The Truth and Myth of the “PCA Progressive”
Recently, I posted another essay about the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the denomination of which Christ Presbyterian Church is a part. This is a follow up to that essay, in which I will speak to what some are calling “The PCA Progressive.”
IN TRUTH, WE ARE ALL PROGRESSIVES
Some have expressed concern that the PCA is headed down a “slippery slope” toward progressivism. Social media groups, blog platforms, and entire conferences have been organized to address this alleged problem. Concerned parties feel that some in the PCA are pushing the envelope too far on things like women in leadership, race relations, and treatment of those who experience unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA).
Whenever words like “progressive” are used, it is important to define our terms carefully. Like the word “fundamentalist,” the word “progressive” carries different meaning in different contexts. In the PCA context, it is a loaded term.
The word “progressive” is tricky because in one sense, everyone in the PCA is a progressive. All of our ministers and elders especially would say they desire *progress* toward greater faithfulness to Scripture. It was Luther who said that Christians should be “reformed and always reforming.” The reformed faith itself began as a progress-seeking (progressive) movement. Concerned about toxic systems of doctrine and practice in their time, the likes of Luther and Calvin stood up to what could be described as warped views about God and injurious treatment of people.
The doctrine of human depravity reminds us that on this side of glory, we can never legitimately say we have arrived. Humble self-examination and an ongoing posture of repentance that seeks to align more with Scripture today than we have in the past is the foundational commitment of every “reformed and always reforming” believer.
In past times, this same posture led to the formation of the historic creeds to correct heresies that threatened orthodoxy, the centering of justification by faith to correct the false notion of salvation by works, the abolition of slavery and the advancement of civil rights to correct racial disparities, and more. In each case, blind spots among Christians were exposed, renounced, and corrected. Introspective Christians became more biblical in belief and practice, not less. They moved forward into greater faithfulness by moving backward into deeper study and functional commitment to biblical truth.
Indeed, all of us in the PCA are progressive in this regard. Thus, the humble among us welcome fair critique from one another as well as from outside voices—including those whose overall systems of belief we might not agree with 100%—concerning where our inhibiting blind spots, biases, and “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12) may exist.
Although most of us will not embrace their critiques and conclusions wholesale, books like Jesus and John Wayne and Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and podcasts like “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” shed uncomfortable but helpful light on, for example, the damage that toxic masculinity culture has done to women and girls, especially in certain complementarian contexts.
Similarly, books like Be the Bridge shed light on how some churches and denominations, including Presbyterian ones, have been dismissive toward expressions of race-related pain in their midst.
Likewise, evangelical books like Still Time to Care and Homosexuality and the Christian (plus similar, past writings from the likes of John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, and C.S. Lewis) shed light on how many churches, including Presbyterian ones, have failed to adequately welcome, support, care for, listen to, and empathetically lament the stories of men and women who experience unwanted same-sex attraction and the unique forms of isolation and shame that go with it.
To be clear, these are not men and women who have some sort of “homosexual agenda” for the PCA. They seek supportive, biblically-anchored community to help them *resist* temptation and live faithfully in accord with the Bible’s sex, marriage, and singleness ethic.
Some of us have failed these brothers and sisters by not being clear enough on Scripture’s decidedly counter-cultural ethic for sexual and marital flourishing. With the sexual revolution gaining momentum not only in surrounding culture but also in the western church, Christians must be more careful than ever to speak the truth of God plainly, carefully, and clearly on these matters.
Others of us have failed these same brothers and sisters by turning homosexual temptation and sin into its own uniquely reprehensible category, while allowing other reprehensible sins like heterosexual lust and pornographic consumption, loveless marriages, unbiblical divorce, child neglect, gluttony, greed, gossip, slander, and prejudice to go virtually untouched by comparison.
Most of us in the PCA want to do right by women, ethnic minorities, and those tempted by sexual immorality by becoming more biblical in our responses, not less. In that sense, we work and pray for *progress* in how we love God and neighbor, just as the Church in Acts did in response to cries of neglect by ethnic, gender, and generational minorities in their fellowship (Acts 6:1-7).
LIKEWISE, NONE OF US ARE PROGRESSIVES
In contrast to the “always reformed and reforming” ideal of what it means to be “progressive,” others have used the same word in a more pejorative, demeaning, and alarmist fashion in an effort to indict some of their fellow PCA ministers and members. Instead of doing so through the church court system where accused parties can receive a fair and objective hearing, such indictments have mostly been tossed like a grenade into the court of public opinion. As this has happened through social media, blog posts, and conferences, narratives declaring that so-called “progressives” in the PCA are on a “slippery slope toward liberalism” have gained traction.
This progressive and slippery slope language is wrongfully deceptive because it conflates (and, it seems, intentionally so) PCA ministers and members in good standing with a broader movement that is not part of the PCA, and that is commonly called “Progressive Christianity.”
Disturbingly, it is common for Progressive Christianity adherents to deny biblical authority and resist essential historic doctrines like hell and the final judgment, the substitutionary atonement, Christ’s unmistakable claim that no one comes to the Father except through him, the biblical sex, marriage, gender, and singleness ethic, and more.
To be clear, this “Progressive Christianity” movement shows exactly *zero* evidence of existing within the PCA.
Progressive Christianity does in fact offer fair critique of the conservative Christian movement concerning mistreatment of women, ethnic minorities, and people who experience same-sex attraction. However, the same movement is also known for swinging the pendulum too far, committing the grave error of exchanging certain historic, orthodox, biblical truths for something more akin to the spirit of the age. Alisa Childers has written a helpful book critiquing Progressive Christianity that I recommend for anyone who wishes to explore the subject further.
I believe that every PCA teaching and ruling elder would affirm Alisa’s book from cover to cover. I also believe that there is not a single PCA teaching or ruling elder who would identify as a Progressive Christian. There is no evidence anywhere of this. Thus, the pejorative “PCA Progressive” label that conflates some PCA ministers and churches with the Progressive Christian movement is, candidly, a misleading farce. The pejorative label has had the effect of emitting a lot of smoke (stoking anxiety, fear, mistrust, polarized echo chambers, unsavory denominational politics, and flat out falsehood), while at the same time not being able to produce a single smoking gun.
Those who have been labeled as “PCA Progressives” can be more accurately described as Bible-believing, Christ-centered, neighbor-loving theological and moral conservatives. Like others in the PCA, they believe the inerrant and infallible Bible from cover to cover, affirm the orthodox creeds, champion the sola’s of the Reformation and grace-filled Calvinism, and heartily affirm and teach the Westminster Standards.
The pejorative “PCA Progressive” label is therefore misleading at best, and deceptive at worst. One can only hope that all such labels will be dropped, and that anyone who has erroneously used them to discredit or diminish other PCA ministers and/or churches would humbly and publicly correct themselves and each other. Some might say it is time to mortify our spin.
We have been given to each other by the Lord as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is the nature of siblings to be for each other. It is also their nature to believe the best about each other versus committing assumicide and reputational homicide against each other.
If this was true for first century Jewish and Gentile Christians, then there is no reason it shouldn’t also be true for twenty-first century PCA folk.