My Concerns about the PCUSA and the Emergent/Progressive Christian Movement (version 1.4 now version 1.6) Postscript added
In brief, the areas of concern I have are:
1. “Love wins” and holiness of God
2. The question of Israel
3. Same-Sex Marriage
4. Emphasis of the gospels over other portions of Scripture
5. Leftward political activism
6. Emphasis on the already over the not yet in regards to the Kingdom.
In practical reality, people experience an area or two of difference with any given church, denomination, or movement as acceptable and normal. However, when the dissonant issues becomes numerous it becomes necessary to consider dissolving the association and declaring the reasons for doing so.
1. God’s grace is greater than our sins.
2. God has chosen to use the church as a vehicle of spreading the good news of grace to the world.
3. God’s grace is greater than the church’s history of theological confusion and ethical failures.
4. Yet, we can be assured that God knows his own (Matthew 7:21-23, John 10:14) despite our shortcomings.
5. The churches in America are not privileged by their existence in the twenty-first century or its location from theological confusion and ethical failures.
6. American trends are not necessarily best but it is the setting I am in.
7. New is not necessarily an improvement upon the old and old is not automatically correct.
8. There are some things we can know from God and many things we cannot (Deuteronomy 29:29).
9. Of what has been revealed, some are clear and some in dispute.
10. Though I am not trained in the theological arts or the original languages of the Scriptures, like a good juror, I must seek to evaluate the available data provided by experts, and render a decision and live and believe accordingly.
11. Though labels are imperfect, there is a divide in the American church between “evangelicals” and “emergent/progressive” Christians.
12. The Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) exemplifies this division with its legacy within evangelical Christianity and its increasing association with progressive Christianity(ii).
13. Progressive/emergent Christianity has much commendable youthful energy, cultural awareness, creativity, artistic talent, high comfort level to engage intellectual/academic ideas, and commitment to action and compassion.
14. Nonetheless, there are issues of concern to this evangelical Christian.
15. Thus, I seek “Clarity over agreement(iii).”
“Love wins” and the holiness of God
1. There is no question that the Love of God is an important theme in Scripture (see John 3:16, Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:8).
2. However, has there become an imbalance on this emphasis to the detriment of the holiness of God (Isaiah 6:3, 1 Peter 1:15-16)?
3. A case study on this issue is the PCUSA removal of the song “In Christ Alone” from its recent edition of the hymnal(iv).
4. The reason for its removal was the copyright holders unwillingness to change “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified” as requested by the hymnal editors(v).
5. One can honestly debate theologically whether God’s wrath is satisfied at the Cross or at some other point in the arc of God’s story with humanity as the specifics of atonement theology is complex(vi).
6. The “disappearance” of wrath and notions of substitution of penalty is a recently development in the PCUSA.
7. The concepts of God’s holiness and justice within the atonement are of long standing in most Christian theological traditions and is evident even as recently as the PCUSA Confession of 1967 that states the following: God's reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd's life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of a debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God's love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God's reconciling work(vii).
8. C1967 rightly notes the variegated images describing the work of Christ yet the PCUSA and the broader progressive Christian movement is removing or diminishing this facet.
9. Removal of a notable contemporary hymn whether justified on not is emblematic of this broader theological trend.
10. As I see it, the potential danger of diminishing the holiness, justice, and wrath aspect of God’s character is moral relativism.
11. Another possible consequence is a drift towards a works-based spirituality if our sins are diminished raising the merit of our works.
12. Evangelical Christians must acknowledge the risk of Pharisaic self-righteousness.
13. However, Progressive Christians must acknowledge the risk of moral relativism and Pharisaic self-righteousness judgment against Evangelical Christians.
The Question of Israel
1. The PCUSA has gained a reputation for its pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel positions.
2. Many possible reasons could result in these views.
3. These stances could be based on theological perspectives that diminish Israel in distinction to a more robust view of Israel held by some evangelical Christians(viii).
4. Another possibility is the high value placed upon social justice that is defined by the nature of power-relationships.
5. The excusing of Palestinian anti-Semitism by progressive Christianity is inconsistent to stated concerns for social justice and a form of anti-Semitism.
6. An un-willingness to confront radical Islamic terrorism is inconsistent to stated concerns for social justice and could be another form of anti-Semitism.
7. Because of the long and dismal history of Christian anti-Semitism, I urge more caution in regards to Israel on the part of Progressive Christians.
1. Society at-large is not obligated to follow traditional Christian teachings on this subject and the democratic process will define this issue in a legal context shortly.
2. Within the Christian community, we must honestly and fully confess our failures in this area in regards to how we treat the individuals affected and how we discuss the topic and commit to greater compassion.
3. Christians are divided on this matter.
4. The Gay Christian Network has succinctly defined this division with the terms “side A” and “side B(ix).”
5. Side A supports gay Christian marriage.
6. Side B encourages gay Christians to remain celibate.
7. Progressive Christians (majority?) and the PCUSA (mostly?) are Side A.
8. (version 1.6) The drift of the PCUSA is stunning considering the PCUSA Confession of 1967 that states disorder in marriage (in man/woman terms) and human sexual relationships in general is part of the human condition that needs reconciliation. Excerpt: The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God's ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of man's alienation from God, his neighbor, and himself. Man's perennial confusion about the meaning of sex has been aggravated in our day by the availability of new means for birth control and the treatment of infection, by the pressures of urbanization, by the exploitation of sexual symbols in mass communication, and by world overpopulation. The church, as the household of God, is called to lead men out of this alienation into the responsible freedom of the new life in Christ. Reconciled to God, each person has joy in and respect for his own humanity and that of other persons; a man and woman are enabled to marry, to commit themselves to a mutually shared life, and to respond to each other in sensitive and lifelong concern; parents receive the grace to care for children in love and to nurture their individuality. The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by man when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.
9. There are two possible reasons to support the Side A position both of which I have strong reservations about.
10. One can offer different interpretations of pertinent passages in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1.
11. The other is to diminish the role of Scripture as a source of authority to guide faith and practice continuing a trend to undermine the value of Scripture on all issues.
12. Progressive Christians should be transparent about which of the two reasons are being used to justify their Side A position.
13. (version 1.6) An example is Luke Timothy Johnson who agrees with the classic interpretations of the pertinent passages but also explicitly states they are not authoritative.
14. Labeling Side B supporters as bigoted, homophobic, and ignorant is not helpful.
15. A house divided against it self cannot stand; thus, churches and denominations will eventually be predominantly side A or side B.
The unbalanced emphasis on the Gospels texts
1. Progressive Christians appear to prefer the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) with potential diminishment of the rest of Scripture.
2. I believe that all Scriptures are inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and provide a consistent message.
3. It is an article of faith that the Holy Spirit guided the early Church in the selection of and accurate preservation of the Scriptures we have on hand.
4. I am not clear what the potential dangers are in elevating the Gospels over other portions of Scripture but I offer a couple of possibilities.
5. In academic circles, skeptics of Christianity have described the Jesus of the Gospels in opposition to the Christ of the Epistles(x).
6. Thus, it is possible that elevating the Gospels could result in a lower Christology though high Christology is not absent it is not as abundant in the Gospels compared to the Epistles.
7. This four Gospel approach could diminish an appreciation for creeds (explicit statements of doctrine) as the more creedal descriptions of faith are found the Epistles.
8. Diminishing creeds has the potential risk of fueling post-modern skepticism that says things are hard to define and therefore holding minimal confidence in and significance of truth claims(xi).
(version 1.5 adds points 9-11 below)
9. Diminishing creeds disconnects our contemporary faith from its historic precedents.
10. Additionally, this preference of the Gospels over other parts of the Bible runs into the question of which approach we should take: a fixed text (historic canon) with vigorous conversations about interpretation or fixed interpretations and taking scissors to remove problematic texts.
11. The preference for the four Gospels (or other specific texts within the canon) to support a fixed set of interpretations combined with overlooking or removing problematic texts essentially makes our theological preferences the controlling authority and all the problems that entails.
Progressive Christianity and political activism
1. Progressive Christianity has been very closely identified with the political left.
2. This identification with the political left mirrors Evangelical Christians error of too closely identifying with the political right and should be avoided.
Eschatology – the already and the not yet
1. George Eldon Ladd popularizing of the idea of the Kingdom of God as “the already and the not yet” has provided a helpful perspective in understanding the Scriptural descriptions of the Kingdom in light of the realities of life in this fallen world.
2. “The kingdom of God is at hand” emphasis of Progressive Christianity is a strong and commendable motivator to action in seeking the peace and prosperity of the city (Jeremiah 29) and practical daily living (Matthew 5-7).
3. However, as in the case of other issues described above, an imbalance of emphasis has potential pitfalls.
4. Mark 2:1-12 highlights Jesus healing of the paralytic man but Jesus also used this occasion to announce his power to forgive sins.
5. Though “the kingdom of God is at hand” emphasis of Progressive Christianity to address material needs is welcome, a fulsome recognition that the King addresses the sins of individual human beings must not be neglected.
6. An overemphasis on the “not yet” aspect of the Kingdom has led to a “fire insurance” attitude of some within evangelical Christianity.
7. However neglecting the “not yet” aspect of the Kingdom leads to an under utilization of a resource for hope in this life (John 14, 1 Corinthians 15, Philippians 1, Philippians 3, 1 Thessalonians 4, Titus 2, Revelation, etc.).
1. "Birds of a feather flock together" and "let a thousand flowers bloom" in regards to the variety of forms and expressions of local outposts of Christ's church.
2. Associations with church and denominations are based on personal relationships but also an acceptance of theological distinctiveness.
3. Identifying and discussing distinctiveness is likely to be divisive but necessary.
4. Discussion for clarity with a charitable spirit would be an ideal to aim for.
John 17:16-26, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Lord, have mercy.
P.S. This blog post is picking up some visitors as the blogger.com interface says this item is being clicked on at a level higher than my various posts on soccer! Thank you to those who have read the piece. I hope I was able to share in a way that was clear but without excess. My situation is probably not unusual in that I have appreciation for some of the matters progressive/emergent Christians have brought to the wider church's attention and great personal affection for individuals within this tribe. I'm also quite aware of some of the successes and indeed excesses of the evangelical tribe of the church in the USA. There are certainly people who feel very strongly in both tribes and I hope I've avoided the rancor that precludes conversation. My hope is to have clarity on what the issues are. We may find we have more or less differences and if we can reach that level of understanding then maybe this post has been worthwhile. To the extent readers are willing, would welcome comments. In particular, I'm interested as to what your circumstances are that prompt your search and thus finding of this item.
(i) Though the labels “evangelical,” “progressive,” and “emergent” resist precise definitions; individuals within the conversation generally have little difficulty self-identifying their perspective.
(ii) Many denominations have to varying degrees of affinity for Progressive Christianity and some Progressive Christians would hesitate to identify with any denominations.
(iii) A premise of the work of Jewish writer and radio host Dennis Prager.
(vii) http://www.creeds.net/reformed/conf67.htm emphasis mine
(viii) Support of Israel can be derived without a "dispensational theology" (held by some but not all evangelicals) that proposes a specific role for Israel as a nation.
(x) Historically, a widely accepted example of high Christology would be the Nicene Creed.
(xi) Creeds represent good faith attempts to put into words the truths we hold and as such they, in "scientific" terms, serve as working hypotheses.