“Progressive” Is the Wrong Word

“Progressive” Is the Wrong Word August 3, 2011

Not long ago, I participated in a symposium here at Patheos which asked, “Progressive Christianity: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?”  I’ve been thinking about it since, and I’ve had some thoughts coalesce for me.

I don’t think that “progressive” is the right term for our version of Christianity.

I happen to agree with critics who claim that “progressive” is the currently acceptable word because the word “liberal” has been tarnished and is not salvageable.  (For more on that, see this.)

And, at the same time that conservatives were making “liberal” a dirty word, they were claiming the word “evangelical.”  Some, like Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, and Randy Balmer, refuse to relinquish the term “evangelical” to the conservatives.  But I’m afraid that the tipping point has come and “evangelical” is the purview of conservatives.

My conversion against this point came to clarity when I was chatting on the phone with Mickey Maudlin.  The problem, he told me, is that the term “evangelical” has the word “gospel” (euangelion) right in it.  Therefore, whoever gets that term can claim the moral high ground.

Conservatives, abetted by the mainstream media, have claimed the term “evangelical,” and therefore have the upper hand.  Try as we might, non-conservatives are not getting the term back.

The problem with both “liberal” and “progressive” is that they are not inherently theological categories.  They are sociological and political. “Evangelical,” on the other hand, is inherently theological.

So, my thesis is this: Those of us who are not conservative need a new label.  No more crying in our beer that conservatives have claimed the term “evangelical” — that’s water over the dam now.

And our new label needs to be inherently theological.

Feel free to leave your nomination in the comment section.

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  • Soterialogical Christianity
    Soteria Christianity.
    Salvation & Welfare Christianity.

  • Soterialogical Christianity? Soteria Christianity?

    From the Greek word – sótéria http://strongsnumbers.com/greek/4991.htm

    *Sorry if this is a double post. I didn’t see the previous comment.

  • Zach Lind

    I’m just gonna go with “Christian”. If people don’t like it, who cares?

    • I like it. Cut out the middle man, errr, I mean, middle modifier!

      Did you know there’s a whole denomination of folks just going with “Christian”? It’s just called the Christian Church (OK they do add “Disciples of Christ” on there too!), my chosen denominational home 😉

      • hipsters… 😉

        • Chris Callahan

          Hipsters?.. Got a funny one. I’m Disciples of Christ too. So we pick up an inmate released from prison for good to drive her to the airport and she sees our big church sticker on our car–DOC–and she says, “I’m going in a Department of Corrections car?!!!!”

  • Neilio

    How about “heretical?” I kid, I kid! 🙂

  • Dave

    How about “incarnational”?

    Progressives/Liberals/Non-conservatives tend to feel that God is most present in/concerned with the here and now rather than some far-off place in the future. Incarnational suggests that the non-conservatives are the ones getting their hands dirty trying to bring God into our present world rather than focusing on “good news” (I use that term loosely) which says nothing can reflect God in this world so we must wait for another world to come.

    • i second the motion for the term ‘incarnational.’ it smacks to me of our calling to be ambassadors for christ, and implies that we’re busy ‘in the field’ of the real world…the one we’re called to reconcile to God.

      • Kimberly Glenn

        I third the term incarnational. YES!

  • progressive evangelicals

    I agree with your valuing of the word “evangelical”. Adding “progressive” presents our intention and indicates evolution in our approach to evangelism. Let`s not let go of the theological term that most defines us, at least not just yet.

  • I’ve been toying with the idea of de-vangelicalism for a while. I’m sure I didn’t coin the phrase. Might not be broad enough, though…

  • Basileia Christians? Kingdom Christians? Man it’s hard to take something with a Greek word and turn it into a nice sounding related English word like “evangelical.” Perhaps we shall just be the “Evangelicos”

    On a separate note, isn’t this kind of what Tony Campolo emphasizes with “Red Letter Christianity?” A theological terms denoting socially oriented practical faith based on the teachings of Jesus?

  • Tony, WHY do you need a new label? This whole discussion seems counterproductive to me and antithetical to the claim that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.” If one group moves to claim a term that separates and divides them from another group, then the other group should move to bind up the wounds, bridge the divide, and pull us back together, not to engage in this tit-for-tat that divides us further. Coming up with a new label is EASY, and because of its ease, I don’t think it’s the path Jesus would take. I’d much rather participate in a conversation about how we can work to help people overcome their NEED for labels and embrace our common humanity in Christ. That would be a truly useful and edifying undertaking for the whole body of Christ.

    • Because, Patrick, we live in the 21st century, not the 1st century. Language is our most powerful cultural tool. Language does things.

      • So because we live in the 21st century, that gives us an excuse to do what? Ignore the call to unity and harmony within the body of Christ? Engage in dualistic thinking that only serves to divide us?

        I wholeheartedly agree with what you said about language. Just help me understand what it is you hope to *do* with a new label. Because based on your post, it is simply to find a theological way to draw distinctions between Christians, rather than sociological/political ways. I guess I just don’t see the fruit in that.

        • Patrick, it’s not to be dualistic. Think of it as a flag to rally under. I think there are lots of Christians who long for a new category, a new rubric. I honestly don’t know how we would keep a new label from being very quickly politicized.

          Another reason is because the media are a big, dumb animal, and they need a label that has meaning. I’d like a label that has meaning that we give it, as opposed to what the people who don’t like us give it.

          A new label — a good one — will fire the imaginations of thousands of people who are drawn to Jesus.

          • Okay, I get that. (Side note: I’m genuinely not trying to be disagreeable or a jerk in my replies. Hope that comes across in this flawed medium. I can assure you, I read your blog/books because I love your ideas, not to nitpick.) I just think that as followers of Jesus, the flag that we seek to rally under shouldn’t be tribal and divisive, but corporate and healing. And if we’re pinning our hopes on a new *label* to fire the imaginations of thousands of people, then maybe we’ve already failed.

          • Tony and Patrick,
            What Patrick has raised here is where I also find myself in this. I too have a desire to have a “word” that better captures this messy, boundary-challenging, missional, exploring conversation/embodiment thing we do. (There, I just used 5 or 6 terms to sample our problem). I also don’t know if anything IS going to stick, OTHER than the ones that are inherently political (Conservative/Liberal and in recent years, “Progressive”. I always find myself saying I’m “with” the Progressives or “kinda like Progressive”, but that always seems to throw too much into categories that derive from the political world, and although we share some concerns with the Progressive political folks, we have harder to define motivations (which is why this discussion exists as we seek to hit upon “a word”.)
            Maybe my favorite might be something along the lines of “Ecclesial” in order to emphasize the locus and incubator on which we depend for our stance in the world

  • I actually like the term “progressive” – like “conservative”, and as its converse, it indicates a willingness to revise and rethink rather than try to keep things the same. And that can be theological, while also having a broader application.

    That said, I’m open to new and improved terms, and look forward to see what suggestions are offered here!

  • Thankyou!

    Progressive sounds like it promotes our role above God’s role. Like we are the ones moving the kingdom forward, progressing from where we were to where we are. (I have similar frustrations with the term evangelical)

    While yes, we are always doing our best to better society, I just don’t think it is the right descriptor for the work of the church or of followers of Jesus. God didn’t ask us to fix the earth, but to follow in divine footsteps. That entails progression, but progress is ultimately not the solution or the goal. Obedience and faithfulness are.

    I tend to agree with Zach. Let’s just follow the way and let our steps (progressing, crawling, dancing, kneeling, whatever) define us.

  • Tony, I don’t know about Balmer, but McLaren and Wallis basically write according to the current political topic of the day/week. It seems that most of the religious objectives of your side are aimed at having the government enforce, or act as the institution by which your religious beliefs are achieved.

    Social gospel and liberation theology are strongly political movements that have close sympathies with your vein Christianity. I think it will be hard for you to move away from the terms “progressive” or “liberal.” Your activity and thought is highly political, so it would be hard for you to move away from a political term.

    All this said, the collective ideas that you gravitate around don’t change regardless of the name.

    • Lock, do me a favor and scour my archives. Then list for me all of the places where I aim “at having the government enforce, or act as the institution by which your religious beliefs are achieved.” Thanks.

      • I will take a good look and give you a response, Tony.

        • Tony, your blog goes on for awhile, so I only went so far back, but here is the sketch of a cursory look at patterns:

          McLaren Posting Pattern:
          — Political, political, political, sentimental, political, political, sentimental, political, political, political…..
          Wallis Posting Pattern:
          — Political, political, political, political, political, political,political, political, political, sentimental, political, political,…….
          — Tony Jones Posting Pattern:
          Theology, fun post, theology, trivia post, theology, theology, political, theology, personal, fun post, fun post, theology, political….

          Tony you do seem to stay strongly theological in your topics, when you do talk politics you serve strong liberal or progress views. But two of the EMC figures you mentioned in your intro could almost put Jerry Falwell’s mixture of Christianity and politics to shame. Wallis and McLaren are iconic in the EMC movement. I don’t think that it is an overstatement to say that the saturation of politics is at Falwell levels. If the movement is that politically charged, then how do you expect to move away from political labels that are already basically dyed-in-the-wool?

          • Lock, regarding my own posts: just because I post on a political topic does not mean that I am calling on the government to back my positions, nor to instantiate them with legislative backing.

            Further, I think that any objective measurement would show that McLaren is not mixing politics and faith to Fallwellian levels. Wallis may be.

  • Great points, all. I loathe liberal & progressive (would choose liberal over the two). I have no need to fight over evangelical or conservative.

    I like emerging, radical, grassroots, organic, relational, missional, ecumenical, eclectic, experiential, experimental, particapatory, inclusive . . . . .

  • Dan Hauge

    I agree that ‘progressive’ doesn’t quite work, for the reasons you say. And I’m sympathetic with those who don’t want to emphasize labels too much, although realistically you generally end up with them, just for the sake of being able to talk about these movements in public.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but ’emergent’ seems to have kind of stuck, and what’s wrong with that, exactly? It’s not specifically theological, but I don’t think it’s really used in the political realm, so it’s kind of open, in that sense.

    I’m not sure it’s the best term, but it’s not that bad, and realistically isn’t that what we’re stuck with for the near future?

  • What I don’t like about Progressive as a category is that sounds Post-Liberal rather than Post-Conservative. As we fruitfully discuss the different trajectories within Christianity, we need helpful labels. For me and mine, we come out of the Fundamentalist->Evangelical (Conservative) trajectory, so “Postconservative” is an accurate term that contains within it particular remembrances of history, theology, etc. But it is a reactionary term (but perhaps that is OK, since in essence, the primary frame of reference is the F->E history) and not one that stand on its own.

  • CJ

    We could always go uber-intellectual and be Q Christians.

  • I agree with James McGrath that “progressive” isn’t actually too bad, and can have a theological connotation if we want it to. However, if that word is already too politically oriented, then I would note that “emergent” carries much the same theological content as “progressive” without the political connotation. Now if we could only clear up all the confusion around that term as well. 🙂

    On the other hand, I also really like Peter Goodwin Heltzel’s suggestion of prophetic Christianity” (or “prophetic evangelicals”) which he elaborates on in his book “Jesus & Justice”. For me, the term “prophetic” captures the sense of a proactive engagement with the world on behalf of compassion and justice, and is also grounded in the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.

    • *Like*

      “Prophetic Christianity” would also bring together the emerging church in both northern and southern hemispheres, where it would resonate with the pentecostalism exploding in the Global South.

    • Andy B.

      Prophetic Christianity also has a strong connection to Cornel West and his writings. I would recommend “Brother West,” his memoir, for a better understanding of what he means by the term.

  • JoeyS

    Ekklesial? Praxigelical? Ergongelical? Confessing? There are a lot of theological and/or hybrid-theological terms you could choose. The difficult part is getting it to catch on.

  • JoeyS

    Come to think of it, ask Phyllis Tickle.

  • Dec

    Since the original Christians seemed to be known as followers of The Way, the greek word ‘hodos’ opens some (admittedly lame sounding) possibilities – hodosian? As in “No, I’m not evangelical. I’m hodosian”.

    Whatever about its shortcomings, it is an inherently theological label that also brings with it the idea of progress or journey, and has no baggage attached…though probably for good reason.

    • Or “hodos” for short.

      As in, “I’m a flaming hodo. What about you?”

      • Dec

        Ha See, it’s catching on already. Although truth be told the ‘o’s’ are short as in ‘hot’ as opposed to ‘home’.

  • What about Kerygmatic Christians? Christians who, through actively seeking to get in on creating the kingdom of God on earth, proclaim the kingdom of God?

  • While I agree with others that “progressive” has not lost its usefulness, and that labels are, for better or worse, part of our language system (“Christian” is a label, too), here is my contribution:

    Since those in our camp tend to believe that the Holy Spirit is not done speaking, hence why we need to be open to new ideas and change, how about something relating to “Spirit”- pneuma (Greek) or ruah (Hebrew)?

  • Maybe Cobb and the gang have too much of my ear right now, but I think Processive captures the spirit of following better than Progressive. There is still a sense of movement, but process flirts more with humility rather than hubris of progressivism. It is the one thing that constantly grates on me from the left. The attitude of “oh you are still having THAT conversation!? We can’t be friends until you have progressed to Unitarian like me!”

  • Jim Armstrong

    Tony – the rationale you offer for “the hunt” seems to jibe with my experience. These days, “progressive” on church websites often means conservative, but with a band. Labels truly often fail to serve us, but shorthand is still useful for things like identifying like-minded groups or thought (at least until they are somehow coopted!). But in that light, there are two perspectives, internal and external. I suggest that such a label needs to mean something to both “audiences”, and most of the Greek derivations don’t communicate anything informative to the latter. I’ve thought about this off and on. I don’t suggest these are suitable for this purpose, but here are a couple of notional words just to stir the coals a bit in this direction: reclaimed, essential (or essence). The former works with “Christianity”, but seemingly not so much with “Christian”. Perhaps there are some adaptations of other familiar nice-sounding foreign-language words that would work? But for the moment, I guess, progressive will have to do, followed by a slew of whatever additional qualifiers are needed for clarification. JimA

  • Jim Armstrong


  • This is a fascinating conversation.

    I find several of the suggestions here that resonate with me. One of the most hopeful being: emergent. Wow, imagine if we could re-infuse that with new/real meaning? That could be the ticket. But the consensus right now seems to be that emergent is already politicized and doesn’t mean much more than “progressive.”

    Other than that my label of choice is “missional.” It has embedded in it the “missio Dei,” which is biblical if not straight outta Scripture. But it’s just not as strong as “evangelical,” because “missional” simply isn’t as easy to use in both adjective and noun forms (the way that “evangelical” is). I don’t think I could ever bring myself to say, “Hi, I’m a missional” or “Hey, hey, we’re the missionals!”

    In that sense, “emergent” could be the winner. Whoda thunk it?

    • Steve, I’m not so sure. In a completely religion-unrelated conversation, I was talking about emergent theory. Half the people in the room began to eye me suspiciously, one finally asking, “Are you some kinda liberal?” I am not sure the term can be that easily reclaimed.

      Further, I like that missional can’t be used easily with “a” or “the” in front of it. It being only an adjective helps us describe ourselves, not categorize ourselves. There is a subtle, but important difference.

  • Alberto Medrano

    Progressive, I think, is less political than conservative and liberal. I feel better saying I’m a progressive, because, for me, that’s what I think I am and feel comfortable explaining to others what it means. I’m in a conservative church, and do share some beliefs, but there’s no way I would be able to label myself as liberal. To them I may be, but to others I’m conservative. It’s relative. So, for now, progressive is the best word.

  • Bluetexan

    How about “real.” As in “We are the real Christians.” Ha!

    I kind of liked “Emergent,” but it seems the “cool” Emergents have already tried to shed that label. “We were Emergent before Emergent was cool…like 10 years ago!”

  • Dan Hauge

    Here’s what I’m not sure that I get. The motivation for a new label seems to stem from the fact that other labels (like ’emergent’) have been politicized or ‘demonized’, but here’s the thing. People of this (to be named) Christianity are still going to promote social justice in the political realm, and will still pursue theologies that are often at odds with conservative evangelicalism. So won’t any new term, no matter how theological or snappy, eventually come to be criticized or ‘demonized’ just as much as ’emergent’ or ‘progressive’? I understand the basic concept that words can be performative (although I probably don’t see this as powerful a force as Tony and others on the blog). But ultimately, it is the substance of the theological and political beliefs that conservative evangelicals disagree with. Any new term will perhaps give the ’emergent/progressive’ movement a new lease on life for maybe one year tops. Then it too will be politicized by any who disagree with the substance. Those who agree with the substance will stick around.

    Maybe, at the end of the day, I doubt just how much power or importance these terms really have. You need them for the sake of discourse, but I’m not sure they really fire people’s imaginations to such an extent that they make such a huge difference over how people associate or believe or act. But I’m guessing I’ll be in the minority on this one.

  • caleb

    Yeah, leave the term progressive to describe king crimson!!!

  • Progressive and liberal are great descriptive terms. I think I understand the need for a theological word that carries with it the same strength as evangelical, however. I wonder if Shalom does it?

  • Chris Callahan

    How about agape Christians, although I’m still LOL on hodo Christians?

  • Passport Please

    Citizens, as in Citizens of the Kingdom of God, living The Way of God.

  • I vote for ’emergent’ or ‘prophetic’. I liked missional when it was descriptive of the behavior of emergents, but evangelicals are using it to avoid emergent.

  • Stephen Hood

    I like Dan C’s contribution “kerygmatic”, although the word would probably be meaningless except to theological junkies. Still, kerygma is a deeply theological word that has an even narrower focus than evangel.

    • Agreed, Stephen. That’s my favorite so far.

  • Paul D.

    New words coined from Greek will not catch on, regardless of how cool they are.

    “Prophetic” doesn’t work. That term has been solidly highjacked by the wacko spiritual warfare-obsessed fringe of the evangelical/charismatic movement.

    I’m fine with progressive. It has positive meaning for most people and accurately describes the direction Christianity has to take to remain relevant.

  • Bill

    Billy Graham and Christianity Today adopted the word “evangelical” to escape the anti-intellectual stigma that had attached to the word “fundamentalist.” So I guess there is precedent for abandoning a word after the bad guys appropriate and ruin it. Still, and maybe it’s just stubborness, but I’m not yet ready to surrender “evangelical.”

    We were here first.

  • btw, Tony Compolo came to the same conclusion as you and he went with “Red Letter Christians.”

    If “evangelical” is too stained to use, how about lovewinsian?

  • I have a new nomination: “Open”. Not sure how to make it the most catchy, like the “Open Christian” movement or something. Open, meaning open-minded, but also open hearts, open arms. So, willing to open our doors to discussion of new ideas and to people that would be rejected by a more closed-minded system.

    Also it insinuates that the alternative (the evangelical church) is closed (doors are closed, closed social group, closed-minded).

    Finally, it means freedom, as a new definition of salvation (open sounds like liberated).

    • That’s pretty good. Open. I like it.

    • Bob

      Open is also the name of a theological school (see Clark Pinnock et al). I am very much an Open Theist, but Open Theism is not synonymous with progressive Christianity.

  • Diana Butler Bass uses the word “theologically generous” in her book, Christianity for the Rest of Us. I tend to use this instead of liberal or progressive in my self-description.

    That is part of the idea of being “liberal” isn’t it? That we value a wide river of theological interpretation. In comparison to a conservative theology that holds to a more narrow stream of theology.

    • The problem is that liberal comes with 500 years of political baggage.

      • Yes, both liberal and conservative come with political baggage. Hmmm…I’m curious what others might say. I may post this on my FB to see what comes up.

        I still like “theologically generous”. Maybe this is what McLaren was trying to get at in “Generous Orthodoxy”.

        • Jes, when the NY Times quotes you in an article, they’re not going to say, “theologically generous Christian leader Rev. Kast-Keat said, …”

          • Damn, you are right. Plus, it won’t make sense to most readers. But Liberal and Conservative will make sense to readers because it conjures up preconceived ideas on what those words mean (whether we mean them or not).

            I also think Trinitarian, Kerygmatic, or Incarnational will be confusing and not, ultimately, helpful to the conversations. Open Christian carries a bit more weight. Open is a word that is more easily identifiable. While I love Prophetic Christian, I wonder if this would help/hurt our relationship with Evangelical/Conservative Christians?

            Anyways, you see I posted this on my FB. Curious to see what comes up…

  • Dave Ambrose

    I think labels usually cause us to separate and judge rather than listen and understand.

  • I would be most grateful to be called a Trinitarian. The name would speak a Christian distinctive theological premise , remind me of an espoused value and model for relationships, and aid me in paying homage, whether through worship, theology or service of how all three play a part in the economy of God.

    Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Evangelicals, Trinitarians… see… it sits in there ever so comfortably 🙂

    And, in identifiying as a Trinitarian, I would not feel at all constrained nor precluded in drawing on the best of all the other traditions!

    There is much more I could say, but I think this little outline gets the point across.

    • Jim, that’s a good suggestion. It’s in my top three so far. Unitarians will be mad about it, but I can live with that.

  • Frank Viola has suggested ‘Beyond Evangelical’.


    If you want a label that is inherently theological, why not a play on the Greek words for Kingdom of God – βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. I’m not sure – how could one say that they are ‘of the Kingdom’?

    I find that the word ‘Christian’ is barely used in the NT, perhaps three times. Nowadays the word means that one subscribes to or is part of an over-arching ‘Christian’ culture, rather than being directly linked to forging a life of Christ-likeness. Whereas Paul constantly says that we are ‘In Christ’. The Greek for this term is: ἐν Χριστῷ – en Christos.

    Perhaps a play on words for this term that we are ‘In Christ’?

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  • Alan K

    Stick with evangelical. It is simply too good a word for anyone to relinquish. The risk of having a new word is discontinuity (whether real or perceived) with the tradition, which is what you are accused of already. If “conservatives” don’t like sharing the word “evangelical” then make them be the ones who have to find a new word.

  • I might have to steal your word “Falwellian.” That’s good.

  • Elane

    “Progressive Christian” is an organization that I don’t think really applies to who you/we are. Unless UUA Christians count in “you”.

  • Robert

    Why not stick to ‘liberal’? We know what it means, and if ‘Methodist’ could be claimed back after it was coined as a term of abuse, ‘liberal’ can be taken back as well!

  • Pat

    Unfortunately, I think no matter what term is chosen, it will be hijacked or discredited by someone. There are those against anything remotely Christian and because as people we’re given to power struggles, other Christians will inevitably take the name or horn in it.

  • Pat

    Hit enter too soon. I was also going to say that we should just pick a name and accept the baggage that comes with it. Spend more time living authentically and showing people there is a different way. No one ever came to faith because of a different label someone was wearing, but because someone cared enough to love them authentically and show them the faith in a way that was attractive.

  • Jill Klein

    As a progressive United Merhodist, I love the UCC’s “God is stll speaking(comma)” campaign. what about Comma Christians? Or some Greek phrase that means God is speaking?….”Theo___ Christians”?

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  • Tony, you do need to abandon the term “evangelical,” but you shouldn’t abandon “progressive.” I invite you to read my article, “Is Rob Bell Still an Evangelical” at http://www.afreshperspective-chuck.blogspot.com. Especially see my interchange with Thomas Jay Oord. I am hoping to receive a Lilly Pastoral Study Grant to explore the topic: Common values, beliefs, and practices of progressive Christians. I include you with the progressives.

  • Drew

    I’m late to this conversation but I would suggest “holistic Christian/Christianity” in that we seek to address the implications of the gospel for all of creation rather than focusing primarily on saving human “souls.”

  • Iain McGill

    If I can slip in a point of view from Europe, where conservatives and fundamentalists don’t have as much hold as in America…
    I think the word you’re all looking for is “Christian”. Adding “conservative” or “fundamentalist Christian” is introducing an idol between ourselves and God. Some people would argue that adding “progressive” or “liberal” is also introducing ideology in on the sly… “Evangelical” is ridiculous! Whoever heard of “Koranic” Muslims or “Sutric” Buddhists? An “evangelical” Christian is obviously just picking a fight with everybody else, who are supposed not to be evangelical…
    So, just “Christian”: “non-conservative”, “non-fundamentalist” Christian. (Or maybe “Just Christian”?)
    The problem is that “Christian” has has come to sound so unchristian!

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  • Stan

    Merciful Christians
    in these senses of “mercy”(Webster)…
    a : compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender
    a : a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion b : a fortunate circumstance
    : compassionate treatment of those in distress