Explaining Progressive Christianity (Otherwise Known as “Christianity”)

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This past weekend as part of a church conference, I sat on a panel discussion on “Progressive Christianity”.

The host’s first request of the panelists was to describe what Progressive Christianity meant to them. My new friend, the Reverend Vince Anderson took the mic and said, “Let’s be clear: Progressive Christianity is just Christianity. We are Christians—and we are progressing in our knowledge and understanding.”

We could have stopped there.

This is the heart of what it should mean to be a Christian of any designation; the desire to continue to move and grow and learn and change, even if those things place us in opposition to the person we once were or the beliefs we once held firmly or the testimony we once gave. As we move through space and time, our faith should be in continual evolution. We should always look back at the previous version of ourselves and realize how much we didn’t know then. We should be able to see how far we’ve come in matters of spirituality.

Progressive Christianity is about not apologizing for what we become as we live this life and openly engage the faith we grew-up with. There are no sacred cows, only the relentless, sacred search for Truth. Tradition, dogma, and doctrine are all fair game, because all pass through the hands of flawed humanity, and as such are all equally vulnerable to the prejudices, fears, and biases of those it touched.

It’s fashionable for more Conservative folk to dismiss Progressive Christianity as some cheap imitation version of the Christian faith; a watered down religion of convenience practiced by people who found “real Christianity” too difficult or demanding. 

Progressive Christians know the truth of our story, and so these lazy caricatures are of little concern.
We know the authenticity of our faith.
We know the depth of our study.
We know the sincerity of our prayers.
We know the road we’ve traveled—and we’re grateful for it and proud of it.

The truth is that Progressive Christianity is so diverse that it simply cannot be neatly defined or summarized, but here are some things that most who claim the label probably agree on:

We believe that a God who is eternal, isn’t land locked to a 6,000 year-old collection of writings, unable to speak in real-time to those who seek. Revelation can come within and independent of the Bible.

We believe that God isn’t threatened or angered by our questions, our doubts, or our vacillation born out of authentic pursuit, even when those things are labeled heretical by other people. God is more secure than they are in who God is.

We believe that Christian tradition is embedded with thousands of years of misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, and that our task as Christians in these days is to remove those cumbersome layers and uncover the very essence of what it meant to follow Jesus.

We believe that in the Scriptural command to “watch one’s life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim 4:16), the former is as important as the latter; that faith isn’t only about what you believe, it’s about whether or not your life reflects what you profess to believe.

We believe that social justice is the heart of the Gospel, that it was the central work of Jesus as evidenced in his life and teachings; the checking of power, the healing of wounds, the care for the poor, the lifting of the marginalized, the feeding of the hungry, the making of peace.

But what is as notable as what Progressive Christians agree on—is all that we do not.

We differ widely with regard to the inerrancy of Scripture, the existence of Hell, intercessory prayer, salvation by atonement, abortion, the death penalty, and gun control. 

There is no party line to tow. We don’t all identify as Democrats or pacifists or socialists. We identify simply as followers of Jesus; carefully, thoughtfully, seriously seeking to understand more today than we did yesterday, and to live lives that as best we can discern, resemble Christ’s.

Progressive Christianity is not the path of least resistance, but often the road of greatest turbulence. It places us in the decided minority in the larger Church. It creates conflict in our families and faith communities. It costs us friends and ministries and holidays with loved ones. It brings silence and shunning and separation from those we once were welcomed by. It makes us feel like strangers and orphans in the religion we used to call home.

But these things are the worthy tax on living a fully authentic faith; one where we are confident that all that is not God will fall away as we walk. We are on a continual pilgrimage toward what it looks like to perpetuate Jesus, and we don’t distinguish our road from that of Christians who may be more Conservative or more secure in orthodoxy. It is the same road.

We are all Christians moving.
We are all Christians listening.
We are all Christians learning.
We are all Christians believing.

We are all Christians progressing.

 

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When All the Outcasts are Called in

outcasts

We’ve all known what it feels to be an outcast.

The sting of being pushed to the periphery by people we love and expect love from, is unlike any pain we can ever encounter, because it is injury at the exclusion, combined with the grief at what we’ve lost in the process—proximity. We remember what used to be, how we once felt, where we used to belong. We find ourselves alone and holding solitary vigil for what has died too soon.

The Church produces outcasts far too well.

It tends to create distance with those people who are too something; too messy, too loud, too rough-edged, too needy, too conservative, too left-leaning, too outspoken, too political. We force them from our presence, withhold fellowship from them, and deny forgiveness to them—all in the name of a Jesus who we’ve repeatedly told them loves them. The cognitive dissonance this creates in people is enough to level them, and to distort their image of God for good.

For all sorts of reasons, many of us have been made to feel we are misfits in the places where the people of God gather. A doubt we’ve expressed, a decision we’ve made, or a belief we no long hold, all become barriers. Sometimes this is explicitly stated, and other times it is eloquently spoken in silence and separation. Both are equally devastating and equally wrong.

Because I have good news for all of us religious misfits: Despite what we may have been told—we do fit.

All the outcasts are invited in. Jesus says so. That is the heart of the story. That is the Gospel.

The table of Jesus was scandalously open. He dined with priest and prostitute, with the religious elite and the common rabble, with the spiritual teachers and the street people. And this is the Jesus we are all invited to sit with; without condition, without caveat, without any further renovation. 

This elemental truth is so very easy to miss:

Sometimes pastors don’t get it.
Sometimes churches blow it.

Sometimes denominations miss it.
Sometimes it evades the heart of evangelists. 
Sometimes other Christians lose sight of it.
Sometimes we forget it.

But it is still the invitation. It is still the irreducible core of Christianity for those who wish to claim it: the radical hospitality of a perfect love that overcomes it all; our mess, our mistakes, our deepest flaws and most spectacular failures.

When a church or a heart has been fully saturated with the love of Jesus, there can be no outcasts in their midst. There will be no place to banish others to, because they will recognize there is no outside to be defined. When the Church or a Christian gets this kind of love right, the world is radically included. Everyone fits. They become in-casts.

This is what you need to know, friend.

Despite what any person says, or what any pastor’s told you, or what you’ve read online on—you have not been cast out, you have been called in:

to relationship,
to fellowship,
to forgiveness,

to love,
to grace.

The door is wide open and no one gets to keep you from entering in and having the run of the beautiful house; with its rooms packed floor to ceiling with goodness that you don’t have to earn or deserve or win.

The day you realize that is the day you’ll no longer wish you could find a home in your own skin—you’ll already be there.

 

Someone Mansplain To Me, What The Heck is Wrong With Men?)

Angry Man

Last week I read news stories about two different women, both sexually assaulted and murdered while jogging on consecutive days in different American cities.

Two radiant lives snuffed out in an instant.
Two grief-stricken families preparing to bury their daughters, sisters, and friends well before their time.
Two senseless wastes of beautiful humanity.

As I read the accounts of these seemingly random, violent attacks by apparent strangers, one question rose up and refused to be ignored. It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for most of my adult life:

What the heck is wrong with men, anyway?

The truth is, you can find stories like this every single day without even trying. If your eyes are at all open, it’s a fairly noticeable reality that there are vile, sickening things that as a general rule, women rarely if ever do:

They don’t lie in wait to sexually assault or kill strangers.
They don’t snap, and shoot up movie theaters and shopping malls and churches.
They don’t murder spouses and lovers when they try to leave a relationship.
They don’t commit random violence against LGBTQ people.
They don’t subject strangers who pass them on the street to disgusting catcalls.

Men do these things—with alarming regularity and proficiency.

Obviously we can find anecdotal incidents in each of these cases, but the fact remains that men have a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for violence and inflicting terror on others—one that women simply can’t touch. In fact we’d be hard pressed to find any examples of wide-scale or systematic malevolence to point to, on behalf of our sisters on this planet.

For the past twenty years as a pastor I’ve been trying to figure out why that is, and I don’t find testosterone and penises and a couple million years of caveman DNA to be compelling answers. I also don’t think that simply blaming Sin cuts it either, otherwise we’d share the load of such atrocities with women.

And oddly enough, even in the face of this clear disparity of decency, many in the Church still insist that women are the “weaker sex”.

Conservative strains of Christianity subscribe to a view known as Complementarianism, which assigns distinct roles and responsibilities in the world to both men and women. Proponents of this theory often use the Bible to justify denying women formal positions of leadership in the Church, as well as authority in the home.

Complementarianism tends to perpetuate many of the stereotypical, historical gender roles, that women should be submissive caretakers of the children and home, while men are to be the dominant, aggressive forces out there in the world. It has also formed the bedrock of the notoriously patriarchical Christian Church, used to excuse all manner of misogyny and sexism. It’s perpetuated the subjugation, abuse, and silencing of women for a few thousand years, all in the name of God. In the words of my wife, “In Complementarianism, a husband and wife are ‘equal’ until they have a disagreement—then the man is the tie-breaker. That’s not a tie-breaker!”

Not exactly equality.

Every day I see brilliant, passionate, faithful, gifted women leaders treated with such contempt and disregard by arrogant, intolerant men who claim to be Christian. I watch these guys dismiss their contributions and heap condescension upon them while using the Bible to do it. And the whole time I’m wondering why they can’t see the world that I see. I’m wondering why they don’t notice the mess we’ve made. I wonder what Jesus they’re taking a cue from.

Because ironically, the greatest argument against this elevated religious view of men—is men. We’ve created a historical body of work reprehensible enough to make Complementarianism laughable. If the abhorrent behavior of men is trying to make an argument for moral superiority, we ain’t looking’ that good, fellas. I think we need to make room at the table and the pulpit and the office, and realize that it’s been a long time coming and it’s a really good thing. 

I believe women should be pastors. (They in fact, already are).
I believe they should teach men in the Church.
I believe they should be Presidents.
I believe they should have greater influence on our political process.
I believe they should have equal pay for doing the work they do.
I believe women fully reflect the character of God.

I believe these things for many reasons, but primarily because there is a decency and compassion and goodness that they bring to the table that men have proven for whatever reason, we aren’t as capable of. We need the balance of their presence to temper the worst in us. In a way that transcends easy caricature, women seem less prone to violence, less vulnerable to ego, and more measured in the face of dispute—and this is sorely needed on the planet. 

I’m certainly not ashamed to be a man, but I can admit that we’ve really dropped the ball with this whole patriarchal civilization thing, that we’ve terribly imbalanced and could use a reboot. I want a less angry, less frightening, less violent world for my children.

Most of all, as a pastor, I want a Church that better reflects Jesus, and having more women stewarding its direction and shaping its future and guarding its heart is the only way there. 

Check out these amazing Christian pastors, speakers, and authors who happen to be women. They inspire, educate, challenge, and encourage me daily.

Listen to them. 

Nadia Bolz-Weber
Melissa Greene
Sarah Bessey
Phyllis Tickle
Anna Register
Glennon Doyle Melton 
Jory Micah
Kimberly Knight
Jennifer Dickenson
Sarabeth Caplin
Bec Cranford
Alicia Crosby
Cindy Brandt

Cynthia Andrews-Looper
Rachel Held Evans
Allyson Robinson
Charissa Grace

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Pastors, Stop Being a Barrier to Jesus

PersonAtWall

When people find out you’re a pastor, they have one of two responses. They either purposefully or unintentionally distance themselves, feeling they need to conceal the rough edges of their lives. Others move closer, trusting you with things they might not feel safe to share with even the people close to them. Emily is the latter.

I met Emily at a local restaurant here in Raleigh where she works and where I’m a devoted regular. Initially we exchanged the kind of surface level small talk many people share with acquaintances: the weather, vacation stories, stuff in the news. But slowly she began to mention struggles she was having, theological questions, even asking for specific prayer. Yesterday was different. In a pause in the conversation, she said “I do have something I want to talk to you about.”

I waited.

Emily had been raised in a Christian home, but as many people had done she’d slowly drifted from church attendance after leaving high school. She continued to have an active personal faith though; praying and reading on her own, but without meaningful spiritual community. This year she’d starting dating a guy named Ryan who’d grown up in the Catholic Church but had gradually discarded religion and had little interest in reconnecting to it when they met.

Their relationship over the past year has deepened and a few months ago Emily finally convinced Ryan to visit a large church nearby with her. They began attending services regularly, joined their young adult group, and have been meeting monthly with a pastor to talk about life and faith. The last couple of times we’d spoken I could see a different lightness in her. I noticed that lightness was gone as she shared her story with me.

This week Emily and her boyfriend told their pastor that they wanted to be baptized. They were excited to make a public declaration about their adult faith together.

“That’s going to be a problem.” he said “Our church won’t baptize you if you’re living together.”

They sat stunned. He continued on.

“I’m not saying you need to get married, and you’ll probably practically still be living together, but having Ryan move out will make a statement about your commitment to Jesus.”

Emily told the pastor of the financial hardships they’d both faced in recent years, and how sharing an apartment was something they each needed from a basic survival standpoint.

“Well, there are these residential hotels nearby where you can get a room for like, fifty dollars a week.” He was clearly not going to entertain their request without a change.

Emily and Ryan told the pastor they would talk about it and get back to him and quietly left the meeting.

Right now they’re devastated. Right now they feel judged. Right now they’re hurting.

Emily said to me, “This whole thing has changed how this all feels to me. Now I feel like a bad person. For Ryan, it’s kinda put the brakes on Church all over again.”

I imagine many of you out there believe this pastor did the right thing.

I disagree with you. I think Jesus does too.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ disciples scold a group of adults who bring their children to Jesus for blessing. Jesus reprimands them saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” He was reminding them that no one gets to give or deny access to Jesus.

Emily and Ryan are children trying to get to Jesus, and their pastor has become a hindrance.

Rather than celebrating their decision to publicly declare their faith together and to walk alongside them, he’s taken their cohabitation and made it a baptismal deal-breaker—and there’s absolutely no Biblical precedent for it.

This idea that people need to prove their commitment to Jesus to another human being is nonsense.

In the Book of Acts, the record of the early Church’s beginnings, the writer tells us of Peter speaking to the crowds, and of three thousand being baptized in a single day. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing these folks weren’t all screened for their living arrangements, sexual orientations, political affiliations, sexual activity, drug use, or any other qualifiers before getting consent.

Their belief and their desire to follow Jesus were the qualifiers.

Their faith gave them the consent of Jesus—which is the only one required.

No one was sitting in front of these folks giving them a list of conditions to meet in order to receive a love that was unconditional.

Emily and Ryan’s pastor told them they need to “make a statement about their commitment to Jesus”—yes, and it’s called Baptism. I imagine he feels quite justified in his stance. I’m sure I could find a hundred pastors in a five-mile radius who would agree with him, but I’m not interested in those pastors.

I see a different group of people. I see people like Emily and Ryan; imperfect people working and living and struggling, and trying to make it through the day and doing the very best they can.

I see them longing for spiritual community, moving toward Jesus, and needing someone to come alongside them and cheer them on. When a pastor, priest, church worker, or Christian peer decides that they can police another’s behavior or determine by their exterior lives whether or not they’re ready to be a Christian—they’ve made themselves God. They’ve made themselves gatekeepers of the Kingdom. They’ve compromised the whole system. 

Emily and Ryan don’t need to earn access to Jesus. They don’t need to deserve proximity to him.

You don’t either. 

Never believe that lie that your authenticity is anyone else’s business. 

Pastors, another person’s moral worth is not yours to determine. Your job isn’t to manage their behavior until you’re comfortable with it. It isn’t to make people jump through hoops in order to make your church feel righteous. It isn’t to sanitize the exterior of community until it looks pretty. Your job isn’t to screen people to determine their worthiness of Grace.

Your job is to set the table for people to meet with Jesus and to trust Jesus with the result.

Stop building walls and set the damn table.

Do not hinder the little children…

P.S. I told Emily and Ryan that I’d be honored to baptize them and that we could have a party at their apartment later to celebrate. I know Jesus will be there.

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