The range of labels Christians use for ourselves and each other can be bewildering. What from one person is a compliment may be an insult from another. What seems purely descriptive may carry a value judgement, and vice versa. It’s confusing, and it’s not always helpful. But the words we use for each other, and the ways we choose to define ourselves, are important, so here goes…..
I used to describe myself as “liberal”. More specifically a liberal Anglo-Catholic. I still do sometimes – in some contexts it can be a useful shorthand for “I believe gender should be no barrier to ordination to all orders of ministry, and I believe LGBT+ people are and should be treated as full and equal members of the body of Christ” (which is a bit of a mouthful in conversation!) But these days I prefer to describe myself as “progressive”.
And why is that? Well, it’s because I believe we are making progress. Slow progress, painfully slow, but progress none the less. Progress towards a world which more closely resembles the kingdom of God. Progress towards a church which more clearly reflects the fullness of Christ. Progress which comes about when the Spirit moves.
And it’s because I believe we should be making progress. Not clinging to every detail of what we see in Old Testament, or even New Testament, times but paying attention to what God is doing now, today. Because believe me, the Spirit is still moving, still changing things.
This isn’t some wishy-washy, liberal/progressive thing I’ve made up to justify conforming to the ways of the world. It’s in the Bible. Jesus himself says:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16.12-14)
Not everything there is to know about God is already known. The Spirit will go on leading us into all truth. It’s happened all through history: we see it in the early church, in Acts, about the issue of circumcision; we saw it in the 19th century about slavery; and many, many times in between and since.
The Spirit is leading us into all truth, just as quickly as we can bear it. Which, quite frankly, often doesn’t seem to me to be quickly enough. But God’s timing is beyond our understanding, and I’m sure it all looks very different from the perspective of eternity!
I think progressive Christians have been very bad at stating the biblical basis for our position. Our conservative brothers and sisters are quick to support their positions with scripture, and sometimes we can unintentionally leave the impression that being progressive/liberal requires an abandoning of scripture, or at least a demotion of the Bible. That’s not true.
I’m a progressive Christian because of what I read in the Bible, not in spite of it. I can’t (and won’t) start a proof-texting contest because it’s not about single verses, used as weapons. That’s always going to be destructive. It’s about the whole sweep of the biblical narrative. It’s about discerning the Word behind the words. When I read the Bible, I see the narrative of God’s relationship with humanity, and it’s a narrative of progress: creation, fall, flood, exodus, prophecy, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, pentecost, early church… It’s not a story that stands still.
And it’s not a story that ends when the biblical narrative ends. The narrative goes on, and we’re part of it too. The Spirit is still at work. Human perceptions of God (always flawed) have changed many times, and will continue to change as we struggle to move forward into all truth. And so perceptions of our own relationship with God can and will – and should – change too. I believe this is part of God’s will for us. We should be questioning more about how we understand God and ourselves and each other. We should be seeking to better understand the enormous mystery of God’s love for us, even if that means re-evaluating everything else we believe. We should be willing participants in the progress of God’s plan for the world.
“Progressive” is not a dirty word. I’m proud to be a progressive Christian.