Back in the nineties, for a few years, I was a progressive Christian. Now, I am not. Why? In this post, I will tell you about five beliefs I uncritically held as a progressive Christian and why I was wrong.
First, we believed that newer is better, and we thought we could predict the future on the basis of changes that had happened in the past. Thus, we predicted that there would be a new, better kind of Christianity and that old versions would become obsolete.
I remember countless conversations in which we would discuss the inevitable demise of certain forms of Christianity, particularly conservative forms of evangelicalism. We’d say things like, “the church as we know it will die and a new, true Christianity will emerge.” We were highly optimistic and, at the same time, annoyed that it was taking so long.
However, I never stopped to consider if such a change would be a good one. What exactly makes the future better than the past? For me, change was good because it seemed to go with the flow of the world’s ideas. And anything that held up these changes should be overturned.
I was wrong. Just because something is new, it does not follow that it is right or better than what went before.
Second, I used to judge beliefs based on my attitude towards its source. Why ought I believe one thing and not another? The answer: the relative merits of the history of a belief, its genealogy. If a belief had a bad beginning, then it ought to be given a swift end (and vice versa). For example, we thought that all non-progressive rules governing human behavior derived from an environment in which human beings are prevented from flourishing. We thought that any belief garnered from such a situation cannot be a good one. Bad trees produce bad fruit, right?
As I look back, I can see the problem with my view. Views are not like fruit. Origins are not sufficient to debunk them. Even one’s least favorite person can be right sometimes. This is because being right about something does not depend on who thinks or says it. Being right might be something we ascribe to person, but what they are right about is person-independent.
I was so eager to link the truth of a claim with a person or culture that I quickly ignored what people said if they weren’t progressive enough. I may not have said it out loud, but I certainly thought the following: “you just believe that because you are from such and such a culture. That culture is no good (not progressive enough). Therefore, I have good reason to reject your belief.”
As I look back, I can see a great deal of snobbery involved in my thinking. I am sure you can see it as well. Snobbery is not a virtue and it is certainly not a good guide to truth.
Third, as a progressive Christian, I had a very pragmatic view of growing my faith. I thought that spiritual maturity began and ended in my lived experience. Lived experience determines the questions I’d ask, the teachings I would listen to, and the decisions I would make.
The problem with such a method is that lived experience became more important than truth. The Bible was something we used as a means to make the world in our image. It was not the authority over our thinking. Ultimately, this is deeply unsatisfying. Eventually, I found myself wanting to know the truth of the matter whether or not it was relevant to me or whether it ‘resonated’ with me.
As I discovered later, the value of truth is not primarily found in its benefits; truth has an intrinsic value all of its own.
Fourth, some lived experiences were considered more valuable than others. And it was those perspectives that mattered above all others. We thought that the most important experiences were the experiences of any marginalized group. Since I was in youth ministry, the people I focused on were teenagers who experienced some form of difficulty that could be attributed to environmental factors such as poverty or social alienation. Thus, our method for generating practices for ministry and life was driven by our examination of the experiences of marginalized young people.
The consequence of our position was that the task of theology was conducted exclusively from the perspective and experience of marginalized young people. Thus, we were suspicious of any theology beginning with scripture or any other authority. This had numerous effects on our theological views. It tended to twist interpretations of biblical texts.
I recall thinking that the poor had no need to repent of their sin since they had been so oppressed that Jesus would have a sort of automatic favor on them. Sin was only bad if it was conducted by the wealthy and that sin was itself a matter of constructing an oppressive system. But that is plain false. Neither wealth nor lack of wealth purchases divine favor. Only those who recognize their moral poverty and trust in Christ for their salvation gain divine favor.
A fifth feature of my progressive life was the people I ministered alongside. The truth about many progressive Christians is that they often work alongside evangelicals. None of my progressive friends went to overtly liberal churches. Thus, we all found ourselves walking among those whose time we thought was up. And, to my shame, most of whom we walked with were incredible gracious. I don’t remember an unkind reaction to my progressivism. I remember gracious attempts at correction. I remember being trusted to effectively share the gospel (progressives, at least of my stripe, could still articulate the essence of the faith). I remember only kindness and, as I see it now, I recall the long-suffering nature of those who listened to me wax eloquent about the new kind of Christian.
One might think that progressivist Christianity is far more suited to a liberal environment. However, a progressive Christian seeks to move things along. Change is the ultimate motivation. Ironically, liberal churches are stagnant places. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are highly activistic. They get out there among the people and really want to see changed lives (through the preaching of the gospel). Progressives go along for the ride and did so with the intention of being activists of a different stripe. Most of us were progressives who had been influenced greatly by evangelicals and sought to reform the camps from within.
As I look back, what was required was a reform of my heart. I knew the gospel well. God had graciously saved me while I was young. I was just inconsistent in my life, preaching like an evangelical one minute and ranting like a progressive the next.
Progressives who are genuine Christians are never entirely comfortable. I never was. To be frank, it was exhausting being against something all the time. Discontent was the content of much of my thought. And I always assumed that this was how the Christian life was supposed to go; it was to be a continual striving for revolution, never being content with the status quo. As I look back, I think the reason for my discomfort was the continual pressing of His hand. Occasionally, I would be led to sorrow over sin. I prayed to receive the Lord’s kind forgiveness. Eventually, the Lord let me out from progressivism and to his word, his people, and his mission.
How to Help a Progressive Christian
If you are in an evangelical church or seminary, you likely know a few progressives especially if you are in a city or an area of the country in which the culture is progressive. The truth about me and my story is that I needed help. Many faithful Christians swayed my thinking until I finally began to think critically about my worldview. On top of prayer and a demonstration of faithful living, here are some things that helped me:
First, I was helped by people who knew when to listen and when to speak. I used to rant. A lot. A kind patient listener went a long way toward me understanding grace. I must have said things that I would now regret. I probably said things that hurt others. But most evangelicals listened with grace and then asked me about my life. But just listening doesn’t always help. Listening is sometimes a sign that one approves. You have to know when to speak and what to say. So, listen, but then be prepared to speak. A progressive may appear sure of herself, but a few truths will go a long way.
Second, I was helped by people who asked me difficult questions (to which I had no good answer). The two questions that would trouble me most were: “is that true?” and “how do you know that?” Both amount to a challenge to justify my claims. And, for the most part, I couldn’t, at least not clearly. Much of my reasoning was poor. Asking a question about it put me off guard.
Questions about justifying beliefs also move the conversation on from identity talk. As I mentioned, much of our conversation revolved around beliefs connected with groups. I recall conversations in which we debated a moral issue not by appealing to any moral rule, but by taxonomizing denominations according to what position they held. If denominations we did not like held to a view, we’d take this as a good enough reason to disagree with them on other matters.
If someone keeps asking whether something is true or not, it sometimes helps progressives realize that genealogy is not what grants beliefs justification.
Third, progressives are impressed with lives well-lived. When I first met my future father-in-law, I was impacted by his life. He was in his eighties, had been a chaplain in WWII, a missionary in Indonesia, a Pastor, and a professor. He was officially retired but not really. As I got to know him, my admiration grew. He was the real deal, a servant of Christ, and a beautiful character. A faithful life is difficult to argue with. What exactly was it that gave him his character? The answer was not progressive ideology. It was decidedly not a commitment to this world and its lofty visions of the future. His vision outmatched mine. His life displayed a commitment to Jesus. He had a Lord under whom he served.
It was that Lord–Jesus–who ultimately changed my mind. I had always seen Jesus as a somewhat meek and mild companion along the way, a fellow journeyer. But this left out a massive part of who Jesus is. He is fundamentally the rightful ruler of my life. It was this key idea that reshaped my thinking.
During my progressive days, I remember telling my mother that I didn’t think anyone ruled over me. I was fundamentally free to do what I wanted. This, I thought, was the essence of my faith. I was free. I was an autonomous being, free to think, create, re-imagine, and generally move forward to the next thing with nothing to hold me back.
This is what I had wrong. I am no longer condemned to that kind of freedom. Instead, I am a servant of the one who possesses the right to rule me and whose rule I enjoy.