UCC Evangelicals and Progressives: How They’re Different. Why It Matters.

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.

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Source: Pixabay.com

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.

THE BIBLE

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.

JESUS

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.

FAITH

Source: Pixabay.com

Source: Pixabay.com

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.

MISSION

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?

Chris XenakisRev. 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.

 

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31 thoughts on “UCC Evangelicals and Progressives: How They’re Different. Why It Matters.

  1. I think you’re fair. The toughest assignment of Christ is probably yhe admonishion to “love your enemy”. The point of human life that is most dangerous, IMO, is when we have been truly wronged. It seems that forgiving is hard to grasp the more legitimate the offense. Yet, if we fail in forgiveness, we hold our offender close and do not heal completely. Thanks for thoughts!

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  2. As an Evangelical Christian I believe that salvation is only obtained through personal acceptance of Christ as Savior.
    The progressive version, which now is that of the majority of UCC clergy/churches, is that “For God so loved the world that through love all are automatically saved”.

    These are fundamental differences that cannot coexist in the same church. So the UCC should at least of the guts to clearly tell members and put on their website a “Statement of Faith” or “What we Believe” concerning salvation.

    As a UCC member here is what I see as the belief of the majority of UCC churches.

    1. There is no need for personal acceptance of Christ. Because God is love, all humanity goes to heaven.
    2. There is no hell
    3. The bible is a book of stories and those about Jesus are there only to teach us how treat each other.
    4. Those portions of the bible not liked, are ignored or say God is still speaking (changing what is in the bible). Examples are of course gay sex, that the gate to hell is wide but to heaven narrow, etc.
    5. The UCC is highly political, with a far left agenda. Pick any political topic and the UCC will in the front advocating a position that alienates about half of the country. Abortion ‘rights” up to the moment of birth, gun control, anti-Israel, anti-capitalist, anti drug control, open borders, etc.

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    • Hi, David,

      You did not mention if you are attending a UCC church, but what I find utterly fascinating is that there are both Progressives (who have some or all of the views and beliefs that you characterize) and genuine Evangelicals (with traditional beliefs about salvation being “obtained through personal acceptance of Christ as Savior”) worshiping side-by-side in UCC churches. And for the most part these groups tolerate each other–in fact, they embrace each other–and they learn from each other.

      This is happening in hundreds of UCC churches every Sunday. And to broaden the point, I suspect it is happening in churches of all denominations. I have congregants who are married to Roman Catholics, and they alternate where they go to church every Sunday.

      These are fascinating trends! Thanks for commenting, David!

      Chris

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      • Hi Chris,
        I have attended a UCC church for close to 20 years. For at least 10 of those years I did not realize there was anything other than the Evangelical view of salvation. Though I found it very strange that the need for salvation was never mentioned.
        About 3 years ago my church got a new minister, I was on the Board at that time but not the Search Committee. I am certain that he was never asked his fundamental views on salvation, etc. But it soon became clear to me that he held progressive views. I hate that term because “progressive” , meaning moving forward, and has a positive connotation. I think of it more as “rewriting the bible to what suits me”.

        I find that progressive ministers do not clearly state what they believe, perhaps on purpose. An Evangelical will clearly state that salvation requires the personal acceptance of Christ. But the Progressive will not clearly state salvation does NOT require the personal acceptance of Christ. Instead, a few words get changed here and there. Frankly the reason many Evangelicals and Progressives attend the same service is that the Evangelical does not pay enough attention to the progressive rewrite.

        For Progressives John 3:16 becomes: For God so loved the world that through his love we are saved.
        That sounds great and many Evangelicals will think the minister means that because of God’s love, salvation is OFFERED to all that ask for it. But that is not what the Progressive means.

        Evangelicals may continue to attend a service where the Progressive message is being taught because it was “their church” long before the arrival of the Progressive minister/message. They have attended most their life, and perhaps their parents too.

        Others like the style of worship at the church. That is why I still attend. The style of worship is exactly what I want, but the sermon almost always conflicts with my Evangelical beliefs. If I could find an Evangelical church with a similar worship style, I would be gone in a minute.

        It is clear to me that UCC Evangelical’s are a dwindling minority of the UCC. It is virtually impossible to find a Evangelical UCC minister that is not at or near retirement age. If you are Evangelical, and inclined to be a minister, you would go to another denomination.

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  3. Thank you for working on these hard descriptions. As I do mock interviews, Search Committees are trying to understand the new nomenclature evangelical/progressive. I had described progressives as socially liberal and on a continuum of their understanding of Jesus. I am a retired UCC clergywoman. I would suggest that there is a continuum of understanding of Jesus regarding: Is Jesus showing God’s love in the flesh? Is Jesus one with God? Is Jesus the best example of what it means to be human? How do we understand Jesus’ death? In fact, traditional understandings of the atonement (Jesus’ death) include three: substitutionary (Jesus saved us from ourselves), exemplary (Jesus was an example of how to confront all that is wrong and not neighbor loving), and what is known as Aulen’s Christus Victus ( Evil will not have the last word since Jesus overcame it). There are three because no one could explain what Jesus accomplished, and all the arguments about Christ and Church, progressive and evangelical, for me, distract from Jesus. And, an argument that Jesus saved us from the wrath of God, does not do justice to the love of God who came in the flesh (Trinity) to “die for us.” Perhaps, this can best be understood in the fleeting examples of people who do not seek revenge, but offer forgiveness for wrongs done. If you believe Jesus accomplished something, died for something, was raised for something, and taught something that was loving, then you are a disciple of Jesus. If Jesus is another prophet or a reformer, then there are other monotheistic choices. Actually, if it were not for Jesus, I would join the Hebrews because it was their Scriptures that Jesus explained and lived.
    In my pastoral work before retirement, I found something of truth in the ways the incarnation (God made flesh) spoke to us, the teaching of Jesus spoke to us, the death of Jesus spoke to us, and the resurrection offered hope to us, not just in the afterlife, but here and now.
    I appreciate how Marcus Borg made faith accessible, but he did not have the last enduring word. He was rightly challenging a pedestrian understanding of Jesus as the ticket to heaven for some who did not live “neighbor love.” It is not up to us to decide who is in or who is out!

    Here’s what I believe: Jesus died for all…not about conversion of other believers, but about love that will go the extra mile for all, even those with whom we disagree. Baptism is the most inclusive incorporation into the Body of Christ. It is not gender specific, race specific, nation specific, orientation specific, nor perfect person specific, it is the Grace of God specific, but it is not a baby anointing with no expectation that the family will teach the child about Jesus. And, the table is open to everyone and the power of the Spirit to help people see who Jesus is. With all that said, I embrace LBGTQ, all races, all ethnicities, all tongues as children of God made in the image of God.

    Of course, once I finish this, I will realize it is not finished.
    Blessings,
    Dawn

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    • Oh, my gosh, Dawn, thank you for your very thoughtful and much-needed clarification regarding our (or perhaps, I should say “my”) theological understandings of Jesus–and thank you for taking the time to write it all down!

      Your comments make me think of how inadequate my seminary studies were–and how informal my subsequent theological reading has been. My formal theological training took place in two Baptist seminaries in the 1970s–and coursework on “Christology” focused only on the “substitutionary atonement” understanding of Jesus’ “work” on the cross. And for years and years in my ministry (and even, remarkably, as a UCC minister), I accepted that understanding as Received Truth; in communion services I lead, I would often use the template found in 1 Corinthians 11, and briefly summarize the story of the Last Supper, concluding with the words, “This Bread is my Body…. This wine is my blood.”

      Only in the last ten-to-fifteen years did I realize in any profound sense how exclusionary and limiting such an understanding of Jesus’ life, ministry and death can be–in the communion service, but more generally in how we do church.

      So yes, it was something of an intellectual as well as a spiritual revolution/revelation for me some years back when I began to read Marcus Borg, as well as other more “progressive” theologians and interpreters of Jesus. My current understanding of Jesus ministry and death on the cross can probably best be described as exemplary. I have also listened to Dominic Crossan’s “Christus Victus” interpretation of Jesus’ life and death, and found it fascinating.

      Anyway, your comments are helpful and even fascinating. Thank you.

      Blessings
      Chris

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  4. Your comments are interesting, but I sense that you are wriggling away from any UCC connection with your interpretation of “evangelical.” Not that many years ago, in my own ordination paper, I described the UCC in its own words, taken from the website and published history of the denomination. That description defined the UCC as “Christian, Reformed, Congregational, and Evangelical.” I know that the word has evolved in its meaning, and has taken on definitions assigned by groups trying to sort denominations into boxes, but I think it still fits our history and our theology. Frankly, I’d move away from words like “evangelical” or “progressive” and instead consider that we are “united and uniting.” Otherwise, I think we stumble onto the problem of Luke 18:11.

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    • Yes, I had trouble with the word “Evangelical.” You are right that we are, historically, a “Christian, Reformed, Congregational, and Evangelical” church–and I didn’t mean to mosey away from that tradition or identity. The blog post should have acknowledged my respect for the UCC’s E&R tradition, as well as its roots in the Evangelical Synod of North America.

      Even so, today, the word “Evangelical” carries some additional baggage–theological associations that might also be described as “conservative,” and which in the past were thought of as “fundamentalistic.”

      The words, “conservative” and “liberal” also have a complicated pedigree; back in the 1960s and 1970s, I suspect that we in the UCC had no trouble thinking of ourselves as liberal Christians and as a liberal church–yet this may not be the best word to describe our theology or character today. (In very early drafts of the article, I consciously avoided using terms like “Liberal” and “Conservative” because of the obvious political associations of these words.)

      And you are right–I don’t mean to suggest the arrogance of Luke 18:11. Perhaps it’s best not to make any theological or ecclesial distinctions at all–and yet distinctions are the basis of all learning and growing.

      Perhaps I should segue in my thinking to “united and uniting,” as you suggest.

      Thanks, Tim, for your comment. Blessings to you.

      Chris

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  5. A very helpful summary! Here’s my point of disagreement:

    “Progressives are far less impressed by the Great Commission, and more favorably impressed by Jesus’ ‘Great Commandment’…”

    I understand the two as deeply intertwined. I don’t agree with some evangelicals that people of other faiths need to convert to be saved. But I DO believe that Christianity has something deep and important to offer, and part of discipleship is taking up the authority to welcome extravagantly and share what is on offer with anyone in search of Christ-like love.

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  6. About 45 years ago as a teenager, I was confirmed in a UCC church. Since that time, I’ve spent much of my time in evangelical churches — it’s had nothing to do with my UCC involvement. But as I get older, I’ve grown to again appreciate my UCC years.

    The thing about churches is, you never really know what you’re getting until you’re involved with a single, individual church! One of my UCC pastors, for example, was a chain smoking charismatic! Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

    I really believe churches like the UCC, United Methodists and ELCA (these are the ones I’m most familiar with or I’ve read stuff from them) and other ‘mainline’ churches will be growing, going forward. I don’t see why a church can’t be both — evangelical (though not necessarily the stricter type) and socially progressive. Can’t we learn from one another?

    In fact, I think that’s a combo that will be welcomed by many millennials – and others burned out by the black/white thinking that is too often (IMHO) a part of evangelical churches.

    Thanks for this opportunity to voice my opinion!

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    • I agree with you. If there has been one common response to this blog post by readers, it seems to be a concern that we (or I, since I wrote the blog post) should be careful not to become divisive–for example, by criticizing other churches or denominations, whether implicitly or explicitly. A related concern of many who read the blog is that we (or I) not be self-congratulatory and arrogant about how wonderful our life together in the United Church of Christ is, and how terrible other churches and denominations are.

      I truly do not feel that way–arrogant, boastful, divisive–about the United Church of Christ or about other churches. And I did not write the blog post in a spirit of arrogance or divisiveness. I hope that comes through in what I say in the post. So I agree with you that in coming years, UCC churches that thrive, and certainly our denomination, will need to “be both evangelical and socially progressive,” as you say.

      Thanks for your comment. Blessings to you, Neal!
      Chris

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      • HI, Chris — No, I didn’t think you came across divisive or boastful in any way! I mean, most denoms. have strengths, and I don’t see anything wrong with appreciating them and talking about them! I’ve grown, in the last few years, to appreciate the UCC’s strong social issue stands, among other things.

        All the best, Neal

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  7. I loved this explanation because you didn’t place one over the other, or marked one as right and the other as wrong. You just explained some of the major differences. Good Job!

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    • It matters because we talk past each other and sometimes even demonize each other when we do not understand what we hold to be important.

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    • Maybe it doesn’t matter to most of us who sit in the pew. But I suspect that church people all talk about how “our church” is “different,” or “better,” or more (fill-in-the-blank) than the church down the street. We all do. And often, we lack the language and the theological knowledge to be able to say anything more than, “I like their steeple,” or “Their minister is really dynamic, and they have a Saturday evening service!”

      Search Committees also rely on these kinds of distinctions when they dream about “what kind of minister would be ideal for our church?”–as well as when they are looking at actual ministerial profiles. And ministers ask these kinds of questions about various churches when they scan the UCC Ministry Opportunities webpage, or when they talk with their Conference Staff in their own search process.

      I guess to me, theological distinctions are not about being better or worse than another church or denomination, but they comprise “helpful information” that most of us need to know–sort of like needing to find out where the bathrooms are in an unfamiliar church before we need to use them.

      But I’m very open to your thought that maybe these kind of distinctions don’t matter at all. Thanks for your comment, Barbara.

      Blessings to you.
      Chris

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  8. Your explanations are probably practical, and I put myself in the prgressive camp. But aren’t they also divisive? I can still worship my God together with Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and even (gasp) Muslims. Maybe even with Buddhists and Taoists!

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    • I agree. I guess my question is whether distinctions are inherently divisive. Does the mere suggestion or acknowledgement of difference, and then actually talking about our differences, mean that we have to rank peoples or groups or churches or denominations, and end up saying that one group is better than another or worse than another? I hope not.

      In another part of my life, I teach political science and multiculturalism courses at a local state college. This semester we have talked quite a bit about our differences, and about issues of diversity pertaining to race, gender, sex, ableism, classism, LGBTQ identity, and even religion. But we were able to have these conversations, I hope, without hurt feelings and without suggesting that one race, or one gender-identity, or one religion, is better than another.

      Anyway, you ask a fascinating question. Thank you, Brenda, for your comment.

      Blessings,
      Chris

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    • So you would be fine with an Evangelical minister who teaches that Salvation requires the personal acceptance of Christ as savior? That others are not going to heaven?
      How do you worship together with Muslims when it is there belief that to state that God had a son, or there is a Trinity, is blasphemous?

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  9. I love your commentary! As far as I’m concerned, you got it 100 percent right. I personally identify as a “progressive” as I believe do the majority of those who attend my UCC church. As a one-time Baptist (a long time ago!) I am familiar with the evangelical approach but it no longer “fits” for me.

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  10. Progressives are social workers using the resources of the church for their own ends. They depend upon the foundational ministry of UCC “evangelicals” who are the old school, have retired and who preached and taught the historic faith attesting fatihfully of Jesus being our Lord and Savior. UCC Evangelicals are concerned with everyone and recognize that a change in heart not in mind offers the best option for justice and peace. The change comes in accepting what remains in the Preamble of the church documents that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior who is credited with the command to “love as you have been loved by God.”

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    • As a progressive I still believe in Jesus Christ as the head of our Church, meaning Lord, and also as Savior. But Jesus own actions were those of social justice; healing people, feeding people, and reaching out to those who are disenfranchised. So when we do social justices we are literally emulating what Jesus did. We are following in the footsteps of our Lord.

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      • Evangelical Christians can and do believe in healing people, feeding people, and all kinds of charitable work. Baptist Jimmy Carter for example.
        But most believe this should be done by churches and private social agencies, not by government taking from producers through taxation.

        As stated in the article, most progressives believe salvation is automatic, Evangelicals believe it requires an individual to make a decision to accept Christ. That is a huge fundamental difference. As an Evangelical, it drives me crazy to listen to a UCC Progressive minister preach there is no hell, that all humankind goes to heaven because of God’s love, etc.

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    • I guess my perspective, and many of the comments to this blog post are reinforcing my perspective, is that there is no sharp distinction between UCC Progressives and Evangelicals; rather, the distinctions are subtle and gradual. This is like the difference between an on-off light switch and a wall-mounted dimmer. Distinctions between the two are sort of like the gradations on a thermometer. I would certainly hope that not all Progressives are social workers–and that many of those who are are also “concerned with everyone and recognize that a change in heart offers the best option for justice and peace.” I also suspect that many Evangelicals end up doing some social work in their daily ministries.

      Yours is a great, thought-provoking comment, Sam. Thank you for sharing it.

      Blessings to you.
      Chris

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  11. Well written and very helpful explanations AND easily understood. Your statment
    “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.”, is also spot on ( and something our politicians of today would also do well to master). Thanks for your article, the timing is perfect for a discussion I had yesterday with my son and his wife.

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