Throughout its nearly 2,000-year history, the Christian Church has been regularly under attack, resisting the corrupting efforts of various errant doctrines and the false teachers who espouse them. Time and again, faithful leaders and theologians have risen to defend orthodoxy, used by God to ensure that the Church continues on until the last day. Such was the work of Paul when he wrote to the church of Galatia in Galatians 1:6-7, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
In fact, much of the instruction contained in the New Testament epistles address false doctrine, and the first several hundred years of the early Church, as well as the Reformation period, were spent defining and defending what it means to be Christian. During the Enlightenment period that followed, rationalism and Romanticism fed a growing movement known as liberal theology, which would embrace the theories and philosophies of Charles Darwin (evolution) and Immanuel Kant (deistic moralism). German scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher, who would ultimately come to be known as the “father of liberal theology,” determined that there is no higher, authoritative truth, and as a result, a Christian’s faith is grounded solely in his or her intuition and preferences. The Bible, then, is not the revelation of truth from God himself, but rather the collective subjective expressions of belief of the various authors that contributed to it. Accordingly, Andrew Hoffecker notes, “Theology became a historical discipline in which every age must frame belief anew in keeping with the idea that Christianity was not an absolute system of belief but a continuously developing way of life.”1
At its core, then, progressive Christianity is dangerous because while it pursues its mission to have no belief be better than any other, it places man in God’s seat of judgment, allowing popular consensus to determine the limits of a faith that is appropriate and acceptable.
Propped up by the widely accepted tenets of Postmodernism, liberal theology is alive and well today. You have likely heard the term “progressive Christianity” recently. While it is not synonymous with liberal theology, progressive Christianity is rooted in liberal theology’s idea that the Christian faith should not be so easy to define, but rather Christians should be eager to consider and even embrace new or unfamiliar beliefs, thus leading to a faith that is always on the move—one that is progressive. As Eric Sentell notes in his defense of progressive Christianity, “Most progressive Christians want to continuously entertain fresh perspectives as they pursue Truth. They may fervently believe in a Truth, say Christus Victor, but they hold the belief loosely and remain open to learning more.” There is a limit on the goodwill of progressive Christianity, however. Sentell continues, “Progressive Christians put their foot down when someone’s beliefs, actions, or theology harms other people. Indeed, the progressive Christian’s value on loving people rather than harming them creates their progressiveness.”2 In other words, a Christian’s beliefs should be fluid, or at least not held or communicated with such certainty that they cause offense. In that regard, progressive Christianity sounds almost noble. But is it?
Framed by its own proponents as an evolving system of theological doctrines and practical convictions about how one should live out his or her faith, progressive Christianity can be hard to define. Allan Parr brings clarity to the quest to understand progressive Christianity and why it is dangerous: “The progressive Christian movement says that the church needs to revisit and adjust its methods, practices, and beliefs as the culture changes. In other words, the church should conform to culture rather than holding to the transformative power of the gospel to point culture to Jesus.”3 At its core, then, progressive Christianity is dangerous because while it pursues its mission to have no belief be better than any other, it places man in God’s seat of judgment, allowing popular consensus to determine the limits of a faith that is appropriate and acceptable.
Given that progressive Christianity undermines orthodox Christianity (and we are still leaving the definition of orthodox pretty broad here), how can we know when we hear it taught from pulpits and podcasts? Generally speaking, the following three beliefs characterize progressive Christianity’s teachings. They are also sequential, making a dangerous progression:
A Low View of Scripture
Progressive Christian teaching is rooted in the liberal theological belief that the Bible is not fully inspired or inerrant, and therefore it is not fully authoritative. This idea fits nicely with Postmodernism’s outright rejection of absolute truth. After all, if no single thing can be exclusively true, then all things must be equally true, the Bible’s own testimony of its comprehensive authority cannot be trusted, and the Bible is no different than any other holy book from any other religion. The end result of this line of thinking is a Bible whose meaning is found in the reader rather than its words, a Bible that can be interpreted and reinterpreted by anyone and everyone who picks it up to fit their own preferences. That Bible is impotent, unreliable, and, ultimately, worthless.
Like the idol maker described in Isaiah 44, we will make a god that thinks like us and exists to serve us, without ever acknowledging that what we’ve fabricated is a self-deceiving yet self-serving lie.
A Low View of God
A low view of God, the idea that God is more human than holy, is the next step in this dangerous progression. Consider this: if we cannot trust that the Bible’s teachings are true and unchanging, then we cannot hold to anything we learn from it with certainty. Given that what we know about God comes from the Bible and our experiences with him are viewed through the lens of Scripture, a low view of God’s Word means our understanding of God can be grounded in only our ideas about what God should be and how he should act. Without the theological guardrails that the Bible provides, we are allowed to create a god. Like the idol maker described in Isaiah 44, we will make a god that thinks like us and exists to serve us, without ever acknowledging that what we’ve fabricated is a self-deceiving yet self-serving lie. Be wary of the person who preaches a god that conforms to societal standards and contradicts the God of the Bible.
A High View of Ourselves
Finally, if the Bible is not true and God can be defined as we please, only one true authority remains: us. The end result of progressive Christianity’s liberal theology is the individual elevated above all things. When you are the authority in your own life, you can do as you please, what you do is right, and no one can question you. This is idolatry in its most devious form. As Michael Lawrence notes, “Like Adam and Eve, most of the time the real object of our worship isn’t some creature out there, it’s this creature right here. In the end, my idolatry centers on me. What’s more, if I can persuade you or bully you or manipulate you, my idolatry will include you worshiping me as well.”4
When you are the authority in your own life, you can do as you please, what you do is right, and no one can question you. This is idolatry in its most devious form.
You may not encounter these ideologies taught full-scale, but you have likely already heard teachings rooted in them: mankind is essentially good, our sins are not serious so no one should judge, and God doesn’t know the future and can’t always help. The end result of progressive Christianity’s march away from biblical truth is that much of what makes up the Christian faith is not considered true at all. If progressive Christians are right, we have no certainty that there is a God, that he has a plan for our good, that there is eternal life awaiting us, or that we are secure in his hands. Rather, we are on our own to navigate life and whatever may be next. On this idea, Michael Kruger notes, “If you don’t have a divine Jesus, and if you reduce it all to moralism, and there’s no real fall or sin, then the cross isn’t really anything that saves you . . . That’s what’s really sad about progressive Christianity. At the end of the day, it’s really not good news at all. It’s really that it’s all up to you. If it’s all up to us, that’s bad news.”5
Dr. Jason Barker (MDiv, DMin) has served as a pastor and educator for twenty years. He is the Dean of Academics at Oak Valley College in Rialto, California, and serves as an adjunct faculty member at four other colleges and seminaries. He, his wife, and their four children live in Southern California.