There is much to like in The Center for Progressive Christianity’s(TCPC) fourth point of self-description. Sort of like a cake recipe with many of your favorite ingredients, except that it also contains rat poison.
Here is their main declaration: “We are Christians who invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable.” The goal of inviting all people to participate in the life of Christ is a good thing. In terms of not forcing outsiders, visitors, and guests to conform to our style of dress, cultural customs, beliefs and tastes, in order to share the life of Christ, this also is a good thing. It is a salutary reminder that “becoming like us” is not what Christianity is all about — unless we are focused on becoming like Christ….In at least three places, Paul urges his readers to “be imitators of me, even as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1; see also Phil 3:17; 1 Cor 4:16). Hebrews 6:12 urges those in the community not to be sluggish, “…but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Ephesians 5:1 goes so far as to command us, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.”
The point of all these commands is that there are certain beliefs and practices which must characterize the people of God. Likewise, there are many beliefs and practices which the community of Christ must avoid. Everyone knows this, but in their zeal to change the rules to normalize LGBT beliefs and practices as well as to create a universal “brotherhood of man” (to use the old liberal language), progressives avoid any specifics except the vague, undefined values of love and acceptance.
In the explication section under Point 4, TCPC reminds us of the now laughable way that 19th C. missionaries used to not only preach the gospel to non-Westerners but also Western cultural values, insisting “… that their converts around the Pacific Rim dress in the European fashion and sing western tunes accompanied by portable organs.” We have come a long way in the world of missiology by recognizing that while the gospel is always expressed in cultural forms, the cultural forms themselves are not the essence of the gospel. In every new cultural setting the gospel must find its truest expression so that those immersed in that culture can grasp the gospel most fully. This is part of what it means to believe in incarnational ministry. We can all agree, I hope, that the goal of missions is not to change people’s style of dress or grooming or diet or language or culture. But would a progressive Christian missionary (should there be such a person) not tell a tribe of cannibals that it is wrong to kill and eat other human beings? Or polygamists that they must have only one wife? Or those who believe in patriarchal dominance that it is wrong to treat wives, children and slaves as property? Are there not certain beliefs and practices which are endemic to a Christian worldview? And many others which are antithetical? That is what we mean by righteousness over against sin, and universal truth over against falsehood. Liberals know this as well as anyone else, but conveniently mask it because they want to substitute a different worldview for that presented in the Bible.
The smokescreens are found in the terms “become like us” and “acceptable.” Progressives are tilting at windmills rather than dealing with the substantive truths of Scripture. Evangelicals recognize that it is a natural human temptation to gather in closed societies with other like-minded people (even progressives are guilty of this), and that the gospel calls us to reach out to embrace all who wish to come to Christ regardless of ethnicity, gender or social position (just as Paul says in Galatians 3:28 — In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female). The key words in Paul’s understanding are: “For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What makes us acceptable as full participants in the community of faith is that we are in Christ Jesus. What we strive for in welcoming others into the family is not that they become more like us in our idiosyncracies but more like Christ in his perfections. N. T. Wright puts it well in his commentary on Romans, “God accepts us where we are, but God does not intend to leave us where we are… The radical inclusivity of the gospel must be matched by the radical exclusivity of Christian holiness.”
Progressives recoil not only from “Christian” attempts to make surfer dudes into respectable 3-piece business suit Presbyterian elder types, but from making agnostics into theists, monists into dualists, adulterers into monogamists, blasphemers of Christ into worshipers of the Son of God, those pursuing sexual deviancy into those pursuing sexual purity, and so on. All in the name of acceptance and love. But where are God’s standards of truth and holiness in all this? Apparently thrown to the wind. Progressives want to form a community in the name of God that strangely refuses to invite God to the party. I seem to remember Dostoevsky writing somewhere, “If God is dead, then all things are permitted.” Progressive Point 4 sure seems to move us in that direction.
You may think this over-dramatic. Let me share with you the last part of Point 4, which describes some of the “all” who are invited to be full-fledged participants in the church:
“(including but not limited to):
believers and agnostics,
conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
women and men,
those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
those of all races and cultures,
those of all classes and abilities,
those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope,
without imposing on them the necessity of becoming like us.”
The beatific vision of progressive Christians seems to be that we can all be one happy family if we just do away with those pesky biblical beliefs in a trinitarian God and His moral commands. Live and let live. Believers are welcome just as much as unbelievers, flaming homosexual activists as much as uptight fundamentalist heterosexuals, pantheists as much as monotheists, polluters as much as eco-terrorists, tyrants as well as peasants, scam artists as well as their victims, serial rapists and murderers as well as upright citizens (well, maybe not this last comparison).
Hear me carefully. It’s not that all these groupings are welcome to respond to Christ and seek his transformation to a life of holiness; it’s that they are welcome to be full-fledged participants in the life of the community just as they are without our imposing on them any need to change! This is how the TCPC website puts it:
“Here we are inviting all sorts of different people to join us as “full partners” in the common life of our churches, without imposing on them that they become like us or even try and act like us. In a sense we are being called to “affirm those who might be different from ourselves, just the way they are.”” Or again,
“From our reading of the gospels, we have come to the conclusion that the followers of Jesus are to welcome all people without imposing on them the necessity of changing their attitudes, their culture, their understanding of the faith, or their sexual orientation.”
In this matter, progressives suffer from a truncated understanding of the gospel. They rally around Jesus’ declaration of acceptance to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” But they fail to read the next sentence calling for repentance and transformation, “Go and sin no more.”
The church must always reject social exclusivism — the idea that we will allow into our midst only those who are like us in our superficial customs and mores. But the church must always embrace biblical-moral exclusivism — the belief that God’s Word calls us to a well-defined life of holiness whose parameters we can’t tamper with. All who embrace this vision from the Bible are welcomed to full participation in the life of Christ’s community. But those who reject it, or who are not sure they want to claim it, exclude themselves from the right to tell the people of God how we are to live and glorify God.
While I’m at it, let me offer one last question concerning the logic behind this progressive principle that the church must be willing to listen to and even amend its beliefs and practices to accommodate outsiders. This is how the TCPC website puts it: we ought to “…create a place that welcomes the stranger into “full partnership,” where we are willing to share ideas, decision-making, risks and adapt to the needs and tastes of others in our common life.” Suppose, hypothetically, that the progressive Presbyterian movement succeeds in its vision of transforming the PCUSA into mirror of our culture, embracing the homosexualist agenda in the name of egalitarianism and a liberal theology that could offend no one except those with orthodox leanings. Suppose as well for the sake of argument that as a result within a decade the membership of this now progressive Presbyterian denomination had dwindled from 2 million to 250,000 members. And suppose again just for fun that in 2020 a group of 500,000 evangelical Presbyterians (not part of the progressive PCUSA) decided in the name of reformation that they wanted to join the progressive denomination but retain their evangelical beliefs and practices and to seek to bring changes to the culture of the dwindling denomination. According to this Progressive Point 4, the denomination would welcome this supermajority into its midst and be most willing to change, adapt and welcome into “full partnership” the evangelicals who would want to steer a new course for the PCUSA. Do you really think progressives would act consistently with Point 4 in such a scenario? I don’t either.
Which points out that the call to acceptance and inclusivity is valid only as long as those wanting in are part of the progressive mindset. To this new utopia of liberal Christian community all are welcomed — except those committed to biblical orthodoxy. How sad — the exclusivism of Jesus Christ as the center of all life is itself excluded! Because of that, this new vision of utopia, as all past ones, is doomed to failure.