What is Progressive Christianity?

3 ways Progressive Christianity differs from Protestantism

Andrew Springer
7 min readSep 17, 2022

Alot of people ask me about my Christianity. As an out gay man living in Brooklyn, many are surprised to hear me talk about my church, or are taken aback when I say I can’t grab a drink on Thursday night because I have Bible Study. I try to explain that no—my church is not the church you grew up in. We have two married lesbian ministers, a band that plays acoustic covers of Bob Dylan, and an amazing soup kitchen and food pantry that serves the citizens of North Brooklyn.

We’re part of an emerging group of Christians called Progressive Christians. And while it may seem like just a different skin on top of the same old Christianity—perhaps a little more accepting—this movement sees and lives Christianity in a very different way. It’s the next major development of Christian thought, and more than one scholar has called the emergence of Progressive Christianity the next Reformation. (1)

But how does Progressive Christianity differ from Protestantism? Progressive Christianity isn’t a denomination; rather, Progressive Christians can be found in every denomination from Baptists to Catholics. But in general there are three fundamental things that unite most Progressive Christians.

1. Christianity is a lifestyle, not a set system of beliefs.

Progressive Christianity places a much different emphasis on the Christian religion than Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. For far too many Protestants and Protestant-influenced Catholics, Christianity is about accepting a set of beliefs in order to be “saved.” That belief can be as simple as, “Jesus is my savior,” or as long and complicated as a catechism. This is orthodoxy — having the correct belief. It comes from the Greek words ortho, meaning straight or correct, and doxa, meaning “common belief or popular opinion.” The whole point of Protestantism is that one must believe the right things in order to be “saved.” To them, the most important verses in the Bible are John 3:16 and Romans 1:17, “the righteous are justified by faith.”

But Progressive Christians don’t see Christianity that way. In fact, to us, Christianity isn’t necessarily about being “saved” at all. We too believe that humans are somehow reconnected to God through Jesus Christ, but we are more concerned with how that impacts this life—not the next life. To us, there is no “orthodoxy” there is only “orthopraxy,” the correct way to live our lives. How do we live as Christians? It is found in the most important Bible verse to us — the Greatest Commandment.

“An expert in the law asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’” (Matthew 22:35–40, NRSVUE) (2)

Living the Greatest Commandment is what makes a Christian. As one of the great Social Gospel preachers of the 19th century, Washington Gladden, put it: “you become a Christian by choosing the Christian life and beginning immediately to do the duties which belong to it.” Thus, for Progressive Christians, Christianity is a lifestyle, not a set of beliefs. The challenge is living a life of love that Christ called us to, not finding the right set of beliefs to get into “heaven.” (3)

This provides a big tent for beliefs. Were you to visit my church on Sunday morning, you’ll find many who don’t believe in hell. You’ll find many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” But you’ll also find many who do believe in heaven and have a rich understanding of Christian afterlife. The difference is for Progressive Christians, that’s not primarily the point. We gather to worship and live lives of love (not kill each other over what God wants us to believe or not).

This, by the way, is essentially the definition of being Jewish. Being Jewish is not about accepting a set of beliefs. Being Jewish is about living life as a Jew. Jews believe a lot of different things, but the essentialness of Judaism isn’t believing the correct thing, it’s choosing the Jewish life and beginning immediately to do the duties which belong to it. Orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. (4)

2. Social justice is inseparable from Christianity

This emphasis on Christianity as a lifestyle profoundly shapes the politics of Progressive Christians. We rarely hear about Christians on the left, but some of our greatest Progressive leaders are Christians (although not all would be necessarily considered Progressive Christians). As Progressive Christian leader Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons points out, “‘Christian politicians’ aren’t Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, or Elizabeth Warren. Rather, ‘Christian politicians’ are conservatives like Marco Rubio and Mike Pence.” But our Progressive Christianity fundamentally shapes how we interact with the world just as much as conservative “Christians”. (5)

Progressive Christians, in addition to being theologically progressive, are politically progressive. We believe and fight for economic, social, racial and ecological justice, and we do it because of our religion — because it is what God has commanded us to do.

Applying this theology to the world, Graves-Fitzsimmons writes, creates “an understanding that this bold vision applies to everyone everywhere on earth… We could go on through a list of causes that affirm social and economic justice and what that bold gospel vision looks like: Universal health care. Education as a human right, not a privilege. Good schools no matter what your zip code is. The right to form a union. Restorative justice. No human being is illegal. Contraception and family planning services free and readily available… Christians should approach a proactive agenda with boldness.” And that is exactly what Progressive Christians do. (6)

3. There is no “one true faith”

Finally, Progressive Christians do not see Christianity as exclusionary. Progressive Christians fundamentally believe in religious pluralism. Ours is not the “right” religion. It is not the “one true faith.” That’s because there is no “right religion” at all.

We differ, however, on how we get to this conclusion. Because we emphasize action over belief, one can find many justifications within Progressive Christianity for this. Some take the late 20th century view of comparative religion in believing that all religions are different manifestations of the same God. As in, we are all climbing the same mountain toward God, we just take different paths. Others, like myself, have a more Christ-centered view of atonement: the reconnecting of humanity to God through Christ is universal and irrevocable, no matter what you believe or what religion you follow.

There may be more that connects most, if not all, Progressive Christians, but we must remember we are at the beginning of this new phase of Christianity. It so far has been a grassroots movement, coming from the bottom up, and has yet to develop the structures and theology of other older, more advanced Christian movements and periods. But as Gen X and Millennial Christians, usually traumatized by late-stage Protestantism, return to the church, they are coming with more open minds and more open hearts.

So… What Now?

If you want to learn more about Progressive Christianity, I recommend two things. First, read Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.” Borg (1942–2015) was a leading scholar on the historical Jesus, the movement that tried to separate myth and folk tales from the man who actually lived and walked our planet two thousand years ago. This book, first published in 2003, is a wonderful introduction to and comparison between what Borg called “the existing paradigm,” i.e. Christianity as a belief system, and the “emerging paradigm” — Christianity as a lifestyle.

Second, I would encourage you to reach out to a member of the clergy in a Progressive Christian church. Generally speaking, the two most Progressive denominations are the United Church of Christ (not to be confused with the ultra-homophobic and misogynistic Church of Christ), and the Episcopal Church of the United States.

The UCC descends from Congregational churches in New England (think 18th century Puritans) but has evolved today into the most Progressive theologically and politically denomination. The Episcopal Church, while sometimes highly liturgical, has a broad range of diversity when it comes to theology.

Another option that is not explicitly Christian, though definitely embodies points two and three of this article, is to seek out a Unitarian-Universalist Church. A Sunday morning UU service could feature a Progressive preacher, a Jewish rabbi, an Islamic imam, or a strident atheist. The UU is a wonderful place to take children so they can explore and hear from religious traditions other than their own.

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  1. Borg, Marcus J. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. HarperCollins, 2003; Kristof, Nicholas. “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 20, 2019. Link.
  2. The Greatest Commandment appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, cf. Mark 12:28–34 and Luke 10:27a.
  3. FitzGerald, Frances. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
  4. Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. New York: HarperOne; 2nd ed., 2009.
  5. Graves-Fitzsimmons, Guthrie. Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2020.
  6. Ibid.



Andrew Springer

Emmy winning journalist, producer and entrepreneur. Co-founder of NOTICE News, follower of Jesus. 🏳️‍🌈🌹 Weekly newsletter: https://bit.ly/jesusmovementemail