Progressive Christian Ethics—An Exercise in Duplicity?

In my recent studies of progressive Christian thinkers, many of which I have published on this blog, I keep running into a paradox in their ethical reasoning, specifically in their arguments for full acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities and lifestyles and their justifications of abortion and sexual activity outside of marriage. On the one hand, they argue like strict legalists, focusing on the precise meanings of words and sentences, and on the other hand they dismiss or reinterpret the Bible’s moral commands by means of general principles.

Progressive Legalism

As examples of the legalist mentality, we saw the Dean of Yale Divinity School argue in effect that because the Bible does not say in many words, “You shall not kill your unborn baby,” we can assume that we are permitted to do so. See my July 7, 2022 essay “A Wizard Ought to Know Better.”

 Also, Karen Keen*, Robert K. Gnuse*, David Caden*, and David P. Gushee* argue that the Bible permits loving, non-coercive, same-sex sexual relationships among equals.** A significant component of their argument contends that since the Bible never specifically condemns such relationships, the texts that mention same-sex sexual activity (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, and others) should not be used in moral arguments to condemn loving gay relationships. Freed from scriptural condemnations, we can look for other ways to justify same-sex sexual relationships as good and right—gathered from science, psychology, sociology, or evolutionary biology.

Progressive theologians fuss over words like clever lawyers looking for loopholes they can exploit. In my reading of their works, I do not get the impression that their fussiness about the letter of the law arises from a desire to obey God’s commands to the letter. Some other desire seems to be at work.

Progressive Liberalism

On the other hand, when explicit biblical instructions and the consensus of the 2000-year Christian tradition stands irrefutably against them, they abandon the “letter” for the “spirit” of the law. They appeal to general principles to overturn the specific moral teaching of the Bible and tradition. We should, they say, always do the loving thing, the just, merciful, compassionate thing. We should not cause harm. And if following the Bible’s and the tradition’s moral teaching does not seem loving and compassionate, we must reinterpret or reject it. In this way, progressive Christians set aside explicit biblical teaching and the consensus of the ecumenical church when it does not seem to them loving, just, merciful, compassionate…or progressive.

General Principles Are Not Enough

But a moment’s thought reveals that general principles alone cannot guide us in specific situations. How do the principles of justice, peace, mercy, and love, apart from specific commands and a tradition of examples, doctrine, and narratives, give us concrete guidance in particular situations? They cannot do so. What is justice? What does it mean to cause harm to someone? Is making them feel uncomfortable causing harm? How do I love my neighbor? What are compassion and mercy?

Every observer of modern culture knows that many of our contemporaries, having cut themselves loose from the biblical and ecclesiastical tradition, use these words as empty vessels into which to pour their own wishes, desires, and preferences. Do you love someone when you validate their desires and feelings, when you care only for their subjective sense of well-being? Or, does loving someone mean to will and seek the best for them? From where, then, do we learn what is good, better, and best for human beings? Progressive Christians clearly look to progressive culture for guidance.

But progressive Christianity is not the real thing. It is a fake. Taking up the real Christian life involves learning the true nature of love, justice, mercy, compassion, and all other virtues from the Bible’s commands, narratives, doctrines, and examples. It involves listening to the wisdom of the tradition and joining with the whole church in seeking to obey God’s will. We cannot do this if we claim the right to sit in judgment over every specific command in view of empty general principles.

*To read these reviews, copy and paste these names into the search box on the top right of this page.

**Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships 

Robert K. Gnuse,“Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality” (Biblical Theology Bulletin 45. 2: 68-87).

 David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue

David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity

2 thoughts on “Progressive Christian Ethics—An Exercise in Duplicity?

  1. Dr John Smalhouse

    Hello Ron,
    I’m pleased to read you again, and would like to offer you something with greater enthusiasm, willingness and more hope than i have hitherto communicated.
    And i offer this short passage to all those you mention on this ‘crusade’ of yours, students, friends and Christians alike whom have the time, and God’s blessing to read or reply.
    Rev John Wesley was known for “thrusting onward, pressing forward, marching ahead” so i’d like to try the same, and to take you (all) along… i’ve taken this excerpt from my copy of ” A plain account of Christian Perfection; as believed and taught by the (late) Rev John Wesley”
    John Mason, Paternoster-Row, London 1830.
    PP30-38 The doctrine of sanctification. Beginning “on monday june 25, 1744 our first conference began…”.
    Viz. p31…”Q. What do we allow then?
    A. We grant (i) that many of those who have died in the faith, yea, the greater part of those we have known, were not perfected in love till a little before their death: (ii) that the term sanctified, is continually applied by St Paul to all that were justified: (iii) That by this term alone, he rarely, if ever, means saved from all sin: (iv) That consequently, it is not proper to use it in that sense, without adding the word ‘wholly, entirely’ or the like: (v) That the inspired writers almost continually speak of or to those who were justified, but very rarely of, or to those who were wholly sanctified: (vi) That, consequently, it behoves us to speak almost continually of the state of justification; but more rarely, at least in full and explicit terms, concerning entire sanctification.
    Q. What then is the point where we divide?
    A. It is this; Should we expect to be saved from all sin before the article of death?
    Q. (and) Is there any clear Scripture promise of this, that God will save us from all sin?”… …
    You’ll have to read Wesley’s short chapter to find out. He uses both OT and NT, and combines them together in his discussion.
    I hope that you can find a copy, and come back to me. I don’t believe you refer to this book anwhere else Ron ( inc your book The New Adam)? Besides, even if you know Christian Perfection well, it would mean a lot to me, that you share your views with me. I think these pages (mentioned above) have great bearing on this topical thread.
    To others reading, it asks who are you? Do you want to be the “wheat” or are you going to be the “chaff”? But you still need to read around justfication, sanctification and holiness or piety.
    Best wishes JS.
    ( i can scan pages if you’d like, well out of copyright)


  2. Charles A Hanson

    Bible never specifically condemns such relationships, the texts that mention same-sex sexual activity (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, and others)
    The bible is not short in the truth. These men do not think so sad and they think God will not judge them. Rom 2:3 And, O man, the one judging those who do such things, and practice them, do you think this, that you shall escape the judgment of God? 
    These men have no understanding of eternal life. 1Cor. 6: 9-11They shall inherit the Royal reign of God. 
    These men have no spiritual understanding of the good news. They are still in the milk of the word. So sad.



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