Progressive Christianity, Fact or Fiction Campaign — the pastors speak

FH-Times-Progressive-Christianity-Ad-2015.05.13In the town of Fountain Hills, Arizona, 8 local churches have come together to preach a series of sermons about the differences between progressive “Christianity” and traditional Christianity. The above is from a newspaper ad taken out by the churches and includes the churches and their websites. Most, if not all, of the websites have a way to listen to the sermons given during this campaign. There has been much made of this on their local news and of course in the world of social media. I am going to provide several links here in case you are unfamiliar with the story, including links to statements made by a local church who felt “attacked” by this series of sermons by the 8 churches in question. What the media has not covered is the campaign by the progressives before this Fact or Fiction round.

With a casual web search I am certain you can also find a variety of blogs on the subject. In a good bit of the news coverage, it is stated that these 8 churches are trying to besmirch one. The statement by the 8 churches preaching however seem to make rather clear that this is not about one progressive church in their community, but rather about the movement as a whole.  I also want to note that many of the news stories seem to try to include LGBTQ issues. Feel free to disregard this red herring as an examination of the sermon topics does not seem to include anything regarding same sex, or opposite sex for that matter, issues.

I contacted the pastors of the 8 churches to ask a few simple questions and they graciously answered them. Please keep in mind that as they reflect several denominations, and some non affiliated, the answers will represent a variety of faith traditions that differ on much but agree on that which is the core of our shared faith.  They will not be individually identified as per their wish not to hide who was making statements but rather to appear as one unified voice in the series going forward. This is a partial quote from the email response I received explaining their position (It is only partial as the rest of the email was personal and has no bearing on this issue):

The questions and answers appear unedited.

Hello Scott,

Trusting you have had a great week.  I wanted to get back to you with the responses from our group of pastors here in Fountain Hills.  I purposely did not give credit for specific quotes or answers because we want to speak as one voice on this matter. “

First, how is it that you all ended up deciding to preach about progressive belief? You are from several different backgrounds with differing points of doctrine after all.

We realize that the eight churches doing this sermon series have disagreement in many important areas as well as in the non-essentials. However, we believe that Progressive Christianity disparages the essential core beliefs of Christianity. On these core beliefs we are united and believe it is our pastoral responsibility to speak to our congregations about the differences between Biblical Christianity and Progressive Christianity.

For the last four or five years there have been a series of seminars presented in our community which promoted Progressive Theology.  The joint effort of these few churches presenting these seminars has created confusion within our community concerning the differences between Biblical Christianity and Progressive Christianity. We who believe in Biblical theology felt it was time to address some of the concerns which have been raised.

While it is true that there are doctrinal differences between us, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are shared by all: Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that He was buried, and then raised on the 3rd day according to the Scriptures.

The joint effort between our churches was in response to questions we as pastors had all been receiving regarding the differences between Biblical Christianity and Progressive Christianity. The real value in a joint effort like this is that it clearly reveals (and demonstrates) the unity of doctrine across a wide section of Christian denominations

Second, what do you believe the primary danger(s) of progressive belief is?

Progressive Christianity leads to a Christ-less Christianity. If Jesus is simply a good man we are trying to emulate and not the Son of God, then we dead in our sin and are dependent on works righteousness.

It’s all about Jesus.  Progressive theology denies the Deity of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus.  Sin is not dealt with, thus salvation is not available

I told the congregation Sunday that for years Christians have been trying to keep Christ in Christmas, today we are trying to keep Christ in Christianity. The real danger that Progressive Christianity poses is that it undermines the very core of what Christianity is. To take the name Christian means not only to strive to walk as He did, but also to believe as He believed. Progressive Christianity has made it quite clear that they don’t believe in a theistic God, nor do they believe Jesus is the only way to God. Comparatively, Jesus clearly believed in a theistic God (He called Him Father) and it was Jesus Himself who said He was the only way to the Father. Do I think Progressive Christianity poses a danger? Absolutely! You see once you remove the atoning work of Jesus on the cross (which is the net result of removing a theistic God and the Deity of Christ) you remove any hope of salvation; you are left in your sin. With eternity in the balance, how can I be silent?

Third, what role does doctrine play in the life of your congregations and how do you foster that?

Doctrine expresses the beliefs that the church has forged over time as it has faced challenges to its beliefs in past eras. It provides us with a way to express our beliefs and gives us boundaries as to what is accepted and what is not.

This is the summation of our belief and a reflection of Biblical truth and guidelines for our faith.

Doctrine is at the very center of everything we do, but then that would be true for a Progressive Christian as well. In fact, it is at the center of what every human being does; even the atheist. A person only acts on what they believe. The real question is what do you believe? We believe the Bible is the Word of God, as such, inerrant. We then use the Bible as a guideline for the outworking of our faith in day to day life. Fostering that doctrine is really quite simple: blow the dust off the book and read it!

Fourth, do you believe progressive beliefs to be an expression of Christianity, or would you describe it as something that is separate from Christianity? (or of course if neither of those is a proper expression of your thoughts on progressive beliefs please explain why)

Progressive Christianity is neither. It is man centered rather than God centered.

Progressive theology is not Christian theology.  It contradicts the core tenets of Biblical theology.

Progressive Christianity is neither. The term Progressive indicates something that evolves (changes from one state to a more improved state) over time. Is Christ progressive? Does Jesus evolve? What improvement would you add to His perfection? More to the point, what can man’s knowledge and learning add to Divine perfection? Regarding the term Christian, that is the term claimed by those striving to be like Christ. Again, this is not only in action, but also in belief. To say that you like what He did, but you aren’t interested in believing what He believed should be cause for alarm. Progressive Christianity is quite different from Biblical Christianity and the term “Progressive Christianity” is simply an oxymoron.

Fifth, a local church has made claims that this is directed toward them specifically. Did they factor into this decision? Did they inspire this?

The local progressive church has claimed that this is an attack on them. It is not. This is a sermon series to counter a larger concern; a teaching that is not biblical but disguises itself as Christianity. The progressive pastor in town has clearly stated his beliefs in the local paper and on the radio. Through these media he has denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Virgin birth, and the Bible as the Word of God. His public statements caused many members of our congregations to ask us questions about Progressive Christianity and about the biblical view of Christianity. It is not our desire to attack any individual or congregation. Our motivation is to contend for the faith and to feed our own flocks the truths found in Scripture.

From the beginning it has been clearly stated that this is not about one individual or one congregation.  The issue is theology.  We are merely explaining Biblical theology and doctrine.

I have heard the same claims, but let’s think about this logically. How would it look for us to attack a specific person (or congregation)? That really wouldn’t help our case for Christianity much, would it? No. From the very beginning we have made it absolutely clear that the series isn’t about a person or congregation; it is about doctrine and theology.

So what is compatible with Christianity in this case (or to turn a phrase, what would Jesus do)? Would He say, “don’t worry, doctrine isn’t all that important anyway” or would He point out the false doctrine? Thankfully, we have the Bible to show us exactly how Jesus handled these situations. He said to take note of the wolves that slip in among you wearing sheep’s clothing (that is, point the wolf out to protect the sheep). Jesus Himself was quite confrontational when it came to people espousing poor doctrine (and He usually led with something like: “you brood of vipers”…) should His church be anything less? So, contending for the faith is very much a Christian doctrine. While the term “attack” has made for dramatic news coverage, it is wholly unfounded.

Finally, is there anyway that someone could, if they wanted to, listen to the sermons being given? (pod cast, online via YouTube, etc.)

Our sermons can be found on our individual church websites. (I don’t know if this is true for all of us.)

In regards to the actual messages, I believe that most individual church websites would have the messages available to stream or download. I would encourage people to download the messages and judge for themselves.

As a side note: It is interesting that those who are complaining about this series have held several seminars in collaboration with other congregations, to express their progressive theological beliefs.  Their seminars have attacked the core beliefs of Biblical theology.  Now eight Bible believing congregations are uniting to present Biblical theology, and somehow this is viewed as wrong?

This ends the questions I asked and the answers that the pastors generously provided.

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34 Replies to “Progressive Christianity, Fact or Fiction Campaign — the pastors speak”

  1. “The real question is what do you believe? We believe the Bible is the Word of God, as such, inerrant.”
    If that is the core of the argument, I am glad UMC does not have the same view. Otherwise, it is church shopping for me again. Bummer!

  2. My problem with the response you received is that it does not actually address “Progressive Christianity”, as you can readily find self-identifying progressive Christians who hold to one or more of the doctrines which they are identifying as being denied by “Progressive Christianity”; I thus read it as veiling what is in truth an attack on the specific form of Progressive Christianity followed by the UMC pastor in question.

    Nor, for what it’s worth, do I consider that a dichotomy of “Biblical Christianity” and “Progressive Christianity” is a reasonable one. I generally find that both sides are very keen on following the Bible as they understand it, and each is going to downplay certain passages in order to do that. For example, I do not think the Biblical witness is univocal in favour of the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth or the particular version of atonement which I have no doubt they mean when using the term “atonement” (and if they think there is no forgiveness of sin without that, they haven’t read Ezekiel 18).

    Incidentally, I do not myself identify as “progressive”; “liberal” would be a fairer term, or possibly “radical”, though that would argue that I might be a “death of God” theologian, which is not the case. However, I have been encouraged to see former evangelicals beginning to self-identify as “progressive” as in some ways I am closer to evangelicals than to the bulk of liberals (notably, I treat the Great Commission seriously – and think that excessive adherence to conservative doctrines is the greatest single barrier to evangelism – but then, I live in a largely agnostic country).

    What I don’t like is to see anyone appropriating terms like “biblical” in order to deny the christianity of any person or group which doesn’t hold to some specific belief which they find essential for them.

    1. Chris, I know you are talking to Scott, but I wanted to jump in here.

      I don’t like the term biblical Christianity either. I prefer traditional, creedal, or orthodox.

      1. No problem. I prefer those terms too; I have no problem (as a liberal) saying that I’m not traditional or orthodox (although I tend to avoid “orthodox” as (1) there’s an extremely traditional branch which has sort of appropriated that term and (2) there are quite a lot of orthodoxies within even the main currents within Christianity); I’m only “creedal” via a somewhat postmodern understanding of some of the terminology, so I don’t worry about someone saying “non-creedal” of me either.

        But I tend to be very biblical, granting that I do not extract quite the same doctrinal structure from scripture as has traditionally been the case (actually, I view the New Testament as inherently polydox, assuming such a word exists – and it does now – and I think the extraction of most doctrine is a mistake). Were I a self-identifying progressive, I’d object to the dichotomy.

        Apropos doctrinal statements and creeds, I would very much like to see Christianity viewed as a centered set (centered on Jesus Christ) rather than as a bounded one. Denominations can have creeds or catechisms if they like, but the one church shouldn’t go that way (can’t go that way?), and groups within it shouldn’t try to appropriate the whole via making up more boundary conditions and using a label to try to represent themselves as being a truer version than others.

        My main reason for thinking this way is several years acting as the main moderator in a then very active online religion forum in the “Christianity” section, in which a major part of the endeavour was to stop members of one flavour of Christianity calling members of another flavour non-Christian (or quite often something worse).

    2. Personally I would not have chosen biblical. I tend to try to use “traditional” or “orthodox/creed based” etc. Those are better descriptors I thing, but alas, not my ad campaign.
      I am ok with statements like outside of historic Christianity, etc. and in some cases I am ok with saying someone is not Christian only because we have a very basic set of general beliefs that have been held by Christians.
      As for the term Progressive Christian…there are distinctive beliefs which do define the progressive Christian movement. Self identify with them at your peril I guess would be what I say to anyone. Be it the 8 points, the phoenix confession, Wolsey’s definition, etc, there are distinct things that run through all of those. The primary one is denying the exclusive nature of Christianity, followed by often denying the divinity of Christ. It is almost as if the wrote an anti Apostle’s creed.
      I do not find it an attack on a specific form of progressive christianity but rather, as their responses suggested, a response to a specific type, and indeed the most prevalent, type of progressive christianity. I do not think that a pastor or even a group of pastors in conjunction with each other, addressing the questions of faith that their flock have as an attack. I find it responsible pastoring and would expect any pastor to do the same should he feel the need.

      1. I’m inclined to think that in (for example) Wolsey’s case, he has set out to construct what is effectively a creed. The thing is, it isn’t accepted as such by very many progressives (I’ve followed a load of discussions between progressives on the topic).

        I do not myself have any difficulty coexisting in a church with or speaking to people who follow all of the tenets of any of these attempts to define progressive Christianity, nor even the odd atheist Christian – and I am a member of the same denomination (albeit the English version) as John Spong, who is as far as I can see somewhat more liberal even than am I. But I also do not have difficulty coexisting with complete literalists, even to the extent of being 4004BC creationists (and there are a few of those in my current congregation).

        Why, I ask, is the response of these pastors not merely “This is an alternative and non-traditional understanding of Christianity which we do not teach in this church”?

        My strong suspicion is that some churches may have been running the “Living the Questions” series of which Felten is a prime mover (I don’t know if you’ve seen it or read the book?), and that for any congregants who actually are asking those questions, no back-to-the-fundamentals sermonising will work to stop them questioning. But your mileage may differ.

        1. I did not take the pastor’s responses to be an attempt to stop anything. They in fact made it quite clear that their goal was to answer questions, not stop them from flowing. As to their response, that is a question you would have to ask them. For me, assuming (a danger I know) that the primary contact with progressive christianity as defined by Wolsey as the local progressive UMC endorses him and his definition, then I could not make any statement that would refer to what Wolsey says in his definition as Christian. Also, if you believe that Christianity is exclusive, then you can not endorse a view of Christianity that is not. (The 8 points and also the Phoenix confession points allow for an all roads idea). You can not effectively say this is the truth, but go ahead and believe and follow something different and it will be just fine.

  3. Did the UMC pastor in question deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus in local media? Isn’t that a chargeable offense?

    1. So has Roger W., along with a host of other denial of Wesleyan particulars. The church in question, rather than looking to the Articles and Confessions, posts stuff by Roger as if it was legitimate.

      Now one should decide if charges would make martyrs or do actual good?

      1. I’m not sure what would be the best move in terms of PR or politics, but would any candidate for ordination in the UMC pass the bar if they denied the resurrection? I hope not. Then why should someone continue to preach who does? Easy question to ask from where I sit, but still I don’t understand.

          1. Unfortunately, we all know which jurisdiction.

            What conferences outside of that particular jurisdiction do you believe use Wonderland (up is down, etc.) as their model?

  4. I see several issues with the received response. The primary issue I have is with the labels themselves. “Progressive” and “Biblical” Christianity are subjective labels. Would these churches be seen as Biblical or Progressive by someone like Steven Anderson? I don’t have an answer for that. Just throwing it out. I also think some of the questions for the sermons are loaded. Take the first one: Does it matter that God doesn’t change? My answer would change depending on how change is expanded upon. Are we talking God’s nature or is it something else?

    1. Progressive christianity is not a subjective label. Whether you use the 8 point system, the phoenix confession or Wolsey’s definition, there are distinctive that mark progressive christianity as noticeably distinct from the traditional understanding of Christianity. There are numerous churches that identify themselves as progressive and list the 8 points. There are also numerous churches using curriculum such as living the questions, that are at the very least open to progressive (as defined by the religious movement) ideas. It is important to note that is a large difference between progressive christianity and the classic liberal theology it grew out of. I do not care for biblical Christianity as a label myself, but prefer traditional/orthodox/creedal as descriptors. As an advertising tactic though it made national headlines, so from that specific standpoint it did it’s job. As for their sermon topics, I suspect like in any church it is difficult to judge a sermon by it’s title. All of the websites are listed if you are curious, and most if not all have audio tracks of the sermon. If what we are doing is critiquing sermon titles though maybe we are stretching to find fault?

      1. After looking over the 8 points and the Phoenix Confession, I think there’s a lot of room for personal interpretation. And how many points must one hold to to be a progressive Christian? One, two, all of them. I think the answer will vary from person to person. So, I stand by my comment that progressive Christianity is a subjective label.

        As for my comment about the sermon titles, I just dislike any sermon title. Period. It allows for pre conceived notions about the content. And, I’m not searching for fault based off of the titles alone. Otherwise I would have said so.

        I actually have no stake in this battle at all as I am not in the UMC and am practically out of Protestantism altogether.

  5. That’s a pretty impressive pile of bullshit in that response. “We’re not attacking anybody, but here’s exactly what all progressive Christians believe and also they’re not Christians and also they’re destroying Christianity.”

    He manages to be disrespectful, dismissive, obstinate and incorrect, all in one.

    1. Wow…he? Who is this ‘he’ you speak of? Also, I did not see the things that you seem to have seen. Perhaps you should read again starting from a less angry position. And really, just as a curiosity, why is it that for several years there were allowed to be progressive seminars that question and call wrong the foundations of traditional Christianity and that is fine, but when traditional Christianity in the town does the same, it is somehow an “attack”.

    2. I checked out a few articles that are reporting on this and there are claims made that one of the pastors from this group of churches has made comments about the UMC pastor. But, the links provided do not mention the UMC pastor by name. They also don’t say what the reporting article says they say. To say that “he” is doing these things does not fit the actual written narrative.

      I do find is suspicious that there is one progressive church in the town and that five of the eight churches are neighbors of the Methodist church. That said. Suspicions are not proof. So I will take these right churches at this word that this is not an attack on one church.

  6. I’m part of a UMC that has openly been looking at Progressive Christian theology. I’m an ordained UM pastor (retired), I have an M.Div., and frankly, much of what I read is being described as “Biblical Christianity” is essentially a Calvinistic or “Reformed” theology. The UMC is a church which embraces a pietistic overlay on what essentially was CofE theology that John Wesley compressed. Further, the “Progressive Christian theology” that gets espoused says nothing that wasn’t being taught in Bible and Theology classes that I had in college and seminary in the 1960’s. This isn’t anything new, and by my lights, it is extremely Biblical.

    I one read an article by a Roman Catholic priest who admitted he could not believe in the “bodily Resurrection,” for the simple reason that if Jesus in his Incarnate body rose to heaven, without a pressure suit his body would explode somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 feet! Proof that the “bodily Resurrection” was a simile to describe that it was truly Jesus who had resurrected to new life—which is all the “Progressive Christian Theology” teaches.

    My big question is: why are these 8 churches threatened by the fact that not every Christian sees the Bible or the Christian faith the same way they do?

    1. Tom,

      Yes, the Death of God theology of the 60’s is very similar to what passes for progressive theology today. Neither or historical, valid, or beneficial.

      Yes, I’ve read the same silly article.

      I would say they aren’t threatened, but that they see, and maybe rightly so, the attack of progressivism against the Church universal. Progressives deny that Jesus is God, that we have real atonement, and then make light of everything else. Sorry, but that’s not Christianity. That may be the CHristianity of the 1960’s America, but it is not Christianity.

      Instead of the religion of the capitalist colonizar, I’ll stick with the faith once delivered.

      1. Joel, you may have misunderstood. I’m one who stands in the
        “progressive” camp. I don’t find it anti-Biblical. Rather, I find that the process of historical exegesis to be freeing and intellectually respectable, as opposed to clinging to literalism. I don’t find it opposing atonement; I find it doing more to affirm the Biblical concept of atonement—bringing one back into wholeness in one’s relationship with God. I don’t find progressive theology denying the resurrection; instead I find it arguing that resurrection is one of the key doctrines that underlie our faith. I could go on.

        What I do find is that the opposition to Progressive theology seems to be a lot of people wanting to cling to Reformed Theology (i.e., Calvinism in its variety of forms) as normative, and unwilling to accept that there may be other ways of looking historically at the Christian faith.

        The fulmination of kingdom of God will not be advanced or retarded by this argument. Why has this become the new litmus test?

        Tom Griffith

        1. In references to the churches mentioned here, I would be shocked if the majority of them were any sort of Calvinist, but I could be wrong. As to the biblical label, I think I have made my disdain for that clear. As to “Why has this become the new litmus test?” It has not become the new litmus test. Jesus has always been the litmus test and, whether looking at the 8 points, the 15 points, the claims by Wolsey, etc. any of the standards of progressive belief deny, or allow for denial of, the essential points of the identity of Christ. So, not a new litmus test, the same litmus test that has been used for as long as there have been Christians for the same tired heresies (used here in it’s actual definition, not as an insult) that most of progressive belief seems to be structured around.

  7. The real problem with altitude is oxygen starvation. Roughly rounded, the nominal air pressure at sea level is 15 pounds per square inch (PSI). Prolonged exposure to lower than 10 PSI requires supplemental oxygen. About half the earth’s atmosphere exists below the 7 PSI mark. Somewhere around 1 PSI the bodily liquids begin to boil.

  8. All this yap yap yap. What does the Word of God say? Do any of you know? I know He gets the last word (I have read the Bible) so maybe we had better line up with Him.

    The above comment stream is the expression of finite minds thinking they can rationalize the Infinite mind of Christ. The Word of God calls us sheep in desperate need of the Good Shepherd. We would be better served in listening to His voice than each other’s. Acts 17:11

  9. The pastor quoted here says the sermon series is not directed at a particular church, but he also says the series of sermons is a response to “a series of seminars presented in our community which promoted Progressive Theology.” Those presentations all happened at the local Methodist church, the same one that claims the 8 pastors are attacking it. Which makes sense to me. I think they should just be honest about the fact that they are directing their sermons in the general direction of Pastor David Felton and the Fountains UMC.

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