Do we need to progress beyond the Historic Christian message?
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
What is true Historical Christianity? Can we really know the truth about God? Is the Bible truly God’s Word and the highest authority in a believer’s life? What did Jesus really accomplish on the cross?
There is a battle for the heart of the Gospel in America. One side is redefining truth, morality, the authority of the Bible, and the death of Jesus and the other side has a seemingly small number that is pushing back on that narrative.
I once heard apologist Dr. Frank Turek say, “What is the best way to lose a war? To not know that you are in one!”
This is exactly what is happening today. In her new book Another Gospel? Alisa Childers breaks down how many Christians have been deceived by fine-sounding teachings by popular authors and Christian thought leaders and are embracing Another Gospel. These teachers have subtly redefined the core Christian message. Oh, the words may sound similar, but the actual definition of them is completely different. Childers describes how progressives:
“View the Bible as primarily a human book and emphasize personal conscience and practices rather than certainty and beliefs. They are also very open to redefining, reinterpreting, or even rejecting essential doctrines of the faith like the Virgin Birth, the deity of Jesus, and His bodily resurrection” (8).
I frequently visit with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and they will say that they believe in Jesus, God, and the good news/gospel, but they have completely different meanings. They have a completely different God, Jesus, ‘gospel’ message, and source of authority.
It is the same with progressive Christianity.
They have a completely different god, gospel, and source of authority.
They are equivocating on terms. Equivocation is when ambiguous language is used to keep others from clarity. Also, it involves using a word that can be understood to mean something completely different than how it is traditionally understood.
Sadly, I was persuaded by parts of progressive Christianity when I was younger.
As I read through Alisa Childers's book Another Gospel? I found myself identifying with much of her story. Alisa was invited to be a part of a special discussion group at her church led by the Pastor that was intended to be a four-year study group. This group involved about 12 other people that discussed books by various authors that questioned the historic teachings of Christianity. In her book, Alisa shares her story as she sought out answers to the redefinitions of faith that were being promoted to her during the group discussions.
In a similar fashion, I remember reading many books by winsome authors that would discuss some things that initially seemed Biblically consistent, yet also subtly questioned core historic Biblical doctrine. I was assigned to read guys like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren in college. At the time, their writings were attractive to me as I became more concerned with Christians that claimed to follow Christ, yet I was bothered by inconsistencies in those that seemed to care more about power positions in the church, materialism, and comfort than serving and reaching others. In high school, I really cared about apologetics and studying why Christianity is grounded in solid reasons historically, philosophically, and scientifically. However, when I was in college, studying to go into youth ministry, I began to question even the purpose or value of apologetics (giving answers to objections) in the church and began leaning towards a few progressive ideas that rejected core Biblical doctrine in Genesis, the nature of Scripture and eternity. I argued that people don't need answers, but just need to be loved. Ironically, I had an apologetic against apologetics.
I ended up feeling like an agnostic Christian who was drifting away at sea. Alisa describes a similar feeling during her time of questioning while in that class.
I have since rejected my naïve view of having an “apologetic against apologetics” and realized that the case for historic Christianity is stronger than ever. I now firmly believe that for the sake of the health of the church and engaging with the lost, we MUST always be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15) and demolish false ideas that set themselves up against true knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
In this post, I will give you four reasons why everyone NEEDS to read Alisa Childer's book Another Gospel?
Truth matters and Progressive Christianity distorts it.
The Progressive source of authority has no hope.
Humanity's ultimate problem is misdiagnosed with progressive Christianity.
The work of Jesus doesn't make any sense with progressive Christianity
1. Truth matters and Progressive Christianity distorts it.
In Another Gospel? Childers discussed a lot about the importance of truth and the consequences if it is ignored. She contrasts this with how progressive Christianity talks about truth. For them, it is more about the journey than about truth propositions. I found it very interesting how when "Members of [her] class at church critiqued Christianity's core beliefs, they often spent less time poring over the Scriptures to discuss the finer points of theology and doctrine and more time reflecting on their disillusionment over unanswered prayers or their personal experiences growing up in legalistic churches" (41).
Childers points out how abuse in the church is a key reason that people embrace progressive Christianity. Yet, she is also right to point out that those Christians are, “Throwing away the cure because of a bad experience” (48) and that we must keep in mind that “We can’t allow truth to be sacrificed on the alter of our feelings” (11).
Certainly, abuse helps fuel doubt, but I appreciated how Alisa differentiated between "doubt" and "unbelief." She says that "Unbelief is a decision of the will, but doubt tends to bubble up within the context of faith" (49).
It is my hope that more churches will welcome tough questions. I like the way that she describes this issue:
“If more churches would welcome the honest questions of doubters and engage with the intellectual side of their faith, they would become safe places for those who experience doubt. If people don’t feel understood, they are likely to find sympathy from those in the progressive camp who thrive on reveling in doubt. In progressive Christianity, doubt has become a badge of honor to bask in, rather than an obstacle to face and overcome" (52).
Unfortunately, instead of seeking out anchors of truth to wrap our lives around, "Doubt and uncertainty have become prized in progressive Churches" (52).
Sadly, after reading and listening to several progressive teachers in college, I became suspicious of people that proclaimed their viewpoints with confidence. Why? Because I thought it was wrong to have confidence in a viewpoint and didn't think we could completely trust Scripture's depiction about God anyway. Those that were “mystical” and “uncertain” were always promoted as the more spiritual ones who didn’t need to have knowledge or reasons to believe in Jesus. They seemed to have some extra "spiritual knowledge" (gnosis) on what the true Christian life is supposed to be about: Jesus PLUS secret knowledge (Gnosticism/new age) or Jesus Plus acts of service or Jesus minus judgment. Childers describes how this viewpoint is really a repackaged old heresy that distorts the life-giving truth of Christianity.
I never fully embraced the mystical and anti-intellectual approach as it irked me as nonsensical. If Christianity is true, it should be able to withstand the scrutiny of the core claims. I still held fast to some core Christian doctrine but was still drifting in a sea of uncertainty regarding whether God's Word really can be completely trusted.
Yet, if the Bible is truly the inspired word of God, ignoring it has consequences. If Jesus really did physically rise from the dead, ignoring that is dangerous. So, Alisa is right to address the confusing progressive emphasis on feelings, subjective truth, and special access to truth and morality that those labeled “oppressed” by our society have (that others don't).
If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then we must conform ALL of our thinking to it, not the other way around. There is no "my truth" or "your truth" there is only the truth that corresponds to reality.
This leads me to the second point about the lost hope of progressive Christianity.
2. The Progressive source of authority has no hope
Childers rightly shows us how the progressive view of scripture is different from how Jesus, the apostles, and the rest of Church history have viewed it.
According to Alisa Childers, summing up several progressive Christians, they view scripture as:
“Primarily a human book....an archaic travel journal that documents what ancient Jews and Christians believed about God. Not all of it is authoritative. Not all of it is inspired. None of it is inerrant. Sometimes, if you look really hard, you might find the word of God in it. But it’s up to you to decide which parts work for you and which parts don’t...” (pg. 82-83) I remember sitting in my college dorm room when a friend came in and explained to me why, according to his study, he thinks that Scripture was corrupted and what we have now is not what was originally written. I sat there stunned. The next year I heard about Dr. Bart Ehrman’s teachings on that exact point. As a result of that, my faith struggled a lot for several years. How do I know which parts to trust if it has been corrupted? How can I trust that they are all equally authoritative?
Throughout several chapters in her book, Alisa does an excellent job at concisely answering how scripture has, in fact, not been corrupted in such a way that we can’t even know what was originally written. Over the past years, I have been studying this issue in-depth and was amazed at how well she broke down the complex issue of textual criticism (see this link for several scholars responding to Ehrman). Her simple analogies really help the reader understand why having so many copies of the New Testament and quotes from early Church fathers help us have a clearer picture of the original, historic, Christian faith.
I know that she has spent a lot of time studying this issue and she has truly blessed the Church, doubters, and those that are currently questioning the “progressive Christianity” movement with her simple explanations.
Childers also talks about how she later realized that the study group goal was different than what she hoped:
“It was clear that this group of people wanted to “progress” beyond the Christianity they had known. They were going through what would practically become a rite of passage in this new and flourishing movement: deconstruction. In the context of faith, deconstruction is the process of systematically dissecting and often rejecting the beliefs you grew up with. Sometimes the Christian will deconstruct all the way into atheism. Some remain there, but others experience a reconstruction. But the type of faith they end up embracing almost never resembles the Christianity they formerly knew. Traditional understandings of the Cross, the Bible, and the gospel get taken out with the trash. looking back, I believe that this class wasn’t really a class. It was the progressive pastor’s deconstruction, and he was attempting to take us with him. He partially succeeded. After I left the class, I was isolated and alone as the doubts he planted began to take root and grow. For a while, I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I was holding on to Jesus with everything I had, while the foundation of my faith shook as if hit by a tsunami, crashing down on what I thought about church and the Bible.” (24-25) I felt the same as Alisa after progressive teachings were promoted to me by authors and professors I trusted.
Over the years, I have watched as several of my former classmates that I respected embrace critical theory, open theism, Gnosticism, universalism, theistic evolution, and homosexual marriage. They have deconstructed from the historic Christian position.
How did this happen?
My jaw nearly dropped when I read the section where Childers describes Progressive teacher Nadia Bolz Webber, in her book Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, applauding a girl for tearing out of her Bible all the passages that talk about homosexuality. I thought it was telling when Childers pointed out that "her book isn't primarily about the Bible, but in order to teach this new view of sexuality, she has to redefine biblical authority and how the Bible is to be read and interpreted" (163). In the end, it is the same with all people:
We are trying to make ourselves god when "Certain parts are more 'sacred' than others, this leaves the reader in the position of deciding which parts to obey and which parts to throw out" (164).
The authority of scripture is THE most important issue in our culture today. Either we stand under its authority, or we try to stand over it. We must decide "how much authority does this book hold in our lives?" (176).
If we don't get our source of authority right, we will never be able to accurately put our finger on what is wrong with humanity.
3. Humanity’s ultimate problem is misdiagnosed with Progressive Christianity
Childers discusses how many progressives deny or are skeptical of a historical Adam and Eve and many other key figures in the Old Testament. When I was in college, it was confusing as some of my Bible classes de-emphasized the importance of Adam literally existing, whereas I had an excellent Biology professor that demolished evolution scientifically.
This was an interesting competition of views.
I knew that it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if Adam didn’t have a literal fall into sin resulting in death, suffering, and sinful human nature, then how do we explain all the evil and suffering in the world? The progressive view of human nature is that it is "basically good"- thus, they deny original sin, the sinful nature that we inherit from Adam’s fall.
Yet why does Scripture say that Jesus must die for sinners (Isaiah 53) and that death is the final enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) that must be defeated? If the first Adam didn't literally fall bring about the fall, why is the second Adam, Jesus, dying for this problem? If Jesus isn't dying for that problem, does that mean that Jesus was just an "example of love and forgiveness" like the progressive writers are saying?
This seems to follow once you deny foundational teaching laid out in Genesis. While in college, I remember hearing about the “Documentary Hypothesis” that put into question the existence and authorship of Moses of the first five books of the Bible. Thus, since the historicity of Adam and Moses and the accuracy of the Pentateuch were put into question, it makes sense that many of my friends rejected historic Christian teachings on sexual morality, eternity, and view on the nature of scripture.
What helped me work through this maze of confusion after college was seeing good reasons that the New Testament was reliably transmitted and seeing how Jesus viewed the rest of scripture- particularly the first five books. Childers magnificently accomplishes both tasks in this book.
(Bonus: Also, watching Dr. Stephen Meyer's teaching series on the Exodus and the Patterns of Evidence movies on The Moses Controversy and The Exodus really helped a lot too.) The problem of misdiagnosing the problem of humanity and rejecting Scripture as the ultimate authority is that you will end up prescribing the wrong solution. As a result, Childers points out how many progressive teachers are promoting viewpoints that sprinkle “Christianity” over critical theory that is about dismantling systems of oppression rather than people confronting their sinful rebellion against a Holy and perfect God. Everything and everyone must now be understood in terms of power dynamics and seeing “the world as a struggle between oppressed groups and their oppressors.” (58). Don't mishear me, Biblically grounded justice matters a lot, and injustice should be opposed. (Watch this and this one why critical theory is unbiblical and unhelpful). The Bible speaks a lot about justice. However, Childers rightly brings the reader's attention to the critical theory approach to justice and how our culture defines who or what is “oppressive” and how it is at odds with the Christian worldview: “As Christians, we are called to do good works. In fact, James 2:26 tells us that “faith apart from works is dead.” So naturally, a Christian will begin to produce these good works in response to their salvation. But when someone accepts the ideas of critical theory, it can begin to erode their Christian worldview by taking their eyes off the fundamental truths of who God is and how he works in the world. It excuses a person from upholding biblical morality and even considers the historic Christian sexual ethic to be oppressive. It can lead someone into progressive Christianity, which already devalues the historic answer to these “worldview questions” and focuses on actions over belief. That becomes just another works-based gospel that ebbs and flows with cultural norms” (61, emphasis mine).
This type of thinking has led many to believe that they can “live” the gospel by doing good works. This confuses the law (do this) with the gospel (what has been done) and misunderstands how Biblical Justice is not the same as culture's definition.
This misdiagnosis only leads people to a greater burden of trying to be good enough. Childers points out that: “By denying original sin and God’s plan to redeem humans and reconcile them to himself, the progressive gospels gives us an important deity who can stand in “solidarity” with humans in our suffering and evil but can’t cure it. This is not the gospel of Jesus. This is not the gospel of apostles or ancient Christianity. It is not the gospel that can be traced through history to bring life and hope to Christians everywhere in the world today." (93). This is truly another gospel and affects how we view what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
4. The work of Jesus doesn’t make any sense with progressive Christianity
In the last half of the book, Childers walks us through the views of Progressive teachers like Brian Zahnd, Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and Brian McLaren and how they THINK their view of God is more loving than the historic Christian view. They believe that the historic position, penal substitutionary atonement, is "Cosmic Child Abuse." Thus, they deny that Jesus died on our behalf to pay for sin to satisfy the wrath of God, but that humans required sacrifice, not God. Consequently, Jesus is seen as merely setting an "example of forgiveness for us all to follow” (86)
Childers does a great job unpacking the "straw man" (an idea is misrepresented) critiques of what Christ accomplished on the cross by these progressive teachers. I found her discussion on misunderstandings about atonement, hell, and suffering very helpful.
One of the most powerful points she makes is when she walks the reader through the consistent testimony of the Bible that shows that man is not good and evil must be taken seriously by a good and Holy God and that the entire Bible points to the necessity of an atonement (payment/covering of) for our sin against a Holy God.
After that section, she points out that: “...It all comes down to whether or not you really think you are a sinner. If you think you are basically good and kind and moral, then someone dying and agonizing and bloody death on your behalf sounds horrific and unnecessary. But if you know you are a sinner who deserves to pay the ultimate penalty for your sins, as I do, this is the greatest news you could ever receive. Progressive Christians assume they are painting God in a more tolerant light by denying the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. But in reality, they are simply constructing a codependent and impotent god who is powerless to stop evil. That god is not really good. That god is not the God of the Bible. That god cannot save you" (224). I am grateful for Alisa’s story. I am grateful that God used it to force her to know why she believes what she believes. The same type of thing happened to me. However, I still wish I had this type of book when I was younger. Plus, if you are a Christian, we are told to: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Colossians 2:8
I urge you to go buy Another Gospel? here and read it. Then read it again and maybe even start a discussion group at your church or listen to it on audible with your kids! Also, check out Alisa's website here and watch American Gospel: Christ Crucified to hear more of Alisa's story and progressive Christianity answered.