I’m convinced that one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind is the discovery of all things dairy. Cream-top milk, full-fat cheese, grass-fed butter, rich gelato, and whipped heavy cream are some of my favorite indulgences. Can you imagine the bitter existence of having to drink your coffee black—or even worse, lightened with nut milk? Give me half-and-half or give me death.
Unfortunately, my sister has been allergic to the stuff for as long as I can remember. One Christmas, she splurged on some really expensive non-dairy brie “cheese”, and exclaimed, “This is SO good. It tastes just like the real thing!” Her excitement was palpable, so I gave it a taste. As the gray clotted mass made its way toward my face, I got a whiff of what smelled like moldy mushrooms, leather, and pennies.
Forcing a small bite between my grimaced lips I mustered a polite, “Mmmm. That is…uh…interesting.” I paused before asking, “Is that what you think brie tastes like?” We burst out laughing as she realized she had never even tasted it.
My sister thought the imposter cheese tasted right because she wasn’t familiar with the real thing. It wasn’t her fault. She’d never sampled the double-cream goodness melting over a cracker and topped with fig jam. But I could never be tricked because I eat the real thing regularly. And. I. Love. It.
It’s the same with the gospel. There are all kinds of false ideas about God floating around that seem right at first. And if we don’t know the real thing, we might even feel satisfied with their half-truths and misrepresentations. One of these false ideas is the modern trend of progressive Christianity. Christianpost.com gives a warning against the misguided values of “progressive Christianity” saying:
“The counterfeit gospel is under the guise of Progressive Christianity. Yet, if you hold this doctrine up to the light it will be missing the watermarked face of God. This doctrine is worthless and void of truth and robs the soul of true joy in Christ, do not be deceived. Some of the core ideas spread by this relatively new sect are fragmenting through the body of Christ like shrapnel. We must guard our hearts and minds with the armor of God and strike back with the sword of Truth.”[i]
What Is Progressive Christianity?
The movement called “progressive Christianity” seeks to redefine what it means to be a Christian. Although it is marketed as “the real thing”, core essential doctrines are abandoned or radically redefined. Progressive Christianity utilizes Scripture, employs Christian vocabulary, and claims to follow the teachings of Jesus. Although it looks, smells, and sounds like the real thing, it ends up being more like fake brie than the historic Christian gospel. At the end of the day, the unifying beliefs of their movement add up to counterfeit truths.
1st Counterfeit Truth of Progressive Christianity: You Are Perfect Just as You Are
In progressive Christianity, the doctrine of original sin is abandoned and replaced with “original blessing” or “original goodness”. In their comprehensive survey of progressive Christianity, progressive authors David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy write, “Far from being fallen creatures trying to return to a mythical Eden, human beings are emerging as a species from more primal and baser instincts to become more responsible and mature beings.” Although most progressive Christians will acknowledge that humans are “broken”, they typically avoid identifying that brokenness with sin, but rather, attribute it to immaturity.
Historically, Christians have believed that humans have a sinful nature that was passed down from Adam and Eve after they rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden. The Bible teaches that sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2; Ephesians 2:12, 4:18), which puts us in quite a predicament. Put simply, we need a Savior. However, in progressive Christianity, it isn’t our sin that separates us from God, but our own self-imposed shame. Of Adam and Eve, progressive author Brian McLaren writes, “They lose their fearlessness in relation to God.” So, rather than viewing their sin as what separated humans from a holy God, McLaren refers to their experience in Eden as a “classic coming of age story.”
According to this counterfeit truth, you don’t need to deny yourself and repent. You just need to realize that you were never separated from God in the first place. You are perfect just as you are.
2nd Counterfeit Truth of Progressive Christianity: Jesus Didn’t Need to Die on the Cross
If sin doesn’t separate us from God, why then did Jesus die on the cross? According to progressive Christianity, Jesus didn’t die as a blood sacrifice offered to God for the sins of the world. He died to show us how to forgive our enemies by allowing Himself to be crucified by an angry mob. One progressive author puts it this way: “Who originated the Cross? If God did, then we worship a cosmic abuser, who in Divine Wisdom created a means to torture human beings in the most painful and abhorrent manner.”
The Bible is chock-full of different metaphors and motifs to help us understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross. There are themes of Jesus taking our punishment, paying our debt, reconciling us to God whereas we once were enemies. There is language of being adopted into God’s family, following Jesus’ example of forgiveness, and being cleansed from our sin. Scripture speaks of Jesus defeating the power of sin, death, and hell through His death and resurrection. There is almost no end to the beauty of what Jesus accomplished when He went to the cross!
However, in progressive Christianity, the view historically known as penal substitutionary atonement, which has to do with Jesus being punished in our place—as our substitute—is perceived to be an abusive doctrine that implicates the character of God. The logic goes like this: if God the Father requires the blood of Jesus, His Son, doesn’t that make Him something like a divine child abuser? According to this counterfeit truth, Jesus didn’t need to die on the cross to save us from sin but submitted to it out of love.
3rd Counterfeit Truth of Progressive Christianity: The Resurrection Doesn’t Have to Be Historical to Be Meaningful
Although not all progressive Christians outright deny the resurrection of Jesus, it is common to de-emphasize the historicity of Jesus’ miracles and focus on the meaning behind the stories. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Progressive Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Weber, commented on Christian beliefs like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the miracles of Jesus. She said, “I believe that all of it’s true. Whether every single bit of it is a fact or not doesn’t interest me.”[ii] In an article written to help Christian parents explain Easter to their children, a progressive pastor wrote a blog post claiming, “Stories don’t have to be factual to speak truth. And it’s okay to question a literal resurrection.”[iii]
Historically, Christians have believed that the resurrection of Jesus was an actual historical event. Even the apostle Paul wrote that if the resurrection didn’t happen, Christianity as an entire belief system would be false. He wrote, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1st Corinthians 15:17). But this is not so important in progressive Christianity. As Felten and Procter-Murphy write, “Today, the metaphor of resurrection stands for many Christians as a symbol of the call to new life, as an appeal to practice resurrection here and now.”
According to this counterfeit truth, it’s not necessary for a Christian to believe in the miracles of Jesus—including His resurrection. Rather, it’s enough to simply focus on the meaning and moral lesson behind these narratives.
4th Counterfeit Truth of Progressive Christianity: God isn’t That Concerned about Who We Sleep With
One of the hallmarks of progressive Christianity is a rejection of biblical sexuality, and an affirmation of same-sex marriage and premarital sex. In her book Shameless, Nadia Bolz-Weber argues for a new Christian sexual ethic that allows for moderate pornography consumption, one-night stands, same-sex encounters, and virtually any sexual activity that demonstrates a “concern for each other’s flourishing.”
Historically, Christians have believed that God’s design for sex is between one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage. Jesus Himself affirms the purpose of sex and marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5). Jesus also condemned “sexual immorality” (verse 9), which was understood by His Jewish listeners to be any sexual activity outside of marriage. But by redefining the word “holiness” to mean “the union we experience with one another and with God,” Bolz-Weber is able to declare sex outside of marriage as not just acceptable, but holy.
According to this counterfeit truth, human sexuality is based on what makes someone feel happy and fulfilled, rather than on God’s holiness and purpose for sex.
5th Counterfeit Truth of Progressive Christianity: The Bible is an Ancient Travel Journal
For progressive Christians, the Bible is a wonderful work of literature that reflects what people believed about God in their times and places. It gives us an inspired and faithful account of how ancient Israel interacted with God, and how Jesus’ disciples and apostles understood the “Jesus story”. Progressive Bible scholar Pete Enns puts it like this:
“The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.”
Historically, Christians have believed that the Bible is inspired by God and authoritative for our lives. When the biblical authors wrote things like “God says” or “it is written” or “thus says the Lord”, they were actually speaking for God, not just communicating their best understandings of Him. Because of this, we believe the Bible is God’s Word and should be obeyed. But in progressive Christianity, the authority for our beliefs, behaviors, and practices shifts from the Bible to our own thoughts, feelings, and preferences.
According to this counterfeit truth, the Bible is viewed more like a book of suggestions and possibilities than an authoritative standard for truth.
Follow the Real Jesus
Learning to spot these ideas will ensure that you are following the real Jesus and believing the real gospel—not a counterfeit version of Christianity that will inevitably end up looking a lot like what you see in the mirror. After all, a god made in your own image is not the God of the Bible, and it’s not a god that can save you. And like the brie cheese, once you’ve tasted the real thing, you won’t be satisfied by anything else.
- Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith(New York: HarperOne, 2010), 50.
- David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), Kindle location: 2232.
- Felten and Procter-Murphy, Living the Questions, Kindle.
- Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2012), Kindle edition, 12.
- Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), 231.
- William Paul Young, Lies We Believe about God (New York: Atria Books, 2017), 149–151.