Lately, on multiple occasions, I have been accused of being a “progressive” Christian. I say “accused” because it is definitely a label applied with hostility: “You say [x], [x] is what progressives say, and being a progressive is not real Christianity, therefore you are not a Christian. In fact, you are a deceiver and someone who twists scripture”. There’s a LOT to unpack there, and it is not a fair accusation; mostly it serves as a way to write off whatever I am saying in a given conversation.
To be clear, I do not think that being a “progressive” makes someone not a “real” Christian. I am not certain what encompasses the belief system of “progressive” (I doubt there is a codified definition anywhere), but usually this label is applied to those who disagree with things evangelicals believe. But evangelicals have not been around forever; they are one group of Christians who have emerged in recent history, and their beliefs do not encompass everything that historical Christianity has believed.
Now whether I am a “progressive” is another question. Since I cannot wrap my head around what “progressive Christianity” is, I certainly do not want to be boxed into it. I am always trying to live my faith as I understand Jesus, Paul, and other biblical writers have explained it, and if their teachings align more with evangelicals, progressives, or any other label, that is not important to me. Boxing myself into a thought system and then trying to support those beliefs from scripture is backwards to how I approach faith.
Aligning with core statements said 2,000 years ago is NOT “progress”; it is the starting line.
What is most concerning to me about these accusations of progressivism is that they often follow from me writing about love being the most important thing in Christianity. The trend is that I will say that loving God and loving others is the core Christian ethic, and they will respond with “that is the kind of thing that progressives say”. I do not understand this accusation (which it clearly is), because loving God and others is what Jesus, Paul, and others CLEARLY taught to be at the heart of Christianity. Jesus said loving God and loving others were the most important commandments. He said we would be known by our love for one another. Paul said that love is the summation of the law, and that if we do not have love, our beliefs are worthless. James said that without works (which he describes as caring for other human beings) our faith is dead. The scripture is clear about a very strong emphasis on love as the dominant factor in the Christian faith. If saying so sounds like progressivism, then that makes progressivism look pretty good, but I cannot see how it is. Aligning with core statements said 2,000 years ago is NOT “progress”; it is the starting line.
When defending their view that progressives are evil, evangelicals cite concerns like rejecting Penal Substitutionary Atonement (the belief that our sin makes God angry enough to condemn us, but Jesus substituted himself on on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins), acceptance of LGBT folks, or supporting abortion rights (which is extrapolated to mean voting democrat in the U.S.). Once you start talking about loving others, all of these other concerns get dragged into the conversation, and accusations are made that if you are on the wrong side of any of these issues, you are not a real Christian. None of these issues represent Christianity defining beliefs, however.
Regardless of whether it is true or not, PSA is an odd place to draw a line in the sand, as for over a thousand years Christians really had no codified belief around it. Certainly the idea of Jesus as Savior and Victor was a part of Christian belief, as well as the importance of following Him, but the notion that Jesus paid a debt we owed to God to stave off his wrath is not evident in historical Christian writings. Some of the well regarded theological thinkers throughout history laid the groundwork for PSA, but it did not really come about in its current form until the Reformation. I am not saying it is not true; I AM saying that mental assent to it is not a requirement for real faith. For hundreds of years Christians existed without expressing belief in PSA. Evangelicals use “The Gospel” as shorthand for PSA, but there is nothing in scripture that would suggest this. Scripture talks in less specific terms about following Jesus and seeing Him as a deliverer from sin and death.
Social issues like sexual identity, abortion, or even patriarchy, are other lines in the sand that evangelicals draw, but these are at best secondary issues that they have raised to primacy. Abortion is hardly mentioned in scripture (and what it does mention is far from definitive), and questions of patriarchy and sexual orientation, while brought up in scripture, are not as clear cut as evangelicals claim. There are open questions as to whether patriarchy is the social backdrop to scripture, or if it is prescriptive. The same applies to sexual orientation. Yet, if you do not toe the line with the evangelical line of thought on these topics, you are labeled as a “progressive”. For my part, I think that scripture speaks more strongly and directly against things that evangelicals love, like Trumpism as an example, but trying to be critical here (not even drawing a line in the sand) earns more accusations of “progressive”.
I will not be boxed into a label to be written off
The bottom line is, for me, I will not be boxed into a label to be written off. I call myself a Christian because I follow Jesus to the best of my ability. I accept many different people who call themselves Christians, and I do not draw lines in the sand or proclaim who is in or out. I have serious questions about the behaviors and beliefs of some people who identify as Christians, but at the end of the day, I trust God to sort out the details. What I do myself is follow Christ as I understand His teaching, and try to love others the best I can, relying on Grace when I get it wrong. If that makes someone want to call me a “progressive”, I believe that reveals more about that person’s assumptions than it does about the validity of my faith.