Christian(ities): Progressive vs. Regressive

Eight local churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona have decided to team up to attack the only progressive church in their town with a coordinated sermon series. Recently Scott Fritzsche at Unsettled Christianity asked the 8 pastors a series of questions about their intentions.

Their answers are noteworthy.

For example, notice how they privilege themselves as the gatekeepers of the Nicene Creed: “While it is true that there are doctrinal differences between us, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are shared by all: Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that He was buried, and then raised on the 3rd day according to the Scriptures.”

Those foolish Progressives apparently deny the Nicene Creed, the ecumenical guide of historic Christianity. But I’m not aware of any Progressive Christian that could not recite the Nicene Creed in good faith – the question is how to understand the Creed, not whether or not to confess it. By reciting this litany of doctrines, what these pastors really mean is to see these as objective, historical descriptions of What Really Happened in the modern, Western sense of neutral historical description. But these pastors express the very problem themselves; these descriptions come to us “according to the Scriptures,” that is through liturgical and religious documents. Historical reconstruction beyond the literary documents of the Scriptures is impossible, and hence does not bother Progressives too much. Coincidentally, as a member of the Episcopal Church I recite this creed every week in worship. How often do these regressive churches confess it?

Progressive Christianity leads to a Christ-less Christianity. If Jesus is simply a good man we are trying to emulate and not the Son of God, then we dead in our sin and are dependent on works righteousness.

It’s all about Jesus.  Progressive theology denies the Deity of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus.  Sin is not dealt with, thus salvation is not available

This claim is so absurd it is just sad. The fact of the matter is that regressive Christianity turns Jesus into an irrelevancy to the actual lives of their congregations – necessary, perhaps, to have lived perfectly and gotten himself murdered by his father so we could float off to heaven when we die, but beyond that mostly not. Progressive Christians place Jesus at the very heart. Jesus, we might recall, said “Follow me,” not “Think Things About Me.”

Progressive Christians say Jesus isn’t the Son of God? Where? In fact, where have we said any of these things? The truth is that we simply understand these terms differently than they do – and they must be the only ones who can be right. God forbid there be a diversity of opinion on how to understand the Christian faith. No, regressives must impound everyone who deviates from their party line. How dare we present a gospel that is genuinely good news, a God that is genuinely benevolent to all people, a faith that is about love instead of nit-picking rationalism and the primacy of dogma over people.

Progressive Christianity has made it quite clear that they don’t believe in a theistic God, nor do they believe Jesus is the only way to God. Comparatively, Jesus clearly believed in a theistic God (He called Him Father) and it was Jesus Himself who said He was the only way to the Father.

I suppose it is too much to expect that regressives would be aware that the Scriptures employ metaphor to speak about things that are beyond human language, like the nature and being of God and the Trinity. Now, it is true that panentheism is popular among Progressive Christians, but then it was popular among the Eastern Church in the early parts of church history too, which emphasized panentheism and theosis.

Likewise, we should note that saying “Jesus is the only way” and “Christianity is the only way” are two entirely different statements. After the Ascension, Jesus ceased to be an object within the universe and became “enthroned,” a word we use to describe the expansive union of the person Jesus with the divine Logos that indwelt him in his life. Jesus became, in this sense, the cosmic Christ, the Logos in, through, and by the whole world lives, moves, and has its being. We use the words “Logos” and “Jesus” to speak of this “beyonding” presence; Muslims use the name Allah, Jews use the name Yahweh. Precise theological minutia cannot be demanded for salvation, because precise theological minutia is impossible, since God is essentially beyond human language to describe and comprehend. It is simply hubris and human arrogance to suggest anything else. (Not to mention that understanding proper theological doctrines is, then, itself a “work” that man must do in order to be saved.) On this point, Progressives insist upon theological and interpretive humility in the face of that which defies human description.

Thus, one can be saved outside Christianity, but not outside Christ, the cosmic Logos that is in union with the whole creation, by, through, and in Whom we live, move, and have our being.

Doctrine is at the very center of everything we do, but then that would be true for a Progressive Christian as well. In fact, it is at the center of what every human being does; even the atheist. A person only acts on what they believe. The real question is what do you believe? We believe the Bible is the Word of God, as such, inerrant. We then use the Bible as a guideline for the outworking of our faith in day to day life. Fostering that doctrine is really quite simple: blow the dust off the book and read it!

Here we have what is called the “primacy of the intellect.” Originating in Aristotle and Plato, and then employed by the Capitalist bourgeois to define man as an economic being – inherently individualistic and rationally self-motivated. Doctrine and the thought and mind of man, is the highest good for regressive faith. For Progressives, orthopraxis controls orthodoxy. Right action teaches right theology. The center of humanity, for the Progressive, is love, not doctrine. Jesus came to teach us how to live, as human communities, in a new way. He came to show us the way of love, not the way of thought. That isn’t to say thought isn’t important, but it may not take center stage. Those who appear in the judgment in Matthew 25 are evaluated on the basis of their love, not their ability to define superlapsarianism.

The term Progressive indicates something that evolves (changes from one state to a more improved state) over time. Is Christ progressive? Does Jesus evolve? What improvement would you add to His perfection? More to the point, what can man’s knowledge and learning add to Divine perfection?

Does Jesus evolve? No, but our understanding of Jesus certainly does, as even the Scriptures attest.

I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come,” (John 16:12-13).

Here Jesus attests that the Scriptures themselves are simply not enough. The work of the Spirit in the Church, leading us progressively into all truth, is the means by which Jesus provokes us to re-evaluate our interpretations. The Spirit, dwelling in the community of God, will guide us into understanding which were not available to the disciples and to the Church in the past. The Christian faith is a forward-moving faith, not a static faith imprisoned under the totalitiarianism of the dead. Tradition is right and good, so far as it is helpful. Tradition can be and is often wrong. Slavery, women, and Jews, anyone? Where it is helpful, it is retained. Where it is not helpful, it is not needed.

The idea of absolute inerrancy of Scripture simply isn’t taught in Scripture. In fact, the Scriptures directly contradict this very notion. One of the social consequences of inerrancy is to treat the Scriptures as though eternal life was found in them, rather than in the eternal and cosmic Christ himself. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life,” (John 5:39-40).

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Manhood vs. Jesus

There has been a long history of “masculine” Christianity in the life of the modern church. The fact that the Christian faith has been the refuge for women and other minorities and vulnerable, weak elements of society has created an aura of anxiety around the men that are active in Church life. They fret about masculinity, manhood and the faith, fearing the “feminization” of the Church, nursing the lurking suspicion that perhaps in the end it is feminine itself.

Men have done a number of things to remedy this situation, but they all ultimately boil down to a “re-masculization” of the faith, emphasizing themes of capitalism, warfare, and patriarchy. From Billy Sunday and Billy Graham to the contemporary Quiverfull movement, Doug Wilson, and beyond, this movement has tried to rediscover, define, and enforce masculinity in counter-distinction to femininity, as a vital need within the Church.

Typically, this is expressed in the traditional masculine roles of Protector, Provider, and Progenitor. As I was thinking about these categories today, I suddenly realized how far these are from Jesus’s vision as presented to us in the New Testament. Christianity, then, innately destabilizes traditional male and female roles by summoning women to ministry, service, and education, and by summoning men to surrender their instinct to self-defense, capitalism, and patriarchy.

Man as Protector. Here the man is seen as guardian, the paternalistic defender of the patriarchal household of wife, property, and possessions. Jesus undercuts this instinct when he summons Christians to the life of nonviolence and non-retaliation.But I say to you, do not resist with violence the harmful person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you,” (Matt. 5:39-42). While the male instinct is the assertion and defense of rights and property, Jesus asserts that the opposite is characteristic in the Kingdom of God.

Man as Provider. In this perspective, the man is seen as the source of provision for himself and his household. Implicit in this idea is the concept of capitalist acquisition, accumulation, and consumption, the making of money and the provision of a household for the subservient wife and children. The degree to which our society insists this is a matter of honor for men (while simultaneously abandoning much of it in practice) shows how ingrained it is in our thinking. Jesus challenges this directly. Jesus himself was not a provider, but received the hospitality and financial support of others, including women (Luke 8:3). He advocated this life for his followers: “You cannot serve God and wealth. For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (Matt. 6:24-26). The pattern here is mutual support and a radical trust in God, not accumulation and provision.

Man as Progenitor. Here the man’s power is felt in his sexual veracity and his ability to procreate – hence the struggle of men with impotence and other sexual issues. Rather than seeing sex and marriage in egalitarian, equalitarian terms, it becomes a means of planting one’s seed, of “taking” a wife and fertilizing her garden, an instinctual regression to patriarchy, however guided by evolutionary necessity. Even here, however, Jesus reconstructs our view. “But seek first His kingdom and His justice, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” (Matt. 6:33-34).

Jesus, as is apparent from this brief glance, radically un-centers the capitalist, middle-class lifestyle into which modern Christians are desperately seeking to accommodate him, and the patriarchical assumptions that sit behind it. He calls us into a vastly different type of community, organized around a revolutionary set of assumptions that challenge the cultural locations of both men and women. He is not pro-masculine or pro-feminine, but beyond both, a new way of living in which there is “neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:25).

Why are Mainline Churches in Decline?

Recently Rachel Held Evans announced that she had joined the Episcopal church, favoring its progressive theology and liturgical tradition, arguing that millennials want community and sacramental life rather than “cool” church with strobe lights, loud music, and a rock band. As a millennial like Evans who is also in the process of joining the Episcopal church in my home town, I resonate and agree with her on this.

Evans’ announcement has caused something of a stir in the conservative and evangelical worlds, prompting even such a magazine as National Review to weigh in, arguing that liberal theology is destroying the mainline churches. This is a tired old argument, largely pushed by neoliberal sociologists like Rodney Stark in the 1980s, and picked up with renewed enthusiasm by younger right-wing writers recently like Ross Douthat. But the fact that the argument is three decades old does not make it right. In fact, associating the decline of the mainlines with their teachings is most likely a simple statistical fallacy. Correlation does not imply causation, after all – this means that just because two things happen to correspond to each other doesn’t mean they caused each other. Conservatives like David Barton show us graphs that purport to link the loss of prayer in school in 1963 with rises in student crime, teen pregnancy, and other social ills. But the 1960s were a period of massive social realignment outside the school system, and thus the two claims are unlikely to have much in common. Correlation does not imply causality.

So what are some of the reasons for mainline decline?

1) Religious affiliation across the board has declined. Christians are now the minorities in 19 states, while it is commonplace to note the drop in millennial attendance (something that alarms conservatives and mainlines alike), and Protestants make up only 47% of the American population for the first time in at least a hundred and fifty years. This decline revolves around cultural shifts that are beyond the culture war politics of conservative vs. mainline churches.

So why, then, do conservative denominations seem to be growing?

2) Demographic shifts and the history of mainline churches. The mainline churches are the oldest denominations in America, and their historic buildings were typically built a long time ago in urban population centers. In the 1980s, white middle-class families started migrating out of the cities and into the suburbs, where there were no churches. Enterprising evangelicals built churches in suburban areas specifically to cater to white, middle class suburbanites. In short, conservative evangelical denominations had no competition and drew in record numbers by offering services and programs, and by being the only business in town. If you look around at the locations of mainline churches, they are typically in urban areas and town centers, surrounded by buildings and businesses now, not houses. A substantial reason for the decline, then, is population movements away from towns and cities and into suburban areas.

What other reasons are responsible for the decline of the mainlines?

3) Mainlines have not had strong community commitments. The tenacity of authoritarian and pseudo-groups to survive and endure have puzzled many people over the decades. But these groups tend to offer certainty, authority, and a sense of place. They have strong educational programs and maintain rigid boundaries between the “in” and the “out.” The structure of such groups, regardless of the content they teach, are what give them such power. Mainlines have not asked much of their parishioners, and have often gotten little in return besides attendance. More positively, they tend to have more open borders and have been more hesitant than their evangelical brothers and sisters to speak in authoritarian ways about theology, allowing for a diversity of opinion.

4) Evangelicalism and capitalism go hand-in-hand. That is, the vision of the middle-class consumer as the ideal corporate worker and purchaser developed first, and evangelical doctrine grew out of free market economics. The Protestant reformation emerged at the same time as capitalism in Europe, and represented nothing short of a redefintion of humanity as a rationally-minded individual. Covenant theology and federal theology emerged as the religious version of the legal contract between businesses. Charles Finny’s revivals utilized emerging marketing and branding techniques to turn religious conversion into a sales pitch. Conservative evangelicals have been, since Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday, shills for capitalism and funded by major corporations. The revival of supply-side economics since the 1950s has paralleled the growth of conservative denominations, largely, I believe, because they go hand in hand. Capitalist businesses and capitalist Christianity attract capitalist-minded people. The mainlines have, at least in part, resisted this theologically (if not always in practice). They stand, therefore, somewhat against the grain of what people want and expect out of a church.

5) The mainline’s social policy is critical of the status quo, not supportive. Historically, the mainlines have been filled with progressives since the Social Gospel movement in the 1800s, and have been working to change the American system. They can be critical of our government, our foreign policy, our wars, they are sensitive to the abuses which conservative evangelicals are more eager to ignore, they have stood for sexual, racial, and gender equality long before those things were popular, even in some of their own congregations. This is, to say the least, uncomfortable, and if the history of the Christian Right provides us with any lessons, it is that many American Christians would rather listen to virtually anything but their own culpability in the social ills and problems of our nation. In other words, the mainline social policy is prophetic, and has tried to speak truth to power, even when this is annoying and inconvenient. More than anything else, this seems to have enraged conservative envangelicals, who have, since the 1950s, accused the mainlines of being socialists, communists, secret Marxists and, through the Institute of Religion and Democracy, employed covert attacks to destabilize and take over mainline congregations against the wishes of their parishioners.