What Is “Progressive Christianity”?

Updated: January 2023

There will always be questions about the definition of “Progressive Christianity” and whether that’s the best “term” to use. I (Jonathan) used that term when starting the Meetup group in February 2019 because I didn’t know any other accepted term out there that would help people immediately grasp what the group was about. I have always used the term “Progressive” for my political views and I’ve always been more “progressive” in my theological views too.

The term "Progressive" is a relative term and the because of that the meaning depends on context. Whether this is the best term to describe what this group is about or whether this group changes its name in future to better represent what it’s about (e.g. "Post-Conservative Evangelical", "Progressive Evangelical", etc.) – all this doesn’t matter as much as what this group stands for.

In late 2020, Alisha Childers came out with the book “Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity” to huge acclaim in the Conservative Evangelical world. This was of course a book critiquing “Progressive Christianity.” I’ll have to acknowledge I haven’t read that book (hope to do so one day) but I’ve read a lot of writings and also watched a lot of YouTube videos (e.g. from the channels of Dr. Sean McDowell, Mike Winger, Capturing Christianity, etc.) that present, or at least focus on, only one side of Progressive Christianity – which is the much more progressive and liberal leaning side. In many instances, I wouldn’t even agree with the claims of the people (who are supposed to represent “Progressive Christianity”) they interview. I don’t know why they choose to interview and critique the much more liberal leaning side of Progressive Christianity and make it seem that such people and beliefs would represent the whole “movement”. I would have expected a bit more nuance, but then again, I understand that a lot of these people do not want to grapple with certain difficult questions and issues that the Evangelical church needs to confront.

I appreciate Roger E Olsen’s understanding of “Progressive Christianity”. He wrote two articles in Patheos and also a book about Progressive Christianity:

While I haven’t read his whole book yet, let me quote from these 3 pieces of work above in which he distinguishes between two camps among those who would identify as “Progressive Christians” (emphasis mine):

“In the past decade, “progressive Christian” (here in the U.S.) seems to be a label preferred by real liberal Christians (whose Christianity seems dubious to me) but also by non-liberal Christians who are “open” to new ideas such as gay marriage, LGBTQ rights within society and the churches, passionate social justice activism, egalitarianism, etc.
“When I hear someone labeled “progressive Christian” by themself or others I do not know what is meant—other than open to new ways of thinking and “doing” Christianity within a certain context. However, in my experience, the label is increasingly being “owned” by formerly conservative Christians who are moving toward liberal Christianity but hesitating to go all the way there.
“The subtitle of my book is “Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity” because I have known and I now know many especially young Christians who also call themselves “progressive” but are not yet full-blown liberal Christians. I see many of them moving in the direction of full-blown liberal theology which concerns me greatly. I want to warn them against going over that “cliff” insofar as their “progressive path” leads in that direction.”
This book is a warning aimed mainly at those who think of themselves as progressive Christians — to not adopt liberal theology or believe in the liberal Christian way. Many regard progressive Christianity as a path toward liberal theology and Christianity; there is some truth in that.

This book, however, is not a diatribe against progressive Christianity. Progressive is a label used by many different kinds of Christians. I do wish to warn at least some who identify as progressive Christians against sliding into liberal Christianity. Of course, these labels are complicated because some truly liberal Christians prefer to call themselves progressive Christians. But many who call themselves progressive Christians are not really liberal in the sense I mean it in this book. So, to put this simply, not all progressive Christians are liberal Christians, even if all liberal Christians at least sometimes call themselves progressive Christians. (Introduction to his book)

Unlike Alisha Childers and many others, at least he understands that those who identify themselves as “Progressive Christians” do not all believe the same thing. In fact, I believe he also described himself before as a “Progressive Evangelical”. He also wrote the book “How to be Evangelical without being Conservative” in 2009. Perhaps it is because he is much more empathetic to the concerns of the "non-Liberal" camp within "Progressive Christianity" that he is much more nuanced in understanding this term.

Roland Chia, a respected Evangelical in Singapore, actually wrote an article about "Progressive Christianity" in Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (an institute formed by the National Council Of Churches In SingaporeTrinity Theological College and The Bible Society of Singapore in 2014), and noted our group in Singapore:

“Progressive Christianity has gained some traction among Christians and Christian groups in the United States and Canada. There is a group of Christians in Singapore that is promoting a version of progressive Christianity.” (“Progressive Christianity: A Primer”, 17th October 2022)

I’m glad that he, like Roger Olsen, understands that not everybody within this camp believes the same thing. He wrote: “This broad and elastic term includes under its canopy believing Christians who simply wish to express a more questioning faith as well as those who still call themselves Christians but who have rejected most if not all the fundamental tenets of Christianity.”

However, it’s unfortunate that his article chose to focus on “the claims of progressive Christians who are located at the more extreme end of the spectrum, such a Brian McLaren and Gretta Vosper.” It would have been good if he would also seek to understand the concerns of those at the more “conservative” end of the "Progressive Christianity" spectrum – the end that has not “rejected most if not all the fundamental tenets of Christianity”.


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