Over the last few months I have slowly worked my way through a series entitled “The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity.” It’s an examination of 10 core tenets of progressive (or liberal) Christianity offered by Richard Rohr, but really based on the book by Philip Gulley.
We come now to the sixth progressive commandment: “Encouraging the personal search is more important than group uniformity.”
In his sixth chapter, Gulley laments the fact that Christians are so concerned about protecting the church from aberrant views that they stifle free thinking and are even kicking people out who don’t conform.
To make his point, he proceeds to tell stories about people he knows who were “disfellowshipped” or “shunned” by their churches for certain behaviors or beliefs. They were just trying to think for themselves, but the church was more interested in “group uniformity.”
Jesus would never have wanted the church to do such things, we are told. Instead, argues Gulley, Jesus was merely for “spiritual exploration” (116) and “quite comfortable with independent thought and action” (118).
To be sure, Gulley’s chapter does make some good points about the way some churches practice church discipline. He’s right to be wary of the “shunning” approach of some groups, and is certainly correct that some churches are unwilling to engage graciously with people who ask hard questions.
But, the overall message of this chapter is far too simplistic. Churches which hold firmly to certain truths are portrayed as mean-spirited and vindictive, and those who question those truths are portrayed as heroically fighting the system for the sake of free thinking.
And, of course, Jesus would be on the side of the latter group.
While this entire narrative will play well with the progressive wing of Christianity, I think it has significant problems.
Christianity is Not Just about Being on a Journey
Progressives love to portray the Christian religion (and all religion for that matter) as being on a spiritual “journey.” It is just about “exploring” for ourselves what we think about spiritual matters.
The problem is that hidden within this approach is an enormous (and unspoken) assumption, namely that God has not clearly revealed himself. Nor has he clearly revealed a message about salvation.
In other words, the liberal assumption underlying this entire narrative is that religion is about humans finding God, rather than about a God who has revealed himself to humans.
And if one thinks such a thing, you could see why they would be irritated with biblical Christianity. According to liberals, religion (by definition!) is always in flux. It’s a process of finding God. How arrogant would it be to claim he’s been found!
In contrast, biblical Christianity argues that God has clearly revealed a message of salvation in Christ Jesus, and all people everywhere are called to believe in that good news.
The Church Welcomes Questioners
Gulley fosters a perception out that there that churches really don’t like people asking questions because they are merely trying to protect their own authority. While there are certainly some churches like that, I don’t think it is true for the evangelical church as whole.
I think most churches are quite eager to have people come and ask questions. Indeed, they want people to inquire about the Christian faith and learn what Christians believe and why they believe it.
As a result, I think the liberal complaint about churches is really something else altogether. The complaint is not so much that churches don’t welcome questions (I think most do), the real complaint is that the church thinks there are answers to those questions!
In other words, Gulley’s real objection is that Christians think there are clear, knowable answers to life’s most important spiritual questions. His objection, then, is about the Christian belief in absolute truth. That is the sticking point.
And that is why liberals will never be satisfied merely by Christians changing their tone or approach. They will only be satisfied when Christians fully abandon their fundamental truth claims.
[To be clear, Christians don’t believe everything in the Bible is equally clear–some things are difficult to understand. But, they do believe that at a minimum “those things which are necessary for salvation” (WCF 1.7) are clear.]
Jesus Believed in Church Discipline
As noted above, I think Gulley is correct that certain types of “shunning” would be problematic. But, he mistakenly cites 1 Cor 5:11 as evidence that the apostle Paul is an advocate of “shunning.”
Instead, Paul was an advocate of church discipline, that process whereby the leaders of a church correct wayward members who have engaged in serious disobedience (morally or doctrinally). And, like all discipline, it is done out of love and for the good of the recipient.
And despite the implication that Jesus would be against such a practice, we see that he affirms it plainly in Matt 18:17: “An if he [the wayward brother] refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Keep in mind that this sort of church discipline is for members of the covenant community. Thus, these passages do not forbid Christians from interacting with non-Christians or people who disagree. No, as already indicated, the church welcomes non-Christians who want to come and learn about Jesus.
Instead, church discipline is for professing believers who have lost their way. And it is for maintaining the peace and purity of the church.
In the end, I think this sixth progressive commandment suffers from a number of assumptions or misunderstandings. It assumes there’s no absolute truth (without proving such a thing), it assumes that the church doesn’t welcome questions (when, generally speaking, it does), and it misunderstands the nature and purpose of church discipline (which is for the good of the recipient).
And even more fundamentally, the progressive position misses the core Christian message. Christianity is not about our “journey” to God, but about God’s journey to us, to save us from our sins.