Talking of being progressive and liberal

I recently stumbled across a poster on Facebook which offered the following three propositions:

A liberal church says you are welcome here and don’t need to clean up your life.

A legalistic church says you are not welcome here until you clean up your life.

Jesus says you are welcome here and I will change your life from the inside out (John 8, 11).

Now I can’t speak for the legalistic church but maybe I can for a liberal church?

Although I would prefer to use the phrase orthodox-progressive as an identifier, meaning that I am fully signed up to the truths expressed though the creeds in a fundamentally literal sense whilst being progressive in issues relating to both gender and sexuality, others, because of the ground on which I stand, have and continue to describe me as liberal. And, that’s just fine.

But, what is not fine is the suggestion that ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ aren’t interested in helping people live better, cleaner, more Christ-like lives. In all honesty I don’t know any liberal clergy who don’t prize conversation and transformation of life highly. I don’t know of any liberal or progressive clergy who aren’t deeply committed to conversion in a real, meaningful and life-enhancing way.

I think that virtually every liberal or progressive preacher that I have heard  takes growth into the likeness of Christ to be fundamental to the liberal or progressive project. Sure, just as with conservative Christianity there is a huge spectrum within liberal or progressive Christianity, but the overwhelming majority of contemporary ‘liberals’ take conversion of life, and the notion of habitas, to be characteristic of the Christian life.

The liberal or progressive Christian, isn’t overly concerned with relativism, or some form of theological libertarianism, but with coming to good, sound and virtuous decisions about how the Christian life might  be well lived. For sure, this is frequently done through engagement with other disciplines. The liberal or progressive Christian takes Scripture seriously, very seriously, but is happy to reason through discourse and, by analogy.  This method of Scriptural engagement isn’t new or faddy, and neither does it represent a capitulation to culture. Instead it draws deeply from the well of tradition; think of Origen and his method of biblical engagement, for instance. And, then there is Henry Major whose dialogical liberalism was entirely bound up with arriving at good decisions and the subsequent exercise of virtue, both at the individual and corporate level of analysis. The liberal or progressive prizes dialogical and analogical reasoning and relies on Scripture as the primary source. Scripture in this way is cherished and acknowledged for its revelatory potential. Progressive and liberal methods of exegesis are both traditional and sophisticated.

Liberal or progressive Christians are, it is true, happy to welcome honest doubters and, those who don’t know quite why they are in church into the community. They don’t insist on sound doctrine as a condition for membership, or even for offering gifts and blessings to the church. Pilgrimage and journeying are important concepts for many liberal-progressives. However, the hope, prayer and expectation is that en route lives will be transformed, relationships deepened, wounds healed and that Christ will be made known.

Community is important to most liberal-progressive types. Liberal or progressive Christianity is certainly not, despite some conservative critiques, an exercise in religious individualism. Many liberal-progressive churches make a virtue of the type of community, and witness, they are seeking to fashion. The biblical concept of Koinonia is as important to the liberal and progressive church as it is to the conservative church. As an orthodox-progressive priest one of my absolute pre-occupations is the shape and collective witness of the church. I am ever so slightly obsessed with Peter Selby’s 1991 question:

‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation?

This is an ecclesial and eschatological question. It is a question for the whole church and, maybe in particular, the progressive wing of the church. It is also a communal and divisive question. It presupposes that faith is exercised corporately and communally. The question hints that churches can have healthy or unhealthy shapes. It is a suggestive and eschatological question in that it insists that the church here on earth (the church imperfect) is a preparation, and more importantly a living witness, to the church in heaven (the church perfect).

Liberal and progressive Christians, despite the conservative critique, do believe that transformation of life, conversion, both individually and collectively, is the rationale of an active faith. To suggest otherwise is just plain wrong. The overwhelming majority of liberal and progressive Christians would share John Stott’s sentiment that changed people change the world. In fact, paradoxically given the stable which Stott helped build, transformation is the fundamental concern of large swathes within the  progressive-liberal church. It’s certainly mine!

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7 thoughts on “Talking of being progressive and liberal

  1. Do you believe that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and that to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation is the supreme need of us all, more important than all other needs although many of those other needs are harrowing? Do you believe that we all lack the ability to repent and turn to Christ until God breathes his life giving Spirit into our hearts? And the rest………………….
    Phil Almond

  2. “A liberal church says you are welcome here and don’t need to clean up your life.”

    The above saying is so typical of the claims of a right-wing Evangelicalism that is so prevalent here in America. Actually mainline liberal denominations, including the American Episcopal Church (TEC), understand that churches are hospitals for sinners, not social clubs for self-styled “saints”…

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    • Kurt’s comment seems about right.

      I know that my critics on kiwianglo – like Philip, here – who represent the con/evo branch of the Church that has problems with any sort of understanding of Christ’s own liberality in the Gospels – seem hell-bent on the promotion of a ghetto-like understanding of the Church, rather than celebrating the invitation by Jesus to ALL people (all of us, sinners) to ‘learn of Him’; thereby participating in the “great love of God as revealed in the Son”.

      I am reminded that Christ died FOR US SINNERS, that we might have eternal life through Him – not through our own self-righteousness – but by his perfect love. It is this realisation that compels us to love God – not by threat but by promise. The result of this; is that we learn to love ourselves and others – as God loves us.

  3. Kurt’s comment seems about right.

    I know that my critics on kiwianglo – like Philip, here – who represent the con/evo branch of the Church that has problems with any sort of understanding of Christ’s own liberality in the Gospels – seem hell-bent on the promotion of a ghetto-like understanding of the Church, rather than celebrating the invitation by Jesus to ALL people (all of us, sinners) to ‘learn of Him’; thereby participating in the “great love of God as revealed in the Son”.

    I am reminded that Christ died FOR US SINNERS, that we might have eternal life through Him – not through our own self-righteousness – but by his perfect love. It is this realisation that compels us to love God – not by threat but by promise. The result of this; is that we learn to love ourselves and others – as God loves us.

  4. If Andrew Lightbrown allows I would just like to make a brief summary of my convictions:
    The God of the Bible is both terrible and wonderful (both are true and we should not exalt either above the other). He is terrible in his holiness, in his majesty, in his righteousness, in his justice, in his sovereignty, in his honesty, in his wrath against and his judgment, condemnation and punishment of sinners. He is wonderful in his love, in his grace, in his mercy, in his compassion, in his pity, in his honesty, in his forbearance and long-suffering. There are two truths which are both equally true, though how they can be simultaneously true is beyond us and one of God’s secrets. Neither should be exalted above the other. (The fact that I am putting one first and the other second should not be interpreted as so exalting one above the other). Firstly, God has chosen in eternity whom he will save and bring to everlasting glory. Those, and only those, will certainly be saved. He has not so chosen all human beings who have ever lived. This is a dreadful fact, as Warfield wrote, that stares us full in the face. In my natural self I would prefer a different kind of god. But it is a fact which I am convicted to believe. Secondly, God and Christ genuinely and sincerely invite, exhort, beseech, command everyone to submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection; to submit in repentance, faith, love, obedience and fear. Everyone: whatever race, language, sexual orientation, poverty or wealth, respectable or unrespectable, whatever sins they have committed. So I say to everyone: Submit now. Come now, because your need to be delivered from the wrath and condemnation of God (which we face from birth onwards) is your supreme need. Infinitely more important than all other needs, however pressing and harrowing those other needs are. Trust Christ as Saviour and obey him as Lord. Come just as you are, come today, for this may be your dying day.

    As Warfield commented on Elijah’s experience, as I have posted elsewhere before:
    ‘….it is not the Law but the Gospel, not the revelation of wrath but that of love, which saves the world. Wrath may prepare for love; but wrath never did and never will save a soul.’ But wrath may prepare for love. And that warning (threat, if you like) of the wrath to come runs through the whole Bible, including some words of Christ:
    Matthew 7:13-14
    Matthew 7:21-29
    Matthew 12:36-37
    Matthew 13:40-50
    Matthew 25:11-13
    Luke 8:18
    Luke 13:1-5
    And others.

    Andrew and Kiwianglo. Are we agreed so far? Is that the orthodoxy we all share?

    Having come to Christ, what then? Our sins are forgiven by his death on the Cross, God has pronounced his verdict of justification and we have been adopted into God’s family. But that is the beginning (not the end), the foundation, of the process of salvation.
    As we seek to ‘learn of him’ and be conformed to the image of Christ, we face the commands, rebukes, challenges, encouragements, promises from Jesus and his Apostolic circle in the New Testament. I (and all the ‘con/evos’ that I know) confront ourselves with these. We seek to endure Christ’s refining fire and the Father’s pruning and chastening. We seek to say farewell to all that we have; to lay down our lives for the brethren. To hate our father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and our own life also, so that we might be Christ’s disciples. (Relatively speaking of course). To put to death our members on the earth. To love our enemies. To be honest with non-Christians about the warnings and promises of Christ’s gospel invitation. As we have opportunity to do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith. Etc. Etc. How far short we fall in all this! How we ought to loathe ourselves! This is the ongoing struggle of faith of the Christian life against the world the flesh and the devil, where we need the whole armour of God, as we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing it is God that works in us to will and do of his good pleasure.

    OK. We know that we disagree about same sex attraction. But apart from that how does your ‘progressive’ in ‘orthodox/progressive’ differ, if it does differ, from the snapshot of the Christian life I have given?

    This debate is not about who are Christians – known to God to be Christians. It is about the revealed truths of Christianity. Because a known to God to be Christian can be astray or go astray in what they believe and disbelieve as they can go astray morally. And someone may intellectually believe all the truths of Christianity and not be a known to God to be Christian. Believing the truth is very important. But if a person is a known to God to be a Christian it is not because they believe the truth but because Christ on the cross has born the wrath and condemnation they deserve and God has unilaterally regenerated them as he has chosen them before the foundation of the world – however strongly they may reject those truths.

    Phil Almond

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