There is a drift toward theological progressivism occurring in the lives of many disciples and even entire churches and denominations. And it’s critical that we open our eyes to the danger in that. Progressivism renders our faith not only unbiblical and unorthodox, but also ultimately un-Christian.
“Progressivism” is actually just one more version of the same cultural accommodation that has plagued God’s people from the very beginning. When progressive leaders alter biblical faith to accommodate American secular values, they are doing nothing new. But their actions are destructive. Cultural conformity has always been among the greatest challenges the people of God have faced. As early as the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai, the Jews set out to adapt the one true God in an effort to make him more like Baal—the god of the dominant culture around them.
Have you ever wondered how cow-worship could possibly make sense to the Israelites? Well, both the Egyptians, whose land they were leaving, and the Canaanites, into whose land they were entering, worshiped cows. To get ahead in business, politics, and the neighborhood, respectable Israelites decided to just join in; when the elites accommodated cow-worship, the masses followed suit. If everybody around you is saying that a cow is a god, the social pressure on you to deify cows will be tremendous. In the same way, if everybody around you is saying that a man may be a woman, the social pressure will be enormous for you to say that men are women. It’s no wonder that throughout the period of the Israelite judges and kings, idolatry and syncretism were defining problems as Jews erected altars on every tall hill and under every green tree.
In the New Testament, the church faced the same problem of conformity. Its members could sometimes see no farther than their Jewish roots; at other times, they couldn’t contain their enthusiasm for Hellenistic paganism. The apostles had to fight on both sides— arguing, on one hand, that we are not justified by being faithful Jews, and on the other hand, that Christians must not act like the pagans around them.
History tells us that in the four hundred-year gap between the Old and New Testaments, accommodating to the surrounding culture was a constant challenge for Jews. Many Jews blindly assumed Greek culture—even taking Greek names for their children. At times, Hellenism was forced upon the Jews, but convincing the Jews to adapt didn’t take much effort. Modern archaeologists are continually finding ancient Jewish synagogues with pagan signs of the zodiac depicted in lovely mosaic floors.
And every Christian denomination today has its own form of accommodation to the culture that produced it—sometimes subtle, other times overt.
The greatest challenge of syncretism for North American churches today is the challenge of progressivism. For years, progressivism was largely confined to mainline liberal denominations and a handful of universities. But in the last thirty years, progressivism has become a major challenge for people and institutions who were once solidly committed to apostolic Christianity. In Europe, liberalism lived a short life before most Europeans became functionally unbelieving. In North America, liberalism has survived nearly two hundred years, although in most of its institutional forms, it is currently on life-support.
Ironically, as mainline liberal denominations in America are breathing their last breaths, many evangelicals and Bible-believing Christians are taking up the exact same tenets of dying progressivism. Many pulpits, colleges, blogs, and books—in addition to popular speakers in Baptist churches, Independent Christian churches, some Community churches, Wesleyan churches, a cappella churches of Christ, and other evangelical churches—are currently making fateful decisions that will determine their destiny. Will they choose the apostolic faith handed down through the millennia, or will they continually redefine the faith to fit into America’s increasingly pagan culture? The battle is growing, and a positive outcome is critical for the health of future generations of Christians.
And I believe there is hope.
While progressivism today is challenging the source of authority for Christianity, its ultimate meaning and, of course, the nature of its founder, Jesus Christ, the discussion is not closed. American Christians are currently debating progressivism and questioning its credence. We still have time to renew our commitment to the lordship of King Jesus, the apostolic witness of Scripture, and the disciple-making mission of the church.
Theology lies along a spectrum, which includes progressivism. I know people are at various places on the spectrum. Some of you are disillusioned evangelicals—typically, millennials who have been hurt by or turned off by the misadventures of biblical Christians, or who are attracted to progressive social action. Some of you are solidly evangelical—pastors, ministers, elders, or laypersons—who have been hearing messages from your pulpit, from books or blogs, or from Christian schools that seem to challenge the Scriptures and historic Christian faith. Others of you are deliberate and thought-out progressives, who are blazing a new path for the Christian faith—one that reinterprets the ancient faith in light of Western values. Whatever your current position, let me state clearly my goal. I want to provoke a renewal of the apostolic faith Jesus gave the apostles and instructed them to give to the whole world. I take my cue from Ephesians 2:13-22:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
In this text, Paul affirms that the people of God are to be a holy temple—even in the middle of an unholy world. Paul affirms that in Christ, we are no longer strangers to one another or to God but are fellow citizens in God’s family. And, Paul affirms, we access Jesus through the work of the holy apostles and prophets.
In short, I want to provoke a renewal of the faith that Jesus entrusted to the apostles and prophets, which has now been bequeathed to us in the sacred Scriptures. It is this faith that progressivism challenges. My hope is that people see the clear choice they must make when they declare themselves a follower of Jesus in North America.
I say “North America” because theological progressivism is largely a North American phenomenon—that is, it’s largely a religion of the one percent. Most Western Europeans have given up on theological liberalism and opted for a general disregard of Christianity altogether. Few believers in the global South and in Latin America would ever dream of being theologically progressive. They have too much respect for the sacred treasure of the Scriptures. Indeed, even in North America, progressivism is typically not the religion of those coming to faith in Jesus but rather the religion of those who are restlessly seeking an alternative to their faith. Most people become theologically progressive only after giving up on orthodoxy. Progressive authors and speakers such as Jen Hatmaker are less popular among unbelievers—even if celebrities and unbelievers applaud them. Instead, progressive Christians are typically most popular among evangelicals who want a Christianity that fits America’s secular values. Such authors and speakers are popular among those who are leaving biblical Christianity behind.
This means that progressivism often consists of the following:
A rewrite of historic Christianity to accommodate those who want some version of religion and ethics in their lives but who prefer American sensibilities to historic Christianity;
An unnatural way of reading Scripture to make it fit into the prevailing values of the Anglo West;
A less-than-forthright use of the great Christian creeds, where the same words might be said but new North American meanings are applied;
A rereading of Christian history that often understates the great stream of orthodoxy. and focuses, instead, on minor Christian streams in support of American progressive particularities.
So, as I said, theological progressivism is largely a North American enterprise. Ask for orthodox historic forms of Christianity in Latin America, and hundreds of millions of people will raise their hands. Drop a Bible into Africa, and millions of orthodox Christians spring up. The same is true for China, India, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. I’ve traveled to many of these places and seen it with my own eyes. Indeed, there is no place on earth where non-believers would read a Bible and naturally think to become a theological progressive.
This is true even for ordinary non-Christian Americans and it accounts for the dearth of conversions liberal churches experience. Once the Christian faith is stripped of the distinctives taught by the apostles and prophets, who were actually entrusted by Jesus to define the Christian faith, why would anyone really want to waste their time on it? What is left that would attract unbelievers to faith if everybody is pretty much already “okay,” if the Bible isn’t to be trusted in its plain teachings, and if the primary interest of the Christian faith is mere public policy? Why would an ordinary, unbelieving American want to leave disbelief for Christian progressivism? Progressivism is a religion typically driven by the idea that we humans can and should build a social utopia here in this life. But if we can build this utopia by ourselves, why bother with Jesus?
So, you see, theological liberalism is not an on-ramp to the Christian faith. It’s an off-ramp. And as the past one hundred and fifty years of liberalism have shown, it’s an off-ramp with few guardrails.
The author of ‘A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith’ (Renew.org, 2019), Dr. David Young is a senior pastor, author, speaker, television host and a former teacher and visiting professor. He holds advanced degrees in religion, including a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He currently leads North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, TN. NBCC is one of the largest CoC congregations in North America.David and his wife, Julie, have two married children.
Renew is an international group of like-minded pastors, scholars, professionals and laypersons who are passionate about reclaiming the foundations of biblical Christianity and the mission of disciple-making in the name of King Jesus for the 21st-century church.