By Rob Renfroe
“As a cancer survivor, I can tell you that sometimes, the last thing you want to hear is the word ‘progressive.’”
That statement was made by the late Bill Hinson when he was the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston and I was on his staff. It was said in response to those who had previously referred to themselves as “liberal” Christians but who were then beginning to rebrand themselves as “progressive” Christians.
Today, the repackaging is complete. You almost never hear persons who are theologically liberal use that term to refer to themselves. Instead, they consistently describe themselves as “progressive.”
Why the change? My guess is there are several reasons.
One, liberals know that most United Methodists do not define themselves that way. In fact, the vast majority of United Methodists would describe their beliefs as “traditional,” “classical,” “orthodox,” “Wesleyan,” or “conservative”—all of which are theological opposites of “liberal.”
So, in hopes of influencing persons who are turned off by the term “liberal,” an old, often effective rhetorical trick has been adopted. The ploy is this: label yourself with a term that makes your views seem reasonable and virtuous (who’s not in favor of progress?), and if you pick the right terminology, at the very same time (without ever having to say so directly) you can portray those on the other side as foolish and their beliefs as unworthy of serious consideration.
Refer to yourself as a “progressive,” and immediately you discredit those with different views as antiquated, unenlightened, stuck in the past, afraid of change, and incapable of speaking to contemporary people.
Abraham Lincoln once asked and answered the following question to make a point. “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”
Calling “liberals” “progressives” doesn’t change the fact that they are still liberals, many of whom deny the orthodox Christian doctrines that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and that salvation is found in no other; that the Holy Scriptures are the inspired, authoritative word of God; and that sex outside of marriage is displeasing to God.
And calling “liberals” “progressives” doesn’t make those of us who reject their views antiquated or unenlightened. It makes us faithful to the Gospel once and for all delivered to the saints.
A second reason for moving from “liberal” to “progressive” may be the belief that Christians are meant to change the world. And that is a belief that traditional, Bible-believing Christians hold, as well.
The difference is in how one views change and progress. Though all progress requires change, not all change is progress.
Once, it was considered wrong to live together before marriage. But we Americans have “progressed” well past that supposedly archaic notion. We didn’t always have a million abortions in this country every year. But we “progressed” to that tragic point a couple of decades ago. Now we are told that we need to accept the progressive belief that homosexual marriage is just as acceptable in the sight of God as heterosexual marriage. All this shows that you simply cannot believe the Bible and believe that all change is progress.
C. S. Lewis once wrote: “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
We “non-progressive” Christians believe that part of our mandate is to change the world through the power of the Gospel. We agree with liberals about that.
But we don’t agree that going down the wrong road is progress. Any road that does not look like holiness, any road that leads away from what the Scriptures clearly reveal, any road that denies the absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ, is simply the wrong path. The only way to make progress on those paths is to turn around and get back on the right road—what the Bible refers to as “repentance.”
A final reason for the change may be that liberals believe that if the church doesn’t progress with the culture, we’ll be left behind. Refuse to change, and we won’t reach an ever-changing world, especially youth and young adults. I was told as much when I served on the national Board of Church and Society by one of its officers: “If we don’t change with the times, we won’t reach young people, and we won’t grow.”
There is some truth to that statement. Paul said he became “all things to all men,” meaning that when he preached the Gospel in a different culture, whenever possible he adopted the practices and the traditions of that culture—as long as his doing so did not compromise the Gospel.
The Wesleys are the perfect example. They preached in open fields. Scandalous! It has been said that they put Christian lyrics to the tunes of drinking songs. Outrageous! They used non-ordained, lay preachers to spread the Gospel. Unthinkable! The Wesleys kept up with their times in how they presented the Gospel. The result was they transformed their culture. But they refused to change what the Bible clearly taught.
In the church where I pastor, we have seven services each weekend. One traditional, two blended, one contemporary, and three “contemporary on steroids.” We believe in reaching people, old and young and in between, in a style that can speak to where they are. But the substance never changes: Jesus Christ is Lord, and it is faith in him that saves us from our sins.
It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is the power of God that changes lives and reaches hearts. I totally reject the heretical fatalism that says if we don’t change our message to the beliefs of our culture, we can’t reach people. The Gospel has reached people in every culture for the past 2,000 years. And it has the power to reach people in our time, if only we will preach it with passion and power.
Change our message to reach our culture, and we will not change our culture. The culture will have changed us. Some may call that progress. But not me.
I have already mentioned C. S. Lewis. In Surprised By Joy, he writes about “chronological snobbery.” It’s the conviction that when matters before us are moral or spiritual or theological in nature, the most modern beliefs are the most correct beliefs. It’s an elitist approach to history and to knowledge, denying the wisdom of the ancients because we are certain that “the latest is always the greatest.”
“Chronological snobbery” is the bedrock belief upon which theological progressivism is built. It is the conviction that we may dismiss what the Scriptures teach, because, frankly, we have “progressed” to the point that we know better. It is a belief that our culture is so superior and our contemporary values so more enlightened than were the authors of the Bible, that we may dismiss their writings whenever we choose.
That is what’s behind the progressive approach to Christianity. Chronological snobbery. Cultural elitism. And intellectual arrogance.
And Bill Hinson was right. Sometimes “progressive” is about the last thing a body needs.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.