By / Jan 27

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

What would you say to someone on the verge of walking away from the faith? What about someone questioning essential truths of Christianity? In Another Gospel?, Alisa Childers offers incredible help to those struggling with these and other questions about faith and the Christian religion. In the book, she takes on the movement known as progressive Christianity, considering its claims and where it falls short of historic Christian doctrine. More than critiquing this progressive strain of Protestantism, she also charts the way forward for Christians fighting against unbelief and helps to (re)anchor their faith on the solid ground of the gospel. We explored more of these ideas in our interview with Childers below.

Your book engages with what you call “progressive Christianity,” which is something we often hear about in political or social contexts. What do you mean by progressive Christianity? And how does it differ from historic Christian faith?

Progressive Christianity is a movement of people who identify as Christian, but have adopted theological liberalism, mixed with a bit of postmodern relativism. The unique characteristic of this particular brand of liberalism is that it is springing up and out of the evangelical church. 

What are common issues that drive people away from evangelical Christianity and toward progressive Christianity? Are there valid critiques that progressive Christianity raises that the church needs to hear?

Because progressive Christians are largely ex-Evangelicals who are reacting against their Christian upbringings, there are several factors that could lead to their deconstruction. For example, in listening to different deconstruction stories, we learn that many progressive Christians grew up in hyper-legalistic or even abusive church settings. Others grew up in a “Christian bubble,” in which they weren’t taught the difference between essential beliefs, and nonessential beliefs. 

Still, others began to see the Bible as morally dubious. In her book, Inspired, the late Rachel Held Evans, a key figure in the progressive movement, noted that when she was a little girl, the Bible was a magic book. As she grew older, she began to notice the true nature of the Noah’s Ark story, and the Canaanite conquest. This caused her to doubt the moral character of the God who was supposed to be the hero of the story. This led her to begin interpreting the Bible through the lens of liberation theology, feminism, and historical criticism. 

What would you say to someone on the verge of walking away from the faith?

And others, who grew up with a “name it and claim it” type of faith, didn’t have a theological category for suffering, and were left in a dark night of the soul following a trial or figuring out how to cope with unanswered prayers. When progressive Christianity first began to materialize through the Emergent church in the late ’90s and early 2000s, they brought in valid critiques of evangelicalism such as hyper-fundamentalism, abuse, and a lack of providing a safe place to bring doubts and questions. However, the progressive Christian movement ended up throwing out the gospel as well. 

The progressive approach to faith that you profile in your book might appeal to certain Christians who are struggling with their beliefs. What are some of the unforeseen pitfalls of this expression of faith? Why should we question the credibility of progressive Christianity?

The progressive movement is extremely appealing to those who are unsatisfied or disgruntled by their evangelical upbringing. Particularly for those who are asking difficult questions like “Why God would allow suffering?”, or, “How we know the BIble is the Word of God?”, it can be appealing because they are given a lot of space to ask these questions, without expectation of conformity. It can also appeal to Christians who are pressured by culture to capitulate on issues like abortion and sexual ethics. Because it is a movement largely driven by personal conscience, there is no pressure to side with the Bible on these issues. I think we should question the credibility of the movement because it is a belief system that holds feelings and personal preference as the highest authority, even over biblical mandate. 

Do you see a difference between unbelief and doubt? How do you think this distinction can help Christians understand the questions they have about God and the Bible?

I think there is a difference between doubt and unbelief. Sometimes, people think the opposite of faith is doubt, but the actual opposite of faith is unbelief. In fact, one can only doubt something they already believe. When we look at it from that angle, we see that doubt can be a very normal and healthy part of spiritual growth. However, progressive Christianity has created a culture of doubt, where agnosticism largely becomes the highest goal. 

Are there common questions or theological issues that tend to lead people toward a “deconstruction” of their faith? What is some practical wisdom for Christians feeling the first impulses toward the “spiritual labor” you describe in the book?

There are several different factors that can lead someone into deconstruction. When I’ve listened to deconstruction stories, there is often a mix of apologetics questions like, “Why does God allow evil and suffering?”, and, “Is the Bible really God’s reliable Word?”, and, “Has science disproved Christianity?” But when I listen closely, there is almost always an undercurrent of doubt regarding the biblical teaching on morality, and specifically, sexual ethics. I think in many cases, Christians feel pressured to align themselves with the cultural narrative on sexuality, which I have found to be a core tenet of progressive Christianity with advocacy for same-sex marriage and relationships being a main theme. 

My encouragement to Christians who are experiencing impulses toward this type of spiritual labor is to not give up. Often, it seems people begin deconstructing, but they don’t press through to find truth. Often, they’ve already decided they don’t believe what God says about morality or theology and look for reasons to change their minds. But if we keep our hearts set on truth, we will keep digging until we find it. 

You outline in your book how progressive Christianity often redefines or alters core tenets of historic Christianity. Can you give an example of this? Why is this so harmful?

One example of progressive Christianity altering a core tenet of the faith has to do with the atonement. Substitutionary atonement, and specifically, penal substitutionary atonement is referred to as “cosmic child abuse.” Progressive Christians don’t believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins as a sacrifice. Often, the atonement is described as God allowing the cross in order to submit to the bloodlust of humans, and to show how forgiveness works. This is harmful because it removes any mechanism for real atonement—to be reconciled to a holy God. But in progressive Christianity, humans aren’t separated from God in the first place, so there is no need for reconciliation. 

Are there cultural narratives or beliefs unique to our society that drive people toward adding or subtracting to the gospel? What are some ways we are guilty of the “chronological snobbery” that C.S. Lewis cautioned about?

The shift on sexuality and gender norms is a deeply influential cultural narrative leading people to redefine, add to, or subtract from the gospel. There is a push to accommodate the gospel to include the acceptance of premarital sex, homosexuality, and transgenderism. The cultural acceptance of critical theory and intersectionality, which divides people into groups of oppressed and oppressor has paved the way for these changes to be made. 

Another cultural narrative that is influencing Christians to add or subtract to the gospel is the broader push for valuing the self above all else. Messages like “just follow your heart” and “you are perfect just as you are” have led a large swath of Christians to reject the doctrine of original sin, trading it instead for “original blessing,” or “original goodness,” which teaches that humans are not inherently sinful, and if they are, that sin doesn’t separate them from God. If they feel separated from God, it is simply their shame or lack of realizing their belovedness that makes them feel the separation.

You encountered progressive Christianity through the emergent church, a previously popular movement that has now faded. Where do most people come into contact with progressive Christianity today?

The Emergent church planted the seeds for progressive Christianity. Largely speaking, it is the same movement, with the same philosophy and theological conclusions. When it was perceived that the Emergent church faded out, that is because Emergents were largely pushed out of the evangelical church, but then they grew and festered online on social media platforms, internet chat rooms, and blog sites. With fresh faces and voices, the movement continued to grow in numbers and influence, finding themselves published on major Christian publishing houses and being invited to evangelical churches and conferences. With this fresh crop of voices, but not excluding the original Emergent voices, progressive Christianity successfully infiltrated the evangelical church in ways the Emergent church was unable to accomplish. 

What have you personally gained from the reconstruction of your faith? How has that journey strengthened your relationship with Jesus and conviction in the historic Christian faith?

My journey to discover historic Christianity has been a two-fold blessing. On one hand, my experience at the progressive church left a wound. Like Jacob, I walk with a limp, but that limp has humbled me and made me even more dependent on the Lord. That is, in and of itself, a deeper blessing than I could have known to ask for. Second, the Lord has seen fit to bless me with an opportunity to help others who are encountering and interacting with progressive Christianity and help equip them to answer the claims and minister to their friends who are confused by it. Ultimately, my faith in God is stronger today than ever. I have learned to trust in what I know about God and not depend on my feelings. 

Encountering unasked questions created a faith crisis for you because your faith was, as you described, “intellectually weak and untested.” This is an experience shared by many Christians. How would you counsel believers who encounter questions they don’t have immediate answers for? How can the church better equip people to handle doubt?

My main advice for Christians encountering new questions they don’t have answers for is to begin with knowing that there is nothing new under the sun. This may be a new question to you, but it’s not a new question for the church. We have 2,000 years of a robust intellectual tradition that has been interacting with these types of questions. Keep digging. Don’t give up just because a clever skeptic spins something in such a way that causes confusion. It takes work, but as I say in the book, the hungry doubter will do the work. 

I think churches can help by providing apologetics and theological training for young people, starting in elementary school. Our kids are encountering skeptical claims about what they believe at such tender ages. We have to expose them to skepticism in the safety of our homes and churches, teaching them how to think critically and navigate these things before they go out into the world. Also, churches need to learn how to diagnose doubt. Not every doubt is intellectual. An apologetics class won’t necessarily help someone who is doubting because of cultural pressure to capitulate on sexuality. 

Seeking to understand the question behind the question can go a long way to help prepare Christians to stand strong in this increasingly more post-Christian culture. 

You can order Another Gospel? here.

By / Sep 23

For a long time I’ve had a serious problem. And it is the kind of thing I’ve always thought I couldn’t talk about. My problem is doubt. I know that might not seem like a scandalous revelation. But to be honest, for most of my life I felt enormous pressure to keep my doubts a secret. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first reason is that I didn’t want to undermine the faith of anyone around me. It’s not as though I felt like the people in my life only believed in Jesus because of me. But I didn’t want to have anything to do with causing someone else to question their faith. The second reason is even more personal. I didn’t want to admit that I often struggle to believe in my best friend. And that is what Jesus has been ever since I was a small child—my very closest friend.

Doubt and despair

I was in junior high school when I first began to deal with doubt. And of all things, I think it was reading Greek mythology that kicked it off. As I began to learn about the vastness of our world and the multiplicity of beliefs about God and life after death, I began to question my beliefs. And for the first time I wondered if I was merely assuming my beliefs were true because they were the only ones I’d ever known.

As time went on, more things compounded these questions. I learned about other religions, each of which had its own perspective on both the divine and the meaning of life. I was introduced to agnosticism and atheism, and alongside these, secular humanism and Big Bang cosmology. And even as a teenager, I realized that Christianity wasn’t something I could believe by default. My faith was no longer something I could take for granted.

In college I was surrounded, for the first time, by smart people who rejected my beliefs. Not only that, but many of them were effective apologists for their own. And during those years, I went through something like the dark night of the soul.

I remember lying on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night, crying out to God, and feeling ridiculous because I was certain no one was listening. I was crushed and in despair. My faith that was once so certain was anything but secure. And Jesus, my best friend, felt so far away. But probably the worst part was that I was ashamed to reach out for help. I didn’t want to harm anyone else’s faith, and I didn’t want to admit where I was with my own. 

But thankfully, Jesus came through.

Help for my unbelief

One day during this time I wandered into a LifeWay bookstore and picked up a tiny book called, of all things, Doubting. In this little volume, the author, Alistair McGrath, offered real answers to my questions instead of merely brushing them to the side. Though I have not read it in many years, what I remember most is that McGrath helped me understand that my doubts didn’t erase my faith. He showed me, as strange as it may sound, that my faith was actually the best defense against my doubts. 

 Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too.

Around the same time, I started to dig into apologetics. I wanted to learn the answers to the questions people put forward to challenge Christianity. The more I learned about defending the faith, the more answers and hope I gained. Ultimately, I realized that if the Christian story is true, it is strong enough to withstand any challenge or scrutiny.

But as much as those things helped, nothing helped me more than Scripture. I learned that the Bible is a book for doubters and skeptics. And in my early 20s, I began to devour God’s Word, specifically the New Testament. The more I read, the more I found that my doubts were relieved.

The men and women featured within the pages of the New Testament who followed Jesus and continued to advance his ministry after his ascension laid everything on the line to do so. Nothing stills my doubts more than this reality. The Apostle Paul suffered greatly—stonings and shipwrecks and snakebites—all for the sake of the gospel. For me, his most comforting words were these: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19) Or as Lecrae put it, “If Christ ain’t resurrected, we’ve wasted our lives.”

Freedom to doubt, and believe

One of the most helpful passages of Scripture for doubters like me comes from Matthew 11, when John the Baptist—the cousin of Jesus, who declared him to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”—is in prison. At this time, John knows he is about to die. But before he makes that final sacrifice, literally giving up his head for the sake of his faith, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John is imprisoned because he made enemies by faithfully proclaiming the words of righteousness. But before he embraces martyrdom, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Christ, just to be sure. Instead of rejecting John because of his doubt, Jesus answers John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus assures John that indeed the kingdom has come and that he is the long-promised Messiah of Israel. Jesus was not ashamed of his cousin. In that very passage, Jesus offers John assurance, and then commends John as the greatest man ever born of a woman (high praise coming from the eternal king of the universe).

Meditating on that passage brought forth a realization for me. If Jesus wasn’t ashamed of John, he isn’t ashamed of me or my doubts either. Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too. After all, Jesus is also the good shepherd. He is patient and gentle with his sheep. If, like me, you are prone to wander in the midst of doubt, Jesus is always faithful to seek us out. And he will carry you, if necessary, in order to bring you back and help you believe.

By / Mar 31

The COVID-19 outbreak is without doubt a culture-defining moment in our present time. Much of our society and our routines have become uprooted. For Christians, we can tangibly see this in how we have changed meeting together with our local church bodies. Much of our interaction with one another has moved online for the time being.

These things are no less true for our unbelieving neighbors. The same inconveniences that are affecting us are affecting them too, whether that’s having children at home unexpectedly, losing a job or being put on leave, not being able to interact with friends and family, going to the grocery store and being unable to find basic items, etc.

With the unique challenges of the coronavirus come unique opportunities for Christians to engage with their unbelieving neighbors.

First, Christians have the unique opportunity “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

In light of any tragedy, when people’s felt needs are greatest, the world around us looks for answers to those gnawing questions that they might otherwise ignore. This may come in the form of questions such as, “Why would God allow this to happen?” (Here is one article on the “problem of evil” question). However, the questions could even be much simpler and open-ended, like, “What should I do? What should I think about this?” 

Maybe God will even open the door for evangelism more directly when your friend, neighbor, or co-worker asks, “What do you think about these events? What is Christianity’s response to events like these?” These are the kinds of questions we should be ready to answer in order that we might be able to point to Jesus Christ and the sufficiency of the gospel.

One aspect of 1 Peter 3:15 that I want to point out is how it mentions hope (“the hope that is in you”). During challenges such as the coronavirus, it is easy for the world to lose hope because many people do not place hope in anything beyond this earthly life. So, when our earthly life seems to fall apart, hope can seem to disappear right along with it. Again, it is the gospel which gives us hope. Paul wrote that, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). How true this would be! But our hope is not merely in this life only, but for all eternity. Paul writes in Titus 2:11-14:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Because of the gospel, we have hope in the future return of Christ to rule, reign, and restore all things, where there will no longer be death or pain or suffering (Rev. 21:4-5). We have hope and security in our eternal life in Christ.

With the unique challenges of the coronavirus come unique opportunities for Christians to engage with their unbelieving neighbors.

The amazing thing about having hope for the future is that it gives us hope and purpose in the present as well. We do not merely sit idly by and wait for Jesus to return. Having a future hope gives us purpose today that should motivate us to be zealous for good works, as Paul wrote to Titus. This leads me to the second opportunity Christians have in light of our present circumstances.

Second, Christians have a unique opportunity to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31).

With unique challenges come unique needs. I’ve already discussed the spiritual needs, especially the need for hope. Yet, we are also presented with the opportunity to meet people’s tangible needs, whether physical or emotional. This can take different forms:

  • Do you have an elderly neighbor or someone who is part of one of the higher risk categories for the coronavirus? Offer to go grocery shopping for them so that they don’t have to risk exposing themselves to a large group of people.
  • With all the social distancing that is going on, people (especially single individuals, those without families, and the elderly who are being quarantined in care facilities) are more likely to feel lonely and isolated. Thankfully, we live in an age where we have several alternate means of communication. Whether you reach out by phone, text, social media, or meet one-on-one (if circumstances permit), let people know that they are loved and cherished.
  • Are you single yourself? Do you know parents who are overwhelmed with having their children at home 24/7? Perhaps you can help watch them for a few hours.
  • Is someone you know without a job or struggling financially during this crisis? Be generous with your earthly wealth, and, as Jesus commanded, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

Of course, in all these suggestions, use wisdom and discernment. One of the greatest ways we can love our neighbor is by not spreading the coronavirus itself. 

Above all else, pray and ask for the Spirit’s leading. Perhaps he wants you to do something else which I have not mentioned. Be obedient to his leading so that you can be a blessing to a watching world and so bring glory to Christ.

Conclusion

We should always remember that in light of the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves, the gospel message remains the same and is sufficient for our needs, as it has been sufficient for the church in its 2,000-year history. Let’s remember that the church has dealt with the challenges of disease and pestilence already (Read this letter from Martin Luther who had dealt with a plague). As before, now in our present time, we should let the gospel point toward the hope found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and compel us to love our neighbor and meet their needs so that they might ask, “What is the reason for the hope that is in you?”

By / Mar 6

Hello, this is Russell Moore, and this is Questions & Ethics sponsored by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. I am here in our Washington offices, Leland House. On this program, every time, we come back to the questions that you send in about things that are going on in your life.

I have a really interesting question that came to me from a pastor who says, “Dr. Moore, in our church I am very careful about baptizing people. I make clear in my preaching that God can save people at any age, but often it is harder to determine whether or not say, a five-year-old has been saved as opposed to someone else. And so we take baptism very seriously. We work very slowly in interviewing people. And one of the requirements we have at our church is that everyone who is being baptized will give a short verbal confession of faith in the baptistry as to his or her faith in Christ and salvation experience. But here’s my problem: We have a severely autistic teenager in our congregation who isn’t comfortable talking very much at all and is certainly not comfortable talking to people who are not his parents. He communicates mostly with his parents via iPad. And so how do we interview him for baptism? His parents say that he has come to Christ. How do we interview him for baptism, number one? And number two, do we exempt him from giving a verbal testimony in the baptistry?

That’s a really good question. I am glad that this was asked. One of the things that many of our churches are needing to think through right now is how do we as local congregations deal with the issue of disability? And frankly, if in your congregation you are not grappling in some way or other with the question of disability, then I think you should probably ask why? Are there people in our community that we are not reaching? Are there people in our church that we are not asking the right sorts of questions to minister to them? But most congregations are going to have to think this through.

Pastor, I think the way you ought to handle this is to treat it the way you would if you were dealing with a new believer who doesn’t have the capacity to speak or to hear. How would you handle that? The way that you would probably handle that is to find some other means to interview that person, maybe with a sign language interpreter or in some other way, and then accommodate that disability in that way. Somebody with severe autism along the lines that you are mentioning—from what you are describing here, it’s not as severe as it can be—but it is not that this is a person who doesn’t want to talk. Don’t treat this simply as somebody who says that they get nervous. This is a disability that this person has, a real challenge that this person is facing. And so because, for you, talking is an easy thing, don’t assume that if you push this person enough he is going to be able to talk. No. This is the situation that he finds himself in. and so enable him to live out a godly life in Christ as someone who has autism.

I think the way you do that is to work through his parents. So if the way that they are communicating with him right now is via iPad, great! Use that medium, and tell the parents the sorts of things that you ordinarily would be looking for in someone who is coming to faith in Christ: What is his testimony? What is he trusting in? What is he hoping in? What is his heart conviction? That sometimes can be difficult to ascertain, but not impossible to ascertain because of communication.

As a matter of fact, for those of you who are ministering to people with autism both as parents and as pastors and youth pastors and children’s pastors, there is a really good book I would recommend called The Reason I Jump. And it is by an autistic child who is writing and explaining—and there was a system where he was able to do this, to write this book, I think through computer technology—to talk about why he does the things that he does. And so some people think that this is just a habit you’ve picked up or this is an irritant. He is explaining that no, this is the way I see the world in a way that is different from you.

So have compassion upon that, and talk through his parents. If he communicates best through iPad, great! Just ask them for the things that you want to know. Then, in the baptistry, don’t require him to give a verbal testimony in the same way that you wouldn’t require someone who couldn’t speak, didn’t have vocal chords, to speak. What would you do? You would come in and say that we have a unique situation here. My new brother in Christ, “Ronny,” he has some challenges in his life that he is taking on that he is overcoming. He is not able to give a verbal testimony, but we have communicated with him, and we have full confidence that he trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ. He has repented of his sins. He has put his faith in him. And so, “Ronnie,” based upon your profession of faith, I baptize you now, my brother, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I think that that’s the right thing to do. I think that this is in many ways similar to the situation that we see in the gospels where the man who could not walk, his friends picked him up. They took him to Jesus. They tore the roof off the house and lowered him down. I think that’s the way that we ought to do it. And as you are doing that, communicate very clearly to your congregation that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for those who would consider themselves to be “well-bodied.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everybody. And so people, no matter what our disability, no matter what we are carrying with us through this life, can follow after Jesus and be faithful and contributing saints, members of the great cloud of witnesses and of the body of Christ. And I can’t think of anything that’s better news than that.

What’s your question for us? Send it to me at [email protected]. Anything that you are trying to think through, maybe it’s something that you were reading in the Bible in your devotional time. Maybe it’s a conflict that’s going on in your workplace or a decision you are having to make in your family or in your neighborhood or in your church. Whatever it is, send it to me at [email protected], and I will give it my best shot in answering it for you.