What is a Progressive Christian?

In recent years there has been a rise of Conservative Evangelicalism which has to pass itself off as the legitimate and only form of true Christianity. Theirs is faith-centered in a personal relationship with Jesus, and following a conservative theological understanding of the Bible, as well as a politically conservative agenda.

Their idea is to make us a "Christian" nation as they claim our forefathers intended. However, there is another movement which stands in sharp contrast.  It is called the Progressive Christian Movement, which can serve as an antidote to the right wing Conservative Evangelical view, in particular.  It can also point us to a different view of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus and how they apply in the 21st century.  So what are Progressive Christians and where do they come from?

1. Origins of Progressive Christianity

In the 19th and into the 20th centuries there were people called Reformers or Progressives.  These people argued that Christians should apply their teachings to public problems.  Proponents of this idea were Protestant ministers and theologians such Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, William Jennings Bryan, and settlement founders Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.  There were also Roman Catholic social justice leaders such as Father John Ryan and Dorothy Day who pushed for similar values and religious activism. 

Later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would follow in their steps in his Civil Rights Campaigns to obtain Civil Rights, Voting Rights and improvements for Black people.  Much of the most prominent social movements in American progressive history would have been impossible without the inspirational values and moral authority found in socially conscious Christianity and Judaism.

Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch was a famous American theologian and Baptist pastor who taught at Rochester Theological Seminary in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a key figure in the Social Gospel and Single Tax movements.  He stressed that the essential purpose of Christianity was to transform human society into the kingdom of God by regenerating all human relations and reconstituting them in accordance with the will of God.  The reason for this argument was to show people how Christian teachings and the prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible could be used to foment social change during a period of want and suffering.

"If anyone holds that religion is essentially ritual and sacramental; or that it is purely personal; or that God is on the side of the rich; or that social interest is likely to lead preachers astray; he must prove his case with his eye on the Hebrew prophets, and the burden of proof is with him."

Rauschenbusch fought against "the present crisis" which was wrought by the industrial revolution and the rise of modern capitalism. He argued that Christian civilization could no longer withstand the injustices of contemporary times - i.e. inequality, poverty, physical deprivation and hunger, and worker abuses.  He believed he was in desperate times which required genuine moral leadership and the humanization of capitalism by encouraging more direct action.

He supported movements such as the settlement houses - urban community centers where low-income people could go for services and classes - as well as labor organizing and solidarity, and Christian volunteerism from preachers and groups like the YMCA and the Salvation Army.  Above all, Rauschenbusch counseled people to put their theological principles to work personally by adding "spiritual power along the existing and natural relations of men to direct them to truer ends and govern them by higher motives.[i]

Pope Leo XIII in a 1891 encyclical wrote a piece which served as the intellectual and theological basis for a new generation of social activism among American Catholics.[ii]  The Pope's statement on capital and labor sought to find a humane path for capitalism.  He sought a way that respected workers and yet avoided the extremes of both socialism and laissez-faire conservatism.  The encyclical also affirmed the states' right to intervene on behalf of its citizens, endorsed unionization, and also affirmed property rights.

Its teachings helped provide a moral and theological basis for generations of Catholic social justice reform and a platform later for many of the actions taken during the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt.  It was also manifested earlier in Monsignor John Ryan "Bishops Program of Social Reconstruction" in 1919.

Today Progressives come in many stripes, and whether believer or nonbeliever, have alike managed to find common ground on key areas from climate change, to poverty, to war and social policy.

2. Beliefs of Progressive Christianity

Having looked at the origins of Progressive Christianity, what do they actually believe and is there any scriptural basis for those beliefs?

Following are a set of 8 principles that sum up the beliefs of Progressive Christians.

A.  Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;

"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?'  And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!"[iii]

One of the first beliefs of Progressive Christians is to emphasize the Way and teachings of Jesus and not merely his person.  Many who claim to be Christian have wonderful testimonies of what they have done for Jesus.  Yet Jesus says that He will tell them that He never knew them and that they were workers of lawlessness.  In the Greek the word for knew used here means to approve of something. They were Lone Wolves doing what they thought was right.

Progressive Christians believe the proof is in the pudding, and as we follow the Way of Jesus, as well as His teachings, we can come to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life.  It is also the realization that we are not saved to sit on our "Blessed Assurance" waiting to die, but it is a call to go and do what God has called us to do, and to change our world.

B.  Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.

Here is a main point on which Evangelicals and Progressive Christians would part ways.  They would insist there is only one way - Jesus - and only one way to understand the Bible - their way.  Many would claim that the King James Bible (1611 edition) is the only English Bible God uses, and if it's not in the King James, it's not of God.  Period!

For the time in which it was written King James was a great translation.  However, over 400 years have passed since then.  We have a lot more knowledge now of the ancient Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages in which the Bible was written.  We also have a better understanding of ancient history, both in the time of the Old Testament as well as of the first century world.  This can help us better understand the times in which the Bible was written, and what the people believed at that time.  That helps us to better understand the Bible for our time, and how to correctly interpret it to meet the needs of today.  By doing this, we do as Paul admonishes us:

"Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." [iv]

As we study all the information available concerning the world of the Bible and Jesus, we learn how to rightly divide the word of truth, the Bible, and not be ashamed before God.

Another thought is that as we remain open to other ideas and sources of wisdom we can find other ways that can enhance our Christian experience and help draw us closer to God.  I know Christians who practice yoga to help them get closer to God.  Others practice forms of Buddhism for the same effect.  Also, as we learn from other traditions and religions we can find common ground to be able to work together to save our planet, come up with ideas and solutions to help solve the many problems facing our world today, and together work to usher in the day of the coming visible kingdom of God to rule over all the earth in peace and harmony.

Some may say that Jesus said He is the way to the father.  Aye, He did.[v]  So what does Jesus mean when He says that?  One way of understanding is as a standard by which all else will be judged.  If you want to know how you are doing spiritually, look to Jesus, the same as if you want to know how far you've come, or how much of a Christian you are.  Jesus is the standard.  How much like Him are you?  If you are like me you can probably use all the help you can get.  In conclusion then the more ideas and practices that can help draw us closer to God and be conformed to His image, the better.

C.  Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people.

Progressive Christians are simply seeking to welcome all who come, even as Jesus did, when he said he would reject no one who came to him.[vi]  Therefore, we welcome all churches' members, questioning skeptics who may not be sure what to believe, believers, agnostics, male or female, those of all classes and abilities, and all those of all sexual orientations and gender identities.  To sum the last point I will use a favorite saying of mine, "Single, married, gay or straight, we don't discriminate."

This is also consistent with the words of Jesus in the Great Commission to go to all nations making disciples of them.[vii]  The word all is inclusive, including everyone and rejecting nobody.  Since that is how Jesus feels, then His true church today will also be inclusive, receiving all and refusing to reject anyone.

Finally I would like to allow the Apostle Paul to have the final say:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."[viii]

According to Paul we are all one.  Recognizing that fact then, all are welcomed in a Progressive Christian Church.

D.  Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;

Here Progressive Christians are simply doing as Jesus said.  He told us, "And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise."[ix]

Here the law of sowing and reaping comes into effect.  As we treat others like we want to be treated we will probably sow acts of kindness, be kind, be a little more loving, a little more giving, and perhaps a bit more understanding.  Why?  Because that is how we want to be treated.

Jesus also taught that love is the identifying mark of a Christian[x].  So here we get two benefits.  First, everyone wants to be loved and appreciated.  So if we sow love, those who we share our love with will appreciate it and return that love.  However there is even a better reason to love we can show Jesus to the world and show them the real deal.  We can be the hands and feet of Jesus to a lost and dying world, and let people know what Jesus and true Christianity is all about.  When they can see Him in us, reaching out to them, they will respond positively, and want to know the One we serve.

E.  Find grace in the search for understanding, and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes.

One of the big problems in much of Evangelicalism is its rigidity.   It can only be their way.  That can lead to judgmentalism, rejection, fear of those not like them, separation to keep themselves pure, and in many cases to building walls to keep out those who might challenge their beliefs or way of life.

On the other hand for Progressive Christians there are no absolutes.  We are, instead, ever learning and trying to better learn God's way and will for us.  By questioning we keeping seeking the truth, and also, as we are led by the Spirit we are open to whatever new thing God may wish to show us or new thing He may wish to do. 

We are never stuck in the mud, and if we do fall down or drive off into the ditch, we just get back up, clean ourselves and get back on our journey again.  Always remember "Failure is not final with God".  He is the God of second chances and always willing to receive us back with open arms. 

The Apostle John tells us we are to test all spirits to see whether or not they are of God.[xi]   Thus, by questioning, we can discern error from truth, and the more godly counselors we have, the less likely we are to be deceived and instead find and be lead by the truth.[xii]

F.  Strive for peace and justice among all people.

In the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament there is a cry for Social Justice.  The prophet Micah writes "He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" [xiii]

Following that tradition Jesus declares "Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God."[xiv]

The early Christians understood this as to forbid them from taking up arms against anyone.  They also understood it as prohibiting them from serving in the military, either in a combatant or non combatant role, as the latter was still helping to support war and killing.   Therefore they abstained totally. 

They also refused to serve or participate in any government that either condoned, participated in, or in any way, supported war.  If a soldier or government official wished to become a Christian they had to first resign from their job, and only then could they be baptized and become Christian.   Should they later change their minds and seek to rejoin the military or to once more serve in government they would automatically be excommunicated from the church. 

This is the vision that Progressive Christians seek to restore back to the church of the 21st century.  It is to make war the last option when all else has failed, always giving peace a chance first.  For them the ultimate goal would be to see war banned from earth forever, and the reign of peace, which the Prophet Isaiah foresaw - a time when people would beat their swords into plows and would study war no more, will, in fact, be reality over our entire planet.[xv]

Progressive Christians are also opposed to all violence, whether in our streets, schools, homes, churches, workplace.  Wherever it sticks its ugly head we will fight and destroy it.  We will not, and cannot, be silent.   Neither can we rest, hoping someone will take up the fight.  Instead we must make our voices heard in whatever way we can, and never be silenced or give up the fight.

Let it be clearly understood that this is no spectator's sport where we get to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else fight.  We are called to get in, whether by praying, voting for candidates committed to peace, non-violence and equality for all, contributing to candidates or causes committed to those things, making our churches safe havens for all needing help, and a myriad of other ways.  It is to find a way that works for you, and then go do it, thereby becoming a part of the answer, not the problem.

G.  Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth.

In the very beginning God gave man dominion over the earth.[xvi]   It was his job to rule over the garden along with his wife, once she was created, and to protect it.  They failed in that task by letting the serpent (Satan) into the garden and then yielding to him.  That got them evicted from the garden so they couldn't eat of the tree of life, lest they live forever in a fallen state of sin.  However, the order to take care of the garden/earth was never rescinded.  Instead Adam is sent forth to toil by the sweat of his brow by tilling and taking care of the ground.[xvii]

The Prophet Ezekiel has a vision in which he sees the temple of God with water flowing from it, and everything the water touches is made alive and lives.[xviii]  In the New Testament the Apostle Paul tells us we who are Christians are the temple of God.[xix]   Jesus, speaking in both the spirit of the prophet and of the apostle, says that anyone who believes in Him, out of their bellies would flow streams of living water.  Thus, in the spirit, as we let the living water that resides in us flow out from us, we can cause all we encounter to be made alive and to live.  How about in the natural.  Is there a way we can take the living water within us and heal our world?

In answering that question let's understand what God's ultimate plan is for all nations.  Going to the vision of Ezekiel mentioned earlier, it says that on either side of the river there are fruit trees for food and whose leaves are for medicine.[xx]

John the Revelator has a similar vision, "And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month.  The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations". [xxi]

God reveals himself to be for the ultimate healing of all nations.  If that is the case, can we, as the church, be any less committed to that idea?   God loves all of his creation.  That being the case, how can we hate or despise any part of what God has made and blessed?  The Apostle John tells us that if we hate our brother then the love of God is not in us.[xxii]

To love God is to love everything he has made and loves.  Therefore, I love and care for all of creation, including the earth.  If you love something you want to nurture it, protect it, provide for it, and do whatever it takes to either keep it well, or if it is sick, to make it well and restore it to perfect health.  It is with that spirit that Progressive Christians embrace our mother earth, to take care of her, and make her well.  We realize that this planet is our only home, and either we work together to save it, or we will all perish.

H.  Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

So where is it all headed?  I believe it is headed to a lifelong learning to be compassionate, and to possess and give away selfless love.  The outline is laid out for us by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.[xxiii]  There, he talks about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, providing shelter for the stranger, and clothing the naked.  He then says that if we do it unto the least of his brethren we do it unto him.  If we do all the above we get to be welcomed into the kingdom prepared for us, where Jesus waits to greet us, and if not, then we will be turned away.

So how can this all happen?  What will it take?  First, a quality decision, from which there can never be any turning back, that we are in for the long haul.  No matter what the future may hold, what bumps or falls we may encounter, what trials we may be called to face, no matter how bad it gets, we are going through to the end when we cross over into heaven and into the arms of Jesus.

Second, we need to do as the apostles did - wait, pray, get an answer for us, get the anointing for that thing, and go do it.

Many want to go right away and start doing something for God.  One problem, God is not obligated to finish something he never began in the first place.  However if we will wait patiently for when God does speak and anoint us, we can then go in the power of God and begin to change our world.

3. Conclusion

The number eight is the biblical number for new beginnings.  I believe that Progressive Christianity offers a new beginning and an alternative to the extreme Evangelical Right which currently controls our congress and government, and is trying to remake our nation and society into what they think it should be.

Progressive Christians can revive our churches, change the course of our nation and world, be the real deal that will shine Jesus forth to the nations, and work together to hasten the day when the visible kingdom of God becomes reality here on earth.

That is a vision which I can embrace and what I believe Progressive Christianity is all about.  Therefore I am proud to call myself a progressive, and eager to know what new thing God may do among us or may speak to us.  How about you?  There is a saying that "united we stand and divided we fall".  Let us unite together with the true inclusive message of Jesus in his resurrection power and the power of Pentecost, and go change our world for the better and for eternity.

Thank you all for reading all this lengthy article.  I pray you all enjoyed it and it gave you some food for thought.  As always the views expressed here are solely my own.  As always any comments or thoughts always welcomed.
Brother Lawrence Damien Cos
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[i] Christianity and the Social Crisis

[ii] Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII 1891

[iii] Matthew 7:21-23 NKJV

[iv] II Timothy 3:15 KJV

[v] John 14:6

[vi] John 6:37

[vii] Matthew 28:19-20

[viii] Galatians 3:28

[ix] Luke 6:31

[x] John 13:34-35

[xi] I John 4:1

[xii] Proverbs 11:14

[xiii] Micah 6:8

[xiv] Matthew 5:9

[xv] Isaiah 2:4

[xvi] Genesis 1:26

[xvii] Genesis 3::17-19

[xviii] Ezekiel 37th chapter

[xix] I Corinthians 3:16

[xx] Ezekiel 47:12

[xxi] Revelation 22:1-2

[xxii] I John 4:20

[xxiii] Matthew 25:31-46

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