How ‘Progressive’ Can a Christian Get?
We have a question today from a listener named David: How progressive can a progressive Christian get? Here’s what he asks: “Dear Pastor John, thank you for this podcast. I have a colleague who would define himself as a ‘progressive Christian.’ He believes homosexual practice is holy, and people engaged in such acts are qualified to be leaders in the church. He also believes the Old Testament is completely metaphorical and cannot be trusted in any historical way. I believe both beliefs fly against what the Bible teaches and teaches about itself. My question is this: Can you contradict the Bible at these levels and still be considered a Christian? I know it’s impossible to have an infallible understanding of the whole Bible and that we will err in many ways. I’m sure I do! But also, isn’t there a line that cannot and must not be crossed? How ‘progressively Christian’ can a real Christian get?”
So let me think out loud with you for just a moment about a couple of the words used in this question, and then I’ll get right to giving as clear and biblical an answer as I can.
Progressing vs. Abiding
Let’s take the word progressive. The reason this word has come to refer to people and views that go beyond what has historically been considered true to the Bible is not because the idea of progress is bad in itself. All of us want to see progress toward truth and goodness and beauty. And the reason the word progressive has taken on the meaning it has is because it has come to imply a progress away from the truth and toward error, progress away from biblical holiness toward immorality.
And here’s a really interesting and, I think, significant thing — namely, that the idea of progressiveness is in the Bible; even the word and the idea are in the Bible. I didn’t know this until a few years ago when I was trying to do a careful translation of 2 John. So here’s 2 John 1:7–9:
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God.
Now, the Greek behind “goes on ahead” is proagō. So, you could translate it: “everyone who progresses,” or you could say, to bring it right up to date, “Everyone who is progressive and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God.” So here is a use of the word progress or going on ahead in the sense of leaving true teaching behind. In other words, a person can forsake the Christian faith, not just by swerving to the right or to the left, but by going ahead, straight ahead, and leaving behind the truth and grasping for things that are coming — things that do not fit with the “faith . . . once for all delivered to the saints,” though they may fit the spirit of the age (Jude 3).
So we have a yellow flag waving — I suppose I should say a red flag waving — in the Bible: beware, beware of those who get frustrated with abiding, standing firm. You could stick in the word “conserving,” and then you’ve got the political polls. But let’s just stay with the Bible words: abiding, standing firm in the teaching of Christ, holding fast to old sure truth. The alternative is that people get restless with the old and the firm and the true, and they want change. And they want newness, especially change that fits the spirit of the times.
Now, of course, lots of non-essential things need change from age to age and culture to culture. That’s not at issue here. But lots of essential things do not need to change and must not change if we are to be faithful Christians.
Fruit of the Heart
Now, the second word that I wanted to make a comment about is the word considered in his question. David asks, “Can you contradict the Bible at these levels [that he itemized] and still be considered a Christian?” That’s a good way to ask the question. He didn’t say, “Can you contradict the Bible at these levels and be a Christian?” Now the answer to that question is more complicated because the person might be on the brink of repenting from a temporarily destructive, unbiblical, heretical view, and we can’t see it. He might have dipped into it, been gripped by it, be on the brink of repentance, come out of it, and prove to be a long-term, great Christian. And we can’t see any of that. Only God can see things like that.
Our job in the church is not to make final, decisive, infallible decisions about who is truly born again and who isn’t. Our job is to decide who should be considered a Christian — that is, who should belong to the visible church — and who should be disciplined or excommunicated from the visible church. And we make these decisions, not because we’re God, but because we are called to form judgments on the basis of what we can see, and what we can hear, and what we know in the Bible. God looks on the heart; we look on the fruit of the heart — namely, what a person believes and how a person acts.
“God looks on the heart; we look on the fruit of the heart — namely, what a person believes and how a person acts.”
So with those two clarifications of progressive and considered, my answer to the question is this: yes, there is a line that a person may cross that puts him in a position of rightly being considered a non-Christian, having once professed to be a Christian, because of some unrepentant behavior or some belief that the Bible itself shows to undermine salvation.
Time to Walk Out
Let’s just take one of David’s examples. He says that his colleague believes homosexual practice is holy, and people engaged in such acts are qualified to be leaders in the church. So there are two questions here. One is whether practicing homosexual acts without repentance puts one in a position where he should be considered a non-Christian. And the other is whether a person who celebrates that homosexual practice as good and pleasing to God, who may not himself practice, should be considered a Christian.
A little anecdote: In June of 2002, the synod of the Anglican diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, Canada, authorized its bishop to produce a service for blessing same-sex unions. J.I. Packer, who has gone to be with the Lord now, a longtime member of that church, that denomination, walked out. He walked out. This is hard to imagine. This is a gentleman to the max, right? You’ve spent a lot of time with Packer, Tony, and I don’t know if it’s easy for you, but it’s not easy for me to imagine J.I. Packer standing up and, in rejection of something so serious, actually walking out.
So here’s what he wrote in January of 2003, and the title of the article in Christianity Today is “Why I Walked”:
Why did I walk out with the others? Because this decision, taken in its context, falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth.
Now, why did he say that blessing homosexual unions falsifies the gospel? That’s probably the most serious of the four. Because of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. (He explained in the article, but I’ll just put my own words here.) The text says,
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
“When you celebrate the very behaviors that keep a person out of the kingdom of God, you are anti-gospel.”
Now, the gospel of Jesus — the death of Jesus for sinners — is meant to rescue people for the kingdom of God, not keep them out of the kingdom of God. Therefore, when you celebrate the very behaviors that keep a person out of the kingdom of God, you are anti-gospel; you are pointing people into the very sin that Jesus died to rescue the people from. This is a falsification of the gospel. It is saying, “Jesus did not die for this. It doesn’t need to be died for. It’s beautiful. It’s not damning.”
Souls in Jeopardy
So, my conclusion is that both the person who persistently and unrepentantly carries on with adultery, theft, greed, homosexual practice, and so on, and the person who celebrates that person’s self-destructive course should not be considered Christians; that is, they should be disciplined by the church. They should be excluded from the visible church in the hope that the seriousness of that act would bring them to their senses and restore them to Christ and to fellowship.
So one principle, then, I close with. One principle for decisions about which beliefs and which behaviors are in this category of seriousness is whether there is biblical evidence that they actually undermine the gospel. The closer they get to jeopardizing souls in this way, the more fitting it is that their advocate should be considered non-Christian.