We have shrunk Jesus to the size where He can save our soul but now don’t believe He can change the world. – Anonymous
I am still processing Jimmy Spencer Jr.’s post, “Digging Deeper: The Coming Evangelical Split“ which I shared a little about in my most recent post. One of the insights that Spencer shared was that the split seems to be forming along the line of what he terms “methodology.” He sees the divide as “scripture” verse “practice” which are terms I am not sure I would have used but the distinction between the two camps rang true to me.
The Traditional View: Christianity is a set of beliefs that are rooted in the inerrant Word of God, the Bible. The scriptures are the primary filter thru which traditional evangelicals engage others, and metaphorically ‘hold it tightly and heavily’ in their right hand.
The Progressive View: Christianity is a lifestyle modeled by Jesus—to be imitated and practiced. Growth happens in community first and foremost thru practice. Social justice and practice are metaphorically ‘held tightly and heavily’ in their right hand.
I find this comparison interesting because at different times in my life, I have identified with both positions. In my early walk as a Christian, I attended a very “traditional evangelical” church that rooted me and grounded me in scripture which I am very grateful for. However, God’s call led me to take that foundation and build on it through my call to social justice oriented ministry. My theology and faith is now grounded in scripture but deeply shaped by practice. For me, scripture was the raw material God used but it was only through practice that these materials took shape in my life. I think most mature “progressives” would say the same thing.
As I have reflected on Spencer’s post, I was reminded of the book “The Hole in our Gospel”, by Richard Stearns the president of World Vision. Stearns crafts one of the most compelling arguments for the centrality of every Christian’s call to social justice. Below, are a few insights gleaned from Stearns:
“If your personal faith in Christ has no positive outward expression, then your faith – and mine – has a hole in it. Christ’s words in the Lords prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” were and are a clarion call of Jesus’ followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now. (Matt. 6:10) This gospel – the whole gospel – means much more than the personal salvation of individuals. It means a social revolution.”
“It’s not what you believe that counts, it’s what you believe enough to do.”
I think seeing this debate between progressives and traditionalist as either “scripture” or “practice” is flawed. I think those from the “traditionalist” side of the debate are dismissing “progressives” by claiming that they are not biblical. However, if you listen to the progressive voices who are living out their faith through practice, you will find that their faith is deeply rooted in scripture.
None of the progressives that I know would be engaged in social ministries if they were not seeking to be faithful to the biblical teachings of Jesus to “love our neighbors.” I do however concur with Spencer’s assessment that scripture is held more loosely by those in the practice camp. I think that is because it is really hard to judge those you are seeking to love with the love of Christ. In other words, when the “sinner” is standing in front of you and has a face, a name, and a story, it is really hard to tell them they are going to hell if they do not repent of their wicked ways. In working with those so easily judged by the “traditionalist” camp, I am often humbled by their journey and honestly do not know what I would do if their shoes. They cause me to realize just how short I fall of faithfully living out my faith. That is where the rub started for me and in the end “love” won. I realized pretty quickly that I have no right to judge anyone and decided to simply be Christ in the world as best I could and leave the rest up to God.
I think the more helpful distinction in this debate is found in Stearn’s words. It is the distinction between “proclaiming the good news” and “being the good news.” It is a shift in focus from “saving” others to “being” Christ to others. Of course, the real question becomes, “What is the good news?” For traditionalist, it is personal salvation with an emphasis on the afterlife and for progressives it is social revolution that transforms all of creation now. Most traditionalists I know are primarily interested in what you say you believe, whereas most progressives are more interested in what you believe enough to do.
While all labels and generalizations have limitations. Without this kind of naming, we would never be able to understand the shifts and growing tensions that are causing the divisions within the Body. Without understanding these growing divides, we will never be able to hear each other or respect each other. While I don’t agree with some parts of Spencer’s analysis, I am thankful for his willingness to name these trends and for the opportunity to add my own thoughts to the discussion.