You can also listen to an audio version of this article here:
The true historic faith of Christianity has always been under attack. Even from the earliest days of the church in its infancy, we see in the writings of the New Testament that false teaching was already a big concern. It is understandable that the new faith would be under siege from the outside - especially in the first century - with pressures from surrounding paganism and unconverted Jews. However, one of the most insidious threats to the Gospel came from within the church’s walls. What do you do when the most dangerous person to your faith is your pastor?
Jude wrote that he “found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) and Paul warned the early church that after his departure, “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparking the flock; and from among your own selves will Aries men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30) This has been a battle the church has been fighting for literally over two millennia now.
A ZOEgirl's Deconstruction
Many believers today have struggled with what has been called “Progressive Christianity”or “Liberal Protestantism/Evangelicalism”. From college professors, to pop-celebrities that claim some notion of Christian faith, to the church down the street with the rainbow flags outside - this problem is pervasive in our modern culture. Even Alisa Childers, a former member of the popular early 2000s Christian pop-rock band - ZOEgirl - had her struggles with Progressive Christianity ‘deconstructing’ her faith. Hers is not an uncommon experience either. She writes about her crisis of faith in her new book, published October 2020, Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity.
Childers recounts her upbringing in a conservative Christian home where her family was active in serving in church and where she had a vibrant faith as a young lady. She went on to become a singer in the popular Christian band ZOEgirl. However, she would have some rocks put in her shoes when she and her husband unwittingly started attending a Progressive/Liberal Church. The pastor was a kind, winsome and eloquent speaker and invited her to attend an exclusive class. Here she discovered that he described himself as a “hopeful agnostic” and the class was an invitation to begin to deconstruct her faith.
Deconstructing a Constructed Reality
Over the course of the book, Childers shares personal stories of how her faith was rocked as this pastor and the group asked questions of the faith that she was nowhere near prepared to answer. Her narration of her story of theological angst is compelling and heart-felt (I listened to the audiobook which is narrated by the author). In her progressive church, the authority, inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible was questioned. Hell and eternal suffering was criticized and ridiculed as barbaric. The traditional view of the Cross of Penal Substitutionary Atonement was called Divine child abuse and portrayed as a cosmic petty deity venting his rage on the poor ‘whipping boy’ - Jesus - to placate his sadistic desires. With these and more challenges, Childer’s faith was in deeply troubled waters.
Progressive Christian blogger, Josh de Keijzer, explaining the progressive impulse to question key and core doctrines of historic Christianity writes:
"It is so much more, or rather deeper, than simply starting to question your faith… deconstruction starts with the realization that all of reality is constructed. Well, if you apply that to faith or belief systems you get something very awkward. You start realizing that doctrines, dogmas, and moral rules you once believed to be enshrined truth and not up for discussion are, in fact, things constructed by human beings.” [emphasis added]
This was what Childers and many others have experienced. Progressive Christianity asserts that all of Christianity’s (and any other religion’s) core beliefs are essentially made up by people and thus up for debate and revision. The Bible is simply the product of primitive people trying their best to make sense of the world and the supernatural. There is no authoritative revelation we can appeal to on matters of faith and doctrine because the Bible is seen as just another product of human opinions.
Another Faith Altogether
Keith Giles, another Progressive Christian blogger on Patheos, lists 6 “pillars”of religious deconstruction: the Bible, Hell, Penal Substitution, the Problem of Suffering, the End Times, and the Church. For the Progressive Christian deconstructionist, there is nothing ‘sacred’, no untouchable doctrine or dogma that must not be deconstructed and questioned. These six pillars basically comprise many of the essential truths that make the faith Christian. Childers notes in her book, "They are also very open to redefining, reinterpreting, or even rejecting essential doctrines of the faith like the Virgin Birth, the deity of Jesus, and his bodily resurrection.”(pg 8) So, in what meaningful way can Progressive Christianity even be called Christianity?
Indeed, even the late atheist, Christopher Hitchens, responding in an interview with a liberal Christian minister - Marilyn Sewell - who said she didn’t believe in the doctrine of the atonement, said:
"Well, I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”
On this point, I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Hitchens. Progressive Christianity really isn’t Christianity in any meaningful sense. It's another faith altogether (or perhaps lack of faith?).
The Appeal of Deconstruction: Liberation
What is the appeal of Progressive Christianity’s insistence to deconstruct every tenet of the faith?
There are lots of reasons cited by Childers and others such as: unanswered doubts, growing up in a legalistic church of ungracious high moral demands, perceived intolerance against LBGTQ people, abuses of power, social justice concerns and struggles with deep experiences of suffering. Many of these are valid concerns and reasons for skepticism since there are many churches who are woefully sub-biblical or simply apathetic on many of these issues. So, it would be wrong and callous of us to simply dismiss these concerns as the whining of liberal heretics. Those who have been wounded by the church or its neglect to adequately address such topics with grace and kindness sometimes find Progressive Christianity intriguing, somewhat familiar and welcoming.
Childers explains that Progressive Christianity is really more defined by a “mood” than a certain set of beliefs. Indeed, its whole point is to question objective truth claims but seldom offer any sure alternatives in return. As de Keijzer notes:
"On the one hand, there is something innately liberating about this. You get to separate God from what people believe about God who proceed to claim such beliefs to be ultimate truth. On the other hand, there can be a tremendous sense of loss. With the dogmas gone and the morality no longer absolute, you may experience a certain loss. Maybe you feel you’ve lost God. To the extent that you identified God with the dogmas and the moral rules, you have indeed lost God.” [emphasis added]
This deconstruction of the faith is often put forward as liberating by Progressives. Liberated from the chains of the Bible as the inerrant and authoritative standard, you are now free to make up or find your own truth. However, in doing so, you also move away from the God whose truth you had previously believed.
By What Standard?
Again, Josh de Keijzer explains the process of deconstruction:
"Deconstruction is not the attempt to critique reality from an objective reference point; that would merely repress one point of view in favor of another. Rather, it is the conscious process of identifying and acknowledging the constructed nature of the tenets of belief. As it does so, deconstruction is not trying to assert that there is no truth whatsoever in those belief systems. It merely insists on the insight that the system in which belief is contained and expressed in itself a constructed reality.”
Progressive Christians affirm that these belief systems may contain truth in them, and it is up to us to figure out what are those nuggets of truth to hold onto. However, one cannot help but ask, “by what standard?”
What standard is the person deconstructing their faith to use to stand as judge over what counts as truth and what does not? How can this lead to anything but an inconsistent mess of personal opinions and subjective reasoning? Why should their personal preferences be considered any more authoritative than anyone else's? Indeed, this is where it often does end up as Progressive Christianity reflects the Postmodern trend of rejecting absolute truth for the folly of subjective reasoning that can hold no objective weight or persuasive power. This is why Progressive Christianity as a whole is hard to define in terms of a set of beliefs - because each person figures out their own truth and does whatever is right in their own eyes. However, if everything is relative, then why should we listen to these Progressive pundits anyways?
As Ian Harber notes, "The solutions that progressive Christians have come up with have not led to better results than the culture they’re reacting against." This is what Childers also concluded, "With the Bible remade in our own image, we are no longer obeying God; instead we’re following our own thoughts, feelings, and preferences." (pg. 164)
The Darkness of a Missing Lampstand
The irony is that in deconstructing the faith, Progressives end up becoming regressive and unable to positively construct anything worth standing on. Indeed, some have even lamented how they miss the very God they have “lost” by deconstructing the very dogmas and doctrines they so adamantly argued against.
Agnostic author/novelist, Julian Barnes once wrote in the New York Times, "I don't believe in God, but I miss him." He recounts in an interview with CBC that, "I remember once waking up in the middle of the night in a sort of screaming panic about the thought of inevitable and eternal annihilation of the self and thinking, 'Well at least you can write about it. I can probably get a paragraph out of this.'" At the thought of death and ceasing to exist, all he could come up with is being able to write about it. Pithy construction of words are the only hope he can cling to. Though Barnes does not at all claim any Christian faith, Progressive or otherwise, one cannot help but see the similar sadness that Progressive Christianity's deconstruction of truth will ultimately lead to. Without objective truth and the reassurance of the Words from the God who is, all we are left with are our own pithy constructions of words for consolation.
None of us are self-made men and women. We cannot bear the weight of our own need for transcendence. Unfortunately, Progressive Christianity’s promises of liberation turn to dust in the mouths of those who fall prey to its sway and many fall away from any claim to faith altogether. This is why many of the liberal churches and denominations today stand as empty shells of their former strength with dwindling congregations.
A 2015 Pew Research survey found that US liberal Mainline Protestant denominations were shrinking at a rate of 1 million members annually. In a 2017 article in the Washington Post, David Haskell after a peer-reviewed study in the Review of Religious Research that surveyed churches in Ontario noted that "Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline." Yet, despite these statistics which we've known for some time now, liberal churches tend to continue on their trajectory thinking they've just not gone far enough. However, when a church departs from the sure foundation of God's Word, they are unable to offer the world anything of transcendent and of objectively true value. So, they fade into irrelevance and darkness because the lampstand has been removed (Rev. 2:5).
Reconstruction and the Word of God
There are many good, solid resources to answer the questions that Progressive Christians have raised today. Indeed, much of these battles the church has been facing for over two thousand years now! Childers writes, “Like wheat and tares, true ideas and false ideas have grown together throughout church history, and it’s up to faithful Christians to be watchful and diligent to compare every idea with the Word of God and see if it lines up."
Childers focuses on three main topics of concern: the Bible, Hell and the Atonement and does a good job of providing a compelling apologetic. The most important of these of course is the Bible’s reliability and authority. The issue of Sola Scriptura was the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation and continues to be the central issue for Biblical Christianity. If we have no authoritative revelation to appeal to, then all faith claims become the subjective opinions of men - whether a liberal pastor or the Pope in Rome. I’ve written and taught on this issue here.
The issue of Biblical authority is not one of dispassionate dogma, but one of massive importance to those struggling honestly through life’s various trials. Childers writes:
“When I have doubts about my faith, or deep nagging questions that keep me up at night, I don’t have the luxury of finding “my truth” because I am committed to the truth. I want to know what is real. I want my worldview (the lens through which I see the world) to line up with reality. God either exists, or he doesn’t. The Bible is his Word, or it’s not. Jesus was raised from the dead, or he wasn’t. Christianity is true, or it isn’t. There is no “my truth” when it comes to God.” [emphasis added]
Alisa Childers fortunately was able to reconstruct her faith after finding answers through the study of apologetics and eventually getting plugged into a Biblically faithful church. She now runs a Christian Apologetics ministry and podcast aimed to help others who have struggled with similar questions of Progressive Christianity and more.
LEGO and True Stability
Childers tells a story near the end of her book of building a LEGO dragon with her daughter only to leave and come back to find it totally destroyed. Whether it was the fault of the wind, a mischievous brother, or evil pixies - they’ll never know. However, as they took apart the lego dragon to begin the process of rebuilding, they realized they had missed an important part on the inside which was unnoticed from the outside initially, but which had led to the structural instability of the project.
This is such an appropriate analogy for those who are struggling with a faith that seems to be crumbling and are tempted to ‘deconstruct’ it. Perhaps, instead of throwing out all the LEGO, use it as an opportunity to re-examine the foundations. Maybe you’ll find a piece or two that were missing or weakening the structure - and, like Alisa Childers, be able to build back stronger.
These moments of crises are often an opportunity for the Lord to strengthen our faith through trials. I know that this was my own experience! Having grown up in a Christian household, I had never encountered any serious threats to the faith until I left home. However, I resolved to face the doubts squarely and genuinely look for answers. If it was true, it could stand up to scrutiny, I reasoned. I ended up finding that it was truer and more beautiful than I had ever imagined!
To Deconstruct or Reconstruct?
Perhaps if you're struggling with questions of the faith, or thinking about deconstructing or abandoning the faith altogether. Instead of adopting the 'solutions' of Progressive Christianity, it would be more profitable to use this opportunity to dig into some Christian apologetics. You can check out my book recommendatons here. There are good answers to the hard questions that are found in our historic faith, not by separating from it. While we may not find exhaustive answers to every question, I think that in coming to God honestly with our struggles we may find that we come to know Him more - and His grace is made known in our weakness (2o Cor. 12:9).
The Bible has long faced many oppositions and those wanting to erase it from history - however, it has always outlived its self-styled pallbearers. There is a reason why this Christian faith is so stubborn to leave the stage of history. Jesus Christ, the God of all history stands behind it and promises that, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
I’d definitely recommend picking up Alisa Childer’s book, Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. The AUDIOBOOK was a great listen, especially since it's narrated by the author herself! You can also check out her YouTube which, aside from the really cool set-design and lighting (I may be a little jealous), it is full of helpful interviews and material to help others deal with the challenges to the faith that Childers faced.
Her book is a refreshing read with forceful apologetic arguments interspersed with stories of her personal journey of faith, deconstruction and reconstruction. The only critique of the book I would have, and if Alisa Childers ever reads this blog (love the book and podcast BTW!), is that I think that she would really benefit from reading some Presuppositional Apologetic methodology. Her apologetic methodology is very Evidentialist - which reflects the style of the apologists she cites. Most of her arguments rely on a cumulative case of evidences, however, there is not much critique of the underlying presuppositions or epistemology. I think that some reading in Presuppositional methodology would really help to round out her apologetics and perhaps challenge her Biblically in some helpful ways. Overall it was a worthwhile read!
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