Back in April when Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg threw stones at “the Mike Pences of the world” for their historic Christian beliefs about marriage, sexuality and sin, he drew rapt attention from the news media. He also raised the visibility of a religious movement that claims the term Christian but denies the full authority of Scripture on which “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, NKJV) is based.
Buttigieg’s “progressive Christianity” allows him to claim a commitment to the faith that Jesus Christ taught in the Gospels and still remain married to his male partner.
The distortion of God’s Word is the root of all unfaithfulness, says R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s a sin that began in the Garden of Eden and continues as a temptation for all believers, Mohler notes.
At the CNN Town Hall where Buttigieg described Pence’s beliefs as a “kind of social extremism” focused on “sexuality and rectitude,” he also served notice to faithful evangelicals about the choice the political and social left has forced upon them: either affirm the new sexuality embodied in the LGBTQ movement, or affirm the full authority of Scripture and be anathema in the postmodern culture.
Mohler told Decision that as tempting as it is for otherwise Biblically faithful Christians to seek “middle ground” with the prevailing culture’s moral positions—most notably on sexual ethics—such a notion is incongruent with a faithful reading of Scripture.
“I have made the argument that everybody’s opinion on these matters is going to be known,” Mohler says. “It may be when you run for office. It may be when you move into the dorm. It may be when a new neighbor walks in and you end up in conversation. But the point is, there’s nowhere to hide on these issues. There are a lot of Christians who are trying to hide in the tall grass, and that’s not going to work.”
Buttigieg and other progressives aren’t hiding anywhere. Their goal, judging by each successive news cycle, appears aimed at driving Biblical Christianity to the outer margins of society.
In the previous century, old-line theological liberalism was mostly tailored toward elites, Mohler says, where it metastasized in mainline Protestant denominations. Today, the new liberalism under the “progressive” banner is encroaching on more conservative churches amid a culture that paints Biblical values as oppressive and bigoted.
“Young Christians do not want to appear to be hateful,” Mohler says. “They do not want to appear to be uncool. And by the way, we do not want young Christians to be hateful or unwelcoming. But we can’t define those things on the world’s terms.”
The term progressive Christian represents a broad collection, ranging from moderates who claim belief in an “authoritative” Bible yet dismiss passages they deem as stumbling blocks, to liberals who barely believe in God.
The common thread among progressive Christians is not politics—despite much commonality with left-wing political views—but a postmodern theology that shuns certainty and celebrates mystery for its own sake. A belief statement at progressivechristianity.org, for example, speaks of finding “grace in the search for understanding,” and adds, “[we] believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes.”
Mark Tooley, a United Methodist lay leader and president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., has worked for several decades to bring renewal to a denomination that has nearly split over LGBTQ issues, as conservative African and Asian Methodists clash with delegates from liberal and progressive U.S. congregations.
Tooley says it’s not uncommon to find a progressive Christian, unlike their old-line liberal forebears, who affirms some of the miracles and even the Apostles’ Creed, yet denies full Biblical authority and Christian truth claims over other religions. Feelings and sentiment trump Scripture and reason.
“This is true for mainline Protestants, but also increasingly for many members of the post-evangelical left,” Tooley says.
There is also a tendency among religious progressives to loath Western civilization and the idea of American liberty as exceptional, Tooley notes. “Yet typically, they very much are themselves American exceptionalists,” he says. “They have a very extraordinary expectation of what America is and what it is expected to do. They expect Americans to be uniquely altruistic and self-denying, unlike any other societies in the world.”
Michael Brown, host of the syndicated “Line of Fire” radio program and president of the FIRE School of Ministry in Concord, North Carolina, says the progressive version of Christianity essentially becomes a different gospel. Many young people are attracted to its social justice emphasis because they see real prejudices and biases and “they have a heart of solidarity for those who seem marginalized and outcast.”
“That’s a positive,” Brown says. “The negative is that they are often throwing out the baby with the bath water. They are forgetting the real liberating truths of the Gospel. And in many cases the biggest problem is that we haven’t been preaching a really strong Gospel message in our churches for years.”
One antidote to such departures from Christian faithfulness, Brown says, is for Christians to be countercultural in a world where the current is pulling powerfully away from Scripture.
Amid enormous cultural pressure, Mohler fears faithful Christians may eventually find themselves deemed to be as subversive as the early Christians were in Rome.
“These are issues in which there is no middle ground,” Mohler says. “There’s no middle ground between affirming and denying the bodily resurrection of Christ. There’s also no middle ground between defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman and saying it can be something else. … So Christians are going to have to answer with the full measure of conviction, or they’re just on a slower track than some others to denying the faith.”