Why I am Progressive but Still Evangelical at Heart

I was raised fundamentalist. I was nurtured on the writings of John R. Rice and was significantly influenced by Jack Hyles, Carl McIntire, Lester Roloff, and Oliver Greene. Other than the Bible, The Sword of the Lord was my primary reading material. But I became Evangelical in 1970. There were many similarities between the two, of course, but there were important differences as well.

Part of my experience in fundamentalism was feeling at odds with the world—and even other Christians. Though I liked the kids at public school, and they accepted me, somehow I felt I didn’t quite fit. I was sure most of my teachers were hostile to Christianity, especially my science teacher–just because he taught science which was against God.

More broadly I felt, ‘This world is not my home; I’m just a passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.’ As a fundamentalist I felt isolated from the ‘world’ and the people around me.

The evangelical environment was similar but not as isolated; among some evangelicals there was dialog with others and less rigid judgmentalism. And as I learned more about evangelicalism I grew even more excited about it.

Dwight Lyman Moody

Dwight Lyman Moody

The Great Heritage of 19th Century Evangelicalism

The rich, dynamic evangelical movement of the late 19th century was born of the two great awakenings in America. The last third of 1800s was a time of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. It was the time of Dwight Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Phoebe Palmer, and A.B. Simpson. It was a time of taking Jesus seriously, following him personally, and engagement with the Bible. It was a time of personal commitment to spirituality, helping the needy, and sharing the good news of Jesus.

It was a time of openness to new ideas like divine healing, the Keswick movement, the Wesleyan Holiness movement—and even dispensationalism. Some elements of these new ideas turned out not to be very helpful, but they were all part of the embrace of the evangelical spirit.

However, toward the end of the century much of evangelicalism became calcified. They lost a good bit of their positive momentum as they increased their focus on what they considered attacks on the Bible from Europe—specifically evolution and critical biblical scholarship. As the furor intensified, many evangelicals coalesced around a number of doctrines they called ‘fundamentals’ and finally produced five (though not always the same five) that they considered absolutely fundamental to Christian faith.

In the 1920s, after failing to have these fundamentals adopted in their denominations, fundamentalist began to withdraw and form their own denominations rather than compromise with ‘liberal’ Christians. Not all evangelicals agreed; most remained in their denominations, but the vibrant evangelical movement lost its identity.

The separated evangelicals became the fundamentalists—narrow, negative, and isolated. They refused to dialog with outsiders or to coöperate with them in any way; they were antagonistic, judgmental, and preached against the ‘liberals’ and ‘compromisers’ instead.

This is the movement in which I was raised.

A Resurgence of Evangelicalism

A few decades later, a large number of fundamentalists became dissatisfied with this negative, isolated, and aggressive position, and a new evangelical movement was born. It was a time of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. It was the time of Billy Graham, Harold Ockenja. Christianity Today, and Fuller University. Breaking the pattern of negativity and separation, it was a time of being positive, dialoging, working together, and being open to new insights.

This was the movement I joined in 1970.

But once more evangelicals became narrow, judgmental, and calcified. It was the time of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Bill Gothard, John Piper, and Rousas Rushdoony. It was a time to give up dialog in favor of preserving doctrinal purity and gaining political power. Much of evangelicalism became a new fundamentalism.

Other evangelicals were exploring fresh ideas in understanding evangelical beliefs, but they began to be increasingly questioned and harassed regarding their doctrinal purity. Academics were relieved of their posts at colleges and universities, pastors had their churches taken from them, and local church leaders were stripped of their positions.

These progressive evangelicals sought dialog, new ways of thinking, and interaction with other Christians, but their denominations, schools, and local churches judged them unacceptable to represent the increasingly narrow and hostile evangelicalism.

This is the situation today, but I am no longer a member of an evangelical denomination. There are many of us evangelicals in non-evangelical denominations; there always have been.

Why do I Continue to Consider Myself an Evangelical?

As a progressive evangelical in a mainline denomination, in order to define who I am I considered a number of labels other people use, but none of them fit me. So I now wear the label of ‘theologically progressive evangelical’. Some evangelicals would deny that I am evangelical at all, but they cannot rob me of my heritage by restricting the definition of evangelical.

My roots are in evangelicalism, I stand in solidarity with progressive evangelicals leaders who still call themselves evangelical though many have been rejected by their institutions, and I embrace the spirit of evangelicalism in:

  1. Following Jesus seriously
  2. Being enthusiastic in sharing the good news of Jesus
  3. Diligently exploring new insights
  4. Interacting with other people

Evangelicalism, and fundamentalism, have created many burdens by teaching, and insisting upon, a range of harmful doctrines and practices. In the past four years, the focus of my blog has been on helping those who are working though the baggage they were taught.

I don’t agree with everything evangelicals represented in the past 200 years, just as I don’t agree with everything progressives represent. However, I still respect and internalize the best in evangelicalism.

I AM evangelical. Though I am theologically progressive, I am evangelical in heart as well as in heritage.

*****

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27 Responses to Why I am Progressive but Still Evangelical at Heart

  1. Thanks for the post. I, too, became an evangelical in my teen years in the early ’70’s. We were called “Jesus freaks” which I considered a compliment. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Karen, I’m glad you liked the post. Yes, I remember when the Jesus Movement exploded in the early 70s. I was already a Christian, but I thought it was a wonderful development and adopted a lot of Jesus freak influences. Those were some good days.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Chas says:

    Tim, I understand fundamentalism, but right through reading your post, I was asking, but what is evangelicalism? Finally, you gave four points that you have said apply to you, and that these are, ‘in the spirit of evangelicalism,’ but they still do not answer the question: What is evangelicalism? I take evangelism to mean spreading the Gospel, but evangelicalism seems to represent a state of mind entailing more than this. How does an a person who describes him/herself as an evangelical distinguish this state?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, you are right that evangelical means to spread the Good News. Those who began calling themselves ‘evangelical’ in the 1800s did focus on evangelism, but they were not the first to use the term ‘evangelical’. For hundreds of years, evangelical was also equivalent (especially in Europe) for Lutheran–as in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

      In the early 20th century many evangelicals organized around the five fundamentals of the faith which were FIRST listed, it seems, as 1) the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, 2) the virgin birth of Christ, 3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and 5) the historicity of the biblical miracles. However, most evangelicals replaced ‘miracles’ in #5 with some statement on the second coming of Christ.

      Not all evangelicals subscribe to these five fundamentals, and they sometimes question other common evangelical beliefs such as hell. But they do share the evangelical heritage and other important aspects of evangelicalism such as taking Jesus seriously, following him personally, engagement with the Bible, personal commitment to spirituality, helping the needy, and sharing the good news of Jesus.

      I hope this helps; let me know what else you might wish to know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chas says:

        Tim, thanks for the clarification. The term Evangelical also seems to have been applied to the more high-church (i.e. conservative) wing of the Anglican church since some time in the 19th century. They seem to be far from progressive! Maybe we need to be careful when we use/read labels, as it could be easy to misunderstand their meaning.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          As I responded to Mark, I don’t care much for labels myself. But people want to know, even though labels never tell the whole story. Other people from the UK have also expressed confusion as my description of American evangelicalism did not match their recent experience in the UK.

          What other term would you suggest to identify what people call ‘conservative American evangelicalism’?

          Like

          • Chas says:

            Why use any term? Just do as you have done and merely tell people what you believe. It is up to them to put a label on you, if they wish to do so.

            Liked by 3 people

  3. Very well said! I too consider myself both a progressive and an evangelical.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. sheila0405 says:

    Very nicely put! And, I agree, Christianity needs more progressives.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. fiddlrts says:

    I was raised Evangelical in the 80s, then my family went Fundamentalist in the 90s (Bill Gothard). It’s interesting in a way because my great-great-grandparents were Mennonites who immigrated to the US in the 1890s. They were, in a way, Fundamentalists and dissidents at the same time. The next generation adopted that next wave of Evangelicalism – my grandfather went to Simpson college, and were Christian Missionary Alliance to the bone. I’m kind of where you are now, although I still attend an Evangelical church. (It is kind of an unfundie church in that differences of opinion are allowed, although I disagree with some points, it is about as good as exists where I live.) I can’t predict the future, but I agree that there is a lot in the Evangelical history that is worth celebrating. The sharing of the Good News, the embrace in the last wave of racial integration in a way that Mainline denominations have struggled with in practice, enthusiasm and seriousness about following Jesus. These are good, but they are in danger of being lost in the new deluge of Fundamentalism sweeping Evangelicalism.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fiddlrts, you do have evangelical roots!

      I agree there is a lot in evangelical history worth celebrating. I can’t predict the future either, but it seems that evangelicalism carries the seed of fundamentalism and many will return to it generation after generation. But evangelicalism also carries another seed that produces evangelicals that can see beyond the narrowness and make great contributions to the church.

      Evangelicalism has always had harmful tendencies along with the good.

      Like

  6. mark says:

    Greetings Tim. I think you explained labels very well .

    If we look at church history and how it’s unfolded and splintered, then it could be considered as a whole to be “Progressive”.. as a basic definition of the word.
    I have worn many “Hats” and “Lapel Pins” thru my journey. Each time “progressing” and changing doctrines and some core beliefs to fit into the box of theology I had arrived at or picked up at that time by some peddling pastor of new revelation movements.
    I think these labels we put upon ourselves can limit our ability to learn and experience Jesus thru truth and spirit. Instead of letting truth flow from GOD to our hearts we seek out men and denominational flavors to validate current held beliefs and opinions. That seems to work quiet well for the majority, it requires no study or seeking or “knocking” on the door for truth…we let a pastor or congregation spoon feed us at the trough of indoctrination. Easy belief-ism just have faith.
    But as soon as we put on our thinking caps and start to think critically it falls apart and it’s man made roots stand out like so much a sore thumb, the man behind the curtain…..That causes the believer to search out even more labels it seems…..hamsters on a wheel ever learning yet never coming to the full knowledge of truth.
    In my own search I’ve jumped from the fundies to the evangelicals to the liberals to eastern mystics and then deism and it’s many forms. Each and every one left me empty and even farther away from communion with my Creator. Moral of that story…..man cannot supply the things of GOD. How can we explain and expound truth on something we didn’t create….who can fully know the mind of GOD……as He asked Job…..where you there?
    Quiet a statement coming from me…from not so long ago standing in a pulpit to now now even belonging or adhering to any baskin-robbins flavor at all.
    Many people whom I have talked to or witnessed to ask what church I attend or which denom I am part of….I answer them…”the first church of Jesus in my heart”

    If we live in a temporary creation..a simulation in the mind of GOD,..I have reason to believe we do…then I feel the correct course is to follow the heart not the head. It is said He would write it in our hearts….this new covenant. If that is the case and there is a court of judgement then I believe it will be based on what we did with what we were given..in the heart…not in books or scholarship.
    Maybe the little WWJD isn’t just a cute little cliche, but in actuality the the right answer to our quest. Oh could it be so simple?

    mark

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Mark, I like your “first church of Jesus in my heart”. I am not much for labels either, but people often ask for one. This is why I have tried different ones and finally developed a descriptive label of my own. However, the thing about labels is: labels never reveal the details and complexity of one’s belief.

      Like

  7. Chas says:

    This question of labels and their perceived meaning reminds me of my experience in the church in which I became a member soon after coming to believe. It had been a Baptist church (under the UK definition of that label), but it had taken on the new label of a Christian Fellowship, in the attempt to separate itself from the baggage of the Baptist label. However, a number of people in the church still regarded it as a Baptist church and continued to refer to it as such. One of these was even a member of the leadership! Despite this, the church was vibrant and active, with good worship, speaking in tongues (with interpretation) and even singing in tongues. Nevertheless, the dead hand of the old baggage began to take its toll, accelerated by this particular leader after he was made senior leader. The focus began to change more towards the church itself, rather than being on God, and the signs of the Spirit’s activity gradually disappeared as those active in these ministries left, or were driven out. What this church is like now, I do not know, but it has re-labelled itself again as a Life Church. Since three of the leadership team are still in post from the period of its decline (in a total leadership now of four), it would be expected that little has changed from that time. Its time under the label of a Fellowship seems to have coincided with its most active Spiritual phase, but when under the label of a church, it seems to have ossified. Any thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for this post. I’ve been following this blog for a while now, and your insights give me a lot of hope that I can remain in the Christian faith and still stick to my progressive ideals. Like you, I was raised an Evangelical, but as I grew older I questioned much of what I had been taught. I’ve toyed for quite a while with discarding faith entirely, as many of my friends have done. I don’t blame them for doing so. But something in me wants to hold on. Every time I see a new cringe-worthy story in the media about a self-proclaimed Christian treating people like dirt I think again about leaving, but posts like this remind me I can stay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Painter, I am glad you have found my blog helpful. When people give up faith, I don’t blame them either; but I think it is an unnecessary loss to them. I also cringe when I see how some Christians treat other people; it impacts me to the core.

      But keep in mind that these people don’t represent you, just like they don’t represent Jesus. We can follow Jesus without identifying with these hurtful folks. In fact, I usually don’t use the word ‘Christian’ for myself because it carries so much negative baggage. I prefer ‘follower of Jesus’ or ‘believer’.

      Again, I am pleased that my blog has been helpful to you. Let me know if you want to discuss anything in particular.

      Liked by 1 person

      • How do you respond, personally or online, when you read stories like this? Mississippi’s law explicitly protecting religious freedom at the expense of LGBT folks was struck down today by a federal judge (http://nyti.ms/29bzIYD).

        In my case I feel like I’m constantly apologizing for something I haven’t taken part in. I’m not anything like this, at least I hope, yet the loudest voices are usually the most visible. This is what people think of when they hear I’m Christian, usually – those who actively go out of their way to make life harder for other people. Apparently it’s not enough to passively disagree anymore, or to live and let live, if it ever was. And increasingly it’s harder for me to disagree with the religion critics. One only has to read the paper to prove their case. What do you think is an effective way to show we’re not all this way? Is there anything that works?

        Liked by 1 person

        • sheila0405 says:

          There is an organization called “NALT”. It stands for “Not All Like That”. You might find support or ideas to help. There are many gay-affirming videos posted by Christians who want to reach out with love & acceptance to our gay brothers & sisters. I hope this helps you!

          Liked by 2 people

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Painter, ever since the Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriage we have been inundated with proposed, and passed, laws in various states to restrict LGBT rights under the guise of religious freedom, which in these cases is code for the right to discriminate against the rights of other people.

          As Americans, I do not believe we have a right to hire or fire people, or to refuse our professional services to people, whom we disapprove. And we do not have the religious freedom to oppress the rights of others. Trying to do so casts an ugly pall over Christians, but as Sheila pointed out, not all Christians are like that (I heartily endorse the NALT project she suggests.

          Those Christians who focus on anger, hate, rejection, exclusion, and disapproval do not represent you, me, or millions more followers of Jesus. Our anti-LGBT brothers and sisters are terribly misguided, and I think the rest of us should oppose their efforts for discrimination, and we should continue to loudly support LGBT rights. We can also vote against these kinds of bills when they are on the ballot in our area.

          It is a sad situation–a very sad situation. We can’t change how people feel, but we can oppose their attempt legalize discrimination.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. michaeleeast says:

    Tim, I was most impressed with your analysis.
    By your definition I may be considered evangelical myself!
    Although I come from the opposite direction.
    Evangelical means sharing the Good News.
    i can’t disagree with that!

    Like

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