In the political sphere we recently have heard a revival in the term 'progressive' to describe particular points of view or approaches to solve problems. One of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary definition of the word is "making use of new ideas". In other words, it is replacing old ways of thinking and doing with new ways, and in doing so 'progress' is supposed to be made.
Now this word 'progressive' is also used in certain Christian circles to describe some approaches to what changes should be made in the church. As we study church history, as we are doing in our Sunday School class, we find that at various times great progress has been made. Those who consider themselves 'Christian Progressives' use this fact to support their own approach. They say that we need to make progress so let's implement progressive ideas just as the church has done in the past. But we must not confuse the term 'progressive' with actual progress. A progressive movement uses new ideas to replace old ones. Not all progress is 'progressive'. Let me give some examples.
During the 16th century we had the Protestant Reformation. It was a significant departure and improvement from the Catholicism which had dominated the Christian West for centuries. (I say this knowing that my Catholic friends might disagree; however, I think my point will still stand.) At first glance it might seem that the Protestant Reformation was a progressive movement, but it was not. What do I mean by this?
If you study the movement you find that those involved in the movement did not come up with new, progressive ideas but rather revived old ones. If the Catholics held to their ancient traditions, the Reformers went back further still. They went back to the Bible. They rejected the 4th century Vulgate Latin translation and used the best Greek translation they could get. Their teachings on justification by faith alone and by grace alone revolutionized the church, but it was in many ways a backward-looking revolution. It was meant to be a restoration of biblical Christianity.
If we look at subsequent movements that have driven the church and Western society forward, we find the same thing. It is going back to the Bible and restoring something lost that has pushed the church forward and often the surrounding culture as well. Many historians believe that John Wesley's Methodist movement that restored the preaching of the new birth and holy living that prevented a bloody revolution like the one that occurred in France.
The abolitionist movement of the 19th century was largely driven by New England Puritans and the Quakers who were anti-slavery for two centuries before that. These were biblical literalists. I am old enough to remember the speeches given by Martin Luther King. He constantly referred to two old documents: the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. The main civil rights movement was not 'progressive' but simply called people to uphold and apply the principles that we should have upheld the whole time.
Why do I bring this up? There are some in the church who want to change certain things. I am not against change, but I am against change that is not for the better but for the worse, even if it is well-meaning and 'progressive'. To me it is for the better if it makes us conform to the standards and doctrines of scripture, and worse if it takes us away from it.
Take, for instance, the arguments in the church regarding practicing homosexuals in the pulpit. Progressives often argue that this will be a good thing. They think that it is 'progress' in human relations. They argue that homosexuals have been mistreated (true), but they go much further than that. They argue that homosexual relations should be made equal with heterosexual relations. They want us to discard the ideas of the past and adopt new ones.
Should we do this? No, both the Old and New Testaments roundly condemn any type of homosexual activity.
But 'progressive' church people are not so foolish as to think that conservative, Bible-believing Christians will simply toss out the Bible in favor of their 'progressive' views. Instead they have new, progressive ways of interpreting the Bible. Some say that the commands of the New and Old Testaments are for those cultures only and now the Spirit of God is giving us new commands. Really? I do not believe that God's commands are relative to a culture. They are based on eternal principles.
See, so-called progressives are trying to use our modern culture to interpret the Bible instead of letting the Bible speak to our culture. This is a gigantic error and it is backwards. They argue that God has led our culture to this point and we must use the standards of progressive culture to determine what is right and wrong.
Jesus didn't do that. He applied the scriptures to his generation and used it to criticize his culture. He said, "You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God". When asked a question about divorce Jesus was biblically countercultural. He referred them to the book of Genesis, to the creation story.
Of course, Jesus did give us revelation from God. And the apostles did as well. However, the canon is closed. God has given us all the revelation that we need. In the last chapter of the last book in the Bible says, "Everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book (not just Revelation but the whole Bible) if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city." Rev 22:19 We can never add to, or take away, from what God has revealed.
We must not use the Bible and twist it to suit our own agenda. We cannot even use general concepts like 'love' or 'unity' or 'inclusivity' or 'nonjudgmentalism' to undermine the clear, specific commands of scripture. Yes, we must love people and welcome them into the church, but we must not allow modern notions of right and wrong to determine what behavior is approved or disapproved by the church. Therefore, it is dangerous to allow our 'progressive' notions to override the Word of God. God is not doing something new morally. Right and wrong have not changed. We have changed.
We look back at people in the past and we think them unenlightened, even primitive. They had slaves and acted barbarically. We think our ideas are superior to theirs. I can just imagine what future generations might think of us. We kill babies in the womb by the thousands and millions. We have relativized religion to the extent that we do not even think it matters what we believe. And then we could talk about the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s which has taken us to about the level of the Roman Empire with regards to sexual morality.
It seems that the world never gets it together morally. It makes progress in one area and completely messes up something else. No, our era has not really made much true progress, even in the way that we think that we ought to be. We must constantly go back to the Bible to straighten out our thinking. And then we must be doers of the Word, and not hearers only.