Progressivism

Pointing - shadow

My son, fear the Lord and the king; do not associate with those who are given to change” (Proverbs 24:21).

The wise man warned about those who are “given to change.” These are ones who want change for the sake of change. Sometimes change is good and necessary, but other times it is not. However, change is inherently part of progressivism – the idea that we must continue to move forward and not remain as or where we were. In this article, we are going to discuss progressivism in religion – what it is and why it is dangerous.

Define “Progressivism”

When we hear people talk about progressivism, it is usually in the realm of politics; yet it also appears in religion. Merriam Webster defines progressive as “making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities.” The root word is progress. This necessarily suggests change.

There are certain times when change is necessary and we must progress. However, for the progressive, we do not just change when necessary because change is always necessary. In fact, a preacher at a local community church, in a lesson on “Progressive Christianity,” said, “To not move forward is to resist God.” Again, sometimes progress is good; yet the Scriptures also warn that some progress is not.

The Need for Progress

Paul told Timothy that his “progress” was to be “evident to all” (1 Timothy 4:15). The word translated progress means advancement (Strong’s). Timothy was to grow and improve in his service to God.

The New Testament mentions certain ways in which we must strive to progress (grow/improve):

  • In our knowledge of the Bible – Peter said we must “grow in…knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). This is done through reading and studying the Bible (1 Timothy 4:13, 16).
  • In our practice of prayer – Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). The practice of prayer – like anything else – is learned over time. No one is perfect in this, which is why Paul said “we do not know how to pray as we should” (Romans 8:26). We are all continually developing this habit.
  • In our resisting sin and temptation – Even the apostle Paul said, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Resisting sin is likened to exercise. We must either progress or regress (cf. Hebrews 3:12-13).
  • In our example before others – Timothy was told, “Show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:12). This was one area in which “progress” was to be made (1 Timothy 4:15).
  • In our ability to teach others – The Hebrew writer indicated that after a certain period of time, Christians ought to develop the ability to teach others (Hebrews 5:12-14). This takes time because we must progress in our ability to “accurately [handle] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
  • In our spiritual maturity and development – Paul told the saints in Thessalonica that they “actually do walk” according to the Lord’s instructions given by the apostle, yet they were to “excel still more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1). We must continue to “add to [our] faith” and “abound” in godly characteristics (2 Peter 1:5-8, KJV).

Christians are to progress in the areas in which progress is commended to us in the New Testament.

Not All Progress Is Good

However, while there is a type of progress that is good and necessary, Paul warned of another type of progress: “But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). He used the same root word to describe those who progress in sin. Clearly, not all progress is good; yet progressivism promotes changes as necessary and ultimately good that are contrary to God’s revealed word.

Consider some types of progress that Christians must avoid:

  • We must not progress in sin – Paul warned Timothy of the inherently progressive nature of sin (2 Timothy 3:13). Therefore, we must work to remove sin from our lives. John wrote, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). Jesus said, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We must strive to do this rather than being content to “continue in sin” (Romans 6:1-2) and, therefore, progress in it.
  • We must not progress beyond the doctrine of Christ – John spoke of those “who [go] too far and [do] not abide in the teaching of Christ” (2 John 9). We are to “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) rather than progressing beyond God’s revealed will. We need to have authority for all that we say and do (cf. Colossians 3:17; Matthew 7:21-23).
  • We must not progress in expanding fellowship beyond what God allows – Paul rebuked the Corinthians for tolerating and becoming “arrogant” about the fact that they refused to discipline one among them who continued in sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). It is important that we work to “preserve the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3), but that does not mean we tolerate sin and error. Paul told the church in Corinth, “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11). John said we must “not receive” a false teacher or “give him a greeting” (2 John 10). Yet many want to progress beyond these fellowship rules that God has given.
  • We must not progress in becoming more tolerant than God – The Lord commended the church in Ephesus because they “hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6). Jesus did not approve of the Nicolaitans’ sin and did not want Christians to approve of it either. Yet the church in Pergamum was rebuked for allowing those who “hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” to remain among them (Revelation 2:15-16). It is certainly true that all are welcome to come to God, but it must be upon His conditions – to fear and obey Him (Acts 10:34-35). Some progress so far in their tolerance that they become more accepting than God is.

Progressivism in religion either permits or promotes these types of “progress.”

The Danger of Progressivism

Why is progressivism particularly dangerous in religion? Consider a few reasons:

  • Progressivism causes one to arrogantly think that we are more enlightened than the early Christians – The early Christians certainly had to grow. Consider the example of Peter who was told to “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) and be a witness of Christ “to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Yet he was slow to understand that he could go and preach to the Gentiles (Acts 10:13-16, 34-35). His brethren in Jerusalem also questioned him when he finally did (Acts 11:2-3). However, even though they had to grow in their understanding, the Holy Spirit still guided the apostles “into all the truth” (John 16:13). Jude said that “the faith…was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). The Scriptures have not changed; therefore, we cannot take information that is outside of the word of God and then claim to be more enlightened than those early Christians. We have the word of God just as they did.
  • Progressivism elevates our experiences as an authority equal to or greater than the Scriptures – To the progressive, personal and societal experience necessitates a move beyond what the Bible teaches. Yet we are to follow the word of God. Jesus told His apostles that they were to teach the disciples “to observe all that I commanded you” and that He would be with them as they did this “even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). We are to “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) rather than progress past this. Our experience does not change what God has said. Peter spoke of “mockers” who would ridicule the idea of the Lord returning based upon the fact that they had never experienced anything like that (2 Peter 3:3-9). Yet their experience did not change the Lord’s promise.
  • Progressivism falsely equates human tradition and understanding with Scripture – In order to justify a progression beyond what the Scriptures teach, the progressive must point to faulty human tradition and understanding and claim that these are reasons to progress beyond the word of God. For instance, the progressive might cite the fact that “Christian” people owned and abused slaves in this country’s history and use that to defend the progression of ideals. Or the progressive might point out the fact that “Christian” people used to believe that the earth was flat and use that to argue that the progression of scientific understanding must affect religious beliefs. However, the Bible never teaches that Christians may abuse slaves or that the earth is flat. Furthermore, the Bible condemns the elevation of human tradition as religious requirements (Matthew 15:6-9) and warns against trusting our own fallible understanding (Proverbs 14:12). Yet by equating human tradition and understanding with Scripture, the progressive feels justified in setting aside what the Scriptures actually teach when he believes it is warranted.
  • Progressivism requires us to reinterpret Scripture to fit modern culture – Again, all truth has already been given (John 16:13; Jude 3). Time does not change God’s word. Peter wrote, “‘But the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). Yet the progressive believes that the truth must change. Furthermore, it is very significant that the definitions of truth and right are always changing with culture. This despite the fact that we must “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed” (Romans 12:2). Progressivism in religion always causes one to follow the progression of society.
  • Progressivism justifies the breaking of Scripture – This is not a false charge; rather, the progressive actually believes he can rightly “break” Scripture (the preacher I mentioned at the beginning of this article used this exact type of language). Yet this is not surprising given the fact that the progressive believes that our modern enlightenment and experience will cause us to have a different version of “truth” than the early Christians. If that were the case, then we would “break” many of the Scriptures that were written to them. Yet Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). As we have already noticed, the word of God does not change (1 Peter 1:25). Therefore, despite what the progressive thinks, we are not at liberty to “break” the Scripture when we feel it is justified.
  • Progressivism leads us to accept everyone in sin and error – We have already discussed the New Testament warnings about progressing beyond God’s rules for fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; Revelation 2:14-15). Yet since the progressive has already moved past the word of God, there is no basis for rejecting those in sin and error. This leads to the final point.
  • Progressivism prohibits us from teaching that anyone is going to hell – Those who promote “progressive Christianity” will embrace religious pluralism and come to believe that we cannot warn against anyone going to hell – even those who follow Islam, Hinduism, or even atheism (if they have not embraced this idea yet, they will eventually progress to this understanding). The reason why they cannot teach that anyone is going to hell is because they falsely equate God’s love with salvation. We know that God loves everyone (John 3:16), yet not all will be saved (Matthew 7:13-14). Peter made it clear that “there is salvation in no one” other than Christ (Acts 4:12). Those who “do not know God and…do not obey the gospel” will be lost (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Our society may be growing more religiously diverse, but that does not change what the word of God has said.

Conclusion

Many people like change. They do not like the fact that the New Testament contains a fixed, unchanging pattern. While we must always seek to grow, we need to remember that progressivism is destructive so that we can guard against it and warn others about it.


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