Progressive Christians: It’s ok to take our denominations seriously

At one Lutheran church I attended in DC, the pastor sat down with new members and said denominational differences don’t matter anymore. According to the pastor, there’s not much of a divide between mainline denominations. The pastor later argued that in order to be more welcoming to newcomers we need to use less of the traditional worship and embrace “contemporary music” (which is actually about 20 years out of date) and non-liturgical elements. This process ended with me leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (in which I had been raised) and joining the Episcopal Church.

I thought of this as I read Emma Green’s latest excellent article for the Atlantic on Lutheran-Christian relations during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It provides a great perspective on how we relate to each other today, but included one quote from the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA that concerned me:

“In the 16th century, we were killing each other over these issues,” Eaton said. Five centuries later, the ELCA and other churches around the world are marking Luther’s big moment. But “we are not celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation,” Eaton said. “We are observing it.”

This brought me back to the church I left. If an ELCA pastor argues — in both word and deed — there is nothing distinct about this denomination then why bother sticking with this church? If the contemporary ELCA leadership doesn’t think we should celebrate our founding because it caused divisions in the church — divisions that I had always been taught were necessary — then what’s the point of this denomination?

These attitudes can seriously harm mainline Protestant denominations. If no one seems excited about their tradition, then some prospective members may just leave or stop attending any church at all. Others will treat churches like commodities, shopping around until they find one with the best combination of music and worship times.

Another issue is one that Green raises in her piece. As theological differences fade in importance, Christians are “organizing themselves based on ideological convictions.” That is, politics comes before faith. This is arguably what has been occurring with evangelical Christianity for some time, as seen in some evangelical support for Donald Trump.

But it is also occurring with mainline Protestants. Many mainline churches emphasize political stances over religious beliefs. This is not inherently bad; our faith calls on us to make the world a better place and never ignore injustice. But there is always a risk of the faith aspect fading. At that point, it makes more sense to just sleep in Sunday and devote the rest of your time directly to political causes. When you sit through a sermon on the problems of a big defense budget — without any connection to Christianity — you wonder why you came to church in the first place.

I’m sure I’m coming off as a conservative. Conservative Christians love to complain about progressives putting social justice ahead of faith, and abandoning tradition. But I am a progressive Christian, and have tried to push back on concerning trends in American Christianity. I love when a sermon applies the Scripture reading to current political issues, or when the congregation organizes a protest in response to injustice. This is an indelible part of my faith. But it is part of my faith; my political convictions arise from the beliefs I’ve developed through my religious tradition, and lose their power without them.

So what can we do? Well, let’s celebrate and embrace our differences (how’s that for a progressive Christian tagline?). Catholics and Lutherans in America won’t come to blows over our beliefs. We can engage on theological differences from a position of mutual strength, as both sides care about their beliefs but respect the other’s. We may never agree on the Pope’s authority, but we can find common areas we can work on — based on our respective theologies — such as caring for the poor and fighting injustice.

One area in which this often occurs is international religious freedom. As I’ve worked in this area, I saw people of different faith backgrounds work together to advance religious freedom despite their theological differences. While everyone had different beliefs about how to apply their faith to society — or in the case of atheist and freethinker participants, their lack of religious beliefs — we all agreed that every religious tradition should have a right to worship as they see fit.

I think progressive Christians (Lutherans in my case) worry that if they talk too much about what makes them distinct, they’ll turn off potential members and upset adherents of other faiths. But as long as they respect the beliefs of others, and present their own without denigrating opposing views, this sort of engagement can lead to transparency and trust. In the long run, this may make it easier for the ELCA to work with Catholics and others to act on our faith.



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Peter Henne

International Relations prof writing on Middle East, religion and politics, US Christianity. Author of Cambridge UP book on Islam&counterterrorism.