Why I am not a “progressive Christian”

November 11, 2015

This blog post, “10 Ways to Describe Your Progressive Christian Faith without Saying ‘But I’m Not…,'” by Maggie Nancarrow made the social media rounds this week. It was a response to Buzzfeed’s recent viral video, “I’m Christian, but I’m Not…”

That video, with its accompanying hashtag, has already been justly and thoroughly lampooned, including by our friends at Lutheran Satire. I have nothing to add to the discussion.

But I do want to respond, as fairly as I can, to this “10 Ways” post. As recently as six or seven years ago, during and shortly after seminary, I identified as a progressive Christian. How different is my outlook today than it was then? I was curious to find out. (Nancarrow is an Episcopalian who earned a Master of Divinity at the University of Chicago and works with youth at a United Methodist church.)

The following are her ten points, with my comments. I’ll consider the first two together:

1. I am a Progressive Christian, and I believe that God loves me and you and everybody exactly as they are, unconditionally.

2. Yet, God loves us too much to leave us that way–I am a Progressive Christian because I believe that God is always pushing me to grow in love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.

This is true as far as it goes. By all means, God’s saving plan for the world through Jesus Christ begins with God’s love for sinful humanity. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” (Ezekiel 33:11). These verses, and many more, reflect God’s love for sinful, unredeemed humanity.

But I want to hear Nancarrow say more about the meaning of “exactly as they are, unconditionally.” It’s true that through repentance and faith in Christ, God embraces us “exactly as we are,” the way the father embraces his younger son in the parable, after the son repents. We who were enemies of God (Romans 5:10) become, by grace through faith, children of God. Once this happens, don’t we experience a deeper or qualitatively different kind of love than the love that God has for sinful humanity in general?

Regardless, whether we experience God’s love in this way is conditional. It depends on repentance and faith, which are themselves made possible through he work of the Spirit.

In his recent memoir, former liberal-turned-orthodox United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden takes responsibility for popularizing the idea of God’s “unconditional love” back in the ’60s:

At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy.

Soon I began to hear the phrase unconditional love on the lips of homilists and priests as applied to God… The phrase quickly entered into the common vocabulary of psychological literature, sermons and books, especially for pastoral writers struggling to find ways of making God’s forgiveness plausible…

Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.

In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these homilists mentioned the wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.

I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes me wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.[1]

I also agree with #2 that “God loves us too much to leave us that way,” although I worry that Nancarrow makes the gospel sound like a mere project for personal improvement. Yes, through sanctification, God wants us to “grow in love of God, neighbor, and self,” but this only happens as God deals with the sin in our lives that threatens to destroy us—indeed, that would have destroyed us eternally if not for Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.

Humanity’s main problem is not that we’re not as loving as we should be. Our lack of love is a symptom of the main problem: We are sinners whose sin has separated us from a holy God. And God has justifiable wrath toward sin.

Furthermore, inasmuch as God’s love is “unconditional,” it isn’t that way forever: we will all face final judgment, after which God, for the sake of his perfect justice, will punish the unredeemed in hell. While I believe that even hell is a necessary consequence of love, it’s hardly the kind of “love” suggested by the blogger’s first two statements.

From my perspective, therefore, Nancarrow’s words here badly underestimate the crisis that humanity faces.

3. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that my God actually chose to be human like us–and live the beautiful, painful, messy life of a human just like us–solely to love us better.

Two thoughts: First, shouldn’t we point out that Jesus’ life—beautiful and painful though it was—was not as messy as ours, simply because, unlike the rest of us, he didn’t sin? Unlike us, he obeyed his Father perfectly. When I consider my life, I bring most of its “messiness” on myself through sin.

More importantly, God didn’t become fully human “solely to love us better,” but to make us lovable—so that we could be in a right relationship with him! Nancarrow’s statement makes it sound as if the problem in humanity’s relationship with God were, prior to the Incarnation, on God’s side—that God needed learn something about us, that God needed to grow. Perish the thought!

4. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that God rose from the dead in order to prove how much we are loved.

What an odd way to put it! First, why avoid Trinitarian language? Scripture speaks of God the Father sending Jesus, guiding Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and raising Jesus from the dead by the power of the Spirit. Yes, Jesus is also God, so in that sense “God rose,” but this language sounds unitarian. Why?

I wonder if, by avoiding the Trinity, Nancarrow wants to avoid the meaning of cross, which, you’ll notice, she doesn’t mention in any of her ten points.

Remove the Trinity from the work of Christ, and there’s no sense in which God the Father wanted or willed or sent his Son to die; there’s no sense in which Christ’s death was necessary and good in order to bring about our forgiveness; there’s no sense in which (and this gets to the heart of it, I believe) Christ’s death was a propitiation to his Father on our behalf (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10). If God isn’t a Trinity, then God requires nothing that Christ’s death satisfies—certainly not the satisfaction of God’s wrath.

I suspect that Nancarrow would say that the cross was incidental to God’s mission to love and be loved.

Besides, as in my citation of Romans 5:8 above, the Bible itself says that Christ’s death, not his resurrection, is the thing that “proves” God’s love. Sure, resurrection does that, too, but it’s as if she’s emphasizing the wrong note in the melody. Again, why not mention the cross?

5. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that my God gives me the tools–and the command–to spread the story of resurrection and love to those who need it most.

Is she talking about the work of the Holy Spirit, the Great Commission, and evangelism? Why not say so?

To those who need it most. Who needs it more than anyone else? We all need the gospel of Jesus Christ, apart from which all of us are lost and bound for hell.

6. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that I–and all people–are invited to find healing from all pain, sorrow, and failure at God’s table during communion.

Notice she says we need “healing” from failure rather than sin.

Is she talking about “open communion,” which Methodists and Anglicans, among others, practice? I believe in open communion, but that hardly makes me a theological progressive. Besides, even in the Methodist tradition the table isn’t open without qualification, only to those who “earnestly repent of their sins and seek to live in peace with one another.” The table is open because we don’t presume to look into people’s hearts and see whether or not that’s the case. I’m sure God does look into their hearts!

7. I am a Progressive Christian because I believe that through Jesus, God declared that death, hate and oppression are never the last word.

I agree without qualification. Yay!

8. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that, in our very busy world, my Christian faith offers me a time to slow down and take my relationships seriously.

This is a bromide. It’s not that it isn’t true, it’s that it isn’t even untrue.

9. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that, in our divided and fearful world, my Christian faith offers me a way to live into connection, belonging, and trust.

See my response to #8 (although watch out for ISIS!).

10. I am a Progressive Christian, because I believe that racism, and sexism, and all the isms that separate us from seeing each other as full humans, are sins against God, and in faith, we are called to stand up against them.

Does she add this because we conservative evangelicals are fully supportive of racism, sexism, and any other -ism that “separates us from seeing each other as full humans”? Please!

Besides, is Pope Francis for those “-isms,” too? Yet he’s no progressive.

The overarching problem with this list is Nancarrow’s refusal to deal with the authority of scripture. What doctrine of the Bible, after all, would permit her to disregard so much of it, to ignore the traditions of interpretation surrounding it, and to redefine so much of its unambiguous language?

She begins her post by saying that the “crazy/fundamentalist/mean/convinced that there is a war on Christmas” Christianity is “not normative—it is not the true Jesus movement, it is not our religion.” That’s fine; there’s plenty of room in between that form of Christianity, if it exists, and her own. But what makes her think that hers is the “true Jesus movement”—when she’s thrown away the only scale by which we can measure its truthfulness?

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 89-90.

4 Responses to “Why I am not a “progressive Christian””

  1. Michael Hester Says:

    I agree, there’s plenty of room in between that form of Christianity, and we know it exists, and her own. I would argue that neither extreme can call itself the “true movement”. As always, I think anybody that would say something like that is lacking in theological humility, as the extremes on both sides tend to be. She does seem too PC about her parsing and how she states things. But she could actually be more liberal, so…

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Brent, I agree with all of your responses. Well said.
    I often think that the folks that call themselves “Progressive Christians” are falling into a trap of judging “Conservative” or “Fundamental” Christians. By lumping themselves into one group, they attempt to do the same to us. You are right in saying that they imply that we are against what they are for.
    The main issue I have with the lady is that she doesn’t see that God is both (1) Loving and Merciful, and (2) Just and Righteous. He cannot be 1 without 2. It is the same with the “Grace – Truth Paradox”. There is a “tension” in the Gospel, that the progressive just doesn’t care to deal with.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Right, Grant. But the tension is resolved in the cross: perfect love meets perfect justice. No wonder this blogger had no need for the cross!

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    It was resolved, in the sense that Jesus gave us the Way. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is Life. Excellent point.


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