Progressive Christianity

"Presbyterians Approve Gay Marriage in Church Constitution." That was the headline under which The Wall Street Journal ran the St. Patrick's Day AP article. According to the PCUSA's revised order, "marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives." Though protections are promised to ministers who continue to hold the traditional view, with the approval of the General Assembly's act by the Presbytery of the Palisades, the PCUSA is set to officially turn the corner on this issue on June 21.

Lamentable, but unsurprising; the cultural current is broad and strong, able to sweep all rafts along--and the PCUSA seems to be on a float trip down that river and out to sea.

There is much more that could (should?) be written about how the PCUSA has demoted clear biblical teaching to mere human tradition for the purpose of setting it aside in the name of compassion, justice, and progress. But I want to consider a couple issues acts like these pose to confessing evangelical types like us--perhaps especially to those of us, like me, who belong to churches that came out of mainline denominations.

First, there's the very real temptation to allow ourselves a hint of smugness, like the Pharisee who didn't go home justified in God's sight (Lk 18:9-14). We must not flatter ourselves that we are not like them, compromising the truth, playing loose with Scripture, approving what God disapproves, and so on. Though we must do what is right, we dare not boast in doing so as if this is our righteousness before God and others. The Pharisee was right not to be "like other men" who were "extortioners, unjust, adulterers," and the like, but he was spectacularly wrong to dare to boast about it before God and "treat others with contempt." In this way he was like those he despised, probably worse. God hates the haughty and Jesus warned the hearers of this parable that "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled" (Lk 18:14).

Second, there's the possibility of derailment by reaction--by defining ourselves negatively or by what we are not or what we oppose. F. A. Hayek's postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, "Why I Am Not a Conservative," picks out the problem:

By its very nature [conservatism in a strict sense] cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments (p. 398).

Under circumstances that make holding on to what is good difficult to do, we must take care not to reduce ourselves, the work of the ministry, or our mission to the world to just retarding what many call progress. Christ's work of building his church on earth cannot be defined in terms of conservation alone. Besides, in the economy of the gospel, the best means of conservation is to practice the most extreme liberality, distributing this greatest of all treasures as widely as possible. And that requires a very forward-facing and ever-advancing boldness (Acts 4:13, 29-31).

We must conserve the good we have received, to be sure, but confessional conservation serves the larger, properly progressive purpose of preaching Christ to the nations, calling all people to faith and repentance. Those who believe are pilgrims on the way, seeking a better land; they are the true progressives of every generation, carrying the world along, step-by-step, to the end of the age.