What is "progressive Christianity" and why is it so important to understand today? In this interview, we talk with Alisa Childers about her latest book Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. As Childers explains, progressive Christianity is a popular movement that holds a different view of the gospel, biblical authority, and a range of important Christian doctrines that thoughtful Christians must recognize with discernment.

About our Guest

Alisa Childers is a wife, mom, an author, blogger, a speaker, and a worship leader. She was a member of the award-winning CCM recording group ZOEgirl. You can connect with Alisa online at alisachilders.com.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics. Also at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.

Sean McDowell: Today, we're here with a friend of Biola who has a new book that has skyrocketed to the top of many lists on Amazon, including the apologetics list. Her name is Alisa Childers. She's a wife, a mom, an author, a blogger, a speaker, a former worship leader from the group ZOEgirl you might recognize, but it's written a fantastic new book called Another Gospel. A lifelong Christian seeks truth in response to progressive Christianity. Alisa, thanks so much for coming on.

Alisa Childers: Hey guys, thanks for having me.

Sean McDowell: Let me start by asking, this book is kind of centered on your crisis of faith from being a worship leader in the church, and then all of a sudden, really doubting your faith kind of drives this book. Would you share the crisis of faith that kind of motivated the story behind this book?

Alisa Childers: Yeah, so I grew up in a Christian home with wonderful Christian parents who really gave me a holistic faith. They gave me the gospel. I regularly saw my parents reading their Bibles. They read their Bibles with us, just all kinds of just really organic Christian life, feeding the homeless and doing street ministry.

And so I had a fairly good experience with Christianity growing up and I think that might be why I never had a good reason to doubt what I believed about God and Jesus. I love Jesus as far back as I can remember.

And then as you mentioned, I spent some time in ZOEgirl traveling the country and getting to perform in amazing venues and really trying to reach young girls with this message that they can be bold with what they believe and not to shy away from speaking about Jesus in their public schools and all of that was so genuine and so real for me, but it really wasn't until ZOEgirl had come off the road, and I was married with a new baby that I was invited to be a part of an inner circle type study and discussion group at a local church.

And it was in the context of this very small class that the pastor who was leading the class, basically announced to us that he was an agnostic and he called himself a hopeful agnostic. And so over the course of about the four months I was in that class, everything that I'd ever believed about God and Jesus and especially the Bible was kind of picked apart, explained away, deconstructed.

And when my husband and I ended up leaving the church, that's when I found myself kind of isolated, and all of the doubts that that pastor had planted began to take root and grow in my own heart. So I went through my own crisis of faith there, and the book kind of walks the reader through that journey.

Scott Rae: We'll get toward the end of our time together. We'll get a little bit more about how you reconstructed your faith after this little deconstruction effort that had been going on at this local church. But at least I think it would be really helpful for our listeners.

Some of our listeners might not be familiar with the term progressive Christianity and what exactly that means. How would you distinguish what you're talking about from somebody who is progressive politically? Because that's not really what you're talking about, right?

Alisa Childers: That's right. I mean, there are definitely political elements to it, but the movement of progressive Christianity is largely theological, and that's the analysis I do in my book as I analyze it from a purely theological perspective. And I think that's because a lot of Christians have this misconception that progressive Christians are just a group of Christians that might be changing their minds on some political issues or some social issues.

While that may be true, that's not what defines the movement. This is a group of Christians that are preaching a completely different type of God, a different Jesus, a different view of the Bible. And those are the things I analyze in the book. And the reason that this became such a subject for me that ignited my passion is because the church that I was at, where that study group happened, they went on years later to identify themselves as a progressive Christian Church.

And so then I began to see that phrase everywhere. And so it was after my reconstruction that I began to really study the movement of progressive Christianity and read their books and listened to their podcasts, and it was then that I really discovered, there are some core tenets to progressive Christianity from a theological perspective that I think a lot of people may not realize.

And that's going to have to do with, the way that they view the Bible, the way that they view the cross, what they think Jesus accomplished on the cross. And then those things are going to inform their more broad view of what the gospel is. And so in the book I analyze the movement from those three points.

Sean McDowell: That's really helpful. Let's look at these a little bit more closely. So as evangelicals, we believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, written a bunch of different genres, but in errant and true. What is a progressive Christian view of the Bible?

Alisa Childers: Right? And so we shall probably should say from the get-go that we need to make a foundation of understanding that there's a bit of a difference just foundationally between progressive Christianity and what I would call historic Christianity.

In that, historically Christians have been creedal people. So even going back to the earliest Christians in the first century, there were creeds that were circulating that Christians were united around. These were just short sayings that Christians agreed on.

They said even Paul, when he records the creed force in first Corinthians 15, he says, this is of most importance. So there were these beliefs that Christians were United around.

Progressive Christianity is largely not a creedal movement. So it's really not so much about what you affirm, but it's kind of, it gives you space to deny whatever type of Christianity you grew up with. And that's kind of important to understand when we dig down into some of the tenants, because a progressive Christian is probably not going to say, "Yeah, look, here's our five points that we all agree on."

Although you certainly can find some things like that online, not all progressive Christians are going to affirm all of that. So it's not a creedal movement, and so regarding the Bible, if you look back throughout history, Christians have disagreed about all kinds of things, of course.

Interpretations, that's why we have so many different denominations. But the thing that Christians have agreed on and going back to the earliest Christians, is that the Bible is the word of God. This was Jesus' view, that the Bible was the word of God. It's inspired by God, that it's authoritative for our lives. This is God speaking.

And in the progressive church, largely there's a rejection of that view. So in the progressive movement, you'll find progressive thought leaders that will say things like, for example, Richard Rohr, who would say, the Jewish scriptures are contradictory, the gospels are not internally coherent. We might think we can find a cohesive theology from Genesis to revelation, but we can't, it doesn't agree with itself.

And you'll here other progressive thought leaders like Pete Enns, for example, say things like, "The Bible is an ancient book, and we shouldn't be surprised to see it act like one." So when ancient is real writes their scriptures and portrays God as ever being violent, or maybe unkind or punitive in any sense, that's not really who God is. And so there's this overarching view of the Bible that the people who wrote the Bible were doing their best to communicate what they believed about God in their times and places.

But that doesn't necessarily speak for who God really is. And so in that sense in the progressive church, the authoritative standard for truth is really not the Bible, but it's our own conscience, our own personal intuition. In fact, in many progressive churches, you'll find in their belief statement, a reference to personal conscience. There's a high respect for that. And so yeah, it's like this authoritative view gets shifted from the Bible onto self.

Scott Rae: So Alisa, let's look at a couple of other sort of central tenants of Christian faith, historic Christian faith and tell us how progressive Christianity understands and things like the cross, and the gospel message. Those are pretty fundamental things. Are there significant differences in how progressive Christianity understands those two things?

Alisa Childers: Yes, there's a massive difference. And we can start with the cross because that's going to naturally affect the broader view of what someone thinks the gospel is. As far as the cross goes, of course, we all know that biblically speaking, the Bible uses lots of different language and metaphors and motifs to try and help us understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross. There's a courtroom language, there's payment language, there's adoption language, there's moral influence language. And of course, as Christians, we're going to affirm everything that the Bible says about what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

But in the progressive paradigm, there's one of those, I suppose you could say motifs, that is roundly rejected and that's the idea of substitutionary atonement and definitely a penal substitutionary atonement. And so in the progressive view, the idea that God the father, would require the blood sacrifice of his son in order to make some kind of payment for sin or to exact punishment for sin, if that's true, then that implicates the moral character of God, turning him into some kind of divine abuser.

And so you'll often hear the phrase, cosmic child abuse in the progressive movement to describe this view of a substitutionary atonement, as it would relate to any kind of punishment or payment. So, of course if you go back historically, even to the earliest Christians that Jesus died for our sins is in, what is arguably the earliest creed in the Christian faith that we find in first Corinthians 15, that Paul records for us.

And so you have even from the beginning, the groundwork being laid, of course referencing Isaiah 53. But in the progressive church, this is not the correct view. In fact, they would say, if you believe that, that's actually an abusive doctrine. And so that is rejected in favor of something that would have more to do with the moral influence alone though, without the substitutionary atonement. So Jesus died to show us how to forgive, or he was demonstrating the father's love for us by submitting to our blood lust and letting us kill him, but he didn't need to die for any kind of atoning sacrifice for sin.

And of course, if you remove any meaningful mechanism for forgiveness through the atonement, through the blood of Jesus, as Christians have historically held it, well, that's really going to affect what you think the gospel is. And so, if we look historically at the gospel being this proclamation of the good news, this narrative arc of God's redemptive acts throughout history, in the progressive view, this is actually viewed as a pagan type of gospel.

In fact, Brian McLaren in his book, A New Kind of Christianity, goes through that narrative arc of creation and fall, and then restoration and redemption. And he says, "This is something early Christians copied from pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. This is not the Jewish gospel of the kingdom that Jesus was preaching."

And so in McLaren's view and other progressive leaders follow him on this, that they believe that the gospel that Paul was preaching and the gospel that Jesus was preaching are actually two different gospels.

And Jesus had a much more Jewish situation in view. But the problem with that is that according to McLaren, Jesus, his more Jewish gospel has to do just with the here and now. It doesn't have to do with what happens after we die.

And so McLaren suggests that the gospel has to do with things like environmentalism and green energy and socio-economic reform, and things along those lines. But he thinks that Christians have become way too focused on what happens in the afterlife.

And so in the progressive church there's really not a lot of meaningful discussion about what happens in the afterlife. It becomes a very social justice oriented gospel that has to do with the here and now, which is really ends up bottoming out in a workspace gospel.

Sean McDowell: One of the helpful distinctions you're making is that progressive Christianity is not just another denomination, it's actually a different faith. And I'm curious, I'm always leery to attribute motives to somebody because there's a natural tendency to not be as charitable as we could be when we disagree with somebody. But in this case, many progressive Christians have said what their motives are. So it's not a secret. What are some of the motives that you found, especially people who were more evangelical or what you call historic Christians to shift and become progressive Christians?

Alisa Childers: Yes. And I appreciate the way you framed that question, Sean, because that's something I try to be really careful about as well. I hate when people assign motives to me rather than engage with my arguments. And so I try not to do that as well, but I do think that because we have access to so many deconstruction stories, we have access to the actual stories of people who have deconstructed from an evangelical faith to a more progressive faith, we can know in their own words, the reasons why they have done so.

And what I have discovered is, one thing that's really important to note from the get-go is that progressive Christianity is not a movement that's made up of people coming from various different worldviews. It's not like there are atheists and Buddhists and Hindus that hear the progressive Christian message and say, "Hey, I think that reflects reality. I'm going to convert to that."

Largely speaking, progressive Christians are deconverted evangelicals. These are people who grew up in the evangelical church. Something happened in that church, or they had some type of an experience that put a bad taste in their mouth. And so they were largely reacting against the evangelical upbringing they had, rather than moving toward this message that they might find more compelling. Because like we said before, it's not like there really is this solid layout of beliefs that you're going into when you affirm progressive Christianity.

And so some of those reasons, I've heard stories where people have walked away because they were told in their evangelical churches that God will answer all their prayers. That if they get sick that God will heal them. If they just ask, whatever they ask, it will be done for them.

And then when they live that out in real life and it doesn't happen, they become disgruntled in a way, or they become confused about who God is because they were told that God was supposed to do this. In fact, there was somebody in that class that I was in, in that small church that that was one of his main struggles, is that his wife had this chronic illness and it was just such a difficult battle for his family, and they had prayer chains going, and so many people praying and she just wasn't healed. And this caused some disillusionment in his mind.

Another reason you'll find is abuse. We're seeing a lot of abuse scandals come to light lately. And so people who grew up in maybe a spiritually abusive environment, they're walking away from that not realizing though that when they go into the progressive movement, the progressive movement is going to give them permission to toss the gospel out, along with whatever type of abusive situation they grew up in, which agreed, we should deal with those abusive situations. And the church needs to be honest about that.

But we need to not throw the gospel out with it because the gospel is the cure, the gospel is always the answer. Other reasons would be growing up in a Christian bubble, where they were kind of told like our stream of Christianity is the only real one, the only one that really gets it right. But then they grow up and they go to college and they meet somebody from a different denomination and think, "Well, they love Jesus too."

And so they were never really taught to differentiate between the essentials and maybe what we would call secondary issues or tertiary issues. So I think those would be some of the critiques that they would bring that I would say, "Look, these are legitimate critiques against some of our evangelical culture, deconstruct that kind of stuff all you want."

As my friend, Shelby Abbott says, "Deconstruct Christian culture, all you want." But I think the thing, a lot of people don't realize is that in progressive Christianity, the gospel goes out with some of those other legitimately things that we need to critique and correct.

Now, there would be a couple of other reasons. I think there's always good old fashioned rebellion on the table. I think that we see people looking out into culture and culture is changing on morals and on issues of sexuality. And I can't even imagine the pressure on, especially a young person who's being told, not only is your views on sexuality wrong, but you're actually hurting people by believing this, you're actually harming people.

And the pressure to capitulate to culture has got to be so extreme. So you have a Christian kid that grows up evangelical. Then they've got this movement saying, "Hey, you can keep Jesus, you can keep your Christian title, but you can change your mind and mind on all this stuff. And it's okay." And so I think that can be a contributing factor as well.

Sean McDowell: So Alisa these are for the most part, people who have a sincere desire to hang on to some component of their faith, just not the traditional faith that they've grown up with. Would that be accurate?

Alisa Childers: I do think that's accurate. I think that there is this impetus to hang on to Jesus, which is commendable. In fact, Bart Campolo, obviously who deconstructed all the way through progressive Christianity and into secular humanism, his view is that, hey, progressive Christianity is this, it's kind of your way out the door. Just be intellectually honest and declare yourself an atheist or secular humanist. And I get where he's coming from on that.

But I do think there's something in the hearts of people who are falling for this, where they're like, "I don't want to let go of Jesus. There's something in me that still believes that something about this is true." Although there's obviously just a lot of confusion there.

Scott Rae: Alisa, let me go back to some of the doctrinal differences that you highlighted about the bible and the cross and the gospel. I think about other things like the Deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection. In general, the discussion of miracles and the virgin birth. I mean, a lot of mainline denominations around the world have dispensed with those doctrines too. And they did that some time ago. And in fact, you point out in your book that some of these doctrinal differences you point out are actually very ancient, that the early church dealt with them too.

But how is progressive Christianity as you're describing it, different from what's going on in a lot of the mainline denominations for some time?

Alisa Childers: That's an excellent question. And so I would frame it like this. What we saw happen in the late 1800s, early 1900s with this birth of theological liberalism that went through the mainline protestant denominations were seeing some of those in decline.

And for the longest time as I was studying progressive Christianity that was so confusing to me, because you're seeing statistics that are saying, the mainline Protestant denominations are in decline and the implication being because of this liberal, theological conclusions that they're coming to.

But yet everywhere I turn, I'm seeing those same theological assumptions just with renewed, just invigorated within the evangelical church, and some of the situations that I was in. So I couldn't figure it out for the longest time, but I think what's happened is that it's like, I just recently thought of this analogy that it's kind of like a parasite.

I think that, that doctrinal inclination to reject some of those core tenants and still hang on to Christianity, it's kind of like a parasite, it's always looking for a new host. And so where we're seeing the protestant denominations in decline, well that message, those theological liberalism hasn't gone away. It's just looking to kind of reinvigorate itself, and I think we're seeing it right now, the burst of it in the evangelical church. And so, there's just maybe one difference.

So in the mainline Protestant, you had the theological liberalism, in progressive Christianity, that's largely coming up and out of the evangelical church, you're having those same theological conclusions and assumptions. But you're going to marry that with the post-modern type of mood that's in our culture.

So if you take theological liberalism and marry it with postmodernism, the baby you're going to have is progressive Christianity.

Sean McDowell: Alisa, there's a well-known voice from the emergent movement who said to me one time, he was lamenting that he didn't get invited to speak at a lot of conservative kind of youth events and conferences, but atheist would and people from different denominations would, and he couldn't figure out why.

I said to him, I said, "People know where atheist stand. They don't pretend to be a Christian, but you are claiming to be a Christian, and many people think you're preaching a different gospel. That's why."

Now, I share this because one of the challenges that I have is there's a lot of people in progressive Christianity who have been genuinely hurt. And because of that, I want to show that historic Christianity is not bigoted, we're not hateful, we are loving and gracious and accepting. And yet Jesus in Matthew 7, Paul on 1st Corinthians 5, have some pretty strong words to say about those who preach a different gospel.

I'm wondering what wisdom you have, just how to navigate being loving and gracious towards those who are in the progressive Christian movement, and yet protective of the flock and the way that Jesus and Paul talk about.

Alisa Childers: Yeah, that's a really good point. And I think in one of the chapters in my book, I think it might be chapter six. I talk about Jesus' parable of the wheat and the tares. And so you have these wheat and these tares all growing up together in the same field.

And essentially back, I was doing some research on this parable and I think it was Craig Blomberg's book. I was looking at, on his book on the parables that was so helpful, but he mentioned that back then people would actually sew tares into a field as a... He called it a form of primitive bio-terrorism. So you'd have these true believers and false believers, all kind of growing up together. But the warning that Jesus was saying is, it's not our job to just harvest it all because we'll lose some wheat in the process. God will sort all that out.

But there's a difference between wheat and tares existing together in the same congregation at church, and what the Bible would describe or what Jesus actually described as an actual wolf.

So you have true believers and false believers, but there's this other category of false teacher called a wolf, where ultimately this wolf is looking to pick off sheep and to deceive them and ultimately that's going to have implications for their eternal souls. This was life and death stuff for Jesus.

And so Jesus warns and other New Testament writers warn against false teachers, which would be described as these wolves. And so I think that's probably the first distinction that Christians need to make, is that if we have friends who are confused by this movement, they may be swayed by this movement. We can look at that like wheat and tares, we can try to disciple them and love them and be patient. But if there's somebody who is coming in with an actual teaching, that's going to deceive people, the Bible puts that teacher in a different category.

And there's zero tolerance for it, in the Bible. In fact, interestingly in Revelation, when Jesus is writing his letter, I think it was to Thyatira. He actually gets on this church for the sin of tolerance. He said, you're tolerating this woman Jezebel, who's leading people into sexual immorality. And Jesus was actually chastising them for tolerating this leader in their church.

So I think that that's maybe the first distinction we need to make is the difference between a friend who's confused and maybe persuaded a little bit by this, and then inviting an actual teacher in that has the potential to lead people astray away from God, and to give them an actual false gospel, which would have implications for their eternal state.

Scott Rae: Alisa, one of the things that I think will get the attention of pastors and church leaders from this discussion is thinking about some things that our churches could do better at, to ensure that especially the students and young adults who grow up in our churches, don't find themselves vulnerable to this different gospel. What can our churches do better at to help protect people from being vulnerable to things like progressive Christianity?

Alisa Childers: And that's an important question. And I think that the answer to that, I'm not an expert, but I would say that the main thing churches can do is, don't underestimate our kids. I think we have seen from statistics and the recent Barna studies that kids are young people, are longing for they want tradition, they're longing for something deeper, something real. I think our kids can handle the gospel.

I'm not against pizza parties and having fun. I think it's great to provide an environment where fun can be had for kids, but we've got to give them good theology. We've got to train them in apologetics. Because if they know the real thing really well, it won't matter what kind of false gospel they face. They'll be able to recognize it because they know the real things so well.

And I think sometimes the knee jerk reaction for church leaders, and I understand this sort of impetus as well as you want to kind of pull the punch a little bit, to get as many kids in as you can, make it fun.

But I think ultimately kids are hungry. I think they want truth, and I think youth groups might see maybe a little bit of a drop-off if they start really teaching theology, but then I think they're going to seek growth. Because kids want the real thing, they want to know what's true. I think they're smarter than we think they are. I think they can handle more than we think they can handle. And I think that teaching really sound theology and training in apologetics is the way to do it.

Sean McDowell: Well, being apologetic myself, I can not disagree with that Alisa. But I have one last question for you in his book, Carpe Diem Redeemed Os Guinness talks about how both political progressivism and religious progressivism are based on this idea that, we're moving away from kind of the fundamentalist the past, progressing towards this improved state in the future, the time equals progress.

And then you point out in the book that really progressive Christianity is actually nothing new, that it has roots in Gnosticism and marcionism and other early heresies. So we don't have time to unpack these, but maybe explain just briefly how progressive Christianity is very similar to Gnosticism, which is arguably one of the earliest heresies the church confronted probably as soon as the end of the first century.

Scott Rae: Yeah. And so Gnosticism was one of those really early heresies that came up just maybe a bit after the circumcision party or the Judaizers. And Gnosticism can be a bit tough to nail down, when I was studying it, it was kind of confusing because there's lots of different sects within Gnosticism. So it's hard to pin down, maybe one phrase that would say, this is what Gnosticism was, but there was this theme of knowledge in Gnosticism.

And so in the book, I kind of as a little kind of a joke, I make up these fake Bible verses based on Matthew 16, 24, where Jesus says, "If you want to follow me, must deny yourself and take up your crosses." And so for Gnosticism, the verse that I made up was, then Jesus said to his disciples, whoever wants to be my disciple must find the divine spark within herself and follow my hidden wisdom."

And I think what we see with Gnosticism, if you read the Gnostic gospels, you have this Jesus that was very different from the Jesus of the gospels, giving this sort of hidden wisdom, hidden knowledge to people and that was where salvation was found. Salvation was found with this knowledge.

And so if we look at the progressive movement, you have this group of people coming along 2000 years after Jesus lived. And they're basically saying, "Look, we have this higher and wiser view of God. We know more now than anyone did before, so we finally have the true picture of who God is. We can see God from this, our vantage point in history where we know so much more."

And honestly this is something that CS Lewis referred to as chronological snobbery. That just because you live later, you must know more, or because there's more progress that we must know more about spiritual truths, which he makes a great case why that's not true, but I think that when Gnosticism came into Christianity, the other thing that's really important to note about the differences and the similarities is that Gnostics were portraying themselves as Christians.

They were in the church saying, "Look, this is what real Christianity is." They were using Bible verses. They were using Christian language. They were even using some of the sacraments that Christians were using. And you can imagine how tricky that would have been for first century, second century Christians to navigate. And I think we have the same kind of problem.

Progressive Christianity is wrapping itself up in a Christian wrapper. It's using Bible verses, it's using Christian language and sacraments, but ultimately when you really drill down into it, it's giving an entirely different message about who God is, who Jesus is, even what humans are. And I think when you put all those things together, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this is another gospel. This is a different religion.

Sean McDowell: That's fair. And that really comes out in your book that you approach this charitably and graciously, but are just trying to open the eyes of people to say, "You know what? Here's a different message, a different gospel that's coming through. Let's not be taken by this."

Well, we really appreciate you coming on. I want to encourage our listeners to follow you, Alisa Childers, you are on Twitter, you're on all sorts of social mediums. You have a great YouTube channel. You've been gracious enough to have me on a couple of times and a ton of people watch it. Got some wonderful feedback on that. But today in particular, I hope our listeners will pick up a copy of your book, Another Gospel.

Alisa, thank you for speaking truth, but doing it with kindness and charity towards others, which is exactly what we aim for here at Biola. So, thanks so much for coming on.

Alisa Childers: That was a pleasure, thanks guys. And our listeners, if you've ever thought about studying theology or philosophy or apologetics, we would love to have you join us at Talbot School of Theology to get a master's degree. This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.

To learn more about us and today's guest Alisa Childers, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.