, ideologically related set of guiding principles.
To Where Is Progressive Christianity…..Progressing?
Recently, our sweet family dog has been battling some kind of neurological issue which literally has him walking in circles. He just wanders with no destination or goal in mind.
As Christians, the Bible has already informed us as to what our goal should be. We are to know God (John 17:3), make Him known (Matt. 5:16), and become like Him in character (Rom 8:29). Any truly progressing Christian is committed to spending time with Him regularly & frequently in Bible Study and prayer; to becoming more Christlike through removing the old self and putting on the new; and to sharing the love of God and the Truth of Christ through word and in deed.
For Progressive Christianity, however, the effort isn’t so much focused on moving toward something, as it is moving away from something. Progressive Christianity seeks distance from the historical expressions of traditional Christianity, and from the absolutes that are defined for us by the eternal, unchanging Word of God. In a recent podcast, Christian apologist Alisa Childers states that Progressive Christians often believe that historical Christianity, as it is taught in the Gospels and the letters of Paul, “is in its infancy” and that the passage of time calls for us to move to a new and better understanding.
What Are the Potential Pitfalls of Progressive Christianity?
1.) Unbelief – A few years ago, Bart Campolo abandoned Christianity for atheism, and now serves as a humanist chaplain, encouraging young people to pursue a life of goodness from an entirely secular viewpoint. Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Alisa Childers recounts his story, as well as his prediction that Progressive Christianity is just a pit stop on the way to atheism:
“…his theology “progressed” from conservative to liberal to entirely secular. He predicted that in 10 years, 30 percent to 40 percent of so-called progressive Christians will also become atheists….progressive Christians tend to … generally deny or redefine doctrines such as the atonement and biblical authority.”
2.) Suspicion of Scripture – Broadly speaking, Progressive Christianity tends to deny the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, and instead, views it as not much more than a collection of stories regarding our religious history. Therefore, the Bible need not be inherently authoritative; just informative.
In this video, we hear Fred Plumer, (elected President of The Center for Progressive Christianity in 2006) tell us how he relates to the Bible:
“I think the most important thing is to not try and treat it as …the workbook for how to be a human…the manual for how to be a human being…I think that is really a tragedy. I really think that is not only false but it would take us down a very strange road, if people actually lived that way.”
4.) Dilution of Sin and Denial of Substitutionary Atonement – Typically, Progressive Christians are hyper-focused on God’s love for people and their value as image-bearers of God. These things are certainly true! But so is God’s insistence that we are broken, flawed, and inherently sinful, thus necessitating a Savior. Progressive Christianity is much less concerned with this unlovely truth of the human condition:
“Rejecting the biblical teaching on sin is one thing. But lurking behind it is the rejection of an even more fundamental Christian truth, namely that the purpose of Jesus’ death was to save us from our sins.
If one rejects the doctrine of sin, and downplays its seriousness, then one must find a different reason for why Christ died. For progressives … Jesus couldn’t be dying on the cross to pay for sins because that would imply sin is a big deal. No, Christ must be dying for some other reason.
Thus, we come to another major tenet of progressive Christianity: the rejection of the substitutionary atonement.”
(For more on points 4 & 5, you might want to watch my video on ‘Grasping the Uniqueness of Jesus’ here.)
5.) A shift from the Gospel to social justice. The Central theme of the Bible’s message is that humans are desperately broken and sinful, but also desperately loved by God. Because we cannot, in our human condition, evade the reality of committing sin which results in moral guilt before a Holy God, He provided a legal remedy for us in the death of His Son as just propitiation for our sin: Jesus’ death pays the price for human guilt, while His Resurrection declares that the payment was accepted.
Therefore, God can deal with us on the basis of grace, rather than judgment, Those who personally accept Christ’s saving work and His requisite authority as Lord, are indwelled by the Holy Spirit. This regeneration comes from the Holy Spirit and increasingly empowers believers not only to do good things, but also to shed the practice of sin in this life.
This is the power of transformation.
As a result, societal transformation happens in direct proportion to the extent that individual transformation happens. Slowly, each of us individually begins to replace corrupt, human character with God’s character until our lives are transformed. The people and places around us begin to transform as well, due to our influence and work, and the sharing of the gospel.
It’s not necessarily so with Progressive Christian theology:
“It’s in a collective liberation from oppression and for healing in this life where we find a living gospel. There are as many forms of salvation as there are problems in our world that need some redemption.”
For a variety of reasons, we seem to be living in days of unprecedented spiritual confusion and darkness. Truth be told, though, followers of Jesus have consistently found themselves speaking Truth to hostile or skeptical audience(s) ever since Jesus left this earth to be with His father and simultaneously charged us with the task of spreading His magnificent and unique message.
I think we see in the Progressive Christian church some departures from sound doctrine which rightly cause concern.
For those of us who wish to be faithful to Christ by living out and giving out the true Gospel to our children, our neighbors, or our friends and family, let me encourage you with these words — “Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. ” (Col. 2:8)
As I explored the internet for resources on Progressive Christianity, I found a few particularly helpful and readable blogs which should be valuable to you if you are interested in reading further. I’ll be posting (and re-posting) them on my SpoonFed Soul Facebook page over the next several days, if you’d like to find them there. Otherwise, I’m leaving them here for you to follow up with as is easiest for you. Leave me a comment letting me know which of these links was most helpful for you.
May God bless you as you seek to know Him better and follow Him more closely.
- Progressive Christianity Is As Much of a Threat to Your Kids’ Faith as Atheism – by Natasha Crain
- 5 Ways Progressive Christianity & New Age Spirituality Are Kind of the Same Thing – Alisa Childers
- 3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share – Alisa Childers for the Gospel Coalition
- 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity – Michael J. Kruger
 Michael Clawson, “Progressive Christian Movement,” Association of Religion Data Archives, accessed May 7, 2019, http://www.thearda.com/timeline/movements/movement_29.asp.
 Michael J. Kruger, “New Series: The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity,” Canon Fodder (blog), April 9, 2019, https://www.michaeljkruger.com/new-series-the-10-commandments-of-progressive-christianity/.
 Mark Oppenheimer, “The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing,” New York Times, December 29, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/magazine/the-evangelical-scion-who-stopped-believing.html.
 Alisa Childers, “3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share,” The Gospel Coalition (blog), November 13, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-beliefs-progressive-christians-atheists-share/
 “The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity,” ProgressiveChristianity.org, accessed May 8, 2019, https://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/.
 Michael J. Kruger, “The Ten Commandments of Progressive Christianity #2: Are We Born Sinners in Need of Salvation?”, Canon Fodder (Blog) available at https://www.michaeljkruger.com/the-10-commandments-of-progressive-christianity-2-are-we-born-sinners-in-need-of-salvation/ Accessed May 8, 2019.
 Timothy Murphy, “Reclaiming Salvation for Today,” Progressive Christianity.org; available at https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/reclaiming-salvation-for-today/, accessed May 8, 2019.