Limits of Progressive Christianity

on June 8, 2018

Recently an ordained United Methodist who heads a campus ministry in Colorado blogged in Patheos about what he disbelieves as a self-described Progressive Christian:

Friends, Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus wasn’t killed instead of us. God isn’t wrathful or vindictive. There isn’t a hell (other than ones that we create here on this earth). Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. God didn’t write the Bible.

He also explained:

I do believe that Jesus was divine (in the way that you and I are), and that he’s the 2nd person of the trinity. Christians rightfully honor and celebrate Jesus as a unique and fully incarnate manifestation of God. I don’t believe that he’s literally God (at least not what most people tend to mean by that word). We live and move and have our being in God, so did Jesus. The trinity is a beloved Christian poem of who God is to us. But poems don’t literally define things. Like all art, and theology, they point to what is beyond them.

And he offered an updated version of liberal Christianity:

Progressive Christianity isn’t progressive politics. Progressive Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of historic mainline liberal Protestant Christianity and it is an heir to the Social Gospel movement. It first took on this name in 2000. It draws from process theology, liberation theology, feminist, womanist and eco-theologies as well.

His column is succinct and informative about a current version of liberal Christianity. I’ve observed across my last three decades of engagement with church controversies that the old modernist Protestant liberalism is mostly dead. It deified science and rationality, while dismissing the supernatural. Jesus wasn’t literally divine, wasn’t born of a Virgin, didn’t physically arise from the dead, and doesn’t sit at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. There were no miracles. The afterlife was unknown and/or unimportant. Christianity primarily was about ethics and justice.

The old Protestant liberalism was embodied by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who gained celebrity in the 1980s writing books denying supernatural Christianity and insisting rationalism was the old way to “save” the faith for younger people. Meanwhile, his Newark Diocese lost nearly half its members under his watch, and the seminars he taught in retirement attracted only old people.

Spong in later years joined the Jesus Seminar, which in the 1970s and for several decades gained headlines by assembling revisionist scholars who, supposedly representing the latest scholarship, denied all supernatural themes in the Bible. Years ago I attended Jesus Seminar local seminars, which attracted old people, seemingly mainly retired Protestant clergy.

What Spong and the Jesus Seminar espoused was conventional wisdom in Mainline Protestant seminaries and elite circles for most of the last century. A poll in the 1960s found that half or more of Mainline Protestant clergy disbelieved the Virgin Birth and physical Resurrection. But largely these clergy withheld their heterodox views from congregations. They knew such revelations would be disruptive.

United Methodist ethicist and pastor J. Philip Wogaman, a devoted liberal Protestant, penned a column during that era urging these clergy finally to be candid with their flocks about what they did not believe. As a then tenured professor, he could afford to make this call. When he later became a pastor, he did not fully carry through on what he advocated, though he did further liberalize his urban congregation, which declined but did better than most.

Most liberal Protestant clergy for decades, instead of openness about their heterodoxy, preached vaguely to avoid controversy. They commonly used orthodox language while intending different meanings. Most laity didn’t fully understand what was happening. But across decades millions of church members quit Mainline churches. The vague generalities were not motivating. Some drifted away from organized religion. Others joined evangelical churches where there was more clarity.

Rarely do I encounter such a liberal Protestant similar to Spong or Wogaman who’s under 60 years of age. Their “modernist” views, which supposedly represented the future, are now long since passe. Liberal Protestants under age 50 whom I encounter typically are more orthodox. They often can recite the Apostles Creed with at least believability. They believe in Christ as God. They believe in miracles. The believe in an afterlife and sometimes even Hell.

Today’s postmodern liberal Protestants of course reject historic Christian teachings about marriage, gender and the human body. They embrace Western leftist identity politics. Their preference is still, like the old Protestants, to focus on systemic rather than personal sin. And for them, America and the West are more sinful than the rest of humanity. Like the old liberals, they still dream of a utopia achieved through good intentions.

The United Methodist campus minister quoted above seems to be in between the old liberalism and the new liberalism or Progressive Christianity, although he’s still closer to old modernism than he realizes. He rejects orthodoxy but seems to want some qualified supernaturalism. Or as he explains: “Progressive Christianity…emphasizes God’s immanence not merely God’s transcendence; leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism…” Panentheism, a term popularized by the late postmodern Protestant Marcus Borg, asserts God is a part of all creation but also something beyond, as opposed to strict pantheism, which equates creation with God.

Old modernist Protestant liberalism depended on the confidence of longstanding denominational institutions to sustain it across decades before it largely expired. New postmodern Progressive Christianity lacks strong institutions but is still mostly attached to the what remains of organized but now much reduced Mainline Protestantism.

Postmodern Christian liberals, to the extent many of them cleave to some supernatural orthodoxy, at least have a longer shelf life than the expiring old modernist Protestants. But their situational theology and ethics still limit their outreach to a largely highly educated and mostly white upper middle-class constituency in the West. Many of these postmodern Christian liberals are themselves the children of orthodoxy who rejected their upbringing but still cling to spirituality. They are unlikely to generate many converts.

The beliefs, or lack of belief, evinced by the above described United Methodist campus minister, are far too similar to old Protestant modernism to have any widespread appeal. Good news to an extent. But also sad news, as liberal theology in all its forms, by denying or minimizing the Gospel’s full message and power, has typically and tragically crippled or killed churches and well-intentioned ministerial careers.

Contra that campus minister’s assertion, God as Father, Son & Holy Ghost, as both Judge & Savior, is much, much more than a “beloved Christian poem.”

  1. Comment by Leigh on June 8, 2018 at 6:36 pm

    New Progressives are Old Pagans using a new name. Nothing is new under the sun.

  2. Comment by Dan W on June 8, 2018 at 6:50 pm

    I was taught the Apostles Creed as a child in our small UM congregation. When I accepted Christ as my personal savior, I accepted the Apostles Creed as my statement of faith. It seems impossible that this UM campus minister and I are faithful members of the same body of believers. I think this campus minister is really a minister of the politically correct, and high-priest of a lower-case god.

  3. Comment by Hagan McClellan on June 9, 2018 at 1:50 pm


  4. Comment by Tom Michalko on June 14, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    Lord help every person the hears his words and protect them from these evil thoughts!

  5. Comment by Nancy on June 8, 2018 at 8:40 pm

    I have to wonder how he got through the whole ordination process–what did the Board hear when he appeared before them? what papers did he write? I don’t see how he can even call himself a Christian, therefore how did he become ordained???

  6. Comment by Lyle M. Miller, Sr. on June 9, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    Most likely they heard a bunch of lies form this guy, not unlike several others who I know were ordained by a liberal Conference Committee for the ordained ministry in the UMC. For example one young woman said she didn’t believe in the resurrection and when asked what she did at Easter? Her reply “Go on Vacation!” She passed and a liberal Bishop of the old Troy annual conference ordained her to be an elder.

  7. Comment by Beth on June 8, 2018 at 11:00 pm

    These same views are widely professed within the UMW Deaconess/Home Missioner Order. Everything from “The Bible was written by men to keep men in line,” to “there is no eternity in Hell or Heaven, our only life is here on earth.” My educated guess is no less than 90% of members in the order believe -and espouse – views such as these and more.
    I disagree with Mark’s assessment that the majority of individuals that believe such blasphemies are older than 60. In some circles, the beliefs are rampant regardless of age but aren’t shared in open discussion.

  8. Comment by Danny Cooper on June 9, 2018 at 12:58 am

    Why exactly was this man ordained?/

  9. Comment by theenemyhatesclarity on June 9, 2018 at 6:40 am

    The United Methodist Church, through its seminaries, Bishops, and pastors (and through its laity, for tolerating it), is responsible for this rot. OUR INDIVIDUAL ETERNAL DESTINATION IS AT STAKE! We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to align our church with biblical orthodoxy. This is more than homosexual marriage and ordination. The direction of our seminaries needs to be changed or their funding eliminated. Probably 80% of our US Bishops need to leave our denomination when the split occurs. As laity, we must insist on orthodox pastors. If you are getting a new pastor, ask questions in advance. If the answers are evasive, tell your District Superintendent, that you will neither sit under financially support the new pastor. And raise a ruckus in your church.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

  10. Comment by Andrew Hughes on June 10, 2018 at 7:29 am

    Good words. Thanks!

  11. Comment by Roge Sison on June 11, 2018 at 9:52 am

    Send your theological students to Bishop Han Theological Seminary, Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, Philippines that they may discover brilliant theology.

  12. Comment by Rev. Dr. Randy Kanipe on June 9, 2018 at 7:12 am

    Malcolm Muggeridge said it best when he predicted that some among us would “…educate themselves to imbecility.” Obviously, this pastor is a product of our ‘post modern’ seminaries, where such things are taught. For where else would he get such tripe?

  13. Comment by Jack Tibbets on June 13, 2018 at 8:38 am

    Hello from a 60 year old sinner, Father, Grandfather, blue collar maintenance man, supply preacher. I have spent a lot of my life working in factories under the supervision of collage graduates, men and women that have never worked without having a degreed title. Your posting of Malcolm Muggeridge’s quote about educating themselves to imbecility, in my experience, is spot on. I am heading to a collage level licensing school this summer and am concerned, that I will be required to dilute my Faith, (as of a little child’s) to keep my Charge to my Churches. I love my congregations and strive every Sunday (all week) to teach and lead my churches, too re-embrace Faith in Scriptures not to re-write (like we are doing with world history) Scriptures to fit our faith.
    Your comments give me strength to know I am not a single voice.

  14. Comment by cynthia curran on June 22, 2018 at 12:27 am

    Actually, there are a lot of white collar believers in the US south and a lot of blue collar non-believers in the East and Midwest. So, I disagreed that white collar means progressive. In much of Texas upper middle class whites are more religious than there poorer counterparts while in the North its the opposite.

  15. Comment by Michael Murphy on June 9, 2018 at 9:32 am

    About 20 years ago, I read a Christian fiction novel called “This Present Darkness”. One of the defining statements in that book, for me, was when the “evil” pastor answered a question about the divinity of Christ with the statement, “We are God”.

    Of course, I laughed this off as fiction. What pastor would ever make a foolish statement like that?

    Now here we are. This stuff should frighten every person of faith. When faith in the living God becomes secondary to curing social ills in the eyes of the Church, we have all missed the mark.

    But then, we who understand sin, understand what it means to “miss the mark”. Thankfully, Jesus DID pay the penalty for our errant ways and thoughts. But a pastor who doesn’t believe that? Blasphemy. Of the Holy Spirit, even. The unforgivable sin.

  16. Comment by Bruce Willis on June 9, 2018 at 10:23 am

    This kind of heresy is exactly what led the UMC to an upcoming vote on sin (g.c. 2019). It is time for a complete split let the lberal progressives go their and the Bible believing Methodist go their way. The sad part for me is the lack of biblical leadership from our bishops.
    While their are some who are not liberal and are enforcing the discipline many many are not. The commission put together before g.c. 2019 was top heavy with progressive liberals. I give you the “one church” model. This model is designed to maintain the status quo while ignoring the deep division. Money is what is driving one church.
    An ordained elder once said the traditional plan for 2019 is a gift to the UMC. Maybe a greater gift would be for our bishops to actually lead from the Bible. The Bible’s msg. Has gotten lost in the post modern p.c. social justice liberation theology ideology and agenda. I for one have had enough.

  17. Comment by William on June 9, 2018 at 10:50 am

    Obviously Satan has his own “ministers” in our midst —- wolves in sheep’s clothing. Paul, of course, dealt with these false prophets in the first churches. Orthodox, Bible believing Methodists have tolerated this sort of heresy far too long while falling for a distorted, twisted understanding, preached by these very hermitics, of what not judging others means and what neighborly love means.

  18. Comment by Dan on June 9, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    Mark, I think you give too much credit to orthodoxy, or liberal neo-orthodoxy, as the predominant view of younger UMC clergy. Just before 2000 a poll was done that showed UMC clergy the most liberal in not believing in the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc.

    To clarify things, I hope someone in this campus minister’s annual conference brings him up on heresy charges to his bishop. The outcome of such a charge will open the eyes of many. If it is a typical annual conference, with a typical “compassionate” bishop, a confidential, mutually satisfactory resolution of the complaint will be announced, and said campus minister will still be there, still preaching what he preached before. This is the true sickness in the UMC. Trying to normalize and laud sexual sin is just a presenting symptom.

  19. Comment by Jeff on June 10, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    I attended a UMC in McKinney, TX around 2001 where the senior pastor told me during an office visit he is on the “far right wing” of the UMC because he believes – as a leap of faith – in the virgin birth & bodily resurrection, but he told me he did not believe in any other surpernatural stories or miracles at all. Princeton Seminary voted in the early 1920’s to no longer require belief in the virgin birth or bodily resurrection to be ordained as a minister or to be a seminary prof.

    Since many people can’t admit how far their favorite denomination has departed from the Truth, could you please provide a source for these surveys showing the number and percentage of UMC clergy who reject the virgin birth & bodily resurrection?

  20. Comment by Paul Thompson on June 9, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    It’s terrible marketing! I’m trying to get a breakdown of the UM Communications budget. I believe it is 40 million a year we are spending to ‘market’ a church that doesn’t know what it believes.

  21. Comment by Bill Payne on June 9, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    Well stated. The reflection shows the value of critical thinking.

  22. Comment by John Baden on June 9, 2018 at 4:25 pm


    What a remarkably clear statement! I admire your good work!

    John PS You’re welcome to return for a Montana visit.

    “Today’s postmodern liberal Protestants of course reject historic Christian teachings about marriage, gender and the human body. They embrace Western leftist identity politics. Their preference is still, like the old Protestants, to focus on systemic rather than personal sin. And for them, America and the West are more sinful than the rest of humanity. Like the old liberals, they still dream of a utopia achieved through good intentions.

  23. Comment by Penny on June 9, 2018 at 8:31 pm

    I do believe the only goal of the church elite is to preserve assets — buildings and money. Our seminaries are full of perversion of the teachings of God and Christ. We need to divide the believers from the unbelievers. There is no other way forward.

  24. Comment by Bill Messersmith on June 9, 2018 at 11:13 pm

    I saw this coming and I’m glad to be a former United Methodist

  25. Comment by Sylvia castillo on June 10, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    Just asking?
    But, are you ready to except JESUS , AS your personal savior?

  26. Comment by Gan Matthews on June 10, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    Mr. Tooley,
    Could you please supply references for the 1960s poll among mainline clergy, as well as for the career of Rev. Wogamon?
    Gan Matthews

  27. Comment by Daniel on June 11, 2018 at 7:53 am

    I tire of conservative United Methodist telling me what I believe as a Inited Methodist. I tire of hearing the word “orthodox Methodist” as if a conservative viewpoint is superior to any other viewpoint. I tire of conservatives saying only their churches are growing when I know of conservative churches that have only a few confessions of faith each year and progressive congregations that are growing. I tire of conservatives saying they are going to war as they look toward the February special session of GC. I am in prayer that all United Methodists will remember and fulfill our goal of transformation as we move forward in faith, hope and love without condemnation. The living Christ is central to faith and that’s what is important. We need to love one another as commanded by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Peace be with you.

  28. Comment by Daniel on June 11, 2018 at 10:58 am

    “I tire of hearing the word “orthodox Methodist” as if a conservative viewpoint is superior to any other viewpoint.”

    I’m hard pressed to find many liberal/progressive Methodists who actually believe Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, perhaps you are an exception. If so many progressives believe The Bible is a bunch of fairy tales, maybe they aren’t Christians after all. Just saying.

    That begs the question as to why they are attempting to alter/destroy the UMC? I fear once they’ve done so, they’ll move on to the next denomination who allows them to tear it apart too. It’s like a game to them, it seems.

  29. Comment by cynthia curran on June 22, 2018 at 12:24 am

    I think many progressive Christians come out of the Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo groups. They may be people that grew up in megachurches like Willow Creek or Saddleback Community Church that rejected the teaching to be more friendly to gays.

  30. Comment by John Smith on June 12, 2018 at 7:01 am

    I tire of Liberal UMC members claiming to be Christians while denying Christ, using portions of the Bible as authoritative while denying divine authorship, calling for tolerance while shouting down those who disagree with them.

    If conservatives (or liberals) didn’t think their viewpoint was superior why would they hold it? If they think its superior why wouldn’t they advocate for it?

  31. Comment by William on June 11, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    After going back and reading this guy’s blog — yea, a child of Satan indeed. But, for him to retain his ordination in the UMC is a blight on the whole church. Of course he should be brought up on charges and offered one of two options. (1) Repent, ask for forgiveness, experience conversion, and turn and follow Jesus in a new, transformed life, or (2) relinquish his credentials as an elder in the UMC.

    Incidentally— how did he get through ordination? Has the UMC ordination process been this corrupted with such blasphemy? UNREAL!!!

    This represents a sad and dreadful chapter in the decline of the UMC.

    Our once great denomination is in desperate need of another great awakening.

  32. Comment by Kathleen L Reynolds on June 11, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    I am a Pastor of a progressive liberal persuasion and do not believe the collaborated info gathered speaks for the majority of folks with this “label” Labels fail for this reason alone, I believe in Do good, do no harm and stay in love with God, the Proclamation of faith AKA Apostle’s Creed, Lord’s Prayer and the ten commands. I do not believe in a literal translation of the Bible but do believe, the Bible contains all things necessary to live a sanctified life. Multiple authors through the divinely inspired use of poetic license describe personal spiritual experiences with God “as they understood”. Literal translation describes obedience not acts of faith. If we are to transform the world we must offer different perspectives that speak to the unchurched. Absolute obedience removes thought and application. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral allows thought, question, and produces discussion, in an interpretive discussion opening doors and windows to the message intended for these persons at the moment. Law in the Old Testament and the New Testament speak of love and relationships. The new covenant replaces the Old Covenant. What is believed in the New Testament? Marriages were arranged not for love, and reproduction was a concern to populate The Promise Land, was fought over, divided and unified at different times. The New Covenant is about the love Jesus touches on marriage Adultery. This new covenant replaces the old, but we learn from history. Faith is stepping out of self-made boxes to reach out, disciple, assist as a conduit for the Holy Spirit. Work as the hands and feet of God. whether liberal or conservative, unless there is an awakening of all, love filled spirits for all, a depart of polarized thinking to bring us together and the realization we all are responsible for where we are and how we move forward. we need not be of the same mind to work together but we must believe there is truth in the Bible to lead us to perfection, only God is the final judge, and our judgments cloud the way forward. Personal discernment is not always correct no matter which side of the fence one lands. We all need to admit, confess and move on to whatever the holy spirit has in mind. What is crystal clear is nobody is absolutely right or the church would thrive in that direction. Churches individually are similar, money talks or the toys (money goes with its departure, the controller, the protagonist, the holier than thou and those claiming ownership of a building, kitchen or worship design exist in every church. Sometimes obvious to all or the one that is able to take on multiple resposibilities especially feduciary works will be overlooked because they do so much. Others don’t have to do the job, or they will threaten to resign an leave and the willingness to lose this person is thought to leave a hole to big to plug. All are dispensible, accountability is key. Do the work of the church, take your turn, you will appreciate each committee work even more. incorporate term limits or nothing changes. This is service, not a job, and is done for the glory of God not self-importance, control, or from fear of change. I am aware my discernment was incorrect on occasion and so it goes with all people. We are not god, we are imperfect, listen to different ideas, try something new. Fear can turn into exhilaration when you least expect it.

  33. Comment by diaphone64 on June 20, 2018 at 9:03 am

    “I am a pastor…”

    Yeah, and I’m the King of Scotland.

  34. Comment by Kathleen L Reynolds on June 11, 2018 at 5:24 pm

    Our annual conference a piece of legislation for a vote to decide whether the church building and the money follow those leaving be discussed now. This was a design of prenuptial after the fact agreement thought of too late. It was voted down in one vote. As long as this thinking remains, a schism will occur, but Methodism is the result of a schism and the fighting is just the tip of the iceberg. The decades of bias, exclusion existed in Methodism against, women, skin color, and sadly a need to grip the power to discern who is worthy. The concern with how people dress, are they like me and will they do as I say. It is a supremacy to maintain an integrity of human power cloaked in “God’s will, and law” There are 3 creation stories Genesis 1,2 and 3. The first describes God creating man and woman equal and in the image of God. 2 describes man made of dust, life breathed in and later a subordinate woman created from the man’s rib. 3 is the discussion of judgement and punishment through exile from the garden. 2 describes boundaries created by rivers not mentioned in 1 or two, how do you reconcile this scripture and discount two of the three?. Which is the true literal reading? because when a sermon is given, the message is a conglomeration of all three. curious Methodism seems to be a conglomeration of male superiority, power, and control. Is it ever fully relinquished or do those fearing a female’s ability to lead terrifying and why/ What of an African-American preacher in a white Bible-belt church? What if a Korean or Chinese Pastor in a white populated church or a predominately African American church were to happen? Gentile or jew Samaritans and Jew. Alien in our homeland be accepted? How is this followed in the American south? How do we reconcile our bias, our prejudice, and yes our hate when we are called to love God with all our being, our neighbor as yourself. It is the basis of the rest of the commandment and the law and prophecy stand on these? There is no one person even myself completely free from this bondage. We are in a bad place, nobody is completely correct. How does this reconcile as a denomination, or can it? When is the love of power going to be defeated by the power of love (Jimi Hendrix paraphrase)

  35. Comment by John Smith on June 12, 2018 at 6:54 am

    I think there needs to be a tighter use of the term heterodox, I’m not even sure this qualifies as heresy even but rather simple unbelief. By the standards of this person Islam would be heterodox.

  36. Comment by Eric on June 13, 2018 at 11:41 am

    UMC churches should be less connectional. Don’t support the National organization. Stop sending money up the chain. Don’t support an organization that supports abortion, same sex marriage, or any non-orthodox Western leftist identity political correctness.

  37. Comment by Stephen on June 16, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    I concur with the prior comment that a reference should be provided for the 1960s clergy poll; I’ll put off getting too depressed about the matters alleged in the article until proof is forthcoming.

  38. Comment by diaphone64 on June 20, 2018 at 8:59 am

    Is anyone going to file a UMC complaint against this campus “pastor” like they were so quick to do to AG Jeff Sessions?

  39. Comment by diaphone64 on June 20, 2018 at 9:01 am

    “Friends, Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus wasn’t killed instead of us. God isn’t wrathful or vindictive. There isn’t a hell (other than ones that we create here on this earth). Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. God didn’t write the Bible.”

    “But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here.”

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