How Progressivism Refuels
Progressive Christianity has discovered its source of renewable energy.
Let’s start with a parable. Let’s say that a thousand years ago, a monastery in central Italy began to experience a divide. On arriving, young recruits who had counted the cost soberly took the vows and entered monastic life. Even though they were leaving the comforts of home and prospects of marriage, they trusted that this was the faithful vocation to which God was calling them.
Within weeks, however, they began to discover inconsistency between the senior leadership and the vows they were imposing upon the rest of the monks.
For one thing, the income generated by the monastery’s relics was quite substantial, and it allowed the abbot and his closest advisers to live in shocking luxury, not at all as was envisioned in the vow to poverty. For another thing, younger monks noticed senior monks idly sitting while the rest of the monastery busily conducted their tasks. Hadn’t they all taken a vow to work hard?
If the senior monks were unwilling to give up luxury and laziness, then why should they be so insistent that the younger monks give up what was valuable to them—such as the joys of female companionship? If the vows could be neglected in multiple areas by the leaders themselves, then why not in other areas?
In fact, one could argue that rules against laziness and luxury were far more important than rules against monks engaging in sexuality—something God had created humanity with an unmistakable impulse for.
In fact, some younger monks even began to read the vow of chastity they had taken in a new light: according to their new interpretation of the vows, sincere, mutual sexuality is actually encouraged.
It became clear that in that monastery, as long as there was moral inconsistency in those who were supposed to be enforcing the vows, all the vows would remain open to all manner of reinterpretation. Eventually, the division widened into a split, with both monasteries claiming to be the true, vow-following institution.
Consider for a moment the young monks. Their allegiance to the vows was jolted by observing the older monks. What in their young minds justified their rebellion against and reinterpretation of the vow of chastity? It was the inconsistency of those who were tasked with enforcing the vows.
That inconsistency fueled their innovations.
Here’s the reality the parable is pointing to: As long as there is moral inconsistency in Bible-believing Christians, progressive Christians will have an argument. Not a valid one, but one that will remain convincing to many, nonetheless.
Here is the general outline of this argument: Those who claim to be all about valuing the Bible and following its teachings are inconsistent in how they follow it. They pick and choose verses to emphasize, while seemingly ignoring others. Claiming to be “Bible-believing Christians,” they actually end up reading the Bible selectively, based on what they value most. For every “Thus says the Lord” that a Bible-believing Christian states, a progressive Christian can also retort, “Yes, but it also says this.” Therefore, if those who are supposed to be valuing the whole Bible are only valuing parts of it, then, as the argument goes, progressives are free to do the same thing and to feel fine about it.
Here is an example: The Bible teaches the sinfulness of both homosexuality and apathy toward the poor.
If a Bible-believing Christian emphasizes the former, but not the latter, then why shouldn’t a progressive do vice versa? The progressive can make the added point that, because he or she values the same things that contemporary culture values (e.g., valuing economic equity, but not sexual purity), he or she is making Christianity relevant and accessible for contemporary generations. (By the way, just because it is a common stereotype that Bible-believing Christians tend to neglect the poor, it’s usually not at all true. Many Bible-believing churches make incredible strides toward helping the poor; it’s just that such churches also emphasize holiness, and are thus blamed for having the wrong focus.)
I have a friend who questions why Bible-believing Christians quote Leviticus 20:13, but not Ezekiel 16:49.
Leviticus 20:13 calls it an abomination when “a man lies with a male as with a woman.” Ezekiel 16:49 talks about the “guilt of Sodom.” But unlike the Leviticus verse, the Ezekiel verse isn’t talking about homosexuality. Rather, Sodom’s guilt was because of this: Sodom “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49). “Sounds like a description of a lot of Bible-believing Americans,” my progressive friend would point out.
If moral inconsistency is pointed out in us, our response must never be to defensively dig in. Progressives have a point: none of us are nailing consistent biblical faithfulness. As James 3:2 says, “For we all stumble in many ways.”
Although we all stumble in many ways, a major difference between progressive Christians and Bible-believing Christians is how they pick and choose.
Bible-believers do so sheepishly, while progressives do so boldly. When inconsistency is pointed out, Bible-believers explain that their goal is to repent, whereas progressives explain their goal is to rewrite. Progressives’ goal was never to get back into alignment with biblical standards, but rather to get disagreeable parts of the Bible into alignment with cultural standards.
If an older sibling disobeys his parents, the younger sibling might feel that that gives him the excuse to disobey his parents too. He might even say something like, “Well, at least I didn’t do…” and then compare himself to the older brother. My advice for the progressive Christian would be this: