A few years ago I wrote a piece for Mere O called, “The Progressive Evangelical Package.” It probably helps to read it before proceeding. Simply put, though, before the language of “tribes” and “tribal thinking” became lingua franca, I tried to point out that Progressive Evangelicals had a developing orthodoxy of key doctrines just as much as conservative Calvinists did. I did that by identifying seven of them, trying to pinpoint some of the underlying, causal roots funding this cluster as a whole, and inviting folks to recognize that social pressure was being exerted on them to conform to it.
My thought was that folks were starting to find each other due to certain overlapping critiques, or a couple of shared positions, and build friendships and informal coalitions. As that happened, the folks who only affirmed three or four planks would be pushed to affirm all seven or so to belong in much the same way that folks in more conservative wings did. It wasn’t meant as an out-and-out critique (indeed, I said as much), but more as a descriptive project. In a sense, I just wanted to analyze and name something I saw that I didn’t see anybody really owning.
In this post I want to briefly revisit the package and chart some points where I think I got it right, some where I got it wrong, and note some developments that have occurred in the meantime. Mostly for my own analytical benefit, I suppose, but hopefully it can also be of use to those who spend any amount of time trying to understand one corner of the ever-shifting, Evangelical public landscape.
Looking back at it now, I think my argument holds up well enough in most places on the issues themselves. I have seen folks definitely progress along lines I anticipated (I’ll come back to that), especially on the sexual revolution front. There is the predictable, slow move towards affirming stances by some, while a few folks basically took the slippery slopes conservatives warned about and treated them like slip-and-slides into ethically sourced porn and holy polyamory. Similar trajectories could be traced with theologies of Scripture, atonement, and so forth.
When looking at the section on underlying causes, I realize I had not read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind at the time. If I had, alongside the business about empathy and authenticity, harm, and anti-authoritarianism, I would have made much, much more of the liberty/oppression axis that funds so much of progressive Evangelical moral and theological reasoning. It popped up, of course, but it really wasn’t something I was as attuned to at the time and that was a big blind spot.
Part of me also is tempted to think I should have added a couple of extra issues to the package. I’m also tempted to think I should have framed them less in terms of what conservative doctrines they were against. That said, to some degree the negative framing, the againstness has actually remained something of an essential feature for the most prominent voices.
Things I Could Not See Coming
Beyond that, there were some big developments I did not anticipate over the last four years, which have shifted the conversation around the issues in those circles. Here are just a few, in no particular order.
First, progressive call-out culture on the internet (especially on forums like Twitter) ratcheted up what I saw as more initially subtle pressure, to very public, very direct appeals to important figures within the movement to shift or change on key issues.
Second, the rise and growth in awareness of intersectionality concerns. That’s had its own effects in conservative, theological circles too (which is a subject for another day). But the effects of adopting and foregrounding intersectionality premises (which I’m not critiquing at the moment) does a couple of things.
First, it roots itself in the liberative moral instinct and links together various causes to which you must become committed to if you’re really going to be an ally in one area. You can’t just be anti-racist, you have to be anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-transphobic because interlocking systems of oppression are seen as mutually reinforcing.
Second, this loops us back into the call-out culture practices whereby someone who has been an ally on X issue is pressured to become an ally to the oppressed on Y issue if they’re to be truly progressive. There’s more but those are two of the more obvious effects I just didn’t see coming.
Third, the Ex-Evangelicals. The rise of the Empty the Pews and Ex-Evangelical movements out of either more radicalized Progressive Evangelicals, or folks who have more recently burned out, has generated a crowd that is more vocal, more unrelentingly critical (many times for legitimate reasons–realize I’m not critiquing here), less interested in changing the church, than emptying the pews. While the prog evangelicals are/were interested in a reclamation or transformation project, the ex-Evangelicals seem more intent on an evacuation. And in many ways, they have created a critical pressure on folks from the Left, pushing it further down that trajectory.
Fourth, #MeToo (#Churchtoo) and #BlackLivesMatter. In a sense, they are just big, concrete movements that are occasions for the other three factors I’ve already mentioned to grow in strength, as well as feeding into the liberative dimension, anti-clerical, and anti-authoritarian dimension I’d flagged originally. (And this is understandable–remember, I’m not critiquing here.) On top of that, Conservative Evangelical responses here fueled an already growing sense of betrayal, alienation, and disaffection. And again, these impact conservative Evangelical conversations too.
Finally, Trump. It’s hard to overstate the effect his election has had on agitating and radicalizing progressive Evangelical consciousness politically and theologically, nor the way that has reverberated and been a factor in the four aforementioned points. I don’t think I need to substantiate this much. Progressive Evangelicalism is now Resistance Spirituality or it is nothing else.
I know there’s more to it than this–I suspect a more economically attuned observer would know how to augment this analysis along those lines–but these are a few of the key ones that I’ve observed.
The Case of Brian Zahnd
By way of a concrete example, I actually think Brian Zahnd is kind of illustrative of both the places I think I was right in the original piece, as well as the way recent events have changed things.
In the first place, just thinking about the ways folks with differing theological concerns can end up being pulled or influenced to embrace the whole, Rachel Held Evans’ endorsement of Zahnd’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is a good example. Four years ago, Rachel was still mostly focused on writing about issues of gender and sexuality, doubt and the church, and so forth. She was anti-Calvinistic in many ways, but a neo-Girardian, radical pacifist, soteriology rejecting any Western, satisfaction-type theology wasn’t really on high her public theological agenda, nor were themes of divine violence and so forth.
Of course, folks think and grow, and develop. And that’s fine and normal. And she’s since written a book dealing with some of these matters in relation to Scripture (which has always been a concern of hers). But the endorsement itself fits really well into the pattern of seeing group affinities and alliances having those mutually-influencing, theologically-consolidating effects I was talking about. Friendships, communities with some baseline shared values begin shifting your views on particulars other than those that initially brought you together.
Second, you can see some of the recent shifts playing into the couple of instances of criticism Zahnd has faced from his left wing. First, there is the not unpredictable heat he took for his position on gay marriage. So far as I can piece it together, an exchange on Twitter led to folks pressuring Zahnd to clarify his actual position on the matter. He ended up giving a muddled answer about welcoming folks in his church, but not yet being able to perform marriages for them.
There was understandable frustration from many progressive folks who simply disagreed with him, or were frustrated by a lack of clarity, and even a sense of betrayal from folks who had gotten the impression he was affirming the whole time. It was a violation of an assumed trust, enabled by the prior group dynamics already mentioned, And honestly, it’s not one I entirely blame, because a lack of clarity here really can a pastoral failure, no matter which position you end up taking on the matter, for reasons Jake Meador has laid out.
The more surprising critique he’s gotten came within a few days. Zahnd tweeted out that he’s got both ICE members and undocumented immigrants in his congregation worshiping Jesus together. At which point, he immediately faced a pile-on for his seeming obliviousness or recklessness with the safety and freedom of his undocumented members. While I doubt this sort of thing would have happened four years ago, it makes perfect sense in light of the recent turn to more Left and Democratic politics provoked (or simply drawn out) by Trump. It has turned the progressive Evangelicals more skeptical of the sort of kingdom-transcends party, anti-politics Anabaptist political frame that was more popular only recently.
Far from being a one-off incident, this seems more illustrative of a broader shift among some Progressive Evangelicals. Many who would have been tempted to not vote or “Vote for Jesus” a few years ago, as opposed to either Republicans or Democrats (but mostly not the Republicans their Evangelical parents told them to vote for), are increasingly fine participating in the coercive power of the State through voting now that they see some of the real-world effects of the abdication of political authority in the lives of their neighbors. In other words, (fairly or not) Neo-Anabaptist politics has begun to feel kinda white.
So while folks in those camps still might want to reject penal substitution, anti-authoritarianism, and violence in their theology of salvation or doctrine of God, the Resistance ethos growing from liberative and intersectional concerns are overwhelming the formerly ascendant, Neo-Anabaptism. Indeed, you even have some surprising. re-appropriation of violent, Old Testament texts in progressive spaces in the service of progressive politics.
Where all this goes remains to be seen. Much of it, I suspect, is just going to continue go to the mainline–both numerically and theologically. It’s becoming clear that certain wings of it are just a more natural, theological fit.
The more liberal theological tradition ensconced in those churches already participates in (or at least pays lip service to) the politics that most progressive Evangelicals are headed towards. Theologically, there is certainly as much elbow room to the Left as any progressive Evangelical might like, and I’m sure there is the welcome of new energy into those bones. Though, there might be some head-butting when more classic liberals run into those sort of younger progressives who still have no problem with the supernatural elements of Christianity.
At that point the question is whether there is any reason left for folks to think of themselves as Progressive Evangelicals–whether they have reached a place of adopting a more self-consciously, positive mainline identity, less concerned with identifying oneself against the Evangelicalism you left and more as the thing you are now. I think many have already dropped the moniker, but it remains to be seen whether the stance, with its inevitably dependent relation of rejection will be let go.
A cynic might suggest that for the writers in this group there is a not inconsiderable audience base that gives real incentive to never fully cut ties. But the reality is that leaving home is hard for anybody. You still have friends and family there. Psychological roots. And for many, a possible evangelistic urgency to save those you can from the sinking ship you’ve just escaped.
Of course, given that half of my post was dedicate to pointing out what I didn’t see coming, I’ll leave off from any actual predictions and simply note that it’s been an interesting little study for me to observe the way broader cultural trends and events have real-life repercussions in theological and ecclesiastical life. Theological progression doesn’t take place in socio-historical vacuum. Which is hopefully a chastening thought for conservatives looking on as in a mirror, recognizing some of the same trends at work in our own lives.
I’m a big fan of Mere-O, and an ardent supporter of the project here. I type this comment as a friend, in other words. That’s because one of my long-standing (slight) disagreements with various writers at Mere-O is the way “Evangelicalism” is consistently framed as an entity. I hold evangelical convictions (if we are defining that as a form of First Great Awakening theological emphases), but there is no such thing as Evangelicalism. It has no institutional center of any influence, but is merely a sociological definition holding disparate and often contradictory positions, depending on who is defining it. I think it more apt to use (lower-case e) evangelical as an adjective to describe other things that are really things (ie evangelical leaders, evangelical websites, etc and etc).
That’s an important prelude to dealing with Derek’s (of whom I am a big fan) explorations here. Since I don’t think “Evangelicalism” is a thing, then whatever we say is “Evangelicalism” is always moving in some direction or another: progressive or magisterial or pragmatic. “Progressive” evangelicals are just another way to say ‘mainline Protestant.’ An “evangelical Presbyterian” is just another way of saying a ‘magisterial Protestant.’ Since “Evangelicalism” has no institutional center, the individual adrift within it is always moving toward some institution or another. Focus on the Family probably won’t exist in 100 years, but Presbyterians and Anglicans and Baptists still will, of one stripe or another.
All that to say, then, basically since the 19th century, we have always had evangelicals moving in liberal directions. It’s been a thing since the 2nd Great Awakening. That’s why liberal Protestantism can stay afloat- it just leaches from actual churches who believe in the authority of Scripture and the resurrection of Christ. There will always be progressive evangelicals so long as “Evangelicalism” doesn’t have an institutional center.
Excellent point here – from the outside, it can often be taxonomically unclear what evangelicalism is, or what it refers to. For instance, one of the early links here cites Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor, as an evangelical. I was under the impression that Lutheranism was perhaps the archetypal example of magisterial Protestantism, with the ELCA firmly understood as a ‘mainline’ church. Yet, of course, the E in ELCA is for Evangelical. What are they? What are the boundaries of this evangelical identity?
Derek mentions progressive evangelicals ‘going to the mainline’, but what does this mean? I can treat a little in stereotypes (evangelicals are loud, use energetic praise music, have a low church sensibility, etc.; mainlines are ageing, respectable, more liturgical, etc.), but those aren’t useful theologically.
I like the attempt to analyse progressive Christianity as a sort of integrated memeplex, or with a set of standard ideas that has been shifting over time, and the same is naturally going to be true of conservative Christianity, but the relation of those memeplexes to this murky things called ‘evangelicals’ and ‘mainlines’ is a bit vaguer to me.
That said, Dave, I think you’re being a little uncharitable to to your liberal/progressive brothers and sisters?
Thanks for the kind rejoinder. Yes, it’s definitely true that I have many mainline friends who do believe in a historical Jesus and a real resurrection, and just happen to prefer more mainline expressions of Christianity. I do apologize as that was an uncharitable jab. I’ve had many other clergy friends in mainline circles that I have been privileged to pray with and break bread with over the years, for sure.
But if I take my evaluative and pejorative lens off, I still think it’s fair to use descriptive language to say that mainline churches are, by and large, getting smaller, and by and large, have many adherents who don’t believe in the historical truths of, say, the Apostles Creed. And where that is the case, it’s hard to call someone a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ who doesn’t think that Jesus’ resurrection is the pivotal moment in history.
Hi Dave. I can accept your point here, but I still feel like there’s a bit of stereotyping going on here: reading ‘mainline’ as essentially coterminous with ‘progressive Christianity’, of the Spong/Vosper/etc. variety.
One of my consistent worries whenever I delve into these denominational disputes, particularly in the American context, is the reifying of ‘mainline’ and ‘evangelical’ into thick church identities, when I’d rather argue that they’re at best vague organising categories. Lutherans, Methodists, Reformed Calvinists, and Anglicans/Episcopalians are all definitionally mainlines: yet theologically are extremely distinct. The category evangelical is equally diverse, and equally home to extremely progressive and heterodox expressions of Christianity.
So I worry firstly that mainline/evangelical is a distinction used to obscure rich and nourishing distinctions between traditions, and secondly that it also often tends to set up an unhelpful value judgement: typically that mainlines are bad and evangelicals are good, especially by equating mainlines with progressive Christianity and evangelicals with conservative (read: ‘orthodox’) Christianity. But that equation isn’t true.
Coming back to Derek’s article, then, I’d be concerned about how we draw the lines around the categories ‘mainline’ and ‘evangelical’, and how we use them to overlap with ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative/orthodox’.
Thank you for the reply, though! I agree that I would not consider someone who denies the ecumenical creeds to be a brother or sister.
This is an excellent point. As David mentions below, prior to the mid-1940s, the term “evangelical” referred broadly to mainline Protestants who accepted the basic averments of the ecumenical creeds concerning the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, and the like. By the standards of the time, the term would likely have included men like Karl Barth. While the term included separatists like Carl McIntyre, the majority of “evangelical” Christians found themselves worshiping in churches affiliated with the Protestant mainline.
The term took on a very different meaning in the years following WWII, and incorporated political and sociological commitments (although on a more implicitly than explicitly).
This is definitely an interesting article. That said, you may be exaggerating some of the trends that you’re describing here.
When you mention the sexual revolution front, the two examples you give aren’t strong indicators of anything: they just show a miniscule number of people that are being overblown in importance. In other words, it’s culture war catnip. When it comes to most of the people who are progressive and evangelical, the main issue of debate in this “front” remains to be about being affirming of same sex relationships. As you mentioned with Brian Zahnd, the aspect of clarity is a big part of this.
The other trend that you imply – that the aversion to violence is going away – might be the case, but I’m skeptical. You mention the use of violent verses from the Bible, but Anabaptist (and members of peace churches in general) have always had to reckon with and understand these verses. I’m neither part of a peace church nor a strict pacifist myself, so I can’t speak on their behalf, but I can say that even as someone who generally wants to avoid committing acts of violence, verses in scripture can still have meaning even while using the language of violence.
Furthermore, given the climate of people in the secular culture who either favor outright state violence (such as ICE, which you mention) or anti-state violence, progressive Christians are definitely looking like the most anti-violent of the bunch. When Richard Spencer was punched, many people cheered, but progressive Christians are the best at delivering a case for why this is wrong,on the basis of it being immoral for a human being to commit violence regardless of who we are up against.
I agree on your point concerning violence. I think that’s especially true if one follows the Sermon on the Mount’s lead and includes verbal attacks, especially libelous or slanderous verbal attacks, as a form of violence. Such forms of violence are far more common among traditionalist white evangelicals than among so-called progressives. For example, consider the scurrilous—and generally false—attacks against the Spiritual Friendship crowd and the organizers of the Revoice conference. Traditionalist leaders like Denny Burk and Andrew Walker can barely broach the topic of homosexuality without trafficking in deceit. Consider the consistent efforts to misrepresent the views of the Spiritual Friendship movement and to stir up faux controversies in an effort to no-platform the movement and deny them a legitimate hearing.
I’ve pointed to Burk and Walker as examples. But one sees similar conduct throughout much of the traditionalist tribe. By contrast, one rarely sees moderate evangelicals like Pete Enns or Roger Olson engage in such rank dishonesty.
I also agree that the focus on same-sex marriage seems like the elevation of one’s hobby-horse issues to the level of orthodoxy. I agree with evangelical theologians like Juergen Moltmann. I doubt that same-sex marriage is marriage in a traditional Christian sense. But the Scriptural support for banning committed same-sex relationships within the church is awfully thin, if it exists at all. Those who oppose such relationships seem to be shoehorning Scripture to say things that it simply doesn’t say on the topic, and to falsely suggest divine support for one’s subjective social discomfort with such relationships. But I hardly see that as an “orthodox” view, as it plays fast and loose with Scripture. That’s not to say that such relationships are necessarily wise. But the Scriptural case for a per se prohibition is not sustainable.
J. Gresham Machen wrote the book on liberal protestantism just under a century ago. In its pages we find him speaking of “evangelical Protestantism,” “evangelical churches,” and the like. For him “evangelical” seems to have meant simply those churches on his side of the Reformation. Hence liberalism can easily be found within evangelical churches, from Machen’s perspective. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that evangelicalism acquired its more recent meaning of, well, a more educated and sophisticated form of fundamentalism. Perhaps the term has now been discredited, but I hope not, as it communicates a fidelity to the gospel to which every Christian should aspire.
In my youth I likely would have regarded myself as a progressive evangelical in some form, but before I reached the age of 25 I came to recognize that it could never be a firm place to stand because it was continually in motion, with factions splitting off with unsettling frequency. My thirst for justice, especially for the poor and vulnerable, had a much firmer basis in Scripture, the church fathers and the reformers and hardly required that I buy into an agenda of progressive liberation from all constraints. In fact, I was strongly persuaded, even in my youth, that this liberationist agenda would over the long term make matters much worse for the poor.and erode the very institutions that support human flourishing.
Thus I find myself looking at this latest manifestation of progressive evangelicalism as a collection of good intentions based less on hallowed principle than on perpetual catching up to where the larger culture happens to be at any moment. I want to honour those good intentions, because in many respects I can see in these evangelicals something of myself more than four decades ago. But this is why we need to exercise our powers of discernment. We need to understand where the logic of our positions will take us as we look into the future. If we think that the only way to combat oppression is through asserting the expansive self at the expense of what might be legitimate constraints, we would do well to weigh in the balance where past movements for liberation have taken the relevant societies.
Using Richard Niebuhr’s categories, the initial progressive evangelical impetus of the 1970s had an anabaptist flavour, thereby exemplifying “Christ against culture.” But Its 2010s descendant much more resembles “Christ of culture.” Odd that something that initially sounded counter-cultural could become its opposite in so short a time.
“Using Richard Niebuhr’s categories, the initial progressive evangelical impetus of the 1970s had an anabaptist flavour, thereby exemplifying “Christ against culture.” But Its 2010s descendant much more resembles “Christ of culture.” Odd that something that initially sounded counter-cultural could become its opposite in so short a time.”
Just so. As one who has been around long enough, it has been a bit dizzying.
I question the utility of this analysis. Sure, it does describe a certain narrow set of evangelicals (or former evangelicals) who have a media presence, and whose objections to traditional (post-WWII) evangelicalism lies in its failure to live up to the standards of secular progressive politics.
Even so, many of us who reject progressivism find ourselves often agreeing with these progressives’ critiques of traditional evangelicalism. That’s especially true for those of us who hold to a more robust doctrine of Reformed Christian liberty, and who, for that reason, take exception to the elevation of godly wisdom to the level of Christian norms.
For example, many of us hold to what would generally be called a pro-choice view of abortion, for reasons similar to those expressed in Paul Woolley’s minority report opposing the OPC’s condemnation of legalized abortion. We acknowledge that elective abortion generally represents an imprudent decision. Even so, we hesitate to confer onto the government, or onto corruptible church leaders, the authority to proscribe such imprudence, especially given that the biblical witness is rather ambiguous (or mostly silent) on the value to be attributed to prenatal life.
I would arrive at much the same conclusion on the other social issues that seem to define what it means to be an evangelical today: women’s ordination to leadership positions, and the propriety of committed same-sex relationships. In both instances, the biblical case for a per se prohibition is remarkably thin. That doesn’t mean that we must accept feminist or LGBTQ ideology in the terms presented to us by the secular intelligentsia. But female leadership is not coterminous with feminism, and neither are committed same-sex relationships coterminous with LGBTQ ideology. So, in insisting on a per se prohibition of these things, I fear that we are granting more authority to church leaders over the free consciences of individual believers than Scripture warrants.
My objection to people like Al Mohler and Mark Dever is the same as my objection to Jonathan Merritt and Rachel Held Evans. They are authoritarians who have too little respect for the free consciences of the individual believer—free consciences of the sort that led Martin Luther to declare “Here I stand” before the Diet of Worms. But this article seems to suggest implicitly that we must make some kind of Faustian bargain between the authoritarianism of progressive evangelicals and the authoritarianism of conservative evangelicals. I reject that bargain.
Yes, there are some principles that are so unambiguously central to the Christian faith that their rejection places one outside of the realm of orthodoxy. But one’s views on ephemeral issues like abortion, women in leadership, and same-sex coupling are not of that sort. Sure, one can hold to views on those matters in such a way that it implicitly rejects central tenets of the Gospel. But that hardly precludes that one may hold to views in another way that, though reflecting a minority position within evangelical communions, do not undercut Christian orthodoxy. There is a grave tendency within evangelicalism for leaders to infantilize believers in their congregations. This is a grave danger. There is nothing in this world more inviolable than the free conscience of the individual Christian believer. And while consciences can be corrupted at times, they are no more (and probably less) prone to corruption than those of church leaders. In fact, as CS Lewis notes well, it can often be far better to endure rule by a robber baron than rule by one who believes that his actions are condoned by the Almighty.
Al that to say that, yes, progressivism is a concern. But it’s no more of a concern than conservatism. The church has no more business binding the conscience of the individual believer on the particulars of how best to address racial injustice than on how best to address the rampant sexual promiscuity that often leads to the high number of elective abortions in our country.