Can we find common ground with progressive Christians?

(Candace foster) #1

Hi everyone,

I seem to be surrounded with church folk who identify as progressive Christians. My question, what would you list as common beliefs with progressives?

I am struggling with how to approach friends who are of this mindset.

By progressive, I think they mean:

No understanding of Bible as inspired and true

Love (I assume that you pick your own definition) is highly valued over other attributes

Beliefs are not all that important-see above

Truth is not sought after

Emotions and feelings were given to us by God to guide us

Doing good for others has a high value in helping one feel good about oneself.

Thanks for any thoughts

(Tim Behan) #2

Hi @Candy… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you are probably far from being the only person in this situation. It seems many in the church, to their absolute detriment, are moving into this sort of thinking. The first thing I would say to you is that you should know that you are not alone. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I live in New Zealand and we are currently in the midst of our denomination splitting nationally over the issue of the blessing of same sex marriage. This is causing an enormous amount of anxiety, stress and emotion on both sides of the issue. So take heart in the fact that you are not alone and continually strive (as it seems evident you are) to remain faithful and true to Gods Word.

I think you’ve already hit the nail on the head with the common ground that you’re looking for… however I don’t see that there is any clear and sure-fire way of getting people to see eye to eye. The common ground I mean is that of Love. In New Zealand and I’m sure everywhere else where these issues are happening, both sides of the argument argue that they want to be loving in every situation to every person no matter what is going on.

The question becomes “What is actually love in whatever situation?”. I unquestionably love my son, but I absolutely discipline him and pull him up on things that he shouldn’t be doing. Is it still loving to do so? I would say yes. The problem is that we may all differ on where we stand in our reference to love and so where can we go to find a definitive answer on it? I say that Love and its defining characteristics are found in God and therefore through his Word.

Unfortunately if those you are dealing with are lead more by feelings than they are by the Word of God, then I’m not sure what particular things you could be saying. I wonder how they deal with issues such as Jesus getting angry in the temple, or Ananias and Sapphira dying for deception. If the wages of sin are death, then isn’t the loving thing to stop people sinning?

I feel like I’m not being very encouraging, so I’m really sorry about that. I think probably just stick with my first line… you’re not alone in this struggle… hopefully other people have some helpful hints, which I would also be interested in. I hope and pray that God gives you and all of us wisdom in how to deal with such a difficult tension.

(SeanO) #3

@Candy That is a very good question. I’ve linked some articles and threads that may help in considering how to relate to liberal minded Christians. I enjoy conversations I have with liberal Christians, but I think the way I relate to them is to first ask myself a few questions:

1 - Are they seeking truth or have they settled into their current beliefs?
2 - What are their core values? What attracts them to liberal theology?
3 - How do they live out their faith?

If they are not seeking and are happy in their beliefs, then I am less direct in my conversations and try to focus more on building a relationship. I then try to keep two things in mind:

1 - If there is common ground between us - such as care for the poor - what is it that distinguishes true Biblical faith from their beliefs? In what way can I, little by little, demonstrate or communicate that truth.
2 - If my beliefs are clearly different on some topic - such as the reliability of Scripture - how can I build a bridge to help them understand why a reasonable person would believe in that doctrine. How can I help them truly understand my position in a loving and gentle manner.

Do those thoughts spark any additional questions? I hope these resources are helpful. The Lord guide you as you share His life with those around you.

This article from equip does a good job of emphasizing that we need to go the extra mile to break down the stereotypes and to discern if this person has been hurt in the past by those claiming the name of Christ / Biblical Christianity.

(Renee Yetter) #4

Dear @Candy, my heart goes out to you as you wrestle with this difficulty. The timing of your post especially touches me. Last week my husband and I happened to be seated with two women, a couple, that we know. They would describe themselves as Christians, absolutely. They are connected with a more progressive church and have been in associated with more Biblically strict youth missions in the past. They are becoming more open about the fact that they are a couple. We are also friends with people from our home church of years ago, many of whom are now progressive Christians, but were not when we attended.

It is extremely difficult for us to know how to navigate this territory. We think the world of all of them but do not share their view of God’s intention for intimate relationships. On the one hand, we are glad the couple trust us enough to be more open about the nature of their relationship. That said, we have not had to have what would be a difficult discussion about our views of marriage and sexuality. Our friends from our home church likely think of us as being among the dinosaurs who have held the church back and given it a bad reputation, sadly.

I have no pearls of wisdom, but it is a painful road to walk. We’ve tended to see keeping the doors of communication open and making sure they know we love them as the top priorities. I just don’t know at what point it becomes important to interject what we see as the truth more plainly and “take a stand.” As with the concerns you’ve expressed, there has to be a boundary somewhere between accomplishing what we all can together out of love for Jesus, but also not compromising what we see as God’s word or damaging our witness for that. Yikes! At times like these a handbook with clear instructions would be nice. Grace and wisdom to you!

(Jimmy Sellers) #5

I have been watching the Gifford lecture with NT Wright this is from my notes and I think that it comes close to your observations about what you are seeing. As to how to handle this in your life I do like what @SeanO has posted above. And at the end of the day I don’t believe that we can declare anyone beyond the power of God.

Wright calls it epicurean elitism, interiorized and individualized combines with the plutonic secret inter-reality to highlight ,not a sinful soul that needs redeeming and transforming but a true self that needs liberating from the distortions of the outside world and even one’s own body might try to impose on it. Like progress itself this view has recently become orthodoxy.
The political elitism which allows enlighten westerns to look down at the rest of the planet either bless it or bomb it goes well with an inward elitism of those who know themselves to be the spiritual highflyers the real moral heroes.

(Jamie Hobbs) #6

This one keeps coming up more and more. I had a discussion with a girl from my church just last week who is struggling with this very thing. She has two friends who are together in that manner and claim to be Christians. Now this girl is questioning the church’s stance on homosexuality expressly because she doesn’t want her friends to go to hell, but does want them to be happy with who they are. Again, the emotions of the situation are guiding the conversation and that can’t happen.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
– 2 Tim 4:3-5

I did what I could to explain the truth, as difficult as it was, but I could tell she walked away not really buying it. People seem to be resting in the love and mercy of God and completely forgetting the commands of God. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments. (John 14:15)” Society wants to continue to sin that grace may abound, even when Paul said “Certainly not!” to that idea.

To your question though, I think we can find common ground with progressive or liberal-minded Christians in that we all believe in Jesus as the only way to Heaven. If they don’t believe that, they can hardly call themselves “Christian”. There does have to be some trust built up I think, otherwise these conversations simply dissolve before they even begin.

(Candace foster) #7

Thanks for the replies. It is nice to know that others are dealing with these issues. I agree that there is a definite spiritual elitism that I have detected from many of these folks…

I struggle with how much time to spend in relationship with those who feel that they have the truth and are not looking any further than their own construct. I try to approach each of these situations with prayer and the realization that God will provide opportunities and moments for further conversation, etc. But as many of you expressed, it is hard and disappointing sometimes.

2Timothy 4:5 praying for the strength to 'be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist and fulfill the ministry."

(SeanO) #8

@Candy I think we need to be careful with the label ‘spiritual elitism’. As is pointed out in 2 Timothy and in Titus, our opponents are trapped by sin and the evil one. Therefore, we should remember that we too were once trapped and that, as C. S. Lewis notes, they are wrestling against all the tyrannies of the sinful nature in their attempt to be good. When we label people ‘spiritual elitist’ I think it is easy to forget to have mercy even as God has shown us mercy. Also, we cannot see their heart and sometimes we can be too quick to assign bad motives to others when they may sincerely believe something (albeit falsely).

I can tell from your reply that your approach is one of care and concern, but labels like ‘spiritual elitist’, even if true in a way, can create barriers rather than bridges to the truth reaching someone’s heart. What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree?

2 Timothy 2:24-26 - And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

“Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side. You must not do, you must not even try to do, the will of the Father unless you are prepared to “know of the doctrine.” All my acts, desires, and thoughts were to be brought into harmony with universal Spirit. For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.” - C. S. Lewis

Titus 3:3-5 - At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

(Anthony Costello ) #9


I think at some point we have to, at least in our own minds, decide whether or not people who hold the kinds of beliefs you list are indeed ‘Christian’ or not. There has to be some conceptual boundaries on what makes one thing that thing, and when something is no longer that same thing, but something else. It seems to me that with people who identify as “progressive” Christians and who espouse something like what you have listed here, that they are just using the word Christian and practicing a form of Christianity, but that this form and that word are not the same thing as what has been proclaimed since the days of the Apostles. In other words the content of their faith is not similar enough to the content of our faith, that we can have much common ground (at least with regard to the "Christian faith). Obviously there an be all kinds of common ground on other things (e.g. our favorite sports team, a shared view on tax reform, etc.) In sum, perhaps we could identify them as non-Christians who utilize religious forms, and use the term Christian, but are not apostolic, historical, Christians.

That said, there is the question of how to approach them. I don’t know that I would confront them or address them as “non-Christians.” Perhaps there is still something there, something intuitive, that continues to draw them to the person of Jesus, or even to certain kinds of secondary aspects of the Christian faith (e.g. a communal feel). However, the beliefs they hold do need to be questioned and challenged in some real way. I think just asking questions will at least expose some false or inadequate beliefs they may hold. Now, that doesn’t mean that if we expose false beliefs, that their desire to hold those beliefs will change. But still, Titus 1:9 commands us to confront false beliefs, so we do have a Scriptural injunction to point out heresy in some way. So, like anything else, I think if you can confront the person about specific beliefs, without being disrespectful, then over time you might be able to win them back into a more historically rooted Christianity.

An example of this that I am seeing, is former evangelicals who were concerned about progressive Christianity growing in the evangelical churches, converting to Roman Catholicism, as a way out of progressive evangelical Christianity. Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic church is now also lurching toward progressivism, so there really is no escape from a secularized Christianity just by switching denominations or traditions.

Finally, where I would probably start with regard to specific beliefs, is with the person of Jesus, and more specifically, the historical facts for the Resurrection. If Jesus did rise bodily from the dead, then perhaps what He actually said during his lifetime should be examined more carefully. So, I would lead with the Resurrection, then move to the teachings of Jesus, and then (because it will probably follow) defend the reliability of the New Testament itself to show that those teachings are actually from Him. Jesus in the NT is not the Jesus of the progressives (Mark 7-9 should immediately make that clear).

Another way into this discussion, albeit one that might be more emotionally charged, would be to challenge people on how they think they are saved, if they actually do believe in an afterlife. It is my intuition that progressive Christianity often degrades into a works-based theology, where one is saved by his or her good works, or by “being good.” Certainly that is the popular expression of progressive Christianity I see, where people are moralizing all the time. So, emphasizing God’s grace and the inability of the individual to “be” morally good, can be effective in gaining clarity about what true Christianity is. Of course, it might be important here to be open and authentic about one’s own moral failures.

Hope this helps. God bless.

(Kathleen) #10

Hi, @Candy! Thanks for bringing this issue up and for seeking the common ground, which is so important when trying to foster dialogue. I like the points that @anthony.costello just brought up, and I just wanted to speak really quickly on another topic you mentioned in your initial post, re. feelings and emotions.

You mentioned that one of the things they believe is that…

I like that @Jimmy_Sellers brought in NT Wright to weigh in philosophically, because it does seem that Western society today subjects truth to feelings… as in truth is something that is felt rather than something that just is regardless of the way we feel about it. So, it seems that if want to have a productive conversation, establishing common ground in the realm of feelings/emotions would be a good place to start.

If we start here, we could, for example, begin with establishing the nature of feelings and emotions… I believe that feelings and emotions are good things. They are a part of our human experience. (Think about how we equate those who have a lack of them with robots!) God created humans as emotional beings, and to an extent, they do help us navigate life. They are indicators of desires and wants…and even needs, and they often help us to recognise things about ourselves that we may have been unaware of.

As an aside, one of the best books I ever read on emotions and their place in our lives is Voice of the Heart. It’s a pretty quick read, and the author has some very interesting things to say!

However, from there we will most likely begin to differ with them about what ‘truth’ our different emotions are pointing to. So maybe some some questions to think about together at this point would be…

  • What is the cause of this emotion?
  • What desire is the emotion pointing to?
  • Is the desire a good thing or a bad thing? Why? (Either have them define good & bad or leave it open-ended to let them interpret…though it’d be good to seek common ground on even these more foundational concepts!)
  • What does fulfilment of the desire lead to?

Anything that would hopefully help them see why we don’t tend to build cases for individual identity on feelings and emotions alone. I would want to be ready to contend for the proper place of emotions in our lives - a life that is neither devoid of them nor overwhelmed by them!

(Candace foster) #11

Thank you all for your suggestions. I will take some time to think and reflect on ways to find that common ground.

(Renee Yetter) #12

You’ve distilled this down to some important concepts in a way that is extremely helpful for me. If I am understanding you correctly, embracing alternative sexual relationships then, even calling “covenanted” sexual relationships holy, would make someone a non-Christian if acceptance of historical, orthodox, and Biblical morals is necessary for actually being a Christian. Progressives would likely disagree. I believe Scripture supports this view of the importance of orthodoxy, but would be loathe so say that explicitly unless my feet were held to the fire, not because of disagreement, but because of the damage it could do to relationships. It would mean having to talk with those progressive Christians about what makes one a Christian at all and disagreeing on how that would be defined. It seems to me we absolutely have to defend those Biblical teachings, but these conversations be difficult, painful, and intimidating for me, even if necessary.

(Anthony Costello ) #13


Hi Renee, thanks for your response. So, I think we are lacking some clarity here. Let me try and articulate my thoughts more precisely.

First, with regard to someone who claims to be Christian, yet embraces a same-sex, monogamous, permanent relationship, I would not say that they are heretical, or non-Christian. I would say instead that they are accepting a lifestyle that is not sanctioned biblically, i.e. they are being unbiblical. But, being unbiblical is not yet being a non-Christian, since we all are failing to live up to some standard that the Bible holds us to, or failing to understand the Bible properly with regard to what the standards are. So, same-sex couples or advocates of same-sex relationships are not heretical, but their beliefs or their behavior is unbiblical. Two different things.

That said, I reserve the term heretical for people who either fail to believe a necessary truth claim that makes the content of Christianity Christian (e.g. Jesus Christ is God), or who outright reject a necessary truth claim that makes the content of Christianity, Christian (e.g. Jesus Christ doesn’t save us from sin and death). Failing to hold a necessary belief like these or rejecting a necessary belief like these would, I think, make someone something other than a historical, orthodox, Christian, even if they acted religiously or used the term Christian to describe themselves.

I mean if someone says they are Christian but doesn’t actually believe God exists, should I consider them Christian? I don’t see why I should. By the way, there are many people like this. The Catholic philosopher Robert George has recently pointed out that he thinks many of the priests and bishops involved in the most recent abuse scandal in Pennsylvania, are openly atheist in their beliefs (well, not that openly, but they are basically non-believers acting as priests.)

With regards then to determining what the necessary beliefs are, I think we can say with some degree of confidence that all Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox hold, minimally, to the first three creeds of the Church (Apostles’ Creed, Athanasian Creed, and Nicean Creed), and the first four ecumenical councils (up through Chalcedon in 451). Thus, a failure to accept or a rejection of the propositional beliefs outlined, for example, in the Nicean Creed, would make someone a non-Christian.

With regard to those who embrace alternative sexual ethics, i.e. who are being expressly unbiblical in their beliefs about sexuality and in their own behavior, I would argue that in doing so they are moving away from the aforementioned historic, orthodox Christianity, and there is a greater likelihood that they will come to reject or fail to hold some of the necessary beliefs that denote what historic and orthodox Christianity is. So, I think they are playing with fire, and they should, like anyone else who is going against biblical moral teachings, be encouraged to believe differently about the matter; admonished to stop sinning; and advised to seek counseling so that they can better resist temptation.

Does this make more sense? I hope I am being clearer.

(Renee Yetter) #14

Thanks so much, @anthony.costello, for your clear and comprehensive reply. Your initial response was probably clear to most, but I am somewhat new at dialoguing through issues like these in this kind of setting. They are questions that have kept my intellectual wheels turning for years, though, and I appreciate the level of detail you’ve included. As someone who teaches in the sciences I am also a bit obsessive about defining terms so we all know and understand exactly what’s being communicated.

You have clarified for me the terms you are using, which is very helpful, and with which I agree for the most part. I like the distinction you make between unbiblical and heretical. The question it makes me want to ask, though, is where out there is the point at which someone goes from “simply” being unbiblical, to heretical.

Your description of what constitutes heresy is very helpful and has given me a lot to think about. I have read quite a bit of Robert George’s work and listened to some of his lectures on Youtube. His work is interesting and insightful.

I agree with your assessment of necessary beliefs and also with your characterization of which groups can reasonably lay claim to embracing them. As you say, watching people we care about or have relationships with play with fire is frightening. I would certainly get badly burned in their situation!

I’ll likely come back with more thoughts after having ruminated over your comments, and if you don’t mind, it would help me process this conversation if you would permit me to copy and paste your above reply so I can print it off and make some notes on it. It will only be for my use and I won’t share it anywhere.

Thanks again, and blessings to you,

(Anthony Costello ) #15


Renee, thanks for your kind response and feedback.

As far as what the “point” might be where an individual departs from historical Christianity and becomes heretical in their beliefs, I would extend as much grace as possible here. Mainly, because I think we should always try and take people at their word with regard to their beliefs. That said, I think if someone just said, for example, that they don’t believe in the existence of God, or that Jesus is not God, or that Jesus doesn’t save us from our sins and death, that would be a point where we would call them, and I think with good reason a non-Christian. Another distinction I should make here, to avoid confusion, is that heretical beliefs can often be similar to orthodox, Christian beliefs, but where a similar term refers to a very different concept of a thing. For example, Mormons believe that God the Father is God, that Jesus is God and the the Holy Spirit is God, but they also believe that they are not one God, but three gods. So, that said, I would consider Mormons heretics, as harsh as that word may sound to modern ears, and in spite of how nice they usually are.

An atheist, on the other hand, would not necessarily be a heretic, because the atheist simply disbelieves, full stop. But, since the world is complicated, and human beings are the most complicated part of the world, we have to understand that their are atheistic “Christians” as Robbie George has pointed out.

As regards the use of what I have written here, copy and past away!

in Christ,

(Daniel Amant ) #16

Hello, Candy. Thank you for that question. It’s gotten me to think a bit. I’ve never considered myself any “type” of Christian before, just a Christian. I try, sometimes harder than other times, to follow the Bible as it is written along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I do the same with other Christians. The Lord is the One who knows their heart and their motives. [Jeremiah 17:9 - “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?"]
I’m a firm believer in the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Here’s the kicker . . . the Holy Spirit can. What I mean by this is that you can go to Scripture and share with them, but it is up to the Holy Spirit to show/reveal the Truth to them in it.
I believe that if someone is truly seeking Truth and not just trying to be “all that”, then their heart will be open to what the Holy Spirit wishes to reveal to them and give them that “Ahaa!” moment.
Thank you for sharing your heart. I believe that your connection to Him is good and true. Lord bless your walk, Sister.

(Steven Chapman) #17

This is a good conversation and one that I have been struggling with for many years. Although the speed with which information moves in these days dwarfs the past few decades, it tends to also make everything seem to be current issues. From my perspective the details of this discussion began over fifty years ago. There are several questions that come to mind.

I mention the time frame above mainly to emphasize the fact that the world can blind even the best of Christians, and none of us are immune its influence. How else could the church in the US have been so delusional as to read the Bible as an endorsement of wholesale human slavery as a legitimate economic enterprise and application of Biblical truth? Was that event a result of unbelief or just comfortable belief? How did it become set so deep in the culture?

The Islam elective teaches that one can expect to spend seven years in true relationship with any Muslim one might want to help lead to Christ. One of the reasons for that is the strong cultural sacrifice that is required for the Muslim. That cultural bond of Islam is a strong affinity and offers the same comfort and acceptance that is preached in many churches today. So is the effect of the the cultural setting of Islam different from that of Christianity in the context of influence not content? If it is deemed appropriate to approach other belief systems through apologetics because we believe we have been gifted with the truth, why would we not use apologetics to reach out to those who claim a Christian faith but vary from that same truth?

It is said in the RZIM program that the first job of the apologist is the apologist. Every Christian should be an apologist in that they should know what they believe and why they believe it. The modern day church has been accused of being lazy. Listening to someone else tell you what to believe is much easier than looking into the evidence or meditating on the scriptures. If one considers that description, doesn’t that describe where most of the progressives are? Are they not looking for the easiest path or the least effort? Do the necessary sacrifices demonstrated in Jesus’ life not fit the more comfortable path that “cultural Christianity” offers?

As a final thought, one question that I offer, myself included, is what part of the world am I still holding on to tightly? More specifically, to what things do I offer my time that I know either are contrary to the walk Christ has emphasized or compromise the truth that has been revealed in the Word?

(Renee Yetter) #18

Excellent points, and your reminder that we could all be vulnerable is an important on. I finished reading Jeremiah today, and have been struck many times while reading it how it seems the Israelites were willing to abandon obedience to God’s precepts because they could not resist the immediate temptations. They had a great oral tradition in which all God’s miraculous works of taking them out of Egypt had been passed down. When confronted with difficulties, those stories went by the wayside as they gave in on “the little things” first of all. I am convinced we must be pleading with God regularly so we do not fall into gross error ourselves. Without God’s help and faithfulness, I am more than capable of foolishly, crushingly abandoning the race. It’s a sobering thought.

(rebecca thompson) #19

Dear Candy and others who are responding. What a perfect question and such wonderful, thoughtful and heartfelt responses. I am currently in a PhD program and I’m asking that same question as I seem to be the only person in my department who believes the scripture, as it is written is infallable and the word of God.
However, I want to be respectful of the varied viewpoints. The common ground is that all humans seem to have a journey and until death, a journey that isn’t over in terms of possibilities to know and love the word of God. To love as Christ did is our common thread. I want to hold on to love that joins a firm belief in scripture rather than supporting agendas that go against scripture. Needless to say, within my very liberal program of Arts and Visual Culture, I need more skills in diplomacy, voice, tone and body language. Who we are, how we move physically, how we sound in our tone of voice all send messages to those who don’t know our message. Sometimes a soft listening mannerism opens a door. Right now, I hear myself being defensive and wanting to chop down the postmodernist theories with a nuclear bomb. I think of Foucault, who wrote and lived in such a confused manner and infiltrated every inch of the universities with his poison of pluralism and no absolutes and then I think of a figure like Mother Theresa, who lived in pluralism and acted…the common ground for her was love, kindness and respect but firmly planted in her service to God as the foundation for love and thus service to others. My hope is that we as the Christian community put our faith in scripture, but also in acts of love and kindness, bringing food to meetings, giving people rides home, bringing meals when they are sick…to the liberal community. Living out …being the light …and having the reason for our relationship with Christ is a balancing act I’d like to learn. I’d like others to know I will love them, but I stand firmly on the word of God in my worldview.