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The Problem with “Progressive” Christians

I do not like the label “progressive” Christian. Not that the adjective is inaccurate but it assumes a broader context that troubles me. While it is fine to be known for being pro-gay marriage or pro-immigrant or being biased toward helping the poor, marginalized, and oppressed—or however one defines “progressive” today—riding alongside the label is a subtle acknowledgment that one is not a normal or regular Christian. This is why progressive Christians need an extra adjective. For example, one can be an evangelical Christian or one can be a progressive evangelical Christian. In case you think the latter is merely a subset of the former, consider this. Many evangelical publishers and institutions will not publish or employ a progressive evangelical since, they say, these progressive beliefs mean that they are no longer evangelical.

This disturbs me because many progressive evangelicals, like myself, have these positions because Jesus led us to them. I feel I am being a good evangelical by following Jesus where he leads. In fact, I take it as a sign of a problem that the church is out-of-sync with Jesus if progressive positions are not the norm. My little rebellion is to describe myself as either a Christian or an evangelical and let others sort it out.

While I feel confident and faithful in my position, I also feel a bit lonely. Institutional evangelicalism has too much to lose culturally by following Jesus down this road and so the gatekeepers diligently stand watch. In fact, defining who is officially in and who is officially out has become a blood sport in many circles. Still, I am not alone and am happy to report that someone has courageously jumped into the gladiatorial arena to fight this good fight.

In How the Bible Actually Works, Bible scholar Peter Enns (the author of The Bible Tells Me So and The Sin of Certainty) has written a shockingly good and wise book that makes clear why the official evangelical gatekeepers tread on thin ice. In his new examination of Scripture, Enns argues that most Christians project onto the Bible what they think it should be and then doggedly defend their fantasy version of the Bible. Typically, this means an Enlightenment-era conception of truth, history, and fact that is anachronistic regarding how the Bible writers themselves conceived of their task. Much effort is then spent propping up Scriptures in a way the Scriptures themselves do not demand.

Enns wants us, instead, to encounter the Bible we have and see what it asks of us. What he shows is that the Bible’s main mission is to generate wisdom in its readers (versus correct and consistent answers to everything). The fact that the Bible says contrary things and even debates itself are not problems to be fixed but models of what we are to do with it. God does not want mindless followers who follow a magic rulebook; instead, God wants us to wrestle with and be formed by what we encounter in Scripture in a way that factors in our context and time and what the Spirit is revealing to us. The result is a process of maturation and the gaining of wisdom as we become more like Christ.

Why this book is so revolutionary is that it puts the focus back on what God is doing in and through us and not on the Bible itself. Gatekeepers like to focus on debating the Bible since they can control this discussion, pontificating on who is right and who is wrong while sidestepping doing what the Bible says. If the point is growing in wisdom and becoming mature followers of Jesus, then doing what the Bible says becomes front and center.

By showing that the preoccupation of orthodox Christians over the last two-hundred-plus years of arguing over the Bible as “Truth” is not the foremost question of the Bible itself, Enns shatters the scaffolding we have built around the Bible, freeing it to do what it has always wanted to do: testify to Jesus and help us grow in wisdom. That is what normal or regular Christians should be focused on. And that is why Jesus, as well as the Bible that testifies to him, are way beyond “progressive”; he is downright radical.

Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor

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