How a deep and growing divide is killing Protestant christianity – or maybe renewing it!

Right from the earliest days, there have always been disagreements within the christian community. Some are resolved, but some lead to major splits, new denominations or new doctrinal positions.

I have the feeling that a major, and probably irreversible, divergence is brewing in the western Protestant church, between those we may label “evangelical” and those we may label “progressive”.

Both evangelicals and progressives generally hold to the core truths of christianity as expressed in the Apostles Creed – the trinity of God the father and creator; Jesus the incarnate son, teacher, healer, dying saviour and resurrected Lord; and the Holy Spirit living within each believer. But there are some distinctives of these two viewpoints which I think will continue to lead to divergence and separation.

Evangelical Protestantism

My spiritual upbringing was in an evangelical church, and my faith began and blossomed in that environment. I have been a small group and youth group leader, preacher, elder, mission team leader and Sunday School Superintendent within this movement, so I have long familiarity with evangelical thinking, and affection for it.

There are many different approaches to evangelicalism, from the doctrinal emphasis of Reformed theology to the Holy Spirit emphasis of the charismatics and Pentecostals, but they all tend to have many things in common. Here are a few key characteristics I think are pointing to the future.

1. Understanding of the Bible

Evangelicals generally have a “strong” view of the Bible – so much that some critics say the Bible has replaced the neglected Holy Spirit in the evangelical trinity. Evangelicals believe that the Bible was given to us fairly directly by God, so they see it as pretty much without error. It reliably tells a single story from beginning to end, and from it we can learn what to believe and how to behave.

They believe this without clear Biblical teaching making many of these claims, and despite the fact that many parts of the Bible don’t appear to be error-free or giving reliable teaching for today. In the end, it is a matter of faith, and departing from a “high” view of the Bible is the beginning of a slippery slope towards liberalism or atheism.

But in this belief they have much of church history and tradition on their side. And because this is the defining truth of their “tribe”, it will be tightly held even in the face of contrary ideas.

A major attraction of this view of the Bible and this approach to truth and faith is its apparent certainty, but it leads to some important and problematic characteristics of modern western evangelicalism.

2. Difficulties must be resolved

At first sight, there are a number places where Biblical doctrine and history seem to contradict each other, or be at odds with archaeology or known history. But for most evangelicals, such contradictions cannot actually be possible in God’s Word, so explanations have to be found.

No-one can reasonably expect every apparent anomaly to be resolved, but some present real difficulties that can only be resolved in ways that seem doubtful, and explanations require some contortions and consume a lot of energy.

Treating some portions of scripture as less that inerrant and applicable to us today

Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches very definitely that salvation comes to us from God’s grace through our faith, and is a core passage for evangelicalism. But in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus very clearly says salvation is given or lost according to how much we cared for those who are suffering. This is the classic faith vs works argument, and classic evangelicalism is strongly based on salvation by faith, so somehow Jesus’ teachings have to be explained away from their very plain meaning.

An associated dilemma for evangelicals is the very clear and persistent teaching, by Jesus in particular, but also many of the Old Testament prophets, that God really cares for the poor and suffering, and very much wants us to seriously address need where we can. But this seems perilously close to “social gospel” to evangelicals, who tend to make evangelism far and away the number one priority for christians.

Modern evangelicals can be inconsistent, by applying some scriptures rigorously (often those associated with gender or sexual ethics), while being much more “flexible” about other teachings which have equal or greater Biblical support – for example, non-violence and pacifism, materialism and wealth, divorce, and even whether women should wear fancy jewellery and cover their heads at church.

Thus, despite their doctrinal belief that the whole of the Bible is equally God’s Word, evangelicals have to (or choose to) downplay or re-interpret some sections of scripture – paradoxically, in order to uphold their doctrine of scripture.

Forced into unattractive positions

The Old Testament contains many teachings and events that seem wrong or repugnant today, but which evangelicals have to grapple with because of their view of the Bible, for example:

  • The book of Joshua (and elsewhere) contains teachings where God is reported as commanding terrible violence and killing, even against young (and presumably innocent) children. Evangelicals present tortuous justifications for God’s apparently evil behaviour, but few are convinced and satisfied by them.
  • Their view of the Bible requires many evangelicals to oppose evolution despite the scientific evidence.

3. Teachings cannot be adapted

Teachings that were given millennia ago into very different social situations cannot be much adapted to modern times, in theory at least. So while the evangelical views of male headship and the place of women in the church, and of homosexuality, are unpopular today, and may be leading to some serious harm for some, these teachings must be maintained.

4. Other teachings

Despite hell as a place of everlasting conscious torment being an extremely gruesome doctrine that isn’t taught as explicitly in scripture as many think, it remains a staple of modern evangelicalism, and a real stumbling stone to many outside the faith.

It is hard to be a christian without believing that Jesus death was atoning, but modern evangelicalism seems to have zeroed in on one theological theory of the atonement (penal substitution) among many such theories, and made it essential to christian faith.

Many evangelicals seem to have moved towards the reformed “theology of grace”, i.e. Calvinism, with its belief that God does everything for his own glory, he saves his elect for his glory, and he allows the non-elect to suffer in hell, again for his glory. As often expressed at least, it seems to many to be painting a terrible picture of God.

5. Conservatism

One of the main features of much modern evangelicalism is social and political conservatism, seen in:

  • preference for conservative politics
  • opposition to action on climate change, and lukewarm attitudes towards most environmental action
  • relatively unsympathetic towards social justice for indigenous people, the poor and unemployed, and refugees
  • conservative approaches to gender issues
  • suspicion of or opposition to medical treatments like IVF, surrogacy, abortion and genetic engineering.

At the extreme right of modern evangelicalism is the patriotic christianity exemplified by the “God and Guns” conservatives in the US. As an outsider, it seems to me that this movement borders on unchristian idolatry and is not typical of western evangelicalism as a whole. However it may be having an impact in shifting evangelicalism to a more conservative position, and thereby heightening the division with progressive christianity.

6. Priorities

Evangelical priorities seem definitely to be spiritual (as opposed to political or social welfare), and doctrinal, even down to some fine points of doctrine. Preaching is the key activity of churches, despite it being a poor educational and transformational method. As churches lose ground in most western settings, the emphasis on evangelism seems to be growing.

This is probably summed up in the modern evangelical emphasis on “the gospel”, which is usually defined as being simply the message of human sin, God’s judgment, Jesus’ death and our salvation by responding in repentance and faith. It is ironic that many evangelicals urge the priority of evangelism and then dispute and divide over doctrines that have little to do with their gospel of evangelism.

Good, bad or ugly?

There is much more that characterises modern evangelicalism, but, whether we see them as good, bad or ugly, these seem to me to be the distinctives that form the basis of the growing evangelical-progressive divide.

Modern progressive christianity

Modern progressive christianity is in many ways a reaction or a correction to what are seen as the mistakes and excesses of evangelicalism.

1. Understanding of the Bible

Progressives are much more likely to accept the findings of modern scholarship about the Bible, for example:

  • Modern science says the human race has evolved, and historians tell us that the early chapters of Genesis are myths or folk tales, not dissimilar to those of other ancient near eastern cultures.
  • Archaeology indicates that there was no conquest of Canaan on the scale suggested in Joshua, and there never were 2 million Israelites living in Canaan as stated in Exodus (population was more like 100,000 maximum).
  • There are many apparent historical anomalies that indicate that the Old Testament history pre King David is highly “fictionalised” or exaggerated to make various points about Israel and its claim to the land.
  • Jesus and the apostles didn’t always interpret the Old Testament in a literal way, but sometimes rather fancifully, suggesting we should maybe be a little freer in our interpretation.

So progressives still see the Bible as God’s revelation, but they think it is clear he has revealed himself through inspired but human writings that are not inerrant. Moreover, the Bible may be seen as progressive revelation, showing how God revealed himself gradually, leading his people from their initial pagan beliefs through the teachings of the prophets to his full revelation in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Thus, for progressives, the Bible may not speak with one voice, but has many voices. It is more a conversation than a rule book. WE need the Holy Spirit to interpret it to us.

2. Difficulties can be accepted

This leaves them much freer to accept the teachings and history “warts and all”, without having to try to explain away every anomaly.

  • Differences in teachings (such as the faith vs works or the evangelism vs social justice dilemmas) don’t need to be resolved by re-interpreting one side of the question so they both agree, but can be accepted as including two equally true but different approaches to the same issue.
  • Old Testament teachings and events (such as genocide and patriarchy) that seem to be inconsistent with the loving God revealed by Jesus can be seen as simply an incomplete understanding at the time that was later corrected.
  • Progressives can embrace Jesus’ teachings on non-violence and materialism without making them into legalistic rules (though some do tend to be more prescriptive than others).
  • The early chapters of Genesis can be seen as myth or folk tale, and therefore not in conflict with science.

3. Teachings can be adapted

Because the Bible is seen as progressive revelation, early teachings which seem clearly contrary to Jesus’ teachings, can be seen as primitive and less likely to be applicable today.

For good or ill, progressives are much more likely to give women an equal place in the family and the church, be more tolerant of LGBTI believers, and reject the violence of the Old Testament in favour of Jesus’ teaching to love enemies and turn the other cheek.

4. Other teachings

Progressives generally reject the traditional view of hell in favour of so-called “annihilationism” (a horrible word expressing the humane idea that those who reject God reject life in the age to come, and their life comes to an end at death) or universalism.

Some progressives go close to rejecting the idea of atonement as anything other than showing how far God’s love will go (which actually seems a little pointless if Jesus death wasn’t actually necessary), and most prefer other atonement theories such as Christus Victor to penal substitution and its emphasis on God’s wrath.

Likewise progressives are less likely to be Calvinists, preferring to be Arminians, or (more likely) seeing the truth as being less defined than either view, and embracing some aspects of both.

5. Beyond conservatism

Progressives tend to see the teachings of Jesus as being applicable to the whole of life, including politics, so they follow Jesus in prioritising care for the poor, non-violence (i.e. they tend to oppose war, capital punishment and the gun culture as solutions for christians) and (to some degree at least) sharing wealth. They are much more likely to support environmental management.

6. Priorities

For progressives, the core of the faith is found in Jesus rather than in the Bible (though of course we know about Jesus through the Bible), so they tend to interpret the rest of the Bible through the lens of Jesus.

Progressive christians tend to emphasise, as Jesus did, the kingdom of God on earth, which gives them a wider focus than conservatives have. Our role as Jesus-followers is not just to convert non-believers (and indeed, some progressives give lesser importance to this), but also to serve unbelievers and demonstrate what God’s kingdom looks like. They see word and deed working together to show forth the love of God, whereas evangelicals tend to emphasise word only.

Thus for progressives, the gospel isn’t just about personal salvation and a ticket to heaven, but about the “good news” that God is putting things right and making all things new through his son Jesus.

The future

It seems to me that there are two possible futures.

Future 1: the two groups continue to diverge

I see this as most likely, unfortunately. Evangelicals are generally primed to think that any compromise from their interpretation of the Bible is unfaithfulness to God, and so they will tend to resist any change to traditional evangelical views. Progressives are more willing to consider change, but having (mostly) already considered and rejected many evangelical views, they are unlikely to change their course, though they may be willing to change on some details.

I think four factors, rightly or wrongly, will lead to some outcomes not favourable to evangelicals.

Education

School students are taught to see the conclusions of science, including evolution, as fact, and to see religion as cultural and psychological rather than a truthful. And they are taught (to some degree at least) how to think and research independently, looking for evidence and facts, and to ask questions.

When faced with evangelical thinking that opposes evolution, or relies on “faith” rather than evidence, or is unable to answer critical questions posed by modern learning, many students raised in evangelical families and churches are going to follow science and evidence, and may well give up their faith. The progressives are not so vulnerable to critical questioning, and so are better placed to offer answers and attract such young adults and help them in their christian belief.

Culture

Modern western culture isn’t at all homogeneous – in every country there are “tribes” and sub-groups with different views. But tolerance is one value that is held by most tribes in western culture, and evangelicals are not always seen as tolerant.

This comes out most in attitudes to gender and sexuality (which includes the role of women in the church, sexual ethics, and attitudes to the LGBTI community and gay marriage in particular), but also in the exclusivity of christian belief (especially belief in hell).

It isn’t going to be easy holding counter cultural views on these matters in the future, and in some cases evangelical christians may not be legally allowed to express their beliefs, which are often seen as harmful. Again, progressives are often better placed because their beliefs are more tolerant and less likely to cause offence.

Internet

Once most people, of whatever religion, mixed mainly with people who shared their belief, so their beliefs were not often questioned. But the internet has changed all that, and it is easy to find all sorts of viewpoints, including some extreme ones, on all sorts of questions. Shaky believers cannot easily be shielded any more.

So if evangelical belief is unpopular or contrary to science, or even easily misrepresented, young believers are likely to be exposed to trenchant critiques. If the answers they have been given don’t cut it, many are going to fall out of faith (and have fallen out already), thinking that the evangelicalism they can no longer respect and believe is the only form of christian belief.

Again, progressive don’t face quite the same challenges, and will find it easier to keep converts.

Holy Spirit?

This one is likely to be controversial. It seems clear to me that God’s revelation to us has come in stages. Most notable was the move from the old covenant (in the Old Testament) to the new covenant (in the New Testament).

  • Jesus criticised the Jewish religious leaders for tying people up in rules (Matthew 23:4), and he was quite willing to correct some scriptures (Luke 4:18-19) and magnify and extend others (Matthew 5:21-22).
  • Paul said we now serve in the way of the Spirit, not the written law (2 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 7:6).
  • Jesus promised the Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16:13), and in Acts we see that happening (Acts 13:2, 15:28, 16:6-10).

But it didn’t end with the New Testament. Church history has seen many reform movements which we can believe were inspired by the Holy Spirit, correcting imbalances, neglect, or wrong teaching. The reformation is the obvious example, but the Wesleyan revival and the social welfare emphasis of the Salvation Army are other examples.

I believe the last century or so has seen another correction, this time addressing the church’s neglect of the Holy Spirit. We shouldn’t allow the sometimes excesses of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements to obscure that they have been major movements for good in restoring recognition of the gifts of the Spirit and the miraculous work of God, in deepening our practice of worship and in making converts.

So this is, I believe, the age of the Spirit, and the Spirit has been active in many areas outside of Pentecostalism – restoring an emphasis on the Kingdom of God, helping his people see the importance of deed (e.g. caring for the poor and for the creation) as well as word, exposing wrong thinking about racism, sexism and lack of love, and bringing back to our attention Jesus’ teachings on materialism and non-violence.

Many of these emphases are not taught in the Bible (while others have been neglected) – they generally weren’t relevant at the time – but they are in keeping with Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

So as I have journeyed away from some aspects of evangelicalism, I have studied the scriptures and I have prayed often for the Spirit’s guidance, to understand the Bible rightly and to be able to “see” where God’s Spirit is wanting to lead his people – and I have seen answers in what I observe and read happening in the wider church. Of course I don’t think I have understood everything rightly (I am too flawed a person for that!) but I believe I can see trends away from some of the “certainties” of evangelicalism.

In all of this, the Bible is still crucially important as a written record of God’s revelation through Jesus, and the preparation for his coming. But we need united prayer for the Holy Spirit to teach us how God wants us to interpret and apply scripture today.

How will this end?

So it seems to me that if each “side” chooses to go its own way, both sides will lose out, but the evangelicals will lose the most, because both culture and (I believe) the Spirit are moving away from them. Evangelicalism has been a wonderful means of God’s grace to many people, including me, and it will continue to be, but its influence will (I believe) diminish.

Future 2: tolerance of diversity

It doesn’t have to be this way. Almost two millennia ago, the church developed the Apostles’ Creed, to summarise basic christian belief. I think it is a far from perfect document (e.g. it doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ life or teachings, nor about the Kingdom of God) but it is a statement most christians can endorse.

If we accepted this as our common core, and refused to discriminate on other matters, allowing freedom and diversity as the New Testament urges on us, there is no need for the two “sides” to split. This is the argument of Bonnie Kristian’s A Flexible Faith, which I am yet to read, but which seems to me to reflect the Spirit’s emphasis for this time.

Why on earth would we argue about non-core doctrines, and so divide the body of Christ and dilute our mission? Yet I fear it will continue to happen.

A personal conclusion

My own views on all the matters dividing evangelicals and progressives are not very important – tolerance of diversity is what is important. But for the record, I am not wholly within either camp. I see the progressives as having been more responsive to the Spirit and looking forwards, while the evangelicals tend to be stuck where they have been for centuries and looking backwards to the reformation, as if the Holy Spirit has stopped guiding us.

But I feel that the progressives sometimes move too fast, making choices based on what seems best to them (and sometimes what seems “nicest” to them), without really consulting the Spirit through prayer and looking for consensus as a sign of his revelation.

My hope is that both “sides” will learn to pray together, listen to the Spirit, and move then, and no earlier, or later.

But my fear is that evangelicals have replaced the Spirit with scripture (and their interpretation of it), and aren’t going anywhere – even where there are scriptural indications of flaws in their doctrine.

We all need to be boats with our sails set, waiting for the wind of the Spirit, neither anchored with sails down, or rushing off using the motors of our own wishes.

Photo: Pexels

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9 thoughts on “How a deep and growing divide is killing Protestant christianity – or maybe renewing it!

  1. Great Read Eric. A lot to take in here but I think you nail it towards the end. There needs to be open, honest and non-judgemental dialogue between the two camps. I think we can learn a lot from our Jewish brothers and sisters who have things like the Midrash which allows differing views/interpretations without the need to cast out those who think differently or throw around the old ‘heretic’ label.
    Glad there are voices like yours to encourage unity in our community.

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  2. Thanks, I really appreciate it when someone “gets it”. There is a lot in this post, but it reflects things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    I think the Catholics sometimes deal with diversity better too, because they are large enough to tolerate different strands within the one church. Protestants find it harder, apparently preferring to divide rather than be tolerant.

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  3. No, I’m sorry Richard, but there’s nothing there in the moderation queue, and your posts wouldn’t get held up anyway (just as this post wasn’t held up) unless you had several links in it. Anyway, somehow WordPress never received it, I’m sorry. Can you remember what you wrote to post it again?

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  4. Well, since this one appeared immediately there was apparently some glitch in the log in process previously. So, here goes again.
    Protestant Christianity has a renewal principle and source: Spirit lead reform in light of scripture—Progressive Christianity also has principles and sources: whatever appeals to a majority among the proximate group of church participants. That may seem a biased assessment, but that’s what I’ve seen.
    When fear motivates our thinking our reasoning usually suffers. The evangelicals I know don’t replace the Spirit with (their understanding of) scripture (which you say you fear), but they do try to submit their reasoning to the leading of the Spirit as informed by the scriptures which were inspired by the Spirit of God. When someone such as yourself concludes with a call to follow the leading of the Spirit without referring to the necessity of submission to the Word of God as revealed to Christ (the living Word) as remembered for our sakes through scripture, it reads like a rationalization for the “Progressives” agenda.
    I know you have worked hard at understanding both sides of the growing divide, I agree with much of your representation and analysis here, and I appreciate the poetic metaphor of setting our sails to await the wind of the Spirit. We can’t be anchored in an Evangelical past certainty and not be ready to chart a new course, but how can any new course be faithful if not in concert with the scriptures? The only way we can know the difference between the winds of our own wishes and desires and those of God is in relation and comparison to those declared in scripture. There really is no other reasonable solution to our spiritual epistemological challenge as the Church.
    Yes, the faithful servant brings out what is new but without running away from what is old; yes, the Spirit lead the apostles and the church they lead into new understandings and decisions that weren’t explicit in what Jesus taught. We may at times need to do that too, but that can not mean deciding to do things that are in contradiction to what the Spirit lead them to do in their days. I am not thinking of the doctrinal developments subsequent to those of the apostles—those are not scriptural revelation. Even the so called Apostles’ Creed doesn’t have the same sanction as scriptures acknowledged as being most closely associated with the teaching of the apostles. Nor am I thinking of the abandonment of previous church teaching of divorce or women’s place in the scheme of things, since those are not actually explicitly from scripture but are from the traditions of men since the time and teaching of the apostles. But it is relatively apparent that Progressive churchianity has and is abandoning New Testament teaching regarding the judgement to come, forgiveness through Christ alone through faith in Christ alone, the exclusive claims of Christ as the only way to God, human sexual morality, church discipline, and a variety of issues related to these.
    You may also be in danger of throwing the baby of the revealed teaching of Christ and the apostles out with the new wave in the bath of some spirit that isn’t of Christ. The only way to know what the Spirit of God might be leading us into is how it compares to, lines up with, and honestly represents what has already been revealed. “Tolerance of diversity is what is important” is a favorite principle of the Progressive movement, and that movement is away from biblically based and structured church teaching and discipline. Being “responsive to the Spirit and looking forwards” is a Progressive meme, as is seeing evangelicals as being stuck in the past. Not being in either camp but apparently “shilling” for the Progressive tribe seems a bit incongruous.

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  5. “Now I don’t understand why this post, which I intended to be entered days ago, is now “awaiting moderation.”

    I don’t understand it either. This blog is hosted by WordPress, and so its policies govern much of what happens. I have a choice about some settings, and so I have made it that comments go into the moderation queue if it is a new commenter, the comment contains links (WordPress’ suggestion) or if the comment contains words or is from someone who I have asked to be filtered out.

    You are not such a person, not was there anything in your comment that should have triggered this. So it is a mystery, I’m sorry. Be assured, while we tend to see things differently, you have never said anything that would make me want to filter you out, and if it ever came to that point, I would tell you.

    So let’s just assume it was a WordPress glitch. Not on to more substantial matters (soon). 🙂

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  6. Now I’d like to clarify, agree with and correct a few matters, so we can see how much we still disagree.

    “Not being in either camp but apparently “shilling” for the Progressive tribe seems a bit incongruous.”

    I meant what I said. I see strengths and weaknesses in both camps, but I feel the progressives have got more right than the evangelicals. I don’t see that as being incongruous, just what I observe and conclude. So I can accept criticisms of both sides, and you shouldn’t assume I support everything the progressives say. Are you OK with that?

    “Protestant Christianity has a renewal principle and source: Spirit lead reform in light of scripture—Progressive Christianity also has principles and sources: whatever appeals to a majority among the proximate group of church participants. That may seem a biased assessment, but that’s what I’ve seen.”

    I think this is a biased assessment. I think you have taken the ideal of the evangelicals and compared it to the worst of the progressives. I agree that some progressives do exactly that, but others don’t. Likewise some evangelicals aim for the ideal and others don’t. Can we agree on that, or not?

    “When someone such as yourself concludes with a call to follow the leading of the Spirit without referring to the necessity of submission to the Word of God as revealed to Christ “

    This doesn’t fairly represent what I said or think. I said: “So progressives still see the Bible as God’s revelation ….. WE need the Holy Spirit to interpret it to us.” So we are surely agreed there.

    Perhaps key is the word “submission” which can be used to urge people to accept the Bible literally, or worse, to accept one particular interpretation of it. Do you mean it that way?

    I think, along with the progressives, that our submission is to Jesus, to the Spirit and to God, and our submission to Jesus (i.e. taking seriously what he said) and the Spirit (taking seriously our responsibility to pray for the Spirit’s guidance) are what lead me and some progressives to not “submit” to some interpretations of scripture. I’m not asking you to agree with me here, but can you see how your words may lead to you misrepresenting what progressives think?

    So that is a preliminary response. If we can reach some understanding on these matters, I would be keen to discuss some important other matters in your comment. Thanks.

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