by Al Maxey

Issue #510 ------- November 8, 2011
What distinguishes the liberal from the
conservative is that, however profound his
own spiritual beliefs, a liberal will never regard
himself as entitled to impose them on others.

Friedrich August von Hayek {1899-1992}

Progressive Christianity
Major Markers of a Movement

The famous British novelist, theologian, and academic (a professor of English at Oxford University who hailed from Belfast, Ireland), C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), made the following rather astute observation within the pages of his classic work "Mere Christianity" -- "We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the one who turns back the soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake."

Not too long ago I heard a speaker say that we live in an age where seemingly everything is characterized by a "ten dollar term." Progressive, digressive, regressive, oppressive. Hmmm. It's enough to make one's head spin! There is nothing wrong with such terms, of course, it's just that not everyone is accustomed to hearing them used in daily conversation, thus they are left somewhat confused by them. For example, a few days ago I received this brief email from a reader in Tennessee -- "Bro. Al, What is a good list of attributes which make a person (or a congregation) 'progressive'?" Several of us have been hearing for years about the "progressives" within the church, and how they were "wreaking havoc" upon the Body of Christ. Some of us have even been labeled as "progressives." Yet, when asked what this means, we get either blank stares or conflicting descriptives. Even C. S. Lewis points out that just because someone is making forward progress, does not necessarily mean that person is "progressive." It may just mean he or she is "pigheaded." Sometimes the true "progressive" is the one willing to head back the way he came, or to explore some side path. Pressing blindly or obstinately forward, when one is on the wrong path, will be regarded by very few as constituting any kind of genuine "progress." And yet, such terms (as "progressive") are not without meaning, and, whether we like it or not, are in common use within our current culture. Thus, it behooves us to attempt to find a consensus of meaning and application to such terms!! This we shall seek to do in this present issue of Reflections with respect to the term "progressive" as it pertains to Christianity.

The problem we face here, as you probably know only too well, is that the phrase "Progressive Christian" (or "Progressive Church") may mean many different things to many different people. Some disciples view being progressive as a godly virtue; others clearly perceive it as little more than a demonic vice! Therefore, no single definition will satisfy everyone. In general, however, the majority of those scholars who specialize in church history, with special emphasis upon movements within Christendom, have identified several major identifying "markers" of what is generally termed Christian Progressivism. Again, some will perceive these markers to be negatives; some will regard them as positives. They do, however, reflect the basic thinking and direction of that movement within Christendom that tends to be characterized as "progressive," regardless of denominational affiliation. Let's notice each of these briefly.

Marker #1

As a rule, those disciples of Christ Jesus who regard themselves as "progressive," believe that Jesus Himself and His teachings, personal example, and redemptive work, should be the primary focus of God's people, rather than that body of church doctrine, dogma and tradition that developed over the centuries following His ascension. One self-proclaimed "progressive" congregation in Connecticut declared on its web site: "We are Christians who have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus." Rather than becoming bogged down in religious politics, policies, rules, and rituals, they seek simply to "imitate Christ," something the apostle Paul himself urged upon his fellow disciples in 1 Cor. 11:1, where he encouraged them to follow his example of following the example of Jesus. "Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to 'love one another,' which is the foundational teaching of Jesus Christ." Dr. David Alicea, pastor of a progressive church in California, wrote, "Love is what distinguishes a healthy church from an ill-mannered church. Love is what makes the difference between attending church and being the church. Love makes the difference between speaking religiously and speaking from the heart. A progressive church is one that dares to love, and mostly dares to love everybody. Love is not just embracing those who worship the same way, think the same way, or even walk the same way. It is daring to love everybody, and in the process understanding that we are not perfect yet, but we are on the way. That is a progressive church."

On the Progressive Christianity web site we are informed: "By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean that we are Christians who know that the way we behave toward one another is the fullest expression of what we believe." Truer words could not be spoken. Jesus Himself declared, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples: if you love one another" (John 13:35). Jesus tells us, and Paul affirms it, that there are only two commands that truly matter in the eyes of deity: Love God and love one another; do these and you have fulfilled all the law and the prophets!! If we live by this standard, then we are easily identified as His disciples. Thus, genuine Christian progressives are those who LOVE. "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16). God is love, and we are progressing toward being like our Father! The Scriptures, therefore, are a revelation of His love for us, not a recording of countless laws that must be obeyed. Progressives see the Bible as a book of love, not a book of law.

Marker #2

Progressive Christians have turned their backs on, and are moving rapidly away from, legalism. They understand that nobody can or will be justified or saved by works of law. Law-keeping or command-keeping is not the pathway to divine acceptance, nor is bondage to human traditions and/or party patterns inferred, assumed, or deduced from the Scriptures. "Progressive Christianity is the name given to a movement within contemporary Christianity characterized by a willingness to question tradition." Another progressive site stated, "We are seeking closeness to God, not accumulated points for following certain rules with which we can buy our way into heaven. We take Jesus' admonitions to the Pharisees to heart, and we focus on the grace of God." Dr. Jerry Maneker, who is a professor at California State University, wrote, "Progressive Christians and churches challenge man-made traditions that make void the Word of God." Jesus had this to say to the legalists of His day, "You nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 'These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men'" (Matt. 15:6-9).

Dr. Maneker declared, "If I were the very devil himself, I could think of no better way of seeking to discredit Christianity than by putting harsh, censorious, judgmental legalists front and center, claiming to speak for Christianity, the Church, and God." He further writes, "The false gospel of legalism, perfectionism, and exclusion that monopolizes the organized 'Church' is anathema to all Christians who truly understand the love of God." This statement is reminiscent of the apostle Paul's own strong words in the first chapter of his epistle to the Galatian brethren. He spoke of those "deserting Him who called" them "by the grace of Christ for a different gospel" (vs. 6), which really wasn't "good news," but a "distortion of the gospel of Christ" (vs. 7). He pronounced an "anathema" upon any and all who dared to bring such a distorted "gospel" (vs. 8-9), which we know from a study of this epistle, and the circumstances that prompted its writing, to have been the rise of legalism within the early church (see my two Reflections articles dealing with this: #202 and #215). The forward progress of the good news that salvation was/is by grace through faith was being distorted by the incursion and imposition of human customs and commands. Paul declared that all who sought justification and salvation by such means were "fallen from grace" and "severed from Christ" (Gal. 5:4). Such a path was digression from Truth. The "progressives" were those determined not to be hindered by such dogma, but who instead pressed forward into the glorious freedom secured for them by the sacrifice of Christ.

The same is true today. The Christian progressives are not those who have departed from the gospel message, but who rather stand firmly in support of it. They are the proclaimers of grace, faith, freedom, love, mercy; not the purveyors of countless legalistic requirements of some complex religious system. The progressives stress love over law, relationship over religion, faith over form, mercy over method, Truth over tradition. Progressives don't regard themselves as having "arrived" at all truth, but perceive themselves to be seekers of greater insight into God's will for their lives. They "find more grace in the search for understanding than they do in dogmatic certainty; more value in questioning than in absolutes." They are willing to listen, to learn, and to change, for they are abundantly aware that they don't know it all. Thus, they are open to going wherever the Spirit of Truth leads them.

Marker #3

In keeping with the spirit of the final thought above, true Christian progressives also recognize that the Family of God is not restricted to the religious parameters of any one denomination, or to any particular faction or schism thereof. Thus, progressives are willing to welcome all others who are in relationship with the Father through the Son, even though they may differ with regard to various opinions, convictions, and practices. Christian progressives do not exclude others -- they include them! It is a welcoming community where diversity is embraced. I welcome you as my brother, without insisting you become my twin!! In the words of one progressive site: "We welcome other seekers regardless of who they are, as God wants us to include people rather than exclude them." Another site stated: "We in progressive churches recognize that we are all wounded souls, God's children, who come to a safe haven to put our lameness, struggles, and sufferings under the Lord's Table, commune with each other, feast on God's Word, and welcome everyone to come to 'taste and see that the Lord is good' (Psalm 34:8)." Dr. Maneker writes, "A progressive church strives to be a true church family, a safe place, a haven and an oasis, where we all can come and share our wounds and uplift each other as befits a church that seeks to reflect and manifest the love of Christ, the Prince of Peace." Thus, the house of God becomes in actual fact a "house for all" -- saint and sinner alike (and, truth be known, there are far more of the latter than the former within His household).

Marker #4

Progressive Christians have abandoned, or are striving earnestly to abandon, the denominational and sectarian distinctions that have divided God's children far too long. One will find very little "brand name loyalty" among progressives. Their loyalty is to the Lord, to Truth, and to their fellow seekers/sinners. They have experienced the frustrations and hurts that have come from the wranglings of legalists and religionists, and they are fed up with it. Thus, progressive congregations seek to be redemptive communities; they seek to heal, not harm or hinder; they seek to affirm their fellow life-travelers, not accuse or alienate. Dr. Jerry Maneker says, "Many of us have been terribly hurt by other professing Christians, clergy, and churches in the past, and we have come to progressive churches as one comes to an oasis after spending many years in one or more deserts of oppression." Jerry laments the years wasted seeking to "conform to the expectations and prejudices of others" in these legalistic environments. He continues: "Progressive Christians and churches view it as not only our mission, but as a mandate from Jesus Himself, that we embrace ALL of God's children. We recognize that God specializes in diversity! No two humans are alike, any more than any two snowflakes are alike! If we look at the plant and animal kingdoms, we see the wide variety of differences that go to make up God's tapestry."

Marker #5

A genuinely progressive congregation of believers (and this is true of the individual members as well) will have a strong social consciousness; they will sense the needs of their communities and seek ways to minister to those who have yet to experience the grace of God. "A progressive church is one that embraces the contextual needs of the community who are trying to make sense of a God rich in grace and love." For too long, too many of our neighbors in our communities have been misled into believing God is a rigid authoritarian who lurks about seeking out our every sin so He can smash us like a bug. Such people may learn to fear God, but they have great difficulty loving Him. Our task is to reflect the real Father to these people through our own lives. We show love, mercy, compassion, acceptance ... because that is His nature! We merely reflect it. Instead of rushing a man to the water of the baptistery, we hasten to his side to give him a drink of water, if he is thirsty, and then share with him the Living Water. Instead of battling with people over the precise composition of the loaf in the Lord's Supper, we patiently share with them the Bread of Life. When our Lord returns, He isn't going to be concerned with how many studies or debates we had with those who sang with instruments, or who ate in church buildings, or who attended proms, He's going to look deeply within our hearts to see if we had love for others ... and if we showed it. Progressives are more interested in loving their neighbor, than in lambasting their brother.

"A progressive church is a church which has realized and accepted that what they have and who they are is relevant to modeling and igniting changes within the realm of their legacy and vision, and that this interaction will propel them to embrace a world that is in dire need of a life-changing experience and redeeming love." Progressives understand that their true calling is not to get a "worship service" correct within a building on Sunday, but to connect with the community every day of the week (which is truly their worshipful service to the Lord) in such a way as to reflect His love, mercy, and grace. Thus, they open the doors of their buildings (if they even have buildings), and invite the community to make use of their facilities for any number of God-glorifying and people-empowering and -ennobling activities. Dr. Maneker wrote, "We strive to not only be a vehicle for ministry to those who attend our churches, but strive to be a source of doing good through outreach efforts." He continued, "We strive for social justice by doing our very best to help remove yokes of bondage placed on people by assorted people and institutions, including many clergy, churches, and denominations." Ours is a broken world in need of the healing of God's grace and love. [NOTE: This is the theme of the 2012 Tulsa Workshop -- "Good News for a Broken World" -- which will be held March 21-24. I have been invited back as one of the presenters, and will be conducting a mini-seminar (including time for questions and answers) on Good News for Broken Marriages. We will be examining how God extends His healing grace to those experiencing the trauma of divorce and the stigma of remarriage. I hope everyone will make plans now to attend.] Progressives are determined to help provide that healing to a broken world by turning away from all the religious game-playing, and seeking simply to be the church by visibly living Jesus within their communities and sharing with others the Good News. Dear God, help us all to be "progressive" in our daily walk with you!! AMEN!!

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Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce & Remarriage
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One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Illinois:

Brother Al, I have written to you in the past, and I also have purchased several of your past Reflections on CD. I also bought and read a copy of your second book One Bread, One Body, and I found it very informative. It certainly showed me the limitations of "inference" when it comes to Bible doctrine. I would like to be added to your Reflections subscribers list. Also, will you be speaking again at the upcoming 2012 Tulsa Workshop?

From a Reader in Missouri:

Dear Brother Al, I just read Robert Waters' attacks on you: Al Maxey, Friend or Foe of "The Cross of Christ?" -- A Review of Some of the Teachings of a Change Agent and Agitator and Al Maxey Stoops to New Low. I have turned to your web site often for clarification on various issues, and I have come to trust your scholarship and your heart for God. I just wanted you to know that you have made a difference in my life! Thank you for the work that you do and for sharing it for all to see. Keep on with your good work, Al, and don't let people like Mr. Waters hinder your enthusiasm or present a barrier to God's work through you. I will continue to use your material in my daily studies! You are a blessing to me, and I can't think of another person (other than Jesus) I'd rather have my name associated with than you!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Brother Al, You are a brilliant and kind minister of the Truth of God; one I truly wish I knew firsthand, but I am afraid that is not to be. Last year I fell and broke my back twice and had to have five surgeries. This year I fell in September and had to be hospitalized. I am still under tight doctors' care. So, I believe that my traveling days are at an end. But, you're still someone I would really like to put my arm around and encourage to keep on doing what you are doing for the good of people's relationship with God! It really IS, as you teach, about our relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and NOT about all those rules. In the legalistic church community here I have tried to do what you are doing, and many of the members have listened. The elders did not, however, and fought me "tooth and nail." I have finally left the Church of Christ here so that I could truly begin worshipping God. Never let the legalistic naysayers get you down, brother!! People ARE searching for God's Truth, and they are finding it through you, not through the legalists. Keep on keeping on; you have my great love and respect!

From a Reader in Arizona:

Dear Bro. Al, I am delighted that you have written again ("Legalistic Righteousness") about this fundamental truth that gives us hope in Jesus alone!! If we fail to see this, our thinking will inevitably be drawn back into ever deeper delusions of self-righteousness.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, I loved this issue of your Reflections ("Legalistic Righteousness")!! I guess the Romans 4 passage is my all-time favorite anti-legalism text! If there were any reason for Abraham to boast, it most assuredly wasn't before God. Many things may be impressive to men, but God has a different standard. He prefers faith to showmanship. Keep it up, brother!!

From a Reader in Ohio:

Dear Brother Al, It has been too long since I've sent you an email, but I want to let you know how much I am still enjoying your Reflections. They continue to edify and encourage both my wife and me. Your recent work on baptism has been particularly helpful. Thank you, my friend. Keep up the great work!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Al, When I was in Russia (1992-1993), we would have to go to the local YMCA-type business, where they had a pool or sauna, to perform baptisms. We could not do this during business hours, so had to wait until 10 p.m. to get in and baptize people, which meant waiting during the entire day and part of the evening, at times, before a baptism could be performed. So there are times when a baptism cannot be "immediate." It is interesting that preachers will use the verse, "And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway" (Acts 16:33). But notice -- the jailer stopped to "wash their stripes" before he was baptized!! If baptism is so extremely important that nothing must stand in our way in getting to the baptistery (after all, if a person has a heart attack and dies he would go straight to hell), then wasn't Paul terribly remiss for allowing this delay so that his own physical needs could be tended to before the jailer's spiritual needs?!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, One of my granddaughters is singing "Amazing Grace" as her solo in an upcoming competition. We will be going tomorrow evening to hear her as they rehearse in front of an audience. I was examining the words to that hymn tonight (I have sung it all of my life, as perhaps you have also), and I thought to myself: I cannot think of anybody who has objected to the words of this hymn, nor have I heard of anyone refusing to sing this hymn when it is used in a worship assembly. And yet, don't the legalists teach contrary to the sentiment of this hymn? Don't they teach that we are saved by law/works, and not by grace/faith? But, still they sing: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me ... How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed." Saved by grace through faith. They will sing it; but, do they believe it?!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Dear Brother Al, I'm sending you this Church Bulletin which just came from the congregation I used to attend. It's funny that the "instrument" was okay downstairs, but they wouldn't approve of it upstairs (as it would at that point become "sin"), and that this instrument "infected" an entire generation with "error" that continues to this day! What is not funny is that this bulletin is sent out everywhere, and thus many people look down on the Church of Christ here as being bizarre. It is so sad to see where the focus still remains with the legalists! Have a blessed Thanksgiving. So many people are so thankful for what you give us each week!

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