Clergy and Progressive Christianity


From a United Methodist Church minister's blog, I found a profound and regretful reflection on how his own timidness had prevented him from introducing progressive theology to his congregation. Among other things, he writes:

In my younger days, I was saddled with Jesus saying that it would be better to have a large stone tied around my neck and that I be cast into the lake than for me to tear down the faith of the little ones. I used that teaching to defend my unwillingness to challenge any of the "little ones".

I was wrong; and now at the age of 66 and now standing on the edge of retirement I have come to understand that my fear had more to do with my own need to be "acceptable" and the ill-founded concern for the advancement of my "career", than the fear of being thrown in the lake.

In 1 John 2 the writer delineates three stages of Xn growth: (1) little children, (2) young adults, and (3) mature Xns. So often I and a vast number of educated United Methodist ministers (who ought to know better) have opted to retard the growth of our "faithful" by preaching a harmless, self-centered, salvation gospel to the static congregations in our charge. When the struggles of the"young adults" have arisen, we, for the most part, have smoothed them over and put the children back into their beds. We have ignored the yearning of so many of our faithful to understand the "mysteries of our faith" that are reserved for those who are mature.

My fear to share my understanding of the "mysteries" is rooted in my own cowardice; and perhaps for my own selfish concern for my "career". So much for fear.


John Shuck said...


Thank you for finding this. The old millstone around the neck routine. Bully, bully, shame, shame, threat, threat.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

A most interesting and pertinent confession. I'm learning to find my own voice -- though I'm by nature cautious. There is a way of challenging long held beliefs and not leaving them stranded with nothing. I think that's Borg's message. Unlike Robert Funk and others like him, Borg has offered a new way of looking at the faith that is both faithful and expansive. But fear does get in the way!

David Stoker said...

Yes, quite interesting. I don't think all the blame rests on his shoulders though. His fear of rejection might be quite real, not that that should dictate his preaching but it makes me think of the prophesy in 2 Tim. 4: 3
3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;

I think that phrase 'itching ears' is quite appropriate for the rise of the 'prosperity gospel' and the harmless, self-centered sermons he talks about.

Matthew said...

David used an interesting choice of words-

"...the rise of the 'prosperity gospel' and the HARMLESS, self centered sermons....'

This 'harmless' gospel isn't the gospel at all. 'Playing it safe' IS causing the 'little ones to sin'; and Jesus' statement about the millstone plays out!


David Stoker said...

matthew, it's always hard to discern tone in these conversations, but I agree with you that such preaching is harmful, I was simply using the words in the original post, I should have put it in quotes.

A primary, if not the foremost, responsibility of preachers of the gospel is to call people to repentance, to them to change their lives, to turn to the Lord, and such messages are not always easy to swallow. I recommend we follow the Savior's example in how we go about it.

MadPriest said...

I work in an ordinary m.o.r. church full of ordinary m.o.r. Anglicans. I have never had any adverse reactions when I've mentioned stuff in my sermons that might be regarded as heretical by my evangelical brothers and sisters. Quite the opposite. Early on, when I carefully proved to them that the Bible could not be the inerrant word of God, I was greeted afterwards, not by angry people, but by people who said they had been freed from a load of guilt because they hadn't before dared to speak out about their own problems with the Bible.

I think the answer is to be very matter of fact, not sensationalist. Always show how you have arrived at your thinking on any matter and, above all, tell the congregation when you first preach for them that you don't know the truth anymore than they do, it's just that you've spent more time studying the subject of theology. Tell them that they need not, in fact, must not, believe everything you tell them and that they must work things out for themselves. If you, as preacher, can be helpful to them in their search for truth, then that's great. But, if not, it doesn't matter to them or to you because we all have different roads to travel.

Grace said...

Guys, I just totally have to disagree. It is one thing to call into question interpretation relating to the infallibility of Scripture, or the existence of demons under every bush.

But, the incarnation, the reality of God in Christ, and the work of the cross are at the center of Christian faith.

Ministers and priests in our mainline churches should honor their ordination vows, and share the gospel, not heresy.

Otherwise, it seems to me they are all just being hypocrites, and unfair to the members of these churches who really do care about the historic Christian faith, and wanting to actually see people come to trust Christ as Savior and Lord.

This whole situation is not any cause for anger, Madpriest, but for sorrow and heartbreak.


Mystical Seeker said...

As a non-clergy member, I can only begin to imagine the difficulties that clergy face in dealing with the politics of their congregation and their denomination.

I agree with Bob that it is important not to just tear down old dogmas without offering something positive to work with. MadPriest's experience is interesting, and suggests that going on a journey of honest seeking with one's congregation can go a long way.

Grace said...

((Mystical)) bless your heart.

The difficulty they are going to have is not so much with church politics, but with those members of the congregation who are committed Christian believers, zealous for the gospel, and who expect the ministers to actually honor their baptismal and ordination vows.

For instance, I can tell you that if I were a member of Rev. Shuck's congregation, he would be having all kinds of "trouble" with me.

And, don't let my friend, MP, fool you. He is a rascal, and an old sinner, but the man is preaching the gospel.

Grace, the one with the "despicable" views.. :)

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, I have no idea what the dynamic within John's own congregation is, but it is quite clear that at the denominational level he has to deal with his share of witch hunters who share a desire to suppress the expression of ideas that they don't want to hear. You can choose not to call that politics if you wish.

OneSmallStep said...

**But, the incarnation, the reality of God in Christ, and the work of the cross are at the center of Christian faith.**

I think you can have the reality of God in Christ, and see value in the cross, without holding that Jesus was God. There's a reality of God in everyone, given that we are all in the image and likeness of God. In Jesus, that reality was unobstructed, and giving us a clear view of what God was like, since "no man has seen God at any time."

Shouldn't the good news, in the end, ultimately be about freedom, not about doctrinal beliefs?

John Shuck said...


This is Seeker's blog, not mine. But since you mentioned me by name, I would like to respond.

You have me at a disadvantage, you know more about me than I know about you.

But you do not know about the congregation I serve. Nor do you know about how I minister with my congregation.

Who knows? If you did, you might find you have no "trouble" at all!