Alastair Roberts has a very good post about progressive evangelicals. I’ll address his initial arguments in a second post, but I think his best contribution to the ongoing dialogue about the church can be found in the comments section. In response to a reader of his blog, Roberts offers seven questions for progressive evangelicals to answer, and I think they warrant serious consideration:
1. Are you a member of a church?
I’ll start off by saying that I may not be the best representative of progressive evangelicalism (readers of my blog know that I loathe the word “progressive,” but I’ll roll with it here for clarity’s sake.)
I have not fully embraced progressive theology, although I identify with the movement. My answer would be: technically I still am a member of an evangelical church. I have told the leadership of my church that I would go back in a heartbeat if the church reset its priorities, and I have asked them to keep me on their membership roles because I have not given up on the possibility of returning. However, I am currently not attending a church because the transformations that have troubled me are not exclusive to my church.
That said, I agree with his underlying assumption: Christians should worship together within a church context. Despite arguments that the Bible never says anything about establishing the modern church as we know it, there is no better model for congregating together and worshipping together.
2. Do you identify with the teaching position of your church?
Yes and no. Whenever I look at an evangelical church’s faith statement (which can be found on most church websites), I find myself agreeing with all of their points except for two. While I agree with the evangelical position that the Bible is divinely inspired, I know from experience that most evangelicals equate divine inspiration with creationism, patriarchy, and so on.
In a sense it’s like reading the Constitution. Both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg read the Constitution and agree with it, but they interpret its meaning in radically different ways.
The second issue I disagree with is eschatology. To be fair, many evangelical churches leave eschatology (i.e. how they interpret the book of Revelation and End Times theology) out of their faith statements, and many more consider it a minor point. That’s a big reason why I have no problem with churches who subscribe to premillennialism, provided their position doesn’t spill over into political nonsense like trying to guess who the Antichrist is or using the End Times as an argument against global warming.
3. Has the vast majority of your spiritual formation occurred within this movement?
I assume that Roberts is asking whether my spiritual formation took place within traditional evangelicalism. And the bottom line is yes, almost all of my formation took place within an evangelical context. As my ongoing autobiographical series illustrates, even when I attended mainline churches, my spiritual formation took place through conservative evangelical organizations. But I’ve never experienced the before-and-after transformation that most progressive evangelicals experience. I never left conservative evangelicalism behind because I’ve always been a progressive evangelical.
4. Who are the leading figures in your movement and where did their primary spiritual formation occur?
That’s difficult to answer, and I think this illustrates Roberts’ strongest point in his original post. Progressive evangelicalism lacks leaders, and the nature of American progressivism in general is that it loathes leaders. (The Occupy Wall Street movement is classic example of a progressive movement that failed because it took pains not to establish structure or leadership.)
My list of leading figures are a hodgepodge of authors and theologians: Augustine, Luther, John Wesley, Reinhold Neibuhr, Dallas Willard, John Stott, Karen Armstrong, Peter Enns, and Elaine Pagels. Obviously many of these people espouse theologies that are diametrically opposed to one other, and this illustrates my own theological quirks.
5. Did you move to your current church context or community from a different theological context?
No. My flirtations with the Methodist and Episcopalian churches were made within an evangelical context.
6. Do most of your peers in your context share your theological persuasions?
No, and that’s my eternal predicament. I can find enough common ground with evangelicals of any persuasion that I can comfortably converse and worship with them, and if we never diverge from our common ground, people can and do assume I am “one of them.” But the areas I disagree on are drastic. I’ve often thought that I was born a hundred years too late. Back in the early 1900’s there was a large socialist and civil rights movement within the evangelical church, and had I lived at that time I would likely have found many more kindred spirits.
7. To what extent does your experience mirror that of your peers who share your position?
My biography has very little in common with the progressives I’ve encountered online. I’m on their side regarding the changes they want to see take place within the church as well as their political positions, but I’ve lived my whole life knowing that I would have to suppress a large number of my core beliefs no matter what church I choose to worship with. Liberal churches loathe exclusivism and my passion for the great Commission, while conservatives loathe feminism, evolution, and a historical reading of scripture.