One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain-fields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, "Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" Jesus answered them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions." Then Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
Jesus, Luke 6:1-5
I contend there are two basic approaches to Christianity, conservative and progressive, and this is true for both Catholics and Protestants. However, before speaking to the differences, let’s begin by affirming what most Christians hold in common and agree upon....
....Let’s explore some of the differences between these two forms of Christianity. Conservative Christianity focuses on the religion about Jesus and getting people to agree with certain intellectual truth claims; for example, “people are sinners who aren’t right with God” and “Jesus is their personal Lord and savior;” and it asserts that “it’s important for people to believe these things here and now if they want to go to heaven when they die.” Conservative Christianity often has wariness about the insights of contemporary science. Instead it finds solace in established, definable boundaries, including who God is; who Jesus is; the Bible; and doctrines, beliefs, and stances on morality. Conservative Christianity emphasizes praising God and “evangelism” which, for them, basically means getting more people to become Christians who profess Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior and believe x, y, and z about him, ideally, everyone else on the planet.
Instead of getting people to agree with certain assertions about various dogmas, doctrines, or “truth claims,” progressive Christianity focuses more upon following a certain, radical way of life; namely, following the counter-cultural, subversive, and life-giving teachings and example of Jesus. The focus is more upon the religion of Jesus, his actual beliefs, teachings, practices, ways, and lifestyle, than on the religion about him. In other words, Progressive Christianity focuses more upon orthopraxy (right behavior, actions and relationship) and less upon orthodoxy (right doctrines and beliefs). This is not to say that progressive Christianity is not concerned about orthodoxy. It’s a matter of emphasis. Progressive Christians would rather go to their graves having done their best to live rightly and follow the teachings and example of Jesus, than to have “believed all the right things about Jesus,” but fail to demonstrate or live-out those beliefs. Progressive Christians prefer to hold various doctrines and beliefs loosely as they observe that it is extremely arrogant, and potentially idolatrous, for humans to think that any of our notions about God are without any degree of error.
Instead of seeking clear, black and white notions about God and theology, progressive Christianity not only tolerates, but also appreciates and embraces ambiguity, paradox, mystery, doubt, and questioning. It is quite comfortable with being stretched by and incorporating the insights of various theologies and contemporary science. Where conservative Christianity tends to emphasize people’s personal relationships with God, progressive Christianity remembers the Jewish (and Jesus’) understanding of salvation by additionally focusing upon the broader pursuits of inter-human hesed (“loving-kindness”) and the societal Kingdom of God and striving for personal wholeness and social peace, justice and liberation from bondage and oppression.
When it comes to personal relationships with God, conservative Christianity tends to focus upon conversion as attempting to “convict” people of their personal sins. Then getting them to repent of those personal sins and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Progressive Christianity tends to view conversion more as helping people shift away from their self-defeating tendencies to follow the domineering and oppressive ways of the world and away from false notions of who they are - and to instead follow Jesus’ alternative way of living. Jesus’ way is liberating, counter-cultural and subversive to the worldly powers that be. Progressive Christianity also places more stress upon sanctification - the maturation, growth, and moral and spiritual development of Christian believers, especially as a community of believers, with the primary goal being social holiness that is not limited to personal morality and piety. Finally, unlike conservative Christianity, progressive Christianity openly acknowledges that God works through other major world religions and that Christians can benefit by learning the truths and insights they offer.It should be said that many Christians, myself included, probably identify and resonate with certain aspects of both conservative and progressive approaches to the faith. I’ve come to lean more toward the progressive approach and I feel called to help restore the balance that is currently out of whack by helping more people to become aware of the progressive approach to Christianity. .....
...With those things in mind, this book operates with the following definition of Progressive Christianity - these are the beliefs and teachings that we “hold loosely” – though some looser than others (note, I’ll be explaining the terms used here as the book progresses):
Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal, post-modern influenced approach to the Christian faith that: proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as Christ, Savior, and Lord; emphasizes the Way and teachings of Jesus, not merely His person; emphasizes God’s immanence not merely God’s transcendence; leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism; emphasizes salvation here and now instead of primarily in heaven later; emphasizes being saved for robust, abundant/eternal life over being saved from hell; emphasizes the social/communal aspects of salvation instead of merely the personal; stresses social justice as integral to Christian discipleship; takes the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally, embracing a more interpretive, metaphorical understanding; emphasizes orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy (right actions over right beliefs); embraces reason as well as paradox and mystery – instead of blind allegiance to rigid doctrines and dogmas; does not consider homosexuality to be sinful; and doesn’t claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God (is non-exclusive).
We’ll explore what all of that means in the chapters ahead.
The basis for this book is the following chart that I created in 2002 when I was serving as a pastor at Heritage United Methodist Church in Littleton, CO. I offer it now to help the reader get an initial nutshell snapshot of the matters at hand.
Differing Emphases within Christianity:
- Note: these are merely differing emphases, not different religions,
and the following is admittedly a bit reductionistic and overstated in order to show distinctions.
(Most of us are a complicated mixture of both of these perspectives)
 A concept invented by evangelicals. Those words aren’t in the Bible, so the idea that all Christians need to believe it is highly problematic. I came across the following anonymous comment on the net re: how a Catholic might respond when an Evangelical asks them if they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior? “I always respond, "Of course!" This is followed by the question, "When did you accept Him?" (which is the question I was waiting for). I respond, "There was not a real single point in time, but it a continual process of accepting and renewal in Him and His will." The best set up response I have ever received was by a Baptist minister, his response was, "That's ridiculous, that's like saying you continually re-marry your wife." To which the response is, "Well, kind of. We continually renew our marriage vows!" - Many mainline Protestant and progressive Christians resonate with that perspective.
 As opposed to “about” Jesus. (see the previous paragraph).
 We do so following the lead of Jesus’ brother James when he wrote, But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. James 2:18
 For example, Genesis 19; 1 Samuel 5:16; 2 Samuel 9:1, 3, 7
 See footnote 33
 While progressive Christianity is an open-minded approach to the faith, it is not to be confused with, or equated to, Unitarian Universalism. Most U.U. congregations offer a “cafeteria/smorgasbord” approach to religion, effectively equating all religions, minimizing their differences, and encouraging people to pick and choose what they like from various traditions. Progressive Christians are intentional about following the specific religious vehicle of Christianity and going deeply into it. This said, many UU-ers will likely resonate with much that is said in this book. Progressive Christianity, despite its name, is not a “new approach” to the faith. Indeed, reading the Bible from a literal, fundamentalist manner, is instead what is a recent phenomenon for the faith; specifically, a modern era reactionary response to the rise of science, evolutionary theory, etc. Hence, what I’m calling “progressive Christianity” is what is actually conservative Christianity – but it’s probably too late to fight that battle over terms.