If Jesus was alive today, would He be a progressive?  Many progressives say that He would. They give examples of Him being a person of color, His challenging the establishment and showing care for the poor and oppressed. But how well do His teachings align with the progressive movement? Unfortunately for the progressive, when we examine the tenants of Progressivism  over against explicit teachings of Christ, we see that the two are largely incompatible.

The Progressive fundamentals are:

  1. The basic goodness or perfectibility of man
  2. Tolerance, inclusion and religion plurality
  3. Change of institutions to promote equality of outcomes and social justice
  4. Prohibition against “Moral Legislation” that promotes autonomy over regulated moral standards
  5. The inevitability of moral change and progress

Let’s take each of these one-by-one and compare them against the teachings of Christ to see how compatible they are.

Man’s Basic Goodness

Social progressives, like Herbert Croly, believe that human nature can be transformed through political reform. Evil is the result of a poorly organized world. To progressives, a reorganization of the world in accordance with progressive ideas will usher in a new age of freedom, equality, and peace.

Indirectly, Jesus always upheld the witness of the Old Testament which denied the basic goodness of man. The Bible claims is Psalms 14:3 “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” The Gospel is needed because Man is unable to fulfill the law or save himself. If Man was perfectible as the progressives claim, the gospel would not even be needed.  Jesus himself also had several direct statements that refute the sentiment of man’s goodness. One example is Mark 10:18 (NASB) “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.'”

Tolerance, Inclusion and Religious Pluralism

According to progressivism,  it is arrogant and rude for any one religious tradition to claim that it holds exclusive truth or is the only way to salvation. Most progressives claim there are many paths to God. They believe two religions can both be right at the same time. Even if their claims seem mutually exclusive. Their truth is relative rather than objective.

Jesus did not teach  inclusion or tolerance. In Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB) He states “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter”. Jesus sees truth as objective and makes no provisions for other religious traditions.  In John 8 he states that “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except by me.”

 

Equality of outcomes and Care for the Poor

 

Social justice is defined in progressive terms as an equality of outcomes rather than an equality of opportunity. Legislation that regulates private business’ payment of wages and  hiring practices are encouraged to ensure fairness.  Also, progressive thought assumes a deep care for the underprivileged, oppressed and those in poverty.

 

There was a deep care for the oppressed and underprivileged in Jesus’ ministry. In this concern there is alignment with progressive thought. His remedies, however, are vastly different. Progressives approach is largely economic in nature, while Jesus message teaches freedom from sin and the kingdom of God. Furthermore, progressives want to include in the number of the oppressed those who face difficulties for lifestyles that are outside the biblical ethics. It is hard to see how Jesus would have taken this stance. Yes, He defended the woman caught in the act of adultery and was friendly  with the woman at the well, but His reaction to their lifestyle was not affirm their sin but tell them to sin no more.

 

Jesus talks about wages in many places. First, He tells the soldiers listening to His Sermon on the Mount (Luke 3:14) to be content with their wages. Next, in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) He approves of a employer paying unequal pay for unequal ability. He even scolds the workers who received the least. Finally, in the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20) He shows that even equal pay for unequal work is justified as for the employer it is “lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own.”

This is not to say that Jesus does not talk about fair treatment, but He is certainly not obsessed with equality of outcomes or even the eradication of all poverty.  When the disciples complained over the cost of Mary’s anointing, they thought it could have been better used for the poor. Jesus responded almost callously that “the poor you always have with you.” I don’t say this to say that Jesus didn’t care for the poor. I believe his commands to help the poor were of a personal nature and not intended for public policy.

 

Prohibition against Moral Legislation and the Inevitability of Moral Change

 

To the progressive, the inevitability of social progress entails a moral progress through a greater understanding of ourselves through science. Of course, this scientific progress is necessarily secular. It means that we have moved beyond legislation grounded in a religion or religious text. Progressive promote ethics that promote a greater sense of individual autonomy and  a rejection of moral legislation that demands personal responsibility.

 

Jesus was honest about man’s inability to order his society and eradicate the ills that face us. Jesus was more concerned with personal change and behavior than changing culture as a whole. Though widely considered a social reformer, Jesus was very traditional in his support of the law. Consider his statement “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17).”  For those that think that Jesus was easy on sin I would ask you to consider that Jesus condemned the very adulterous and murderous thought (Matthew 5), a much more rigorous standard than the Jewish tradition. Finally, personal autonomy seems to have no place for the follower of Christ  as He calls us to both deny ourselves and lose our life in order to save it (Luke 9:23,24).

 

So  it seems that when we compare the key concepts of progressivism with that of Jesus direct statements, it becomes clear that Jesus is not a progressive. Of course, there are concepts within progressive thought that line up with Christianity and that common ground can be celebrated, but in no way are progressives justified in appropriating Jesus into their worldview.