Protestant Christianity has divided into two large streams in the past 125 years: Evangelical Christianity and Progressive Christianity. Evangelical Christians are more numerous, especially in Edmond.
Christians can’t help criticizing other Christians who believe differently from them. They have been doing it since the first century. Here are some of the myths that I often hear about progressive Christians:
• Progressives are atheists. They don’t believe that God has the power to do miracles and to control human events.
This is false. It is not God that progressives have a problem with — it is the Evangelical image of God as a supernatural being that exists outside the world and who intervenes occasionally. Progressives tend to see God as intensely active in the world, calling out to each of us and to every part of creation at every moment. God is a mystery; God is more like a force than a person. God is another name for the sacred aspect that permeates all of reality. God does not have a gender. Progressives do not refer to God as He.
• Progressives do not take sin seriously. They talk about loving one another, but they don’t believe in tough love or in holding people accountable.
It is true that progressives are more suspicious of authority than evangelicals. They don’t often use the language of command and obedience. They prefer to talk about how we fall short of God’s hopes for us and how we betray the gospel by harming our family, friends and neighbors, as well as ourselves. Progressives tend to emphasize social sin as much as individual sin. Social sins are sins that are taught to us by our culture; they include consumerism, patriarchy, homophobia, militarism and nationalism.
• Progressives are soft on Christ. They don’t believe that Christ is divine.
It is true that progressives emphasize the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth; he was not a different species with different DNA. He showed us what God would be like if God were a human being walking among us. We lose track of what a remarkable human being Jesus was when we turn him into a God who walked on earth for a short time. Many progressives believe that it is more accurate to say that Jesus was mystical rather than divine — Jesus was intensely connected to the sacred aspect of reality and it was reflected in his life and ministry.
• Progressives are relativists. Anything goes.
This is false. Progressives see the world through the eyes of a crucified Christ. They also are religious pluralists. They recognize that different cultures see and interact with the sacred in different ways. This enhances their own faith rather than diminishing or diluting it.
• Progressives don’t believe in the Bible. They don’t accept the Bible as the literal word of God.
This is perhaps the biggest difference between evangelicals and progressives. All the other differences flow out of this. Evangelicals tend to see the Bible as a divine product — it was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that God is essentially the author. Progressives see the Bible as the product of two ancient communities: The Old Testament is the product of ancient Israel and the New Testament is the product of the earliest followers of Christ. The Bible reflects how these two ancient communities thought about and experienced God.
Progressives see the biblical stories as sacred not because they were written by God but because our ancestors in faith believed that these stories were the most important stories they knew. We tell these stories every time we gather for worship. Marcus Borg writes in “The Heart of Christianity,” these stories are the foundation of our identity as Christians.
To understand these texts, we need to study the historical context in which they were written. These are not timeless documents that were written for us; they were written for people who lived at the same time as the authors. They do contain many profound reflections on God that still have enduring truth today. They also contain difficult passages that we must struggle with to determine if they are still good news today.
Stories in the Bible often use metaphor to describe the sacred aspect of reality. Metaphor is the only way we can describe that part of reality that we cannot perceive though our senses. The important thing about these stories is what they mean. These stories contain some historical facts but we get distracted when we try to prove how much of the stories are fact and how much are metaphor. We should focus on what the ancient authors were trying to say about God through these texts.
Evangelicals and progressives have many things in common. Christ is the center of their faith. They know and cherish the same Bible stories. Evangelicals and progressives can come together by studying the Bible together. If they will open themselves up to each other’s perspectives instead of trying to prove that their own understanding is superior, they will deepen their faith and their relationships with each other.
DON HEATH is pastor of Edmond Trinity Christian Church. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.