I was sitting in a church I used to attend and the pastor, one that genuinely cared for his congregation and whom I respected greatly… and still do… said to us “You need to be careful what you’re reading sometimes. If you see something that says ‘progressive’ on it, don’t read it!” I had to wonder if he was referring to me, since I had posted a fair number of blogs/ articles/ videos of theological nature, and yes, some would have had labels like ‘progressive’ on them.
I sat there pondering, as I had done thousands of times before that, and hundreds since. It has become a very standard thing I do when sitting in any church, and I thoroughly recommend it; blindly accepting what you’re told is one of the main reasons we have found ourselves immersed in culture that is rabidly anti-religious, and often throws out the baby of faith when emptying the religious bathtub. By all means, empty it. I have done so with my own. Though I managed to hold onto the baby.
What surprises me is that very few preachers/ pastors/ priests these days really understand their church history. If they did, they’d recognise that not only are a lot of the things they believe and teach fairly new doctrinally (hence ‘progressive’ from tradition, even with little or no scriptural proof!), but practically every turn of events historically has been a progressive step from where ‘the church’ used to be. Here are just some examples…
When I was on one of my Bible College field terms with a local pastor, he related a few good stories to me. One of them (I have no reason at all to believe any were untrue) was about a friend of his who was on holiday with his family in Wales. They decided to attend a church on the Sunday morning where they were staying. His wife and teenage daughter brought their hats along to comply with any possible policy of the church, but his 8-year old had none. They arrived in the church and were shown seats, worship was in full swing. Once the worship ended, the pastor stood to address the church, but an elder sitting on the platform behind the pastor shouted “Hold on! This meeting is not in order! There’s a young woman down there with her head uncovered!”, pointing to the younger daughter.
He called for the women to get her a hat, but there were none spare. After a period, during which they said that they sensed the good spirit they had first encountered in the worship was gone, someone produced one of those fold-up plastic hoods that old ladies keep in their handbag to keep their hat/ hair from getting wet in a shower. They were about to make the girl wear this, but the father just said “Come on, we’re leaving!” and they did just that.
I’ll spare you the lecture about how ‘head-coverings’ as [supposedly] mandated by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 are actually full-head veils that are still used in the Middle East (by both Muslims and Christians) and how we have progressed from that to just talking about ‘hats’, which I have seen in all shapes and sizes, from huge milliner’s inventions that obscure the pulpit and screen, to tiny handkerchiefs pinned to the top of the hair. The real point to make is that today, less than 40 years after this incident, you will find VERY few churches that still cling to this practice. We have all reinterpreted Paul and moved on from it with barely a glance backwards – in the short time I have been a Follower. Why? We have all given up on this because we’re sick and tired of it and just won’t do it any more. Besides, does our God REALLY look down and bellow “Hold on! Your meeting is NOT in order…” and ‘withdraw his presence’ like it felt he had when that elder shouted that instead?
If there are few churches that maintain the wearing of hats, there are even fewer that oppose women voting (yes they do exist, but they draw peculiar and sporadic attention because of their ultra-conservative stance). Women’s suffrage has a long history, but one aspect to note is how it played out in churches. One example was the formation of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage within the Anglican Church in 1909. By 1914 it had 6000 members, and many clergy joined the ranks, but in the debate of how theology shapes the wider world or is influenced BY it, some clergy managed to take a vehement stance against suffrage, warning that these two things could not be allowed to mingle. Robert Saunders sums up the dilemma in his article ‘A Great and Holy War’:
Some found it impossible to bring the two into union, resulting either in a religious opposition to the women’s movement or in the loss of orthodox faith. For others, however, the result was a creative engagement in which influence flowed both ways.1
Yes, allowing the views of the outside world to influence theology and church practice just can’t be right, can it? This new-fangled modern/ post-modern/ post post-modern behaviour is unacceptable! We need to go back to the good old days when this didn’t happen!… and women just didn’t have the vote!
OK. Let’s step back a bit more…
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is remembered as the figurehead of the Abolition Movement in the UK. He is now so revered that all parties wish to claim him as their own, but he was an independent Member of Parliament. His illustrious career saw him campaign for abolishing the slave trade, which was largely successful, but the emancipation of all slaves only happened 3 days before his death. He encountered much opposition, including physical assaults and death threats. It was his conversion to Christianity around 1785 that spurred him to devote his efforts to good causes, and he had many other believers who joined him to outlaw slavery.
However, not all were on his side. He was surely rocking the boat of the establishment, and the slave trade was extremely good for the economy. Biblically, slavery is supported (and even encouraged in war situations), and so many religious influencers either made a biblical case for slavery, or ignored the issue while reaping the benefits. There is no sign of any opposition to slavery in the records of many of the 18th century Anglican evangelical preachers, and the famous George Whitefield “endorsed the introduction of slavery in Georgia and later employed slaves in the colony’s Bethesda orphanage.”2
We have often heard of the great story of the testimony of John Newton, a former slave trader who ‘recognised the error of his ways’ and later penned the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, but he actually remained in the slave trade for a number of years after his conversion! It would seem that he wasn’t persuaded to renounce this sinful way from the offset.
Today we look back on those times and try to conjure a pleasant image of the devoted Christians who enforced abolition through Parliament, and it certainly was driven by a lot of genuine converts/ disciples… but not all, as I pointed out. We also parrot the mantra that slavery in the Bible was not the same as the African slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, but this is actually one of the arguments that the abolitionists tried to use to counter those who used the bible to defend slavery. Safe to say we have all progressed beyond that by now; well, the majority of the Christian faith – bound to be some who still advocate for it, somewhere – and let’s not forget the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, who supported apartheid doctrinally, right into the late 20th century! But we’ll happily forget the American Christian universities and colleges that practiced racial segregation until the Carter administration enforced a ban.
Wilberforce et al. were upstarts who dared to reinterpret clear biblical commands about slavery! Have we managed to move beyond these commands ‘from the word of God’ e.g.
Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.Exodus 21:20,21
So… if you want ‘biblical’ standards to live by, there’s one: your slave is your property, so you can beat them within an inch of their life! We already know that Moses gave us the law about divorce, since Jesus made that absolutely clear (Mark 10:5); surely this is also a man-made law? Do your inerrancy somersaults over that one!
“Typically those evangelicals who took an interest in the enslaved focused exclusively on the African’s spiritual welfare. Anne Dutton, a devoted follower of Whitefield, urged slaves to accept their bondage and dedicate themselves, instead, to the improvement of their souls.“3
Similarly today, any action towards helping the plight of the oppressed is met with opposition from many conservative religious corners, who try to maintain that our only concern should be ‘the gospel’. Yes! The gospel (good news) that Jesus said he had been anointed to bring, and sent to proclaim. Read it in Luke 4:18,19!
What about one of the ‘greats’? One who is world famous, and credited with sparking The Reformation, that all Western non-Roman Catholic Churches and theologians can trace in their ecclesiastical family tree. Was he progressive?
Of course he was! The main argument levelled at him by ‘the church’ was that he was challenging traditional beliefs that had endured for centuries. He had no right to be a lone voice against all the priests, bishops, cardinals and popes who had preceded him. Had he agreed that this was a bad idea, to be ‘progressive’, then he would never have spoken up.
“Ah!” I hear you say, “But he wasn’t moving forward, he was trying to take the church back to scripture!” Yes, he had observed how far they had travelled from the original message of Jesus. Let me make one major point: Most ‘progressive’ Christians are not challenging Jesus; they’re challenging human interpretations of Jesus. What makes them public enemy is their threat to the established order, and very often they were martyred for that, by Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.
However, some things about Luther would certainly shock modern evangelicals. For one, he was rabidly anti-semitic, and often preached to his congregation how they could never trust Jews in any way! He also challenged the ‘centuries-old established canon of scripture’. The entire history of how the canon was chosen is really not so simple, and there are various canons and lists of scripture argued over by theologians from the beginning until now. The Orthodox and Coptic canons are different to the Western ones, for instance. Though as we sit together to read our Bible, knowing we have a huge number of translations and paraphrases, and like to comfort ourselves that they are all very similar (which for the large part is true), Luther would be admonishing us for counting books like James and Revelation as apostolic, inspired or inerrant! His disdain for James is well-known, but he had four books in what is now coined ‘Luther’s Antilegomena’ (which means ‘disputed books’); Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation [some sources quote ‘seven that he removed’ – this would appear to be what is now called the Apocrypha in protestant circles].
He did describe James as ‘the straw epistle’, being not even worthy to be used as tinder in his oven, and others he referred to as ‘Judaising nonsense’. He seemed to later qualify his stance on James:
Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle…4
So he ended up with varying degrees of attribution of inspiration to biblical books. Am I saying he was right? In light of the previous text we have read concerning slaves, I have to concur with the sentiment, though was he right to denigrate or deselect entire books? That is a huge question, but consider this; the removal of the seven books from the catholic canon that are deemed apocryphal in the protestant, are largely due to Luther’s influence and primary leadership. If he was wrong about 4 books we count as ‘wholly inspired’, who can say he was right about the Apocrypha? Tradition has often been wrong; we should know that without debate.
Paul the Apostle
Still not convinced? Right, let’s take a look at the Apostle Paul. Really?? The darling of Christian Conservatism? Yes!
Let’s set the scene; Judaism had already been affected by the arrival of the Roman Empire. Greek was the lingua franca of the Eastern Empire, following on from the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great and his successors. Many Jews had moved away from Judaea, and many others in the Empire (and beyond) had converted to Judaism. We can see this in the mechanisms set up around the Temple, for pilgrims and visitors to be able to participate in the rituals. The record of the infant church on the day of Pentecost testifies that Jews from many nations were there and heard them speaking in all their foreign languages when the Spirit fell upon them (Acts 2:5-12).
This had created a natural cultural dichotomy between the ‘orthodox’ Jews who lived in the Palestinian region, and the outlying communities who were more dependent upon the Septuagint (LXX) version of their scriptures in Greek. They were more influenced by outside cultures and less conservative than the Judaean natives. Paul was an educated Pharisee who studied under Gamaliel, and would certainly have been more orthodox, despite being born in Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey), and he testifies to his conservative credentials (Acts 23:6, Phil. 3:5). The divisions between the Palestinian and the Hellenised (Greek) Jews was likely the reason why Peter and John were only admonished by the Sanhedrin, while Stephen, a Hellenised Jew, was stoned; there was a greater underlying cultural distrust of them in Judaea. This division naturally affected the church too, growing out of Judaism as initially a Messianic sect.
Into this fray lands the converted Saul Of Tarsus, notorious persecutor of the church, but now the converted Paul. Being mistrusted (was he a spy sent by the Sanhedrin to infiltrate the church?), he returned to Tarsus for what is believed to be around 14 years! An outcast who was to return with a bang!
The overriding theology of the infant church was grounded in their Judaism, naturally. Jesus had said openly that he was only called to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ (Matt. 10:6, 15:24), and they had all been circumcised and raised in the customs and rituals of the faith (they might miss the examples of Jesus engaging with Gentiles and praising them for having more faith, or how when he read at the Nazareth synagogue, he pointed out how God blessed their very enemies!). It was natural that they would ask converts to ‘Jesus as the Christ’ to undergo the same rituals. However, Hellenised Christians who had come to Jesus directly, and not through Judaism, would have wondered why they had to undergo ‘double conversion’. One would think that Paul would be heavily on the side of the Judaisers, but he shocked the Christian world by categorically declaring himself to have disagreed with the Jerusalem ‘school’, and vehemently condemned anyone wishing to take new believers back to the Law. Just read the whole of his angry epistle to the Galatians!
Paul even recounts how “when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned…” in Gal. 2. He had to challenge the emissaries from the Jerusalem church; Peter, James and John, the original inner circle of Jesus and perceived leaders of the church! Now we look back on this with glazed theological eyes as if it was an easy couple of steps for the whole church to welcome Gentiles unconditionally, but this was not the case. Paul really stuck his neck out against the establishment to drag the church forward! He was progressive!
No More Division
Paul even penned maybe the greatest and most overlooked spiritual quote:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.Gal. 3:28
He wrote this in the first century, for heavens’ sake! How long has it taken us to get it? He struggled to break down the division between Jew and Gentile, and I’m sure he would be turning in his grave to hear how many today try to ascribe some remnant of difference to the Jews… THERE IS NEITHER JEW NOR GENTILE. Read it!
It took almost 18 centuries to unite the slave and the free, and 20 to overcome gender differences in SOME corners, and this is one we’re still fighting. Even in churches that accept women in leadership, they’re still seen as secondary to the men. Look at Jesus’ example of including women in his followers, like Mary Magdalen and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus… do I even NEED to point out how and why the religious establishment crucified him?
The Way, for me, of the Jesus Follower, is actually a direct challenge to the broad road of conservative religious imbroglio, and the seeking, for oneself, for the narrow path, where one listens in the quiet stillness, for one solo voice; Jesus in our hearts.
- ‘A Great and Holy War’: Religious Routes to Women’s Suffrage, 1909–1914, Robert Saunders, The English Historical Review, Volume 134, Issue 571, December 2019, Pages 1471–1502. https://academic.oup.com/ehr/article/134/571/1471/5607397
- Evangelicals and the origins of anti-slavery in England, Christopher Leslie Brown, Published online: 04 January 2007. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/96075
- “Vorrhede”. Das Newe Testament Deutzsch, Wittenberg, 1522. Source: http://www.bible-researcher.com/antilegomena.html