Understanding Progressive Christianity, Part 3 – Holding Fast to Jesus

Understanding Progressive Christianity, Part 3 – Holding Fast to Jesus December 10, 2021

In the first part of this series, I argued that de/reconstruction is a necessary reaction to the repressive nature of orthodoxy, and in part 2, that there are pitfalls to be aware of as we embark on this journey, using attitudes to sex as an example. In this instalment, I’ll be looking at what, for me, defines whether or not de/reconstruction leads us well or awry.


The Bible details several ways in which people stray into heresy. Firstly, denying that Jesus came in the flesh. 1 John 4, 2-3a,


‘By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.’


2 John 1:7, For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.


Secondly, proclaiming ‘another Jesus’ than the one we see in the Gospels. 2 Corinthians 11:4,


‘For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!’


Thirdly, teaching a return to justification by works. Galatians 3:1-3,


‘O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?’


In the specific example above, some were trying to compel non-Jewish believers to be circumcised – an outward ritual, pertaining to righteousness earned by obeying the Mosaic law – but Paul’s words apply to any form of works-righteousness (right-standing with God through our own efforts).


Fourthly, denying that Jesus will return. 2 Peter 3: 3b-4,


‘scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.”’


Fifthly, that Jesus has already returned. 2 Thessalonians 2:1,


‘Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way.’


Lastly, I would add one final identifier of heresy – denying that Jesus rose from the dead. I include this because of Jesus’ declaration that he is ‘the Resurrection and the Life’, his contending with the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body, and because resurrection is central to the Gospel. If Jesus did not rise, neither shall we. There would be no Heaven, no great reconciliation of all things under Christ, and the Gospel would come to nothing.


What do all the above have in common? It is glaringly obvious, is it not? These heresies serve a single purpose – to reduce the life, death, and/or resurrection of Jesus. Naturally, this is the focus of heresy, because Christianity is defined entirely by our belief in Christ – it’s in the name! It is the diminishing of Jesus, then, that we ought to be on the alert for, but sadly, many believers are ready to discount each other over lesser matters.


Heresy is a word bandied around far too often, discouraging the person with questions and dividing believers into groups, characterised by suspicion. In my youth, I was told by some that those who moved in the gifts of the Spirit were heretics, even ‘of the Devil’. This kind of godless, suspicious talk is driven by fear, and fear alone. Disagreeing with someone is not grounds for labelling them in such a way.


I return to the first verse quoted above, which sums heresy (and shared faith) up neatly. 1 John 4, 2-3a,


‘By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.’


So we have a clear benchmark; heresy concerns belief in Christ, and can be identified by any reduction of either his divinity or his humanity. I conclude then, that if deconstruction reduces Jesus, or the works of Jesus, it has gone wrong. Unfortunately, I come across this with some regularity.


Before I explain how this manifests itself, I want to propose a reason for this departure. Many progressives are ex-conservative Evangelicals, which means their exposure to Jesus is likely to have been restricted, depending on the denomination they belonged to. I grew up in an ex-brethren, free independent Evangelical church, for example, in which the gifts of the Spirit were not only undervalued but actively discouraged. Some believed that the canonised Bible had replaced the gifts of the Spirit (who is also named the Spirit of Jesus), removing the need for prophecy, miracles and any direct interaction with God.


This is a ludicrous assertion, but not the topic of today’s blog. I will only say that I feel profoundly sorry for believers captured by this delusion. They live in such lightless, restrictive boxes, in which there is no room to stretch their arms.


It’s easy to imagine the journey of such a believer, from conversion to deconstruction. Let’s say they meet God, and give their life to him, but as so often happens, the initial joy (which is sincere, flowing from a genuine divine encounter) is quickly eroded by lifeless traditions and loveless doctrine. Joy fades and the grind begins, characterised by intensifying cognitive dissonance, as they are exposed to woeful, cruel ideas such as those posited by Calvinism.


When this person reaches the point of utter disillusionment, they will either abandon faith altogether or find their way into Progressive Christianity, where the voices they hear are softer and kinder. They reframe their faith, but having never known a deep and intimate connection with God, due to a lack of relationship with the Holy Spirit, have little to carry from one expression of Christianity to the other. You can’t bring what you never had.


This kind of believer, then, is entering new and uncertain territory, without knowing the voice of the Guide. They’ve transitioned from a dissatisfying experience of faith to one with more liberty, without ever touching the intimacy God intended us to know. In this sense, the conservative Evangelical and the ex-conservative progressive have the same problem – the lack of experience of the divine, and a faith built on ideas but not on a mystical, satisfying connection with the God who loves them.


Because of this, Charismatics/Pentecostals make much better progressives, in my view, because they have more to carry through the transition, and an abundance of divine help when reframing. When Jesus is diminished, the Holy Spirit will cry out against it, and they will know his voice.


Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all the truth. If a person walks closely with God, and knows the voice of the Spirit, they will continue to be guided by him while transitioning to a more progressive point of view. If a believer has never truly heard the Lord or felt his love, has never prophesied, does not know daily, two-way communication with the Holy Spirit, how will they be guided rightly?


Instead, they will be exposed to deleterious messages about Jesus, and might be seduced by ideas that attempt to explain away miraculous elements of the Bible. I’ve come across the writings of numerous progressives, for example, who see the Gospel stories of miracles, performed by Jesus, as analogies, or fictitious stories with a message, rather than actual events.


Mercifully, I’ve been preserved from these deceptions. Prior to deconstruction, I had prioritised and developed a relationship with God that ran deep. Over the course of several years, I’d moved from dry spirituality to a rich, continuous knowledge of God’s loving presence. I felt (and still feel) his presence around me like a cloak, every moment of the day. Time in God’s all-consuming presence is a wonderful, continual reality for me, and because of that, his leading keeps me safe at every turn.


As part of that intimacy, I’ve seen plenty of miracles and extraordinary answers to prayer, and cannot perceive a reason to reframe the Biblical stories of the life of Jesus as anything other than factual. Many progressives, however, whose church background did not encourage this kind of active spirituality, simply reframe anything that doesn’t suit the modern mindset, including direct, divine action in our lives, and call it wisdom.


This departure from Christ bothers me intensely, because a Christian is first and foremost a follower of Jesus. If we reduce him, we reduce ourselves, and our expectations of walking with God.


In the transition to a more progressive view of scripture, the Spirit-led believer had a lot of treasure to carry with them. They drape it around their necks, adorn their wrists, and wear it like a robe; their connection with God not only surrounds them but keeps them safe. Personally, I’ve been grateful for his company during each stage of rethinking, and thanks to his guidance, the overall trajectory has been one of even greater closeness to Jesus, and even more infilling of the Holy Spirit.


When I listen to Progressive voices, I hear a lot of sense, and generally speaking, a commendably compassionate message. Progressives ask important questions the Church needs to wrestle with – about the nature of scripture, Hell, Heaven, and Judgement. They challenge simplistic ideas that are not truly Biblical, and yet are accepted (without apparent thought) by so much of the Evangelical movement.


In many ways, I have more in common with progressives than with the orthodox, except in this; I won’t accept any diminution of Jesus – his life, his works, his words, his miracles, his death, resurrection, ascension, Lordship and intercession. He is the Great I am, the very image of the Father, the Lamb of God, and the Name above all Names, and he will always deserve my utter devotion.


My hope is that the Progressive movement, which currently seems more interested in a Universal Christ (‘another Jesus’?) than in Jesus Christ, will re-find and treasure the Lord of All.


Next time – the cross.

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