Why are venerable Evangelical and Reformed institutions systematically departing from theological fidelity to embrace new mission objectives? It seems to be happening in a similar fashion in churches, colleges, seminaries, publishing houses, para-church organizations, and historically reliable mission agencies. Why is there a steady stream of well-known Evangelical and Reformed leaders either denying the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints” or publicly “deconstructing their faith”? Why are first order Biblical doctrines including the Gospel itself—which is the first of the “first things—being adulterated or abandoned for theological novelties that inevitably result in heresies?Why are professing Evangelical and Reformed ministries embracing, celebrating, and propagating Gospel heresies such as the prosperity gospel, the therapeutic gospel, the pragmatic church growth gospel, and the newly renovated social gospel, etc.? Why are unbiblical and Gospel-denying political and social ideologies being quoted and implemented from pulpit ministries and in discipleship strategies?
Having spent the last two decades prayerfully attempting to respond biblically and pastorally to this seemingly endless series of theological and ministerial aberrations that have penetrated and permeated Evangelical and Reformed churches, it became obvious that it was past time to pause and reflect on the source of this “poison fruit.” As I’ve taken time for renewal, because of ministry exhaustion, and to reflect, because of increasing ministerial bewilderment, two observations have become obvious, which in turn lead to a decisive conclusion.
First, the content and focus of the identifiable theological and missional poison fruit was obvious. It consistently manifested itself in the theological and missional adulteration of the Gospel Message and the renovation of the Gospel Mission for Christ’s Church. What was not so obvious was the poisonous root at the source of the poisonous fruit.
Second, over the last two decades I have found myself increasingly recommending J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism even though no one in the increasingly confused orbit of Evangelical and Reformed Christianity seemed to be promoting the radical 19th century theological renovations now known as classical Liberal Theology. Yet not only was Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism helpful to me in the current context, but it was observably helpful to any and all I recommended it to who actively read and used it in addressing this “present distress.”
The conclusion, as I contemplated these things, became clear. The poisonous root that has produced theological apostasy beginning with the Gospel itself, and the Missional confusion that follows from that, is the 60-year-old movement that calls itself “Progressive Christianity,” a movement which has been and continues to be aimed at redefining the Mission of the Evangelical and Reformed Church as well as its Message. When Progressive Christianity in its 60-year evolution is held under the microscope, the reason why Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism feels so relevant becomes obvious: even though the doctrinal errors and heresies of Liberal Christianity are distinct from the ever-evolving errors and heresies of Progressive Christianity, it becomes undeniable that Progressive Christianity is “cut from the same bolt of cloth” as Liberal Christianity. Both ultimately embrace the fabric of Theological and Missional renovation and therefore inevitably embrace Theological and Missional apostasy.
In other words, Progressive Christianity, at its core, is Liberal Christianity 2.0. As I’ve continued to explore this connection, I’ve identified five affirmations that reveal the intrinsic connection between so-called Progressive and Liberal Christianity:
1. Liberal Christianity, as it gained influence in the 19th century, entered the 20th century with its sights set upon the Mainline Protestant Church. In the same fashion, Progressive Christianity, having established its footing in the concluding decades of the 20th century, fixed its sights upon the Evangelical and Reformed churches and institutions in the opening decades of the 21st century.
2. Just as Liberal Christianity inevitably produced the errors and heresies of Liberal Theology, so Progressive Christianity produces its own errors and heresies in Progressive Theology as it adulterates historical and biblical orthodoxy. It does this—in a method poached from Liberal Christianity—by embracing the novelty of a culture-focused Mission for Christ’s Church as superior to the Word of God. This theological downgrade is not only manifested by a loss of Confessional integrity in general, but by the theological devolution of the Christ-given and Gospel-defined Message and Mission of His Church.
3. Progressive Christianity as Liberal Christianity is both parasitic and destructive. It does not bring forth—it tears down. It does not develop—it destroys.
4. Progressive Christianity as a movement, like Liberal Christianity with its theological adulterations and apostasies, promotes unbelief and therefore qualifies as the doctrine of demons. Demonic doctrine means that in the final analysis Progressive Christianity, like Liberal Christianity, is not a subset of Christianity but a virulent adversary of Biblical Christianity. Like so-called Liberal Christianity there may be believers and even faithful churches under its influence for a time. But in the name of Biblical fidelity and Confessional integrity, it must be rejected as a professed movement of Christianity and noted as an adversary because in the final analysis it becomes an instrument of sending the souls of men and women to the judgment of God without the Blessed Hope of the Gospel.
5. Progressive Christianity shares the same three poisoned threads—Motivation, Mission, and Message—with Liberal Christianity. In light of the decimation wrought by Liberal Christianity in the Mainline Protestant Church of the 20th century, the Evangelical and Reformed Church of the 21st century must examine the Motivation, Mission, and Message of Progressive Christianity and its pervasive, penetrating influence. Let’s examine each thread.
Although separated by 100 years, Progressive Christianity in a real sense is Regressive Christianity revealed as Liberal Christianity 2.0. It shares Liberal Christianity’s same failed motivation, it’s committed to its same failed mission, which ensures an inevitable Theological downgrade of its message, though not necessarily adulterating the same particular doctrines as Liberal Theology did. The theological apostasy of Progressive Christianity will not, for various reasons, necessarily mimic all the apostasies of Liberal Christianity but it will be equally destructive.
The self-confessed motivation of 19th and 20th Century Liberal Christianity was not to destroy Christianity but to save the Mainline Protestant Church from “modernity” and the intimidating sophistication of the “modern mind.” This was obvious in the talking points of Liberal Christianity: “in light of modernity the church must be saved from cultural irrelevance” and “Christianity must be saved from the intellectual dustbin of history” and “if Christianity doesn’t change we will lose the next generation.” Sound familiar?
Likewise, the Progressive Christianity of the 20th and 21st Century does not originate from a desire to destroy Christianity. This time the desire is not to save the Protestant Mainline Church, but to save the Evangelical and Reformed Church from “cultural irrelevance,” “the dustbin of history” and “the loss of the next generation.” There is no doubt in my mind that very few contemporary Progressives are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” such as those Paul warned the Elders of the Church at Ephesus to alertly guard. In fact, I believe the vast majority of them are actually “sheep in wolves’ clothing.” But make no mistake. As affirmed by its celebrated apologists and preachers, Progressive Christianity is “wolves’ clothing” in that it has the identical motivation as Liberal Christianity, and dare I say that in reality it is an arrogant motivation— to save Christianity and the Church from cultural irrelevance. Today, instead of saving Christianity from the “burgeoning movement of modernity”, Progressive Christianity proposes to save Christianity from the triumphal movement of post-modernity.
In Liberal Christianity the church is saved from “cultural irrelevance” to a new, culturally approved mission of “Cultural Transformation and human flourishing.” This new and inspirational mission for Mainline Protestant 20th Century Christianity aspired to make the 20th Century into “The Christian Century.” Even a new publication, The Christian Century, was initiated to inspire Mainline Protestant Churches to unleash an updated “culturally relevant” Christianity that would define a Post-Millennial Utopia. This optimistic hope was broadly proclaimed from the pulpits and publications of Mainline Protestant Churches. Liberal Christianity energetically promised to be the venue to bring “human flourishing” to a waiting world. At last, “Cultural Transformation” was within our reach. Sound familiar?
Fast forward a century to the concluding 20th and newly inaugurated 21st Century. The Mainline Protestant Churches that embraced Liberal Christianity are now in the “dustbin of history,” having been eviscerated by Theological Liberalism. Yet, amazingly, previously self-identified “Evangelical churches” are now proclaiming this mission of a “culturally relevant church” fully committed to “cultural transformation.” The Evangelical Church now promises to secure “human flourishing” through “social justice” and newly defined culturally accommodating sexual ethics guided by so-called culturally informed and sensitive extra-biblical and Gospel-distorting publications. The inevitable casualty is not surprising because we’ve seen it before—a loss of Biblical Integrity and Confessional Fidelity in the message being delivered from Evangelical and Reformed pulpits, classrooms, and publications.
Liberal Christianity, motivated to “save the church from cultural irrelevance” and position the church to be a primary culture player to achieve its newly discovered mission of “cultural transformation,” was required to edit the culturally unacceptable doctrines from its message (i.e. confession) in order to be culturally acceptable in the age of “modernity.” The necessary casualty was the removal of any and all doctrines that offended the “sensibilities of the modern mind.” Why? Because doctrines affirming the supernatural power of God, the Holiness of God, and the sinfulness of man were no longer culturally acceptable. In other words, any and all of the foundational, fundamental, and supernatural doctrines of Christianity (i.e. the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the necessity of Christ’s atoning death, the inerrancy of God’s Word, the recorded miracles etc.) were removed. Even more specifically, Liberal Christianity, to be “culturally relevant” and to obtain a seat at the table of the “culture influencers,” out of necessity, jettisoned the Reformation secured Doctrine of “Biblical magisterium” (Sola Scriptura). In its place, Liberal Christianity embraced “Cultural magisterium” resulting in the formulation of a theological message marked by “Cultural accommodation.” What was the result? First, there was a theological downgrade beginning with theological adulteration, then there was the outright blasphemy of theological apostasy. Sound Familiar?
Progressive Christianity, at this moment, is not proposing to change the Evangelical and Reformed Confessions. It simply ignores them or claims to affirm them while twisting their meaning with interpretive gymnastics. How? By something that places Progressive Christianity like Liberal Christianity as an insidious adversary of Biblical Christianity: Confessional deception. Progressive Christianity uses the same glossary of theological terms as historic Biblical Christianity but does not use the same theological Dictionary to define those terms. Progressive Christianity, like Liberal Christianity, in the pursuit of “cultural relevance” to achieve its new mission of “cultural transformation,” abdicates selective theological fidelity by exchanging Biblical magisterium (Sola Scriptura) for Cultural magisterium (cultural accommodation). But the theological downgrade is not focused upon the Inerrancy of Scripture and its fundamental supernatural doctrines as its Liberal forebearer was. Instead, Progressive theology eviscerates the Sufficiency of Scripture in general and the Sufficiency of the Gospel in particular as it redefines the “declarative blessings” of the Gospel in Christ—Justification and Adoption—while denying the integrity of the “transformational blessings”—Regeneration and Sanctification. Why? In order to maintain a seat at the table of Cultural Transformation in a culture committed to the normalization of neo-pagan sexuality. Cultural Accommodation is simply the theological price tag.
Simply put, Evangelical and Reformed Christianity must respond to Progressive Christianity, which in reality is Liberal Christianity 2.0. If we don’t then the same inevitable Divine judgment in the “removal of the Lampstand” announcing “Ichabod—the glory of the Lord has departed” inflicted upon the Mainline Protestant Church awaits the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Liberal Christianity produced Liberal Theology, and Progressive Christianity is producing Progressive Theology. Since they are both “cut from the same bolt of cloth” they will likewise earn the same destructive consequences under a Sovereign God who alone gives His Church its divine motivation, mission, and message.
In light of this, how should Gospel-affirming, Confessional Christians respond to Progressive Christianity? First, pray. Pray for our Lord to raise up Leaders who will exhort and equip God’s Church in humble reliance upon the Spirit of God and the grace of God to embrace its Christ-given motivation, mission, and message.
Our Christ-given Motivation
Our Lord has given us repeatedly our motivation, mission, and message. But initially and definitively He delivered it to the first General Assembly of His Church on an unnamed mountain in Galilee after His Resurrection and prior to His Ascension recorded in Matthew 28:16–20. When they saw Him “they worshiped Him,” and so our motivation is the ubiquitous life-permeating call of the Almighty to live all of life “to the praise of His glorious grace.” We may make Christ’s church irrelevant, but we can’t make the Triune God relevant. There is nothing more relevant than the Gospel message delivered in the power of the Holy Spirit whom He has given to us. Nothing more relevant than proclaiming by His grace that message He has delivered to us for God’s glory. The motivation of Christ’s Church, beginning with its leadership and spreading throughout its fellowship, is to glorify the Triune God of grace through the Preeminence of Christ our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
Our Christ-given Mission
The Christ-given mission in the text for His Church is unmistakably simple yet gloriously profound— make disciples.” It is a narrow and focused mission. The Family, not the Church, is the foundational institution of Creation, but the Church will impact the Family if we stay on mission. Neither is the State God’s providential institution addressing the Fall, but the Church will impact the State if we stay on mission. The Church has a narrow and focused mission to “make disciples.” If we stay on mission and on message with a God-exalting motivation we, by God’s grace, will produce disciples who are called and equipped with a broad and comprehensive mission—“the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World”—disciples who intentionally live that “in all things Christ might have preeminence”, who are ready and desirous to “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.” But for God’s people to accomplish their broad and comprehensive mission, Christ’s Church must stay fixed on our narrow and focused mission. How does a narrow mission of disciple- making produce disciples equipped for their broad and comprehensive mission? The answer is in our Christ-given message.
Our Christ-given Message
Christ has not only given His Church its motivation and its mission, but also a broad and comprehensive message. In order to “make disciples” His Church is to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Our message is the “whole counsel of God” with the Gospel providing our Foundation, Formation, and Motivation. We know that “all Scripture is inspired and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and training in righteousness that the man of God [disciple] might be complete and equipped for every good work.”(2 Tim. 3:16,17) Let’s conclude with some Life Takeaways for focus, balance, and next steps:
1. Patience. The vast majority of those involved at various levels of ministries within the orbit of Progressive Christianity whom I have known are brothers and sisters in Christ who have been caught up in the seemingly benign promises Progressive Christianity makes. So, let’s be patient in dialogue and constantly be committed to “giving the judgment of charity,” yet unyielding in our commitment to God’s truth.
2. Contextualization. Progressive Christianity thrives on a misuse of the Biblical call to contextualize the message and ministry of the Gospel. Yes, to be faithful and effective we are to be “in the world but not of the world.” But Biblical contextualization is “speaking in the terms the world understands while refusing to speak only on the terms it demands.”
3. Harmony of Mission and Message. Remember that the functional mission of your ministry will ultimately define and determine the message. For example, if your mission is self-esteem you will develop a therapeutic gospel; a mission of church growth will produce a pragmatic gospel; a mission of social justice (which is different than biblical justice) will produce a social gospel; a mission of cultural transformation will produce a gospel of cultural accommodation. To stay on message you must stay on mission.
Remember that missional is a historical term describing an individual’s commitment to accomplishing their mission. Therefore, as long as the mission is correct being missional is correct. The problem today would be more appropriately termed missional-ism, as in some cases where mission has become untethered to the Scripture as its final authority.
4. Transformation. Remember that while cultural transformation is not the mission of the Church it is a desired consequence. In Europe, less than 25 years after the Ascension of Christ, an adversary said about the encroachment of the Christianity, “these people [Christ’s Church] who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” What he did not know is that Paul and his team had been sent by Christ through His Church not to “turn the world upside down” but to turn sinners right-side up. When sinners are transformed by Gospel evangelism and discipleship the culture gets transformed as a consequence of pervasively changed lives.
5. Public theology. Remember that discipling by teaching “all that Jesus commanded” certainly encompasses prophetic preaching and teaching that addresses the issues of the culture—public theology in the public square.
6. Biblical Magisterium. The historical hallmark of Evangelical and Reformed Christianity has been to rightly embrace the Reformation’s foundational Sola that “The Scripture alone is our only rule of faith and practice”—Biblical Magisterium. In the Reformation the Reformed Church said “No” to Ecclesiastical Magisterium. Today the Evangelical and Reformed Church must say “No” to Cultural Magisterium by rejecting Cultural Accommodation in the name of Contextualization. One obvious sign of Cultural Magisterium is ready preaching on sins that the culture condemns, but a deafening silence on the sins it approves, such as abortion, gender fluidity, the rejection of family and marriage etc. Biblical Magisterium demands we preach and teach “the whole counsel of God.”
A Concluding Word
O Lord, may Your Church intentionally, in humble reliance upon God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, simply yet profoundly serve our Savior by staying on Mission, on Message, and in Ministry.