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Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Progressive Christianity Today

Progressive Christianity is a movement within Christianity that is willing to question tradition (both traditional practices  and traditional beliefs). If progressive Christians reaffirm a particular traditional belief or practice, it is after having wrestled with it; it’s affirmations are post-critical, not pre-critical and never with unquestioning acceptance.  Progressive Christian faith embraces doubt and ambiguity.  It accepts human diversity:  intentionally building racial/ethnic and economic diversity into its congregations. It also embraces diversity of sexual orientation.  Progressive Christians firmly defend religious liberty and church-state separation and they are committed to social acceptance and partnership with persons of other faiths. (Progressive Christians differ among themselves as to evangelism, the possibility of salvation in other faiths, and related questions, but they are united in working for social equality and tolerance among differing religions.  In other words, whatever the make-up of any heavenly city, the peace of the earthly cities demands respect for alien belief systems–or,  at least, for the persons who hold those belief systems.)

Progressive Christians have a strong emphasis on social and economic justice and care for the poor and oppressed and marginalized.  They also have a strong ecological emphasis:  a focus on care for the Creation.  For Progressive Christians, the life of Jesus as a model for discipleship, and the teachings of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount) are at least as central salvifically as his death and resurrection. This leads them to an ethic that emphasizes love, compassion, promoting justice and mercy and to social action to end poverty, discrimination, and heal the earth of human-caused environmental degradation.  It also leads to work for peace in the world and many progressive Christians are complete pacifists.

The majority of Progressive Christians today fully accept biological evolution as completely compatible with their faith.  Many are deeply influenced by process philosophies and theologies.

Progressive Christianity is largely a movement within Protestantism, but it also embraces a significant minority of Catholics who have been shaped by the emphases of the Second Vatican Council.  (As such, progressive Catholics have found themselves on the defensive  as first Pope John  Paul II and now, even more, Pope Benedict XIII, have rolled back the progressive changes that sprang from Vatican II and are reaffirming a traditional, authoritarian Catholicism.) It is a diverse movement:  Many of its most prominent leaders come from the liberal strands of mainline (now oldline) Protestantism, but it also has roots in 19th C. evangelicalism (which led the movements to abolish slavery and child labor, the first modern feminist movement, peace and anti-imperialism).  Other roots for contemporary Progressive Christianity include the Social Gospel (late 19th/early 20th C.), mid-20th C. Neo-Orthodoxy, various liberation theologies.  It includes the rediscovery of the vibrant dimensions of 16th C. Anabaptists and overlaps the “emergent church” movement within contemporary evangelicalism.

Regular readers of this blog will quickly realize that I consider myself a progressive Christian.  I am a Baptist who draws more from the Anabaptist side of my tradition than from the Puritan side or the later Revivalist strain.  I come from within American evangelicalism and still embrace the best of evangelical Christianity:  deep biblical literacy (increasingly absent in Christians of all stripes, sadly) and a reverence for the Bible’s position as Scripture  and Canon–though rejecting “inerrancy” theories. I also celebrate the traditional evangelical emphasis on conversion (personal, communal, societal) and the need for new birth, but reject the common idea that this makes discipleship optional.  My own doctrinal convictions are more traditional than many other  progressive Christians: I can affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers and my mental footnotes are few. (However, I  share the traditional Baptist aversions to creeds as tests of orthodoxy, much less as infallible statements.  All statements of faith, or confessions of faith, are human and limited and flawed and must be open to revision.) I have been far more influenced by Neo-Orthodox  and Liberation theologies than by theological  liberalism–though I have dialogue partners among the liberals.  More than most white Christians in the Anglo-American world, I have been deeply influenced by the Black Church and African-American and Latin American liberation theologies. (African and Asian liberation theologies have played a much smaller role, though I continue to try to broaden my exposure to them, as well as Afro-Caribbean liberation theologies.) I was raised by a feminist mother and married a woman Baptist minister and one of my favorite  theology teachers is a feminist theologian–and all this has had an impact on me, too.

Progressive Christians are not all liberal or progressive in politics, but most are.  I am a democratic socialist in political philosophy–and find the idea that Barack Obama is a socialist to be laughable.  (In fact, I think that Obama’s economics are not much more progressive than Bill Clinton’s–except on financial regulation and certainly not as progressive as FDR, LBJ, Bobby or Ted Kennedy.  His foreign policy is also very Clintonian, not even as progressive as Jimmy Carter’s– a LONG way from anything a democratic socialist would embrace.  As with FDR and LBJ, contextual matters and people movements may push Obama into a more progressive stance than his cautious self would otherwise embrace–on a range of issues.  And the rightwing fearmongers who use “socialism” as a swear word may push him and the country into a more progressive stance  than if they had cooperated with his initial modest reforms.  But no one who has any notion of what socialism, even in democratic form, is could ever label Obama as a “socialist.” It’s laughable.)

For those who would like to explore Progressive Christianity further, here are some links:

Denominations:

For the most part, these days debates between conservative, traditionalist forms of Christianity and progressive ones go on WITHIN denominations  rather than between them.  Most denominations have conservative and progressive wings.  There are exceptions: The Southern Baptist Convention managed to expel  its progressives and most of its centrists or “moderates” during its internal feud in the 1980s and early ’90s.  The Missouri Synod Lutherans did the same in the 1970s.  Other examples could be multiplied.  The  following U.S. denominations are ones where at least 70% of leadership and membership is progressive.

  • The Alliance of BaptistsThis is a small network of progressive Baptist Christians (individuals and congregations) seeking to respond to the call of God in a rapidly changing world.  It began in 1984 as “The Southern Baptist Alliance,” the first organized resistance movement to takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalists. (I was a charter member of the student branch of the SBA at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1986.) Originally, it was dominated by centrists, but as the SBC purge began in earnest most self-described “moderates” ( a term which always struck me as a synonym for “lukewarm”) formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1994.  Many Alliance congregations are also CBF churches, and other Alliance churches are also aligned with the American Baptist Churches, USA (contemporary form of the old Nothern Baptist Convention).  The Alliance of Baptists is the newest member body of the National Council of Churches of Christ, USA, the mainline ecumenical body.  We were sponsored by two other progressive denominations, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with whom we often partner in mission work.
  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  In the 19th C., the American frontier experience gave birth to a renewal movement led by Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone that hoped to Restore New Testament Christianity in pristine condition. It also hoped to heal denominational divisions by rejecting creeds and holding only to the final authority of the New Testament (never realizing that it was reading the NT through a particular lense shaped by Scottish Common Sense philosophy and the American frontier experience).  These Restorationists broke into  several groups and the Disciples became the progressive denomination of the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement.
  • Church of the Brethren.  Originating in 18th C. Germany and originally called the “Dunkers,” the Church of the Brethren was formed by the creative merging of Anabaptist (German Mennonite) and Pietist theologies.  Despite the name, the CoB have long ordained women.  They retain the pacifism of their Anabaptist roots and an orientation toward service.
  • Episcopal Church, U.S.AThis is the U.S. branch of the global Anglican communion and, of course,  it has its traditionalist side.  But in recent years, the progressives have led the Episcopal Church. It was the first Anglican communion to ordain  women and has become the first one to consecrate an openly gay priest as bishop. (Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire.)
  • Friends United MeetingThis is the largest of Quaker denominations in the U.S. and includes both progressives and traditionalists, but even most traditional Quakers are progressive Christians.
  • Metropolitan Community ChurchesThis denomination was founded by Rev. Troy Perry in the 1970s as the first denomination to be fully inclusive of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender persons.  The MCC’s members are mostly GLBT folk, but also friends and families that do not feel accepted in other denominations.
  • Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of FriendsThis is the most progressive branch of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
  • United Church of Christ.  The UCC comes from the liberal end of the Reformed tradition. It is a 1957 merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church with the Congregationalist Christian Churches.  Both those were the result of earlier mergers:  The Evangelical and Reformed Church was the combination of two immigrant (ethnic German) denominations which had used the Heidelberg Catechism as a mediating stance between Lutherans and Calvinists:  The German Evangelical  Synod and the Reformed Church in the United States.  The Congregational Christian Churches was a merger of Congregationalists (descendants of the Puritans and Pilgrims) with a minority of independent Christian (Stone-Campbell) congregations. 

Denominations with Strong Progressive Wings:  These denominations are not as fully progressive as are the ones listed above. But in each of these denominations, the progressive wing at least approaches 50% of the denomination. 

  • African Methodist Episcopal (AME) ChurchAfrican Methodist Episcopal Church-ZionBoth these Methodist/Wesleyan denominations were formed by African-Americans during the days when slavery was legal in the United States because they refused to be treated as second class Christians in the white Methodist congregations.  Both the AME and AME Zion denominations have always been strong social progressives and rich sources of Black liberation theology.
  • American Baptist Churches in the USAThe contemporary form of the old Northern Baptist Convention, the American Baptists have always had strong leaders in progressive theology, but have always also had a strong traditional, evangelical wing.  The mix has often been unstable and various conservative groups have split off of the ABC through the years while others have remained within the ABC and formed their own seminaries. 
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)Formed in 1988 by a merger of three Lutheran denominations  which had previously been divided mostly by immigrant/ethnic history: The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America.   The ELCA has strong traditionalist features, but also many progressive leaders and congregations.
  • International Council of Community Churches (ICCC)The Community Church movement has always represented Christians who are ecumenical and freedom-minded. In 1950, two networks of such community churches, one predominantly white and the other African-American, united to form the ICCC.  The ICCC stresses racial reconciliation, equality of the sexes in all aspects of church life, ecumenical Christian witness, and unity within diversity in the Body of Christ.  Publishes the Inclusive Pulpit. The ICCC is a member communion of the National Council  of Churches, the World Council  of Churches, and Churches Uniting in Christ.
  • Presbyterian Church (USA).  This is the mainline branch of Presbyterianism in the U.S. (There are more conservative branches.) Rooted in the 16th C. Reformed tradition (Zwingli, Calvin, etc.) as mediated through the Scottish Reformation of John Knox, and the English Westminster divines, Presbyterianism in the U.S. has played a major part in the nation’s history.  The PCUSA is about evenly divided between progressives and traditionalists.
  • The Reformed Church in America. Originating as an immigrant denomination of mostly Dutch and Swiss Calvinists, the RCA is increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic and represents the more progressive of the non-Presbyterian Reformed denominations in the U.S.  (The Christian Reformed Church has a similar Dutch Calvinist background, but is much more conservative.) The RCA is more progressive on social and political matters than on theological  ones in which it is fairly traditional, bound by the historic ecumenical creeds of early Christendom (Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian) and by several 16th C. Reformed Confessions of Faith.
  • The United Methodist Church was formed by the reuniting of the Methodist Church with the United Evangelical Brethren.  This followed a previous (1939) merger of Methodist Episcopal Church  and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which had been severed by the U.S. Civil War.  Today, the UMC is a global denomination in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition.  Since the early 20th C., it has rotated between periods when its progressive wing was strongest and others when its conservative evangelical wing was strongest.  Today these seem balanced, but also in very uneasy tension.  As my friend, UMC minister Jonathan Marlowe, points out, today’s UMC also contains severe criticisms of progressive Christianity by “postliberals,” something that is also true  in other denominations.

In future posts, I will link to some major organizations and representative individuals in the Progressive Christian movement in the U.S.  However, this is not just a U.S. or North American phenomenon. I invite readers from other nations to email me with their impressions of the shape of progressive Christianity in their respective nations. I think that is better than an American (me) outlining my perspective on progressive Christianity elsewhere, don’t you?

It is worth repeating at the conclusion:  Many Christians who are quite traditional or conservative in matters of doctrine or church practice are liberal or progressive (or socialist or revolutionary, etc.) in matters of politics.  Likewise, many Christians who are theologically progressive or liberal are centrist or conservative in politics or economics, etc.  The idea that these line up in a neatly predictable fashion is wrong.  I am centrist in doctrinal matters, but progressive in social and political matters. (In my progressive congregation, among those with theological training, I am considered “square” doctrinally, but few are to the left of me politically–as just one example.)

March 22, 2009 - Posted by | Christianity, progressive faith, theology, tradition

9 Comments

  1. […] Sotto Voce posted a noteworthy aricle today onHere’s a small snippetProgressive Christianity is a movement within Christianity that is willing to question tradition (both traditional practices and traditional beliefs). If progressive Christians reaffirm a particular traditional belief or practice, … […]

    Pingback by Ask the leadership coach » Progressive Christianity Today « Levellers | March 23, 2009

  2. I am all for “progressive Christianity” if it does not compromise our faith’s basic and essential tenets. Then it becomes another feel good session. And I wonder about the extent of the progressive movement in Islam,Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism for eaxample.

    Comment by Paul | March 23, 2009

  3. Paul, progressives would disagree with traditionalists on which tenets are “basic and essential.” For instance, most traditionalists would insist on a “penal substitionary” view of the atonement (a la Mel Gibson). But progressive Christians would note that the NT has no single atonement doctrine, but rather a collection of atonement images and metaphors: some drawn from temple sacrifice, some from law courts, some from the image of battle and victory, some from friendship and reconciliation. No “atonement doctrine” resembling substitution became prominent until Anselm in the Middle Ages.
    And Progressives find much in the “penal substitution” view to be morally abhorrent and in contradiction to the view of God portrayed in the Gospels. So they hold a variety of other views. For myself, I find that a “narrative Christus Victor” view such as J. Denny Weaver paints in his The Nonviolent Cross is most satisfying–and I demur from those like Rita Brock who downplay the importance of the cross altogether (although she is right to put emphasis on the salvific effects of Jesus’ LIFE and MESSAGE).

    As to the progressive movements within other faiths, I think it undeniable that other faiths also have their traditionalists (even fundamentalists) and non-traditionalists. But I did not focus on that. Rather, my point was that Progressive Christians all display some degree of respect for other faiths and the people who hold them in a way that traditionalist Christians do not. Some Progressive Christians would say that one can find salvation through other faiths. More would say that the other world religions are not entirely false–that there are varying degrees of spiritual truths within them. (I think that last follows from the traditional Christian doctrine of general revelation.)

    So, before I could agree with you, I would have to see what you called “basic and essential” tenets–because Christians have disagree over what they ARE from the beginning.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 23, 2009

  4. You are not quite right about the United Methodist Church. The Methodist Church (not the United Methodist Church) was formed in 1939 with the re-uniting of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 with the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Some of the strongest critics of progressive Christianity in the UMC are not conservative evangelicals, but postliberals. I realize you could not get into all the nuances in this brief thumbnail sketch.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | March 23, 2009

  5. Thanks for the correction, Jonathan. The postliberals are big critics in CBF and even in some Alliance of Baptist circles, too. And elsewhere. But I think that postliberals have some overlap with progressives, especially since progressive does not equal liberal. The type of postliberal who is against everything progressive seem to lash out at liberationists, too, and that will always strike me as wrong.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 23, 2009

  6. I believe that Jesus led a great liberation movement (that is still valid after two thousand years), but His message seems to get lost a lot of the time. His message (to me) was fairly simple and direct : love God and your neighbor as yourself. Call me old fashioned , but it works for me amid all of the rhetoric that we hear today.

    Comment by Paul | March 23, 2009

  7. […] Michael Westmoreland-White added an interesting post today on Progressive Christianity Today « LevellersHere’s a small readingProgressive Christianity is a movement within Christianity that is willing to question tradition (both traditional practices and traditional beliefs). If progressive Christians reaffirm a particular traditional belief or practice, … […]

    Pingback by Topics about Religion » Progressive Christianity Today « Levellers | March 24, 2009

  8. First a disclosure: I am a Religious Liberal. I was raised in a Fundimentalist Christian family, and my witness to that experience, and awakening from it, is more horror than anything else. Having said that, I have always found it interesting what people say is “traditional Christianity” – there is no such thing. Christainity has always and forever been diverse – but not unlike the winners of bloody and violent wars, the winners get to write history in there own biased way and define what is tradition. Many Christians admire John Calvin, but conveniently leap over the historical facts and documented history that show this man to be a religious facsist and despot. He had people flogged for not calling him(Calvin) master – and put Michael Servitus on trial for herracy getting him burned at the stake.

    Comment by Matt | April 16, 2009

  9. […] Michael Westmoreland-White created an interesting post today on Progressive Christianity Today « LevellersHere’s a short outlineProgressive Christianity is a movement within Christianity that is willing to question tradition (both traditional practices and traditional beliefs). If progressive Christians reaffirm a particular traditional belief or practice, … […]

    Pingback by Topics about Meetups » Archive » Progressive Christianity Today « Levellers | April 19, 2009


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