Through the progressive looking glass

Through the progressive looking glass

By Rob Renfroe

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), there is an amazing passage. I think it provides a great deal of insight into the debates and discussions that occur between those of us who are orthodox and those who refer to themselves as “progressives.”

Rob Renfroe

Rob Renfroe

In this sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice enters a strange world and encounters Humpty Dumpty, whom she has a difficult time comprehending. He uses words with which Alice is familiar, but the way he uses them seems odd, if not completely nonsensical. When she tells him that she does not know what he means by a word, “Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you.’ … ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”

Sound familiar? Words I think I understand and have in the past found very useful in communicating with others, when talking with my progressive friends seem to have been given altogether different meanings.

Take the word “open.” Certainly, being open is a valuable trait as we seek after God and his truth. “Being open” is the virtue of admitting that no matter how much we may know, we still have much to learn. Openness is the sincere acknowledgement that God often speaks in surprising ways – even through people with whom we disagree, and so we need to listen to all who want to dialogue in good faith.

It’s here where progressives often take us traditionalists to task. They claim that we are anything but open because we have made up our minds regarding certain doctrines and seemingly won’t budge, no matter how out of step we are with the most current beliefs.

But does being open mean having no settled opinions or beliefs? If it does, then many progressives are as closed-minded as they claim we are. For example, most  progressives in The United Methodist Church would never consider ordaining anyone who discounted the validity of ordaining women or who rejected infant baptism. Of course, neither would traditionalist Wesleyans, but the point is that the progressive worldview never would allow this thought: “In rejecting this candidate for ministry, we’re not being very open, are we? In fact, we’re rather intolerant.”

No, it would never occur to them that holding to these particular beliefs and  implementing these standards for ordained ministry would ever make them guilty of not possessing “open hearts, open minds, [or] open doors.”

John Wesley described true openness, calling it a “catholic spirit.” He described it this way: “A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend them into one.”

It’s not wrong, in fact it’s imperative, that a church has particular doctrines and practices and is willing to defend and enforce them. I don’t believe that means we’re not open. I agree with G.K. Chesterton who said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

It’s not wrong to hold views that you have decided are correct – in fact, so correct that you are unprepared to change them. What’s wrong is condemning others for doing so when you have done the same thing. One could say it borders on hypocrisy.

In evangelical-progressive dialogues, “openness” among progressive advocates too frequently means that you must believe what they believe – and be absolutely sure that everyone else is wrong.

If for example, it were stated that many gay persons were not “born gay,” but came to same-sex attraction through events that occurred in their lives, you are likely to be labeled by progressives not only as closed-minded, but as hateful – even though there are no reputable scientific studies that conclude all gay persons are attracted to the same gender because of genetics or other biological causes.  And if you are invited to give a prayer at the presidential inauguration, holding this view, you will discover, as Pastor Louie Giglio did, just how “open” progressive guardians can be.

Or, express your belief that abortion on demand is immoral. Forget “closed-minded;” you will never be on the staff of our most progressive, and one would assume therefore, our most “open,” UM agency – the Board of Church and Society!

But many who assert just as strongly that gays are born gay and abortion is never wrong if it’s the woman’s choice fancy themselves to be open, not closed, even though they will not for a minute consider another position.

And what about our most important claim: that God has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ, and that no one comes to the Father except by him? Why does claiming that The Truth is found in the Christian faith cause the “open-minded” progressive wing of a Board of Ordained Ministry to be on edge or even hostile, as many of our orthodox colleagues have discovered? Because being open in the progressive worldview often does not mean being open to traditional Christian teaching, what Wesley called the “grand Scriptural” doctrines. Instead it means being open to the latest theological fad – which will be yesterday’s news and forgotten in a generation. And it means being open to what other religions teach and failing to affirm that what we have in the Christian faith is a revelation that is uniquely true and authoritative.

In The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Allan Bloom writes: “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason.  It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.”

We live in an Alice in Wonderland world when some people claim, for example, that Islam worships the same God as Christianity, even though Christians believe that God sent his Son Jesus into the world for our salvation and Muslims do not. That kind of openness isn’t broadmindedness – it is simply denying the reality that contradictory views cannot both be true. Have you ever been told that Buddhism and Christianity are simply two different paths to the same God? It cannot be true. Buddhism denies that the death and resurrection of Jesus is in any way connected to our salvation. Christians believe it is essential. The same holds true for Hinduism and its pantheon of thousands of gods and goddesses. It’s not being open or generous of heart to claim Christianity is true and at the same time assert that all religions lead to God, even those that deny the uniqueness of or the need for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; it’s being disingenuous. It’s mistaking being open for accepting everything, even beliefs that are contradictory, and denying reason’s power.

We can be open to persons who differ with us in their beliefs – we can learn from anyone. We can be and should be open to persons, regardless of their lifestyles – we are all sinners, and all are deserving of the ministry of the church. There’s no question about that.

What we cannot be open to is the false logic that contradictory religious beliefs can all be correct. What we cannot be open to are those who claim to be morally superior to persons who will not recant their traditional Christian beliefs, when they themselves are every bit as obstinate in their beliefs as those they judge. What we cannot be open to are those who sit on Humpty Dumpty’s wall, redefining words, because they have decided that’s the way to master the conversation and, ultimately, the church.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. 

Through the progressive looking glass

Why I am a United Methodist

By Blossom Matthews

It was my first theology class, and I was a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Having been raised non-denominational, dipping my toes in the waters of the religion department at a Southern Baptist university made for a life-changing experience. I was vaguely familiar with Calvinism and knew it wasn’t for me, but as we studied Calvinism, we also studied its counterpoint: Arminianism. Though the professor didn’t intend to affirm Arminianism, I realized I had finally put a name to my theological perspective.

As the Holy Spirit nudged me to embrace my call to ministry, it was only a hop, skip, and jump until I found my theological and spiritual home: United Methodism. With family members who had been Nazarene pastors, Methodist pastors, and even circuit riders, Wesleyanism was in my blood. As I settled into my new home, a few qualities of United Methodism stood out above the rest:

Women in Ministry

One aspect of United Methodism that I believe most warms the heart of God is our support of women in ministry. Consider the generations of women who were never allowed to live out their call to pastoral ministry. In God’s name, churches have accused and judged these women as misguided, at best, and rebellious, at worst.

Growing up non-denominational, I got a lot of mixed signals regarding women in ministry. Even churches that didn’t outright stand against women in ministry seemed to have the view that, “Yes, God can call women to preach and teach, and maybe pastor – depending on who you are and how famous you are. And as long as you are under the headship of a man.” Unless I married into ministry, it wasn’t going to happen.

Coming into a denomination in which women are respected and treated as equals was a breath of fresh air. In fact, it was more than that. The United Methodist Church became a liberating place to live out my faith and call. While it will take time to fully cultivate a church culture in which women are as eagerly received as men into the local church pastorate, clergywomen know that we are supported by bishops, district superintendents, and fellow clergymen who support us in answering God’s call. I give thanks for this safe place, The United Methodist Church, in which I can simply be the woman God has called me to be.

We are Open

One’s greatest strength can also be their greatest weakness; this is certainly true for The United Methodist Church. Those of us who support orthodox faith and practice are deeply concerned about the loss of theological clarity within our denomination. Being “open minded,” as our denominational slogan claims, has the potential of leading us down a path that contradicts the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We remember the warning found in Ephesians 4:14, that “we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.” While the growing lack of conviction regarding foundational matters may concern us, let us not forget that our openness is also one of our greatest strengths.

Coming from a near-fundamentalist background, I appreciate the open nature of our denomination. Our willingness to think about new ideas, to embrace scholarship, to respect those with whom we disagree, and to open wide our doors and hearts to all who are spiritually hungry gives me hope that God can use our denomination to reach the least, the last, and the lost. While we are fully aware of the dangers and pitfalls of our surrounding culture, we have the ability to live in the world without being of it, to love the world without being formed by it. We can love our neighbor who thinks and acts differently than we do without compromising our faith and conscience. Our openness need not reflect moral weakness or theological confusion, but rather, the open heart of our risen Lord.

The best of Christendom

I love the fact that The United Methodist Church is a place where both Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists can feel somewhat comfortable. In our congregation, we may profess the Apostle’s Creed on the same Sunday that we have an altar call. United Methodists have the ability to bring liturgical, revival, and contemporary traditions together in celebration of God’s work through the Universal Church.

We also bring together doctrines that some would consider mutually exclusive. Do we believe we are saved by grace through faith? You bet! But what about good works? We believe in those, too! Well, do United Methodists believe in free will or in providence? Yes and yes. Our theology is rich and nuanced. We affirm and bring together seemingly contradictory beliefs to present a balanced, biblical view of God and life.

John Wesley taught the importance of both personal holiness and social holiness. As United Methodists, we have the potential of ministering to the whole person: spirit, soul, and body. Our evangelical experience of the heart strangely warmed calls us forward to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We are not an either/or church, but a both/and church, pulling together and holding in tension the great doctrines of the Universal Church.

From our open hearts and inclusive spirit to our rich theology, the United Methodist Church provides good soil in which God may raise up new disciples for Jesus Christ.

Blossom Matthews is the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Pampa, Texas, where she co-pastors with her husband, Nick Matthews. She is the proud mother of Ruth, Josiah, and Malachi.

Through the progressive looking glass

“I Believe” Why we need the Apostles’ Creed

By Jessica LaGrone

A young woman was sitting around one evening with a group of friends when the conversation turned to religion. While politics and religion are known to be dangerous subjects among even the closest friends, the way things have gone in the political sphere lately, religion may have been the safer topic!

As her friends went around discussing their convictions, it was clear that most of these young adults weren’t really sure what they believed. They spoke in vague generalities, and some of them weren’t able to articulate what they believed at all.

Finally, she realized everyone was looking at her. Somebody said: “Well, you’re quiet, what do you believe?”

She opened her mouth without even knowing how she would answer. She started out: “I believe… I believe in God.” Then out of nowhere heard herself say:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” Almost unable to stop herself she continued: “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried….”

She proceeded to recite the entire Apostles Creed from beginning to end.  When she looked up her friends were wide-eyed, and no one was more shocked than her. She had grown up in the church reciting the Apostles Creed – and even though she didn’t even know she had it memorized, when asked what she believed, it just came out.

Millions of Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed on a regular basis. Others may not say it aloud, but look to it as a template for the most basic beliefs of the Christian faith. For many, the words of the Apostles’ Creed have formed the backbone of their faith.

Many churches have drifted away from using repetitive liturgy like creeds in worship. They say that we do better to speak straight from the heart each time we articulate our beliefs and feelings about God, since anything we repeat often enough will become rote, more about habit than genuine conviction.

One of the first weddings I ever performed taught me a valuable lesson about speaking from the heart. I was just out of seminary, young and naïve, and when the couple said to me in premarital counseling, “Pastor, we’ve written our own vows,” I had no good reason to object, so I said yes.

When we reached that point in the service, however, I realized the wisdom of using traditional vows, as the couple’s words spoken “from the heart” ranged from cliché to cringe-worthy.

“I vow to be more in love with you each day than I was the day before.” “I vow that I will always rub your feet at the end of a long day.” “I vow that you will always be my Pookie Bear.”

That’s when I realized that you just can’t improve on the traditional words that couples have spoken at weddings for centuries. “I promise to love you, comfort you, honor and keep you, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to you as long as we both shall live.”

You really can’t do better than to promise those things. They are the heart of every strong marriage.

The same thing is true about the Apostles’ Creed. You really can’t improve on these promises, these vows. Sometimes words that are scripted for you can express the convictions of your heart better than anything you could make up yourself.

When we try to express what we believe about God, our words will always fall short. But the words of this creed have stood the test of almost 2000 years of Christians saying what we believe together.

While it wasn’t written (as some legends have surmised) by the apostles themselves, the basic form of the Apostles’ Creed can be traced back to the earliest centuries of the Christian faith.

It served three basic purposes for the early Christians:

1. To catechize – to teach new believers what the Church stood for.

2. To defend – to guard the faith against heresies and false doctrines. 

3. To evangelize – to tell the world the core of what the Church believed.


The Apostles Creed was used as an outline of the faith for baptism preparation for new believers.

During what we now call the season of Lent, those who wished to be baptized into the faith would spend time studying the beliefs of the Christian faith as outlined in the words of the Creed. Then, at dawn on Easter Sunday, they would line up and affirm their faith by responding to the Creed as a set of questions.

Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth? And they would answer, in chorus: “Yes, I believe!”

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord? “Yes, I believe!”

This would continue until they had answered in the affirmative to all twelve declarations of the Creed. Only then would the new believers line up, and one by one, step into the baptismal pool and be immersed in the water, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Creed itself is Trinitarian in shape, with a section affirming the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, followed by a handful of short but important pronouncements at the end – the holy catholic (universal) church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting.


It can seem unfair that, while the Father is given just a couple of lines, and the Holy Spirit a meager six words, the lengthy core of the Creed is dedicated to declarations about Jesus.

The explanation for this seeming inequity lies in the Creed’s objective to defend the faith against false doctrines. In the early days of Christianity heresies about Jesus were rampant. Rumors that Jesus was not truly human, or that he was not divine, or that his crucifixion or resurrection were a sham quickly turned into doctrines for splinter groups of Christians. The Apostles’ Creed was a way of summing up, in very few words, what Christians do believe in order to stop speculations.

Centuries later, there are still more misconceptions about Jesus than any other person in history. We need the affirmations of this Creed more than ever to remind us of the core truths about Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting that the only person named in the creed besides God is Pontius Pilate. Since Pilate was a recognized historical figure, the statement “suffered under Pontius Pilate” served to place Jesus at an exact moment in history, refuting any claims that his story was a fairy tale existing outside of historical record.

Pilate goes down in history in the Apostles’ Creed as the one under whom Jesus suffered, even though he never physically struck Jesus, never convicted, or sentenced him. All Pilate did was wash his hands of the situation. His public censure everywhere the Apostles’ Creed is spoken reminds us that there is no neutral stance where Jesus Christ is concerned. When faced with the question of Jesus, Pilate’s attempt not to decide where he stood was a clear and condemning decision. Our words affirming belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God whenever we say the Creed marks our choice.


The content of the Creed follows a basic explanation of what Christians believe, simple enough for anyone to share with a friend who wonders what this faith is all about.

I often hear from new believers who have been regular church attenders in the past but have only recently embraced the faith for themselves. They sometimes say things like: “You know, I’ve been in church all my life, but until now I never heard the Gospel.” I’m never sure exactly how to respond to that. I usually say, simply, “That’s a shame.”

It is a shame. It’s a shame that there are churches out there that have lost sight of telling people that God wants a
relationship with them, that he wants that so much that he died for their sins and that their lives and eternal life can be changed forever if they understand and accept that. It’s a shame that there are churches that aren’t preaching the Gospel.

But there’s something else that’s a shame. It’s a shame they weren’t listening.

If you ask most people who say they’ve been in church their whole lives without really hearing the Gospel: “Did your church ever say the Apostles’ Creed?” Many would answer, “Yes.” Some would even say: “We said it every Sunday.”

If that’s the case, then it’s a shame they weren’t listening. Because not only did they hear the Gospel, they actually said it with their own mouth.

Here’s the gift of this Creed to the Church: No matter what kind of church you are in, no matter who is preaching or what they say or what they don’t say, if you are in a church that is at least faithful enough to say the Apostles Creed, you hear the Gospel.

Sadly, there are some churches that have even strayed beyond these basic bonds of belief.

A friend of mine moved to New England several years ago and found a church that she felt was the right fit for her. She like it that it was a church that labeled itself “progressive,” valuing tolerance and openness to all beliefs instead of proclaiming one set of beliefs in particular.

The church had few members and wasn’t growing, so they decided to put together a brochure to put the word out about who they were. The committee tasked with writing the brochure agreed that the cover should say who they were. So they began by writing:

“We are a church that believes that…” And that’s where they stopped. They couldn’t agree on what to say next. They thought about putting the name Jesus on there, but they knew that might offend some people. They thought about saying something more generic about God, but they were concerned that might turn some people off.

“We are a church that believes that…” Wait, someone said, we can’t really say that we all believe the same thing. So they backed up: “We are a church that…”

Wait a minute, someone else said – should we even use the word church in there? Someone might have had a bad experience with church, and be put off by that word.

“We are a…”

They had to disband the committee. They couldn’t even agree on what to call themselves.

My friend left that church. As progressive as she was, she knew there was no life in a church that cannot even express what it believes.

Where the Church is letting go of its ties of belief to Christians through the centuries it is slowly withering, cut off from its power source. But where the words of the Apostles’ Creed are believed with sincerity, proclaimed with feeling, lived out with fervor, there is where the Church is thriving. Answering again and again to the question of faith with the response: “I believe… I believe… Yes, I believe.”

Jessica LaGrone is the Pastor of Worship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church near Houston, Texas. She is a guest speaker at churches and events around the country, and her new Bible Study, Namesake, was recently released by Abingdon Press.  Her blog, Reverend Mother, covers the daily life of balancing pastoring and mothering, at