The fundamental differences between self-described progressive Christians and more orthodox believers are commonly described as “they read and interpret the Bible very differently.”
The fact that we have so many different Christian denominations within the broad umbrella of orthodoxy who take contrary positions on important but ultimately secondary issues like sacramentology or the Millennium testifies to how some parts of Scripture are indeed open to a degree of interpretation.
But there are quite a number of biblical teachings, from the bodily resurrection of Christ to the inherent sinfulness of homosexual practice, in which we could hardly expect the Bible to be more explicit, clear, or consistent.
So in their more honest moments, progressive Christians will admit that the differences are more than just a matter of interpreting the equally highly regarded biblical text, and own up to the fact that they simply do not believe that all of the Scriptures of our present Old and New Testaments are God-breathed or useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
This particularly takes place if when theological liberals are in “safer” environments for taking off their filters, like liberal seminaries. Or if people do not feel that too much is at stake for them in showing their true colors, as at last summer’s young United Methodist convocation, where liberal United Methodist youth (some of whom were clearly being coached by adults there) offered such refutations of biblical arguments against homosexuality as countering that “the Bible was written a long time ago.”
Such theological liberal honesty is generally less common within the debates of more authoritative denominational assemblies on particular hot-button issues. For example, when someone argues against a proposal to liberalize church teaching on homosexuality by pointing to Scripture, a typical liberal response is a shallow attempt at emotional blackmail, with an assembly delegate standing up neither to admit his low view of Scripture nor to attempt a biblical case for his position, but rather to put on a show of feigned outrage along the lines of “how DARE you imply that my position is any less biblical than any other??!” Or there is ex-evangelical celebrity pastor Adam Hamilton’s absurd recent claim that his view that biblical passages he personally finds too challenging or counter-cultural must have “never reflected God’s heart and will” somehow does not “reflect a reduced view of biblical authority.”
One does not have to examine such rhetorical ploys for long to realize that they are not serious, intellectually coherent arguments. They rely on emotion at the expense of reason.
But there is perhaps an even more fundamental difference between orthodox and progressive versions of Christianity in their approach to the Bible: whether or not we even read it!
Obviously, any generalizations about large groups of people will have all sorts of individual variations and exceptions.
But theological liberals, by and large, simply do not read or know the Bible as much as theological conservatives.
This is not a baseless slander but a rather a matter of sociological fact for which there is ample evidence. Consider:
- The Barna Group and the American Bible Society partner to produce annual “State of the Bible” scientific surveys of Americans’ approached to the Bible. Their data for 2015 (see page 43), 2014 (see page 34), 2013 (see page 16), and 2011 (see page 16) show that there is a direct relationship between the relative theological conservativism of the survey’s different categories of Protestants and how many of people in that category personally engage in personal Bible reading at least a few times a year. (Such data is not available for 2012.) For an explanation of the Barna categories, see Page 61 of the 2014 report.
2. Among American Protestants, the spiritual discipline of having a daily “quiet time” of personal prayer and Bible study is largely limited to evangelical sub-culture (including evangelical sub-cultures within mainline denominations).
3. Just listen to the unfiltered arguments theological progressives make, particularly in seeking church blessing of homosexual practice.
One of the most common is “the shellfish argument,” which boils down to saying that since Old Testament laws forbid eating shellfish, pork, and other things, any Christian who does not follow this today is either a hypocrite or else agrees that we are also free to similarly disregard biblical teaching about homosexuality. Such an “argument” is only effective with people who are utterly unfamiliar with the New Testament, which affirms Old Testament sexual morality (except to move in a more restrictive direction, as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount) while addressing at great length the reasons for why Christians need not be bound by former dietary restrictions.
Bizarrely, a number of theological revisionists, such as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, have suggested that the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, which decided to welcome Gentile believers into the church without requiring them to get circumcised, somehow provides a sort of blueprint for the church blessing sexual practices that the Old as well as New Testament call sinful. Within my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, variations of this argument have been promoted by the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN, the main sexual liberalization caucus within the UMC), Bishop Sally Dyck of Chicago (one of the most militantly liberal United Methodist bishops), and the aforementioned Rev. Hamilton.
Perhaps this is effective for winning the appreciation of people who are looking for some pious-sounding church leader to give them permission to continue in their “progressive” beliefs and practices, to which they had already committed themselves before checking with Scripture.
But anyone who actually reads Acts 15 for themselves (rather than simply taking RMN’s word for it) will quickly see that the Jerusalem Council particularly singled out Old Testament sexual-morality restrictions as important to be continued in the Christian church. Biblical scholar Bill Arnold has a more extended response to the Acts 15 argument here.
One protest sign I have seen used in multiple RMN demonstrations at United Methodist denominational assemblies declares “I was baptized” in the UMC, goes on to decry the church for calling some behavior choices “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and asks “Can I be un-baptized?”
It is striking to consider the Antinomian broadness with which proponents of liberalizing sexuality standards sometimes frame their position. Do they really believe that the church must never teach that any practice whatsoever is wrong? And as for baptism, any protester or protest group that chooses to accept and promote such a sign seems to be completely unaware of biblical teaching, particularly affirmed within the UMC’s own Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, about how it is entirely possible for people to have once “tasted the heavenly gift” of salvation and then fall away completely from it. Let alone Methodism founder John Wesley’s own preaching that nominal Christians must “[l]ean no more on the staff of that broken reed” of having been baptized if they have, in fact, sinned away their baptismal grace.
What all of these arguments, promoted by the most prominent voices of progressive Christianity, have in common is that they count on their audience members being too unfamiliar with Scripture to even realize how such arguments totally ignore or misrepresent the most relevant biblical passages. The politically incorrect fact of the matter is that for most folk in “progressive Christian” circles, this appears to be a safe assumption.
- Organizations devoted to progressive visions of Christianity have a very characteristic habit of quoting Scripture embarrassingly out of context when seeking a shallow proof-text to make their statements sound more church-y.
This was on full display at the spring 2015 board of directors meeting of the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). For example, to an environmental resolution against certain 21st-century coal-mining practices, the GBCS appended a non sequiter citation of a Levitical regulation about property inheritances within theocratic Israel, apparently just because the quoted verses included the phrase “the land.” It appears that the GBCS folk who write such resolutions either don’t notice or don’t care about how sloppily they are taking Scripture out of context. To the extent that the resolution writers have noticed, this suggests an attitude of simply “writing off” United Methodists who know and care about Scripture, while seeing the GBCS’s own constituency as exclusively limited to those members of the denomination who don’t care about them contradicting or misusing Scripture.
The simple fact of the matter is that I have yet to see a single progressive United Methodist stand up and say, “GBCS, I agree with your political agenda, but you really should amend the way you cited Scripture here, because that misrepresents what those verses are actually talking about, and as a church-related group, it is important that we get our Scripture right.”
To benefit-of-the-doubters, I ask: where is the concrete evidence that progressive United Methodists actually care about such things as getting Scripture right if a sloppy proof-text does the job for what they most care about, their lefty political agendas?
- One particular anecdote remains prominent in my mind.
I attended the annual conference session of a large, theologically mixed United Methodist annual (regional) conference session in 2009, when some controversial Constitutional amendments were being voted on. I ended up having a pleasant chat with a young fellow who was sent as a lay member from one of the most prominently, outspokenly liberal congregations in that annual conference. He particularly wanted to know how I could oppose the liberal-pushed Constitutional amendment to impose on all United Methodist congregations a new “open membership” system in which anyone who demanded immediate church membership (and eligibility for church leadership positions) would be automatically entitled to it, regardless of their lack of commitment to basic Christian belief and practice. At one point, I asked him what he thought of the situation in 1 Corinthians 5, the first instance of a church taking a “reconciling” stance towards sexual sin, in which Paul commanded the (temporary) excommunication of a member for sexual immorality. My conversation partner admitted that he had never read that part of Scripture.
It speaks volumes about the how much this very activist-liberal UM congregation values ensuring a biblical foundation for its agenda that it would select someone who has not even read the whole Bible for the very important job of deciding major structural decisions to impact the ministry of United Methodists around the globe.
- If you’d ever like to test for yourself the lack of Scriptural literacy of most (though not all) adherents of “progressive Christianity,” just try talking to a self-described progressive Christian friend about why Christians should never say “everyone is a child of God,” and watch how your friend reacts.
And no, the progressive habit of claiming, rather non-humbly, the broad language of Micah 6:8 as some sort of a clear mandate for all sorts of left-of-center political agendas does NOT count as evidence of progressive Christians’ deep engagement with Scripture.
But those of us who consider ourselves evangelical, Bible-believing, and/or theologically orthodox should not be smug.
While evangelical biblical literacy is better than that of liberal mainliners, we still need to face the problems of biblical illiteracy among our own ranks.
Engaging the big theological arguments of the day is as important as it is unavoidable.
But so much of the spread of false teaching in churches of all denominations could be stemmed if we would just redouble our efforts to promote Scriptural engagement and biblical literacy in our churches.