Assuming readers know who both men are, one would be hard put to see what the two have in common, besides being Christian leaders. It happens that both have been on my mind recently concerning progressive Christianity. For reasons I will come to, one of them might be labeled progressive and the other decidedly not.
According to dictionary.com progressive is “favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters”. On the face of it progressive sounds good and the opposite to progressive (regressive?) bad. But given it is an attribute favoured by the liberal left and opposed by the conservative right, some might take the view progressiveness is more insidious than that.
I follow Franklin Graham on Facebook, ever since his call to prayer rallies before the US Presidential election and on balance I rather like the guy because not only does he faithfully preach the gospel (in a way that not too many do) but he often makes pertinent statements that put him on the right side of the culture war and points out unpalatable truths that need making, providing it doesn’t detract from his preaching. His involvement in organizations like Samaritan Purse is evidence to me that he takes up the causes of those who are poor and oppressed, the very thing many progressives advocate. Not all my Christian friends think as I do, including those opposing him coming to England to take part in some meetings held under the auspices of the Lancashire Festival of Hope. He recently took Christians to task whose failure NOT to vote allowed a “progressive” judge to be voted onto the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. To quote one article: “While discussing how Wisconsin had “lost a seat in its state Supreme Court to a progressive judge,” he said that the reason why was that many Christians didn’t come out and vote. He then told followers that not only was the word “progressive” “just a code word” for “for someone who leans toward socialism,” he also added that it’s code for someone “who does not believe in God, & who will likely vote against Godly principles that are so important to our nation.”” My friend who shared this, and some of his friends, took exception (possibly rightly so) to the fact that Graham suggested that those like him who adopt progressive views may not even be Christian, thereby alienating himself from them that disagree by making such comments.
When I left school to attend university, Malcolm Johnson was the chaplain (see here for some useful background concerning this man). I had already been indoctrinated by my mentors at the time to dismiss Liberals and Catholics and even distrust most Evangelicals for compromising on doctrine. Malcolm was a supreme example of someone who I needed to avoid. I realized as much when I attended a debate in Freshers week between Malcolm and someone who I can only describe as libertine in outlook, on the subject of sex. I went away quite undecided where the differences lay between the two. I tended to avoid Malcolm from that point on considering him beyond the pale. He clearly knew a lot of high powered Christian types, but these were invariably from the Liberal and Catholic camps I had been warned about and, besides which, he made statements that I saw to be erroneous. On one of the few occasions I did talk to Malcolm was one night when I was doing night porter duty at one of the Halls of Residence, he caught me reading the Bible and encouraged me to continue in my studies. Malcolm became well known after leaving the chaplaincy for being a member of the Church of England synod and founding the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, playing an important part in changing attitudes in the church toward homosexuality (he was later to marry his same sex partner). But two things stood out for me regarding Malcolm: he did an enormous amount of pioneer work among the homeless and when HIV / AIDS was becoming an issue, particularly affecting the gay community, he did much to help.
There seems little doubt Malcolm will sit at opposite ends of the Progressive – Regressive spectrum to Franklin. When I wrote my recent “Throwing the baby out with the bath water” article, it was in part to challenge both progressives and regressives to think biblically and manifest authentic Christianity. As a preacher I try not to get embroiled in controversial culture war issues, even though subjects like abortion, marriage and religious freedom concern me as much as social justice, reaching out to the poor and community engagement concerns those in the progressive camp (the truth is both sets of issues should concern us both), and I try to see the good in those I disagree with. Much as I might be seen more in the Franklin Graham camp than that of Malcolm Johnson, I have come to see that despite my early antipathy that Malcolm has shown in part, by example, how Christians ought to act. I would like to encourage my Progressive Christian friends to recognise Graham does the same and not to take offence because at the end of the day we are all unprofitable servants whose job in life is to serve the Lord.