Recently, some United Church of Christ (UCC) friends asked me what the difference is between Progressive and Evangelical churches and beliefs. With more passion than wisdom, I bit off on their bait.
I said that Evangelical congregations can be Southern Baptist, Reformed, Wesleyan, and Lutheran (Missouri Synod). They can belong to charismatic or Pentecostal fellowships like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). Or they can have the words, Independent or Bible Church in their names.
Mainline Protestant churches may be Presbyterian (USA), Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, United Methodist, Lutheran (ELCA), American Baptist, Unitarian-Universalist, and United Church of Christ.
I added that Black and ethnic congregations are often theologically Evangelical and socially Progressive.
Mainline churches (including UCC congregations) can be more or less Progressive or Evangelical, depending on their individual histories, cultures, and locations. In cities they tend to be Progressive; in rural America, they lean Evangelical. This can make it exasperatingly difficult for someone who relocates from, say, California or Massachusetts to Central New York, and starts visiting rural UCC congregations hoping to find a church like the one she attended in San Francisco or Boston!
My friends did not like my explanations. Annette, a congregant, said that all my talk about the differences between churches was divisive and upsetting to inclusive, ecumenically-minded UCC people. Besides, such comparisons would likely be imprecise—so wouldn’t it be better if I talked about churches’ similarities, instead?!!!
I responded that, yes, theological language and distinctions can be vague and confusing, but there is no other medium for learning about churches, dispelling misinformation, or coming to terms with our own religious beliefs and values. Indeed:
- Progressive and Evangelical Christians worship side-by-side in most UCC churches, every Sunday. This can be confusing—and refusing to discuss our differences, or ignoring them, exacerbates misunderstandings.
- Church people find the religious jargon of clergy disorienting—and would benefit greatly if we authorized-minister types explained our pronouncements and beliefs in simple language.
- We may say that theological differences don’t matter, and that one church or minister is like any other, but our conversations and behaviors betray us. We do discuss and worry about theology; we do ask “what’s-the-difference-between…” questions; and we do make theological judgments all the time. There is a reason why we worship in the church we do, or have our ministerial standing in one particular denomination, and not in another.
- The idea that all ministers or all churches are the same can lead to pernicious search-and-call outcomes. If congregations and ministers don’t know who they are theologically, or can’t distinguish between Evangelical and Progressive pastoral candidates or churches, many bad things can happen, in fairly short order, when they stumble upon each other.
Our theological language and discussions are like those map kiosks in shopping malls, that tell us where we are in relation to the stores around us. They help us find our way.
UCC Evangelicals and Progressives can be distinguished in terms of their beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, faith, and mission.
Many Evangelicals believe in the “verbal plenary inspiration” of scripture. They insist that every word in the Bible is “God-breathed,” and they read the scriptures literally.
In contrast, many Progressives say they take the Bible seriously but not literally. They say that the Bible is the Word of God, not a science textbook. It gives us general faith principles, but does not tell us who to vote for, or whether the United States should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, or if a caregiving wife should have doctors disconnect her dying husband’s life-support system.
UCC Evangelicals believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are historically accurate, and they tend to endorse the Chalcedonian Creed’s affirmation of 451 A.D., that Jesus is fully God and fully man, deserving of humankind’s worship and allegiance.
Most Evangelicals also believe in Jesus’ “vicarious substitutionary death” on the cross. They insist that God’s wrath against humanity could only be appeased by the shedding of Jesus’ blood. Thus, Calvary was the reason Jesus was born; he came to “die for our sins,” and in our place.
Many Progressives disagree, and concur with theologian Marcus Borg, who distinguished between the “pre-Easter Jesus,” a finite, mortal, and mysterious figure we know little about—and the “post-Easter Jesus” of Christian tradition, who is eternal, divine, and fully knowable through faith.
Concurring with Aquinas, many Progressives assert that God did not need the cross, or the shedding of Jesus’ blood, to forgive human sin. Forgiveness of sin was simply the result of God’s merciful desire to forgive. Period.
Many UCC Evangelicals would say that humans are sinful by nature, and will spend eternity in hell unless they are “born again.” Thus, making a “decision for Christ,” “getting saved,” “receiving Christ,” or “inviting Jesus into one’s heart” is every person’s chief responsibility. This spiritual encounter with Jesus is the only means of salvation, most UCC Evangelicals insist. Thus, devout Jews, adherents of other religions, and the “unsaved” will not go to heaven, even if they live lives of moral virtue.
Progressive Christians understand salvation as an ongoing journey, not as a final destination, and not as a formula printed on a religious brochure. Indeed, the Bible describes a “saving” relationship with God in many different ways; thus, many Progressives insist that “many roads lead to God,” and that we are all being saved every day. Many reject the concept of hell altogether, and say that a loving God saves all people—even if they do not make a decision for Christ—indeed, even if they are Buddhists or atheists.
Many Evangelical efforts at mission are prompted by Jesus’ “Great Commission,” which prompts them to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20), and by Biblical references to Christ’s second coming. Urged on by such teachings, Evangelicals believe that the “lost” must be given the opportunity to “get right with God” before it is too late for repentance or salvation. Thus, the ultimate goal of many Evangelical church suppers and food pantry ministries is “winning souls for Christ.”
Progressives are far less impressed by the Great Commission, and more favorably impressed by Jesus’ “Great Commandment” to “love God with all our heart and soul and mind,” and then “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Progressives believe that God is concerned with everyone and everything—with whole persons and the whole Earth; thus, salvation is communal and global. It is about protecting the environment, promoting global peace, feeding the hungry, advocating for LGBTQ rights, embracing the Black Lives Matter movement, fighting sexism, sheltering undocumented foreigners, and promoting the dignity of all people.
I’m interested in your comments. What did I get right? What do you disagree with?
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.