I have asked Dr. Bruce Epperly, a Disciples/UCC pastor and professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary to write a series of guest postings.  This is the first of those postings.   Keep an eye out for the next offering as it will follow up on this most important piece.


Recently, I asked my theology students the following questions: “What would you think of Christianity if the only Christian you heard in the public sphere was Pat Robertson asserting that the earthquake in Haiti was the result of divine punishment? If that’s all you heard, would you want to have anything to do with Christianity?” After a spirited discussion, I reminded my class that for most people, especially persons who have not grown up in the church, Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and religious spokespersons who denounce the theory of evolution and evidence of global climate change as demonic are the only Christian voices they hear! Progressive and moderate Christians seldom get a hearing in the public sphere, nor do we often share our witness with passion and clarity.

I spent part of Good Friday in conversation with a pastor who believes that the current political and religious context is calling for a moderate and progressive revival, a 21st century progressive Great Awakening. Yes, I said “revival!” She had been mulling over a documentary, chronicling Billy Graham’s career as North America’s premier evangelist and wondered if progressives shouldn’t initiate such a spiritual revival in our time. Her words, to use the language of my evangelical friends, “convicted” me. They reminded me that we are involved in a type of spiritual warfare and that we, as progressives, haven’t yet gathered a strong team of peaceful warriors to get our message out in the theological, spiritual, political, and public sphere. We seem content with slow decline, when we should be moving forward to take a central place in North America’s future spiritual landscape.

There is a gathering cultural and religious storm in the United States: we see it in the racist and homophobic epithets and death threats directed at members of the House of Representatives; the rise of Christian militia groups; the apocalyptic language invoked by the more radical members of the Tea Party movement, some of which is encouraged by the inflammatory language of media personalities and conservative political figures. Some of this is not new, but the volume been raised and has virtually drowned out the voices of progressive and moderate Christians in the public sphere and on cable television news.

One thing I appreciate about many of my conservative friends is that they are quite emphatic about what they believe. They recognize that the stakes are high, and they want to shape the outcome of the political and religious battles of our time. Perhaps, we progressives need to inject greater passion in our theology and spirituality, so that people will know that there is a Christianity that is open-spirited, welcoming of diversity, spiritually dynamic, supportive of the scientific enterprise whether it involves the theory of evolution, genetic research, or the recognition of global climate change. We need to make our witness known in the public sphere because, more often than not, most people outside of the church are amazed that it is possible to be a Christian and believe that:

  • The universe is fourteen billion years old.

  • Evolution is compatible with faith in God.

  • Humankind isn’t necessarily the center of God’s plan and that other species matter as well.

  • The bible is inspired but not infallible.

  • Faithful persons can have serious questions about their beliefs.

  • Persons of other faiths also receive revelations from God.

  • Non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics can be “saved.”

  • Progressives have a prayer life and believe in divine healing.

  • Persons of faith are interested in saving the earth.

  • God treasures ethnic, sexual, religious and cultural diversity.

  • Persons can disagree without hating one another.

  • The Bible supports an ethic of social concern supports the rights of immigrants and the recent health care initiatives.

  • Jesus’ had female followers and these women were given the Great Commission before their male companions.

  • Christianity is a diverse and multifaceted faith.

  • God is alive, present, and moving in our lives.

  • God wants us to be free, creative, and adventurous.

  • God does not cause earthquakes, cancer, or tsunami.

  • God is into love and not punishment.

  • We have a role in shaping the future of the planet.

A few days ago at the Easter Service at Disciples United Community Church (http://www.ducc.us/) in Lancaster, PA., the members of our open and affirming, progressive, spirit-centered church, shared seeds of resurrection. Their words witnessed to God’s seeds of resurrection growing through:

  • Trust in everlasting God’s care for a relative who died in a sudden accident.

  •  Recovery from addiction.

  • The first steps toward universal health care.

  •  The movement toward marriage equality.

  •  The power of prayer to change lives.

  • A relative coming home after a two month absence.

  •  Family reconciliation.

  •  A healthy pregnancy.

As my evangelical friends say, “that will preach,” and it preached at Easter in our small community of faith. When we boldly give our testimony, our progressive witness does preach – it is good news of affirmation, revelation, healing, and love that embraces all humanity and welcomes diversity. It is good news that God never gives up even at the moment of death. It is good news that small beginnings can lead to great adventures. It is good news that God loves diversity, cherishes multiplicity, and encourages creativity.

We progressives have a witness that we can be passionate about and can share in heartfelt ways at church, in the public square, and in the media. Nearly a hundred years ago, William James spoke of the “moral equivalent of war,” that is, the willingness for persons to become “peaceful warriors,” energetically and ardently committing ourselves to a great cause. As progressive and moderate Christians, we don’t need to demonize or demean those who take different political or religious pathways, but we need to be strong in our witness, faithful in our quest for justice, dedicated in our spiritual practices, and active in our political involvement. Perhaps, we need our own “revivalists” today – on line, in the community square, in the media, and in our pulpits, for the great cause of healing this good earth and its peoples.

In concluding today’s thoughts, let me ask: What would a passionate, progressive revival look like? Where and how might we get involved in shaping such a revival? What are our “seeds of resurrection?” What words do we need to say and whom do we need to challenge? What role might we play in a theological, spiritual, and political revival today?

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)


Rial Hamann said…
What an open and accepting list of "items" of belief. I share many of list elements in my personal belief, not all, but many.

I pray that I can be tolerant of, and respect other persons who have different beliefs.
Gary said…
I noticed that many of the items on his list of what he believes contradict the Bible. For real Christians, that would be a problem.
Cynthia said…

Thank you so much for this inspiring message! As an 'outsider' (Unitarian Universalist), I continue to pray that progressive voices in Christianity will become more widespread....as I think the future of the world depends on it.

@Gary....it would be interesting to know why you think that the list items "contradict the Bible." They all seem Biblical to me. And I truly hope you are not implying that Bruce Epperly is not a "real" Christian. That would be very sad.
Anonymous said…
"Real Christians" don't judge.

I think this list is inspiring, and helps remind us of the acceptance towards all of God's creations we should all strive for.
Gary said…

Based on your comments, you know little or nothing about the Bible.

I think that Bruce is just as much of a Christian as you are.
Anonymous said…
The bible is full of contradictions:

example... Can God be seen?

God CAN be seen:
"And I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my backparts." (EXO 33:23)
"And the Lord spake to Moses face to face, as a man speaketh to his friend." (EXO 33:11)
"For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." (GEN 32:30)

God CANNOT be seen:
"No man hath seen God at any time." (JOH 1:18)
"And he said, Thou canst not see my face; for there shall no man see me and live." (EXO 33:20)
"Whom no man hath seen nor can see." (1TIM 6:11)

That being said I don't believe that anything Rev. Dr. Epperly has said about people having the ability to believe what he has stated contradicts the bible, but in fact lifts up God's power of love and ever reaching arms of welcome.

It always amazes me how hurtful people can be with the bible and how that hurt and pain has turned so many people away from Christianity and even from God.

I personally believe that the bible which shows how awful human beings can be, responds by how wonderful God can be. For me God is not a God of punishment. It is the love of God that brings people before God. "Fear of God" isn't about fearing which side to choose, fear in the Hebrew context is a word as I understand it means justice. God is not a God of punishment but a God of justice. God gives us a will to choose justice and love. And as a community of believers have we looked at one another or behaved with love and given justice toward all God's creation?

What would Jesus have us do?

Lord, helps us to Open our Eyes and hear you and see your love at work in your world. Amen.
Anonymous said…
"They will know we are Christians by our love."
Montana said…
I love that they asked for “Public Defenders” (and they thought they could bring down our government), undercover FBI agent, sweet. The simpleton Tea baggers keep missing the point. These are the same whiners that were crying when the McCain/Bailin ticket lost. Now they are crying again because their yelling and screaming (because they are haters not debaters or as others have dubbed them screamers not dreamers) did not stop the health care debate or the bill from passing. They think they can scare, intimidate and force others to go along with them by comments like “This time we came unarmed”, let me tell you something they are not the only ones that are armed and not all ex-military join the fringe militia crazies who don’t pay taxes and run around with face paint in the parks playing commando, the majority are mature and understand that the world is more complicated and grey than the black and white that these simpleton make it out to be and that my friend is the point. Do not cry when regular people openly laugh at your group when they see on TV that your leaders are Sarah Bailin, Orly Taitz, Victoria Jackson, Michele Bachmann and your own turn coat Glenn Beck from the LDS. They do more to discredit you group on TV (powerful) than any of comments on the blog sphere. Yee Haw!
John said…

The bible says don't work on the Sabbath. How did Jesus respond?

He said that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around. Jesus rejected the clear language of Scripture as well as its traditional interpretation in favor of an interpretation which was more consistent with human needs and human dignity. In so doing Jesus opened the door for reconsideration of traditional Scriptural injunctions in favor of interpretations which lifted up love and inclusion and God's understanding of justice, and rejects interpretations which denied human needs and human dignity and ultimately which interfere with the operation of compassion, love and Divine justice in the world.

Most Christians would agree that Jesus summarized the Law and the Prophets two different ways, "love God and love your neighbor," and "love one another as I have loved you."

Another perspective is to understand that with these formulations Jesus calls us to filter all the rest of the Law and the prophets through these two formulations. If one interprets the absolutely clear injunction not to work on the Sabbath in a way which does not comport with his new formulations, (for example, in a way which prevents one from acting with compassion toward another, or from acting in love toward another) then one has misunderstood and/or misused Scripture.

Taking this further, interpreting Scripture in a way which excludes sinners from the table of Christ - for Jesus included even Judas - is misinterpreting Scripture.

Jesus was not very cautious about whom he considered his friends and who he invited to the table. For us to question who is and is not entitled to fellowship with us at the Table is to judge Jesus to be in error.

Bruce's generous Christianity, even if it is "unorthodox," is certainly not the betrayal of Judas, so why would you deny him access to the Table?

John said…
Does Bruce accurately list the tenets of "progressive Christianity"?

I haven't thought through his list carefully, but I think that not all "progressive Christians" would agree with each item on his list.

Should we on the progressive end of the Christian scale attempt to reach a consensus, declaring as optional those items which some though not all can agree upon?

John, I can't speak for Bruce, but my sense is that he has laid out a list of elements that are reflective of a progressive Christian perspective. One need not agree with all or limit the list to just these.
David Mc said…
I saw this today and felt hope-

Tom Coburn Knocks Fox News, Says Nancy Pelosi is a "Nice Person"

Bruce Epperly said…
Thanks, friends, for your comments. I hope to have further dialogue when I respond to Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life next week. As to the list, I am unsure that there are any specific tenets for progressives...the Center
For Progressive Christianity lists some, and I affirm these, but would go further in the affirmation of God's presence in prayer, healing, and spiritual formation. While I appreciate Gary's position, I would say there is much confusion in the meaning of "biblical" (many of the "fundamentals" of faith, for some,the second coming, biblical inerrancy, became important in the 19th century and were marginal among Christians beforehand). All of the affirmations I've listed can find their origins in scripture: as a "biblical Christian," I preach scripture, but not without a critical eye and always in light of God's call for us to be part of a world-changing realm where all of us belong.
Bruce Epperly said…
Thank you for your comments. I hope to be in further conversation next week with my piece on “Why I Challenged Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life.” As to progressive tenets, there is no official set – the Center For Progressive Christianity has a list, but I would go further in terms of the power of prayer, healing, and spiritual formation. (See my God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus.) Progressive thought is evolving and emerging but, from my perspective, affirms the universality of revelation and salvation, God’s embrace of creation, the importance of this world in salvation, our role in healing the world, power (even God’s) as persuasive and not coercive, the openness of the future….and so on. (I have 41 affirmations in Holy Adventure, my response to RickWarren.
As to scripture, progressive Christianity, as I see it, is very biblical. Many of what people see as orthodoxy is relatively new on the Christian scene, at least in significance (the second coming of Jesus biblical inerrancy, for example, did emerge as central until the 19th century). All of the affirmations I noted have their origins in scripture, whether in Genesis (the goodness of creation), the gospels (radical hospitality, healing, and universal revelation), or Paul (universal salvation and revelation).
Gary said…
Mr. Epperly,

I think you are messed up, theologically and morally. Some of your beliefs are unbiblical. Two examples: universal salvation is not a Bible doctrine, and God only endorses marriage between a man and a woman.
John said…

I wrestle with your questions, not because I agree but because I think you are entitled to a response. Not being theologically trained I recognize that my responses are thin, but they are honest and given with respectful heart.

It is biblical that we should pray for the salvation of every child of God.

Whether everyone is saved or not is really a non-issue for you and I - except with respect to our own personal salvation (and Paul says that we have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling). As to the salvation of others, we are called to love everyone, and to pray for everyone, and to be generous to everyone, and to judge no one. So it seems to me that the potential for some (or all) to be eternally lost is pointless to reflect on - instead we should be praying for one another.

I assume that God's mercy is without limit, and as such it certainly exceeds my own. So I pray that God's mercy will be showered upon as many people as God's justice will permit - I hope that is everyone.

And since salvation comes to us through grace, and not by works or merit, judging others as lost based upon their actions would seem to be, theologically speaking, illogical.

God is love, and genuine love is from God and reflective of God. The Bible calls us to love one another; it never authorizes anyone to judge the propriety or quality of another's love - only God knows what is in people's hearts. As Christians we are called to embrace their love as reflective of the Spirit of God at work within them and at work in our presence.

The way I read Paul, adherence to the Law, any law (even a law laid down by Paul himself), will not merit God's grace or lose one's salvation. Paul says that for Christians all is permitted though not all is beneficial. I have understood that to mean that motive and intent count - I'm just not sure how. But I think that if an action is motivated by love and compassion and is carried out with genuine love in one's heart and not in furtherance of a violent or oppressive agenda, then it seems to me that such actions should bring one closer to God.

Cynthia said…

I appreciate your thoughtful comments and analysis very much. Universalists have made the solid case for over 200 years that universal salvation is indeed Biblical. But that's not best done by proof texting - I believe that proof texting does violence to the Bible. Duelling proof texts out of context is pretty much a waste of time, I think.

I very much appreciate your approach on this, especially the generosity of spirit that moved you to say: "But I think that if an action is motivated by love and compassion and is carried out with genuine love in one's heart and not in furtherance of a violent or oppressive agenda, then it seems to me that such actions should bring one closer to God."

Such actions indeed are of God, no matter who does them or what they claim.

The true and literal meaning of "salvation" is not about being "saved from" or "saved for" anything. It is about being made whole - with God, with self and all creation. That salvation is accessible to all and so I believe God wishes it to be.
John said…

"The true and literal meaning of "salvation" is not about being "saved from" or "saved for" anything. It is about being made whole - with God, with self and all creation. That salvation is accessible to all and so I believe God wishes it to be."

I believe that about says it all.

David Mc said…
I imagine God sighing when we get caught up in, what seems to be, pettiness. There are more important evils in the world to overcome.

I do agree with Gary Cynthia, "I think that Bruce is just as much of a Christian as you are." Keep up the loving work.
Gary said…
When we have "progressive Christians" agreeing with Unitarians on doctrine, that ought to tell us something. I get it.
Bruce Epperly said…
It is interesting that folks have a problem with universal salvation...obviously, it doesn't mean that our actions don't matter or shape the quality of our everlasting life; but it does mean that God's grace is ultimate and that God is a good parent...as to scriptural evidence....take a look at the "lost stories" - God looks "until" the sheep are found - no limits; look at Paul, God will be "all in all" (what part of "all" don't folk understand) or Paul (all died in Adam, all are saved in Christ)...look at Romans....the challenge for many folk who say that they read the bible is that they don' read it....there are "conditional salvation" passages, but they related typically to actions not doctrinal believes....
God's blessings on all...
Gary said…

Scripture will not support the idea of universal salvation. I suspect that those who embrace universal salvation do so because they want to believe that they can believe whatever they want, and do what they want, and still be accepted by God. But it won't work.
John said…

Are you suggesting that one's salvation is dependent on the accuracy and correctness of one's beliefs? Is that really any different from any other form of merit or works based theology? Won't such a theology just cause humans to strive to discover right doctrine? Is that any different from striving to comply with the Law or the Holiness Code of the Jews? With the success of our efforts guarantying an eternity in Heaven and failure guarantying an eternity in Hell?

Should our striving not be directed to complying with the simple rules set forth by Jesus: love God and love one another?

I am not so sure I agree with Bruce, I think we may have to cooperate in "being found" (I read recently that God doesn't ravish, He woos), but I do agree that God never gives up on us, and that God's work doesn't end with our last breath on earth, but continues until we receive healing from leaves of the tree of life.

Gary said…

I'm sorry, but your theology is wrong. May I suggest you get yourself a King James Version of the Bible and read the New Testament? And ask God to help you see the truth as you read.
John said…

I pray on Scripture virtually every day and always ask God to speak to me through the text. What I hear is that I need to pay more attention to the words of the Spirit than to the words of men. The Spirit teaches forgiveness and love, men teach law and judgment.

Being a lawyer, this puts me into an odd posture. but I can cope.

Luke said…
fantastic! great post, i'm happy to have been a student of Dr. Epperly's. he gets what's going on. i look forward to starting a prog. revival in whatever church i land in.
Scott Leonard said…
Use any translation of Scripture you like. Your embracing of a fallable Bible and a form of universalism cheats the world of what they need-genuine salvation through an exclusive Savior who invites all to repent of their false religion. Ask the fifty million+ Chinese evangelicals wh risk their lives for Jesus, what they think of your gospel! And by the way, we believe the climate changes all the time, just not noticeably through man-made actions!
John said…

Scripture is not fallible, it is those who interpret it who are fallible. And the most egregious misinterpretations are those which employ it as a weapon of injustice.

Do you really think the translation changes the message? Well then hear it in the language you worship:

39And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness. 40[Ye] fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also? 41But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you. 42But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. 43Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets. 44Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over [them] are not aware [of them]. 45Then answered one of the lawyers, and said unto him, Master, thus saying thou reproachest us also. 46And he said, Woe unto you also, [ye] lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers. 47Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. 48Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres. 49Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and [some] of them they shall slay and persecute: 50That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; 51From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation. 52Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered. (Luke 11:39-52 KJV)

By arrogantly imposing burdens on others rather that treating them justly and with mercy and compassion you risk the sin of which Jesus charged the Pharisees. Get the log out of your own eye!

By the way, neither Jesus nor Moses took a position on man-made climate change - whatever that has to do with the current discussion.


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