How to read the Bible like a progressive—is that really a good idea? No, I’m not suggesting you try this. In fact, I’m going to suggest that you learn how progressive Christians read the Bible in order to keep yourself from doing it.
What’s a “progressive”? I’m using “progressive” to refer to a person who rewrites important and essential Christian doctrines in order to make Christianity fit well with contemporary Western culture. Because progressives want to fit Christianity into the mold of cultural values, that means there are lots of Christian teachings which don’t make the cut. They’re pretty selective about which Scriptures have authority over their lives.
Before we keep going, let me start with some humility. Progressive Christians aren’t the only ones selective about which Scriptures they’re going to emphasize and obey. We all fall short when it comes to obeying God’s Word consistently. Sometimes that’s because we follow culture instead of Christ. Other times, that’s because we pick and choose what we’ll obey based on our moral appetites. None of this is okay.
But wait; I’m not done being humble. I also think I understand where a lot of progressives are coming from. Christianity is a missionary religion. We want to present Christianity in ways that appeal to the culture. Progressives take this good impulse too far by redefining what Christianity actually is. But at least they are aware of the culture around them and want to reach it with their faith in some sense.
Okay, now onto the question of how to read the Bible like a progressive. I said earlier that progressive Christians aren’t the only ones who are selective about Scripture. So what makes the way progressives read the Bible different from the way Bible-believing Christians read it? Good question. The difference is this: Bible-believing Christians can be selective in obeying the Bible, but when this selectivity is pointed out, they feel ashamed for it. All the while, a progressive is selective and proud of it.
Progressives see their selectivity as a good thing.
Let me give an illustration. A progressive organization called The Reformation Project seeks to “guide and support churches to reform their teachings and policies to fully affirm LGBTQ Christians.” Please notice that the point isn’t to reform the church so that it better aligns with biblical teachings about sexuality. Rather, the point is to get churches to reform their teachings in order to affirm LGBTQ views of sexuality and gender. That’s a big difference. They have a predetermined outcome (affirming LGBTQ views), and they intentionally interpret Scripture to fit this goal.
And yet the Bible doesn’t affirm LGBTQ views. The Bible affirms that God made us male and female, and it has absolutely nothing good to say about homosexual sexuality. So, how do the progressives at The Reformation Project feel right about reinterpreting these Scriptures to say what they don’t actually say?
Their method is fascinating. Here’s the way I’ve seen numerous progressives proudly defend their selectivity about Scripture: They ask whether or not a passage of Scripture has been used to hurt people. If it has been used to hurt people, then they feel justified in rejecting its message (usually by reinterpreting it until the original message is neutralized).
Here’s an example: In a keynote speech for the Reformation Project, progressive ethicist David Gushee explains that there are passages in the Bible that had been used throughout church history to fuel anti-Semitism. After the Jewish Holocaust, Christians decided that they would reinterpret these Scriptures so that they would no longer be used that way:
“Most branches of an appalled Christian world intentionally began changing their teaching about Judaism and the Jewish people. It was a profound transformation involving both subtle and overt repudiation of past teaching along with the development of new teaching. . . . Biblical passages that everyone had interpreted a certain way were now interpreted in new ways.”
In the same way, Gushee explains, there have been Scriptures that have been used hurtfully toward LGBTQ people. Therefore, Gushee teaches that those are Scriptures which need to be reinterpreted.
And that’s how progressives read the Bible selectively and still sleep well at night. Since people who hate gays have used Bible verses to fuel their hatred, then progressives say we need to reinterpret those verses in gay-affirming ways. Since misogynists have misused Scriptures about gender roles to keep women under their thumb, progressives preach the need to exorcise these Scriptures of gender roles altogether. Since legalists have wielded Scriptures about sexual purity as a club to beat deep shame into teens, progressives feel justified in demonizing the very idea of sexual purity.
The tragedy here is that progressives are responding to a mishandling of Scripture by mistreating Scripture even further. Scriptures used to bully people are further abused by having their authority revoked. If you look up these Scriptures, you won’t find hatred toward Jewish people or gays or anybody. You’ll find truth in love. Yet, as the saying goes, “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context.”
Eventually, progressives get to the point where they equate harm with offense. As for offense, the Bible causes offense of one kind or another on every other page. But that’s not the same thing as causing harm. The teachings of the Bible are offensive to lots of people (in fact, to all of us, at one time or another). Offensive or not, when you trust God and follow His word, it’s the “road that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14). Yet when progressives spot offense against Western cultural sensibilities, again they see something that needs to be reinterpreted.
At the end of the day, it’s a question of which surgeon we should trust with the knife: God’s Word as a “double-edged sword” which “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow” (Heb. 4:12)—or my ability to cut and paste, picking and choosing until the Bible’s claims trouble me no more.