Jesus: Not Progressive Enough?

Evangelicals, Featured, Protestant, Religion — By on July 10, 2012 at 7:00 am

I first heard about Progressive Christianity as a “thing” about a week ago, and I had a strong reaction to it. I did some more research and stumbled upon this: a series of affirmations, or doctrines. I want to engage with these ideas for a bit. Some of them are extremely attractive, on an emotional level, on what some would call a “spiritual” level. However, I think that many of them fall apart under scrutiny.

But before I begin picking at it at all, I want to make one thing very clear: Progressive Christianity is doing some very good things. They stress the loving treatment of all people, the importance of worship as something inherently central to the Christian life, our duty to steward the earth and all that’s in it, as well as several other essential virtues. In fact, I would imagine that the movement does some of these things better than many “orthodox” churches, and we can learn from many of these instances.

However, their failure is this: their language, the words they use and the ideas they express, imply that many of the good things they emphasize are simply not possible within the framework of orthodox, traditional Christianity. Many of their affirmations begin by stating something true, beautiful, noble, and everything else Paul says we should look out for: then it states, either implicitly or explicitly, how it’s just not possible within traditional orthodoxy. The very first affirmation, “Walking fully in the path of Jesus, without denying the legitimacy of other paths God may provide humanity,” is an excellent example of this.

It’s implied here (and throughout the document) that walking fully in the path of Jesus includes admitting the legitimacy of other paths: something orthodox Christianity doesn’t permit. This theme continues through most of the other affirmations.

They affirm that we should follow the Bible, but not too much, because it’s not inerrant, after all. They affirm that all people are made in the image of God, but that traditional Christianity is incapable of acting this out because they “have failed to recognize the essential goodness of God’s Creation by treating some classes of human beings as more godly than others” implicitly referencing the church’s stance on homosexuality (this, by the way, is something often raised by similar movements: my rebuttals are here and here). They affirm the need for witnessing to everyone interested it the revelation of God “in Christ,” but they do not evangelize to those who aren’t interested, because those people are simply on another, separate God-given path.

I can feel my sarcasm trying to get out, so I’ll stop there and say what I mean to say.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? Isn’t this so much easier than the rigid path of orthodox Christianity? Isn’t it so much more sensible, so much simpler, so much more politically correct, than dogmatically claiming that Christianity is the only path? I know I, for one, would love to believe that all paths lead to the same place. I would love to know that the people who aren’t interested in the Bible are going to be saved anyway. I would love to be accepted by the world, as Progressive Christianity is.

But that’s the problem. We aren’t called to be accepted by the world. We are told that if we’re doing our job right, the world will hate us, as it hated Christ (Matthew 10:22, Luke 21:17). Jesus wasn’t accepted by the world; if he’d followed these tenants, though, he would have been.

If Jesus had been a Progressive Christian, he wouldn’t have been crucified. He wouldn’t have told the Pharisees they were wrong: he would have simply acknowledged they were on a different path than he was. At the very least, he wouldn’t have called the Jews to repent when they clearly weren’t interested: he would have told them to keep on the path that they were already on. He also wouldn’t have preached indiscriminately, only to be abandoned by crowds who were unwilling to accept his teaching (see John 6:22-66).

No, the fact remains that Progressive Christianity wouldn’t allow the biblical Jesus to fly the Progressive banner. He’d be too harsh towards people who didn’t accept his words (John 8:44), too restrictive in his doctrine (John 14:6), too divisive in his words and actions (Mat. 10:34-39). I imagine he’d be politely asked to leave, and told that his path must be very nice, but it’s not the path of the Progressive Christian.

Please feel free to come at me in the comments; I’m open to rebuttals, questions, and conversation. Also, my original reaction to Progressive Christianity can be found at my personal blog here (I should say that my own blog demonstrates an informal, slightly hyperbolic tone which does not necessarily reflect the tone of Evangelical Outpost).

Image via Flickr.


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  • Dan D. Boss

    Excellent article! I hope to see more of Mr. Mulligan’s writings on the site…great job!

  • jamesfarnold

    Thank you for the comment, Mackenzie’s boss. ;)

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  • Marc

    Fair, but did it ever occur to you that the environment Jesus operated in – a harsh desert province at the edge of a brutal world-spanning empire where holding certain political ideologies could and would get you nailed to a beam to die of exposure – might have had an influence on how he conducted himself, and that he might have acted differently in the kinder, gentler, more plentiful and knowledgeable world in which Progressive Christians operate? That maybe, just maybe, it’s not necessary to cling to the hardline tactics of a world that no longer exists, and that adapting to a changing world and saving the best attributes of one’s religion while discarding those that hurt others might just be, not only the best way to ensure one’s religion’s survival throughout the next century, but also the most ethical choice? And that maybe, unless you’re willing to be a homeless ascetic, heal the sick, own nothing, suffer for your message, and actually comport yourself like Jesus, that mimicking the harshness of Jesus alone and claiming to be more like him is at best disingenuous? Any of that?

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I’m hearing you say that Jesus, when placed in such a dangerous position, between the Pharisees on one side and the Romans on the other, actually worked towards his own death, knowing that was the inevitable result of his “hardline stance.” And that he might have behaved differently, might have been more gentle and less hardline, in a gentler, safer world? that doesn’t seem right: if anything, it seems like if Jesus was just a man, then he would have acted in a safer fashion to suit the more dangerous world, and in a more hardline stance in a softer world (where it wouldn’t get him killed).

    “Mimic the harshness of Jesus alone.” I don’t think I said that. I said, right at the beginning (2nd paragraph), before I began the critique, “Progressive Christianity is doing some very good things.” I go on to state that the orthodox Church can learn from the Progressive Church in many areas, due to their admirable emphasis of certain inherent virtues.

    “[Have you ever thought] that maybe, just maybe, it’s not necessary to cling to the hardline tactics of a world that no longer exists, and adapting to a changing world and saving the best attributes of one’s religion, while discarding those that hurt others might just be, not only the best way to ensure one’s religion’s survival… but also the most ethical choice?”

    You feel passionately about this issue, and I appreciate that. But I specifically address this around paragraph 6. I’ve thought about that A LOT. I would LOVE to join Progressive Christianity. It’d be a LOT easier to water down Christianity, only keeping the things that make us feel good and getting rid of everything that makes us or others uncomfortable. That’d be really cool if my understanding of Christ and His Church allowed that.

    But it doesn’t. That’s the thing. If Christianity needs to fundamentally change in order to survive, than it’s not true anyway and none of it is worth keeping. But if it is true, it’d be folly to change it to suit an always-changing and 9above all) temporary world. God does not change.

    And I want to take a look at your criteria for doctrines that should be discarded: “Those that hurt others.” You’re working off the basic assumption that anything that causes someone pain is bad, when a single glance at the world around you will reveal that’s not the case. What about a mother cleaning her son’s scraped knee? Should that be done away with? You know, because it hurts a lot, and we shouldn’t do things that hurt people? I’ve talked about this a lot in some of the posts on my personal blog: feel free to check them out at http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2012/02/love-and-tolerance.html
    and http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2012/05/whose-constant-care-is-not-to-please.html.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I’m hearing you say that Jesus, when placed in such a dangerous position, between the Pharisees on one side and the Romans on the other, actually worked towards his own death, knowing that was the inevitable result of his “hardline stance.” And that he might have behaved differently, might have been more gentle and less hardline, in a gentler, safer world? that doesn’t seem right: if anything, it seems like if Jesus was just a man, then he would have acted in a safer fashion to suit the more dangerous world, and in a more hardline stance in a softer world (where it wouldn’t get him killed).”Mimic the harshness of Jesus alone.” I don’t think I said that. I said, right at the beginning (2nd paragraph), before I began the critique, “Progressive Christianity is doing some very good things.” I go on to state that the orthodox Church can learn from the Progressive Church in many areas, due to their admirable emphasis of certain inherent virtues.

    “[Have you ever thought] that maybe, just maybe, it’s not necessary to cling to the hardline tactics of a world that no longer exists, and adapting to a changing world and saving the best attributes of one’s religion, while discarding those that hurt others might just be, not only the best way to ensure one’s religion’s survival… but also the most ethical choice?”

    You feel passionately about this issue, and I appreciate that. But I specifically address this around paragraph 6. I’ve thought about that A LOT. I would LOVE to join Progressive Christianity. It’d be a LOT easier to water down Christianity, only keeping the things that make us feel good and getting rid of everything that makes us or others uncomfortable. That’d be really cool if my understanding of Christ and His Church allowed that.But it doesn’t. That’s the thing. If Christianity needs to fundamentally change in order to survive, than it’s not true anyway and none of it is worth keeping. But if it is true, it’d be folly to change it to suit an always-changing and 9above all) temporary world. God does not change.

    And I want to take a look at your criteria for doctrines that should be discarded: “Those that hurt others.” You’re working off the basic assumption that anything that causes someone pain is bad, when a single glance at the world around you will reveal that’s not the case. What about a mother cleaning her son’s scraped knee? Should that be done away with? You know, because it hurts a lot, and we shouldn’t do things that hurt people? I’ve talked about this a lot in some of the posts on my personal blog: feel free to check them out at http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2012/02/love-and-tolerance.html and http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2012/05/whose-constant-care-is-not-to-please.html

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I hear you saying that Jesus, when placed in such a dangerous position, between the pharisees on one side and the Romans on the other, actually worked towards his own death, knowing that was the inevitable result of his “hardline stance.” And that he might have behaved differently, might have been more gentle and less hard-line, in a gentler, safer world? That doesn’t seem right: if anything, it seems like if Jesus was just a man, than he would have acted in a safer fashion to suit the more dangerous world, and in a more hard-line stance in a softer world (where it wouldn’t get him killed).

    “Mimic the harshness of Jesus alone.” I don’t think I said that. I said, right at the beginning (paragraph 2), before I began the critique, “Progressive Christianity is doing some very good things.” I go on to state that the orthodox Church can learn from the Progressive Church in many areas, due to their admirable emphasis of certain core virtues.

    “[Have you ever thought] that maybe, just maybe, It’s not necessary to cling to the hardline tactics of a world that no longer exists, and adapting to a changing world and saving the best attributes of one’s religion while discarding those that hurt others might just be, not only the best way to ensure one’s religion’s survival… but also the most ethical choice?”

    You feel passionately about this issue, and I appreciate that. But I specifically addressed this around paragraph 6. I’ve thought about that A LOT. I would LOVE to join Progressive Christianity. It’d be a LOT easier to water down Christianity, only keeping the things that make us feel good and getting rid of everything that makes us or others uncomfortable. That’d be really cool if my understanding of Christ and His Church allowed that.

    But it doesn’t. That’s the thing. If Christianity needs to fundamentally change in order to survive, then it’s not true anyway and none of it is worth keeping. But if it is true, it’d be folly to change it to suit an always-changing and (above all) temporary world. God does not change.

    And I want to take a look at your criteria for doctrines that should be discarded: “Those that hurt others.” You’re working off the basic assumption that anything that causes someone pain is bad, when a single glance at the world around you will reveal that’s not the case. What about a mother cleaning her son’s scraped knee? Should that be done away with: you know, because that hurts a lot, and we shouldn’t do things that hurt people? I talk about this a lot more in some of the posts on my personal blog: http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2012/02/love-and-tolerance.html
    and http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2012/05/whose-constant-care-is-not-to-please.html: Feel free to check them out.

  • jamesfarnold


    If Christianity needs to fundamentally change in order to survive, then it’s not true anyway and none of it is worth keeping. But if it is true, it’d be folly to change it to suit an always-changing and (above all) temporary world. God does not change.”

    The question I think both of you are addressing here is exactly this: what is fundamentally Christian? The blog (and comment by the OP) suggests that Progressive Christianity has missed what is fundamentally Christian by attempting to shift and mold Christianity from its true form into some sort of present-day-but-not-historically-reliant Christianity. One that ebbs and flows with the shifts in the times.

    The suggestion Marc is getting at, I think, is that Jesus was very influence by the time he lived in. I’d find it surprising if the OP disagreed with that (feel free to tell me I’m wrong here, Mackenzie), at least whole-sale. Surely there are things Jesus did that were culturally relevant that may not apply in exactly the same way to us today.

    That said, the debate here is *what* sort of things does Scripture teach that are malleable. I don’t know anyone in the Evangelical West who requires women to wear head coverings, not braid their hair, and remain perfectly silent in church; we’ve all agreed those are cultural representations of some deeper truth (debate exists about what that is). So what other teachings may mold to better represent Christ and the Church through the ages?

    Marc suggests, and correct me if I’ve misinterpreted you, that in our day and age, Christ would be more effective, and therefore more effectively represented, by preaching less strict doctrines, and focusing on the clear teachings of Scripture concerning love. After all, when asked about the greatest commandment, what does Jesus himself say? Love God, and love your neighbor.

    I’m not convinced that Progressive Christianity gets it right, but I think that’s the issue Marc is taking with your defense.

    I will say this, though. If Christianity is a shifting belief system, at its core, I’m no convinced that nothing is worth salvaging, as the OP seems to say. But that’s a side point, as much as anything else.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Thanks, dude! You make a couple excellent points: “Every generation screws up the Gospel to one degree or another and we need to be in a constant process of evaluation.” That’s true for everyone, orthodox and non-orthodox.

    And I think you really hit at the heart of the matter: “It’s when we purposely change the teaching of the New Testament to make peace with the world that we lose any message worth having.” Great stuff!

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Marc says that Jesus’ hard-line, doctrinal stance arose “because of the environment Jesus operated in.” He also says that we should discard doctrines “that hurt others” and keep those doctrines that will “ensure one’s religion’s survival through the next century.” Those are the only criteria Marc appears to provide for determining which doctrines to keep and which to take away.

    That means that, in Marc’s opinion (and correct me if I’m wrong), the teachings of Jesus and the Church are derived entirely (or at least mostly) from culture, and that their relevance is therefore determined NOT by any sort of relationship to objective truth, but merely by whatever culture they happen to find themselves in.

    And if the relevance of Christianity, its “truth,” is determined merely by what culture it happens to be in, then it is utterly and completely useless as anything other than a list of guidelines from which the culture will pick the most attractive and throw out the rest.

    And I don’t think that’s the Christianity that Jesus preached.

  • Pastor Doug

    Those of Progressive faith are open to many paths to God precisely for the same reasons Jesus was open to meeting and ministering those on the margin of his culture. A serious study of the Bible and its origins reveals legitimate questions about its many authors and the date and time various books were written. Much of the New Testament, many scholars believe, was written hundreds of years after Jesus lived. While those authors did not set out to create an intentional fraud, they did interpret the life and teachings of Jesus in light of their own particular time and place. The historical Jesus, the man who actually lived and died, likely did not say many of the things attributed to him. An open, honest and careful examination of the Gospels – particularly that of John – indicates they were not written by eyewitnesses or even those who knew an eyewitness. They were written by men with an agenda and the Jesus they described was far, far different from the uniquely beautiful, gentle, open-minded and tolerant historical Jesus.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I find it remarkable that you are in possession of such reliable and firm knowledge of Jesus, “the man who actually lived and died.” Where did such knowledge (which surely must be untainted by any agenda or bias) come from?

  • Pastor Doug

    There are countless studies, books and analyses of the Gospels and the likely document “Q” which examine sayings and teachings that are, and are not believed to be from Jesus. So too are analyses of his life history as told in the Gospels. Even so, there is little doubt that a man named Jesus lived and died in the early first century CE. And, actually, few people have much “reliable” or “firm” information on the life of the man – the Gospels may be inspirational as faith documents but they are clearly not reliable historical documents. The large number of contradictions between them is an example of that. The most that I will assert – along with many scholars – is what I wrote: a man named Jesus actually lived and died and, during his life, attracted a large local following who tried to interpret his life and teachings after his death.

  • jamesfarnold

    “…the Gospels may be inspirational as faith documents but they are clearly not reliable historical documents.”

    This, of course, depends on what is meant by “historical documents.” An understanding of Near-East historical writing would produce a different conclusion.

    But a bigger question is this: what does it mean to be an inspirational faith document that is historically false? Paul pretty reasonably asserts that if the resurrection isn’t an actual, historical event, that we should jettison our belief in Christianity. But where do we learn about the historicity of the resurrection? The Gospels.

    The discussion of the “Q” document here is a bit odd. The “Q” document is one that people say Mark, and likely Matthew and Luke, base their gospels on, though this doesn’t make them less reliable, simply “one step out” from the direct experience.

    Finally: “The most that I will assert – along with many scholars – is what I wrote: a man named Jesus actually lived and died and, during his life, attracted a large local following who tried to interpret his life and teachings after his death.”

    What you actually wrote was that “[The Gospels] were written by men with an agenda and the Jesus they described was far, far different from the uniquely beautiful, gentle, open-minded and tolerant historical Jesus.” There’s a difference between saying we cannot possess accurate knowledge about Jesus because historical documents don’t persist into the present time and saying that the Gospels are written to intentionally skew teachings about Jesus.

    What Mackenzie was getting at in his comment was simply this: if the Gospels cannot be trusted as true representations of Jesus, and the “Q” document is still not found (or proven to exist, though it is likely some such document existed), where do we get the idea that Jesus was “uniquely beautiful, gentle, open-minded and tolerant,” as opposed to what you seem to see in the Gospels?

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    @ Pastor Doug: I want to push a little further, using James’ last paragraph as a jumping point: “f the Gospels cannot be trusted… where do we get the idea that Jesus was “uniquely beautiful, gentle, open-minded and tolerant,” as opposed to what you seem to see in the Gospels?”

    Where do you get your picture of who Jesus was? I get mine from the Gospels: But how do you manage to somehow get a more accurate picture of Jesus, by which you can judge the veracity of the Gospels?
    The idea is ludicrous, to me. The only possible “picture” of Jesus that you can judge the Gospels against arises from your own head, your own ideas of what Jesus should be. You can only arrive at a different picture of Jesus by literally introducing your own bias and agenda into the text of the Gospels.
    As Michael Kruger points out, “higher-critical methodologies provide few certain historical results, but are often contradictory and subjective, frequently producing a Jesus made in the image of those conducting the investigation.” Even J. D. Crossan, one of the founding members of the Jesus Seminar, states “It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography.”
    I believe in the Jesus of the Gospels. You seem to believe in the Jesus of Pastor Doug.

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