It is no secret that there are two large groups of believers who see the Bible differently and are frequently at odds over what constitutes its essence and how we should respond to it. Discussion between the two groups can become quite polarized while at the same time producing little positive result, as there seems to be very little common ground on the issues that divide them.
There IS a body of belief that both sides hold in common, but differences can overshadow the areas of agreement because they are so different from each other and are considered foundational. The dividing line seems to be opposing approaches to the Bible.
One side considers the Bible to be the inerrant word of God throughout and that the Bible was somehow directed and protected by God. From that understanding arises a distinct group of beliefs and doctrines that are considered biblical and essential.
However the other side, while embracing the Bible, sees it as a more complex collection of books by individual authors with different messages and does not assume such direction of the writings by God. From this understanding arises a far different set of beliefs.
The first group tends to believe that a ‘plain’ reading of the Bible reveals that God will punish people eternally in the fires of hell, that God poured out his wrath toward us on Jesus at the cross (penal substitution), that we are to live by a huge number of God’s commands revealed in the Bible (legalism), that Adam and Eve were the actual, historical first parents of the human race, and that God condemns LGBTs.
The second group believes that following Jesus’ teaching and example is what is important rather than rigid rules. Most conclude that the Bible does not teach eternal punishment in hell or that God condemns LGBTs. Most conclude that penal substitutionary atonement is seriously misguided. Most conclude that the creation stories in Genesis are not to be understood as history.
I think the fact that these groups exist is apparent, and almost everyone understands who they are and generally what they believe. But the question I have is how do we best define them, because no labels seem to be sufficiently accurate.
In response to a recent article, quite a number of commenters in various venues raised the question of inadequate one-word descriptions of the two sides. While I am not crazy about labels, we do need terms that are inclusive to the positions without including those who do not fit the positions.
The First Group
This group might be called fundamentalists, evangelicals, conservative Christians, or traditional Christians. But none of these terms is adequate. Fundamentalists fall into this group, but there are others in the group who are not fundamentalists; so ‘Fundamentalists’ is not an adequate term to describe them.
Perhaps most evangelicals fall into this group, though there are many evangelicals who do not. So ‘Evangelicals’ is not an adequate term either because not all evangelicals fall into this group and the term does not include fundamentalists who are not evangelical.
The same is true of the terms ‘conservative Christians’ and ‘traditional Christians’ because not all conservative or traditional Christians fall into this group, and ‘conservative’ is also used as a political term, which can be confusing.
I have been experimenting with the terms recently, and I wonder if perhaps the best term for this group is ‘Inerrantist believers’ since the primary issue is some sort of inerrant view of the Bible. What do you think? Is this a good term? Perhaps you have a term I have not considered.
The Second Group
On the other side are those who might be called progressives, liberals, or critical thinkers. The term ‘Liberal’ has been associated with believers in ‘Mainline’ churches since the late 1800s, but while most mainline churches are ‘progressive’ many of those belonging to the second group are not from mainline churches but were once inerrantists themselves. Part of the reason they are in discussion with ‘inerrantists’ is because they know them and used to be part of them.
‘Critical thinkers’ is descriptive but is not in widespread use. The term ‘progressive’ is used a lot to describe the second group, but it has problems as well.
First of all, there are at least four distinct groups that use the term ‘progressive Christian’. ‘Progressive’, like ‘conservative’ is also a political term, and there are believers who call themselves ‘progressives’ because they are politically progressive believers. There are believers who consider themselves ‘progressive’ because they use new forms of meetings and worship. There are also ‘progressives’ who consider all religions to lead to the same place and that religious founders, including Jesus, are equals.
Those aren’t us. I would say that most progressives of our sort are former evangelicals, fundamentalists, or from other conservative Christian groups who have questioned what they have been taught and found it not to be valid. Our journeys often involve a lot of struggle and pain because the indoctrination we received as conservatives is difficult to overcome.
Though we have strong faith and strong beliefs, progressive believers generally do not emphasize ‘doctrines’ or ‘creeds’ but we are in pretty good agreement on our general direction—a big part of which is following the teachings and example of Jesus.
What Do You Suggest?
All the terms I know for these groups are inadequate and imprecise. Recently, I have been using ‘Inerrantist believers’ and ‘Progressive believers’ to describe these two groups. What do you think? What terms do you suggest?
Articles in this series: Inerrantist Believers
Why Call Out Fundamentalist Views: Isn’t Everyone Entitled to Their Own Opinion?
Why Progressive Believers and Fundamentalist Believers Disagree on So Many Important Beliefs
For My Inerrantist Friends: Why Appeals to Inerrancy are Totally Ineffective in Discussion
Jesus Without Baggage Welcomes Inerrantists!
‘The Bible Clearly Says’ is Always a Seriously Misguided Statement
There are Clearly Two Large Groups of Believers Who Differ on Basic Beliefs; How Do We Best Define Them?