Progressive Christianity: Clarity & Charity

Our recent article on Progressive Christianity and the Apostles’ Creed highlights true Christian orthodoxy in its most basic form, codified since the earliest centuries of the Church. From a doctrinal standpoint, the Apostles’ Creed provides a simple, concise standard by which to determine if a person falls inside or outside of Christian orthodoxy. Without affirmation of these most basic doctrines—God as Trinity, Jesus’s incarnation, the virgin birth, Jesus’s death, burial, and physical resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of believers by the Holy Spirit, the return of Jesus—a person cannot be considered an orthodox Christian.

Some people who consider themselves Progressive Christians fall outside the bounds of orthodoxy in one or more of these basic doctrinal affirmations. This creates a seeming paradox: How can someone both be a [Progressive] Christian and deny the most basic Christian doctrinal statements? This contradiction has generated decades of dialogue and conflict, with orthodox Christians insisting a person must agree with orthodox doctrine to be considered a Christian and Progressive Christians insisting they are still Christians. At the heart of the debate about Progressive Christianity is the question of historical Christian orthodoxy.

We would be wise to first consider how the term “Progressive Christianity” is used today. The term “Progressive Christian” as it is commonly used has at least two meanings that must be differentiated.

  • Progressive Christian first meaning: Someone who claims to be a Christian but by any historical standard of orthodoxy is not in fact a Christian.
  • Progressive Christian second meaning: A Christian whose ideology does not align enough with my views on (fill in the blank) or what I believe is the true and historical Christian view on a subject.

Conflation of these two meanings of “Progressive Christian” causes problems. Is a “Progressive Christian” my brother or sister in Christ? A Progressive Christian in the first sense is not, but a Progressive Christian in the second sense is. How should I dialogue with a Progressive Christian? How we answer that may look somewhat different depending on what we mean by “Progressive Christian.”

“Progressive Christian” is often used either in the first or second sense without clarification as to what we mean. As often as not, the label “Progressive Christian” is used without any consideration of a person’s core doctrinal views and is applied to a person based on their political, moral, or non-core doctrinal stances (“Progressive” in the second sense). While each of these areas does have theological implications, and while certain patterns of thinking, believing, and acting often attend Progressive Christianity, a person’s political, moral, and non-core doctrinal stances do not make that person a Progressive Christian in the first sense.

Three “Progressive Christians?” Stephen Colbert, Jon Bellion, & Michael Bird
The label “Progressive Christian” can be a quick but sloppy way to indicate who is “in” and who is “out.” But if the label is applied without clarification, it may do more harm than good. In reality, we often lack the clarity needed to know whether or in what sense a person is a Progressive Christian. Whether it be a person in our own life or a cultural figure, we often don’t know their doctrinal beliefs.

Where we lack clarity, we should respond with charity. That is, we should not be quick to label a person a Progressive Christian if we don’t specifically know what they believe. While we may disagree with them (and even find some of their beliefs or actions troubling), we must resist the instinct to distance ourselves from them by labeling them as Progressive.

To illustrate this point, let’s take three examples of individuals who might be labeled Progressive for political, moral, or theological reasons.

The first is Late Show host, comedian, and political commentator Stephen Colbert. Colbert is a committed Catholic Christian, as shown in this humorous clip of Colbert interviewing well-known agnostic Bill Maher:

As a political commentator, Colbert has identified himself as a Democrat. In 2019, Colbert was rated as one of the two most liberal late show hosts. Although he refrains from articulating his moral view of abortion, he has stated that he supports women’s legal right to choose an abortion. He has also expressed emphatically his opinion in favor of gun control.

Many Christians will disagree with Colbert on one or more of his political stances. But what his political views do not make him is a Progressive Christian in the sense of having left the core doctrines of the faith. Other than the fact that he is Catholic, we know very little about his doctrinal affirmations, and as such we don’t have the necessary information to call him a Progressive Christian in the first sense. Colbert might be called Progressive in some of his political views, but even if he takes political stances contrary to those of many Christians, he can still be a brother in Christ.

The second example is musician Jon Bellion. Bellion, in a 2014 interview, stated that he had “recently become a devout Christian.” Bellion began releasing music in 2013, but even after his conversion his music often includes explicit language, references to drug use, and narratives of promiscuous sexual activity. At the same time, his music often references God and Christian themes.

As presented through his music, Bellion’s past and present morality seem questionable. But what his moral actions do not make him is a Progressive Christian (although, perhaps a Christian in need of repentance). While Bellion speaks often in his lyrics of forgiveness, meaning, and following God, we can glean hardly anything of his core doctrinal beliefs and have no clear ground upon which to label him Progressive.

The third example is Australian theologian Michael Bird, author of a number of popular evangelical books of theology. It is clear that Bird affirms the core doctrines of orthodox Christianity.1 However, this does not necessarily keep Bird safe from accusations of being a Progressive Christian. For example, Bird has given at least tacit endorsement of a type of critical theory that he refers to as “a wholesome type of ‘critical theory’ that goes back to St. Augustine, even to the Bible.” In a culture that is drawing battle lines around the issue of critical theory, even such an ambiguous statement might get a theologian in trouble.

Yet, whatever exactly Bird’s view of critical theory is, what it does not make him is a Progressive Christian in the first sense. If we go back to the core doctrinal affirmations—God as Trinity, Jesus’s incarnation, the virgin birth, Jesus’s death, burial, and physical resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of believers by the Holy Spirit, the return of Jesus Christ—Bird sits squarely within traditional Christian orthodoxy.

In each of these examples, we can see an area—perhaps an area of error—in which these people act or believe in a way that resonates with Progressive Christianity, at least in the sense of diverging from historical Christian views on non-core doctrinal or non-doctrinal issues. But this does not make them Progressive Christians in the sense of having abandoned the core Christian doctrines, and when there is no clarity there must be charity.

Just as we wish that others treat us and our beliefs charitably and accurately, we should extend the same kindness to others (Matthew 7:12). As such, if we lack knowledge about a person’s beliefs, we must avoid the trap of condemning what we don’t understand, instead seeking clarity and compassion.

Labels can do harm or do good. Labels can be used as weapons that identify us with or against others, symbolizing whether we see them as outside of our group or as brothers and sisters. For this reason, we must be careful in how we use labels. We must avoid using the label “Progressive Christian” against brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree. There is a place and way to disagree with each other as Christians, and such conversations are vital. But we must not confuse or conflate the two meanings of “Progressive Christian.” We must not confuse brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree on some subjects with those who have abandoned traditional Christian orthodoxy.

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Jesse Childress

Jesse Childress has a deep appreciation for good food, philosophy, theology, and literature. He is the former Lead Content Editor and Writer for Summit Ministries' worldview blog Reflect, and spent a term studying at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Jesse has an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University (now Houston Christian University), and began attending Denver Seminary in the fall of 2022 to study counseling, focusing particularly on the relationship between trauma and faith.