Modern. Progressive. Evangelical. Balanced: Part 3

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

A few weeks ago I shared four words that are shaping my direction for ministry these days and promised that I’d spend the next four weeks exploring what each of those words means. The attempt to define direction in four words is necessarily an oversimplification, but these are four words that have consistently stretched and challenged me over the last several months. I share them with you in the hopes that they may stretch and challenge you, too. 

(You can find links to the previous two posts below)
Modern. Progressive. Evangelical. Balanced: Part 1
Modern. Progressive. Evangelical. Balanced: Part 2

As a pastor it’s important to distinguish between personal purpose and vision and the vision and direction of the church you’re serving. They don’t have to line up exactly—there may even be some significant divergences—but they certainly shouldn't be opposed to one another.  

One of the ways to shape collective vision is to share our individual visions and notice the places where our visions are similar. When we all honestly and prayerfully seek God’s direction, then the places where we overlap are where we can be most confident that God—and not our own ambitions or pet projects—is truly present.

So I’m leading with my vision for the identity of the church I'd like to see thrive in the 21st century: a church that is identifiably modern, progressive, evangelical and balanced. Last week I focused briefly on what it means to be modern in our church’s context.

Today I’m tackling what it means to be progressive. Here are four key factors—and one overarching theme—that identify what progressive Christianity means to me.

First, the overarching theme: Christian progressivism is always, without exception, characterized by HUMILITY.

Christian progressivism accepts the idea that we as Christians today might be wrong. We may be wrong or misguided about any number of things big and small,  so we approach our beliefs—and the beliefs of those who differ with us—with humility, because history teaches us that we have been wrong more often than many of us would care to admit. A humble approach to faith and Biblical interpretation makes it easier for us to admit when we need to change course.

Here’s just a short list of some of the ways Christians have misunderstood God and scripture in the past.

-The earth is not at the center of the universe.
-Genocide waged in the name of God is always wrong.
-God does not intend for anyone created in God’s image to live in slavery.
-Women were created as equal partners with equal rights in public and private life—including in the life of the church.

Scripture, however, has been used, and used convincingly, to argue the opposite sides of all of the above statements. At various points in the history of the church, endorsing any of the above statements would have been deemed worthy of exclusion from the church.

Our understanding of scripture is continually evolving. God does not evolve. The words on the page do not change. But over time, our limited ability to understand how to live in concert with God’s will does evolve.  As we come to know God more fully, we come to understand God and God's message more completely. 

So we approach our beliefs—even our most deeply held convictions—with humility, and we acknowledge where we’ve been wrong in the past. With an ample dose of humility then, here are the four characteristics that identify what progressive Christianity means to me.

Progressive Christianity acknowledges as inviolable the Separation of Church and State.

The church--and our religious beliefs--are NOT the tools of the state. And the state with its political maneuverings and selfish ambition is NOT God’s chosen instrument for advancing God’s kingdom. Instead, the church is God’s chosen instrument for advancing kingdom priorities. God is not for or against any political party or ideology, and we in America have no special claim on God’s energy and attention over any other nation in the world.

America is not God's chosen nation. We--as Americans--are not God's chosen people. And representative democracy is not God's chosen form of government. In case you've forgotten, God is looking to institute a kingdom.

The church should be the church, and the state should be the state. The church is most effective as God’s kingdom representative when it is free and independent. We in America are in grave danger of letting our political beliefs wholly subsume our Christian faith. When the messages of the state start masquerading as God-ordained, scripturally-backed orthodoxy, the church has ceased to be the church and has lost all its authority to convict and transform.

Our faith should inform our politics, not the other way around.

Progressive Christianity embraces open discussion and dialogue in Biblical interpretation.

No single person or school of thought holds the key to unlocking the mystery of scripture. We each come to the task of Biblical interpretation from our own God-given perspectives. If God wanted all of us to think and believe exactly the same way, God wouldn't have made each of us unique. 

That doesn’t mean that all interpretations of scripture are equally valid; nor does it minimize the reality that some interpretations of scripture are downright dangerous.

But when we silence dissenting voices and brand as heretical every Biblical interpretation that differs from our own, we forfeit the chance to learn and grow and change. In effect, we are saying that we have it all figured out already, but I don't think we do. I think scripture still has a lot left to teach us. 

Progressive Christianity is open to new understanding and believes that God continues to teach and speak and be revealed through our study of sacred scripture.

Progressive Christianity acknowledges scientific discovery as a valuable partner in our quest to understand the truth and beauty of God’s creation.

Science is not the enemy of faith. Science does not have the power to challenge God and does not seek to destroy true faith. The pursuit of science is the pursuit of truth about our physical world.  As science continues to uncover the beauty and intricacy of the created world, it reveals rather than obscures the glory of its Creator. From the simple beauty of a strand of DNA to the vast expanse of the galaxies, science works to reveal God’s handiwork.

Scientism and Biblicism may be at odds with one another, but science and Christianity are not.

Science is about what we can measure. Faith says there’s more to this world than just what we can measure—that life is more than molecules and metabolism. The more we understand about our world, the more miraculous the mystery of creation and existence and life becomes.

We live in an era of unprecedented scientific progress. We should never accept scientific truth uncritically any more than we should accept Biblical interpretation uncritically. But we should count ourselves lucky to be alive at a time when the methods behind God’s creativity are so rapidly being discovered and revealed.

Progressive Christianity is inclusive rather than exclusive and values diversity in church participation and leadership.

The Bible is a record of the expansion of who is included in God’s covenant. From two people in a garden, to one family blessed with a miraculous child, to twelve tribes, to a great nation, to the whole world, the measure of God’s grace is continually growing.

If we are to err, we should err on the side of being overly inclusive about who is accepted into God’s Kingdom—who is covered by Christ’s love—rather than err on the side of excluding too many.  We will be better off if we spread our love too broadly than if we share our judgment too generously. After all, in the end, our judgment won’t include or exclude one soul from God’s kingdom. There's more power in our love.

Our call is to love one another as God has loved us, and God's love for us knows no bounds. Instead of making distinctions between ourselves, progressive Christianity is characterized by the belief that all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).

But, remember, progressive Christianity is first and foremost characterized by humility.

Progressive Christianity approaches God and scripture and fellow believers with the humility to say we don’t own the truth. People spend lifetimes studying each of the four markers outlined above. One blog post can barely scratch the surface of what it means to be progressive in today's context.

Even more, there's plenty of room for my understanding to continue to develop and improve. There's plenty of room for my studied opinions--and yours--to inch closer to God's truth.

So I continue to listen to, respect and worship with people whose prayer and study of scripture have led them to hold opinions different from my own. (HINT: That's also part of what it means to be progressive.) And I continue to pray for God’s guidance and revealed wisdom to leave me open to both claiming new truth and letting go of past error.

With honesty and humility I confess that the process of defining belief will always stretch and challenge me. So I invite you, too, to be stretched and challenged with me as we continue God’s adventure together. 

See you Sunday.