Should Christians be progressives or traditionalists?

Most of us are either progressives or traditionalists. Progressives think society can improve through new freedoms and forward thinking. Traditionalists think society can be improved by restoring good things that we’ve lost. Which are you? And which should Christians be?

It’s partly a political question. Progressives are more likely to vote for the Liberal Democrats, whilst traditionalists more likely to vote for the Conservatives. It’s partly a generational question. Younger people are more likely to be progressives, older people more likely to be traditionalists.

But let’s leave politics and age aside. Should Christians be progressives or traditionalists?

Surveying the scene

In today’s Britain, I suspect the majority of Christians are traditionalists. They believe society is in decline, thanks to the liberalisation of Sunday trading, the diminishing influence of religion in public life, an increasing number of broken homes, abortion on demand, fewer people attending church, and an increasing acceptance of cohabitation, drunkenness and homosexuality. Traditionalists look at these changes and conclude that Britain would be a better place if these changes could somehow be reversed.

But Christians haven’t always been traditionalists. The apostles, for example, were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6). We could say the same about many of the greats in Church history. Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other reformers were instrumental in radically changing European society, pushing for (and achieving) sweeping changes in church life and wider society. The 16th century Puritans went even further. Although most Christians today who admire the puritans are traditionalists, in their own day the Puritans wanted more change, more quickly than almost all other groups.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to be a traditionalist. King Josiah is praised in the Bible (2 Kings 22‑23, 2 Chron. 34-35) for traditionalist reforms such as reintroducing the Passover, which ‘had not been observed like this… since the days of the prophet Samuel’. Even the 16th century reformers might argue that they were reversing the corruptions of previous generations, rather than doing something entirely new.

So should Christians be progressives or traditionalists?

Looking at the past

You may think the answer to that question is, ‘It depends’. Perhaps if society is getting better by God’s standards, then we should be progressives. But if society is getting worse, then we should be traditionalists.

But life isn’t that simple. Society is always getting better, and it’s always getting worse. That’s one of the points that Jesus is making with the parable of the wheat and weeds/tares. The weeds and the wheat grow up together, the good grows up with the bad.

William Wilberforce got this right. By the time Wilberforce began his campaign to abolish slavery, it was a national institution. His proposals were more than progressive; they were downright radical. In 1799, Wilberforce helped to found the Society for Missions to Africa and the East and was therefore one of the pioneers of the modern missionary movement. Five years later he helped establish the British and Foreign Bible Society to distribute Bibles around the world, and later still he helped establish the first animal welfare charity (which became the RSPCA). All these projects are the product of a progressive and forward-thinking mind, and by any definition, Wilberforce was a progressive. But at the very same time he was also campaigning for the ‘Reformation of manners’, an attempt to put a stop to ‘the rapid progress of impiety and licentiousness’. The idea for this reformation came from a similar attempt some hundred years earlier. It was a traditionalist, perhaps even a reactionary campaign.

Wilberforce didn’t choose between being progressive or being a traditionalist. He chose to be both. Like any evangelical traditionalist, where Christianity or society had moved away from biblical truth, he sought to take it back. But unlike many others, he didn’t try to take either the Church or the nation back to a golden age, because he seemed not to believe there was such a thing. He learned from the past, but he was looking to the future.

We find that same attitude in the New Testament. At one level, Paul’s teaching was traditionalist. His own testimony was, ‘I worship the God of our ancestors… I believe everything that is in accordance with the law and written in the Prophets’, ‘I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen’ (Acts 24:14,26:22). His beliefs were traditional beliefs (by his own definition), but he was looking to the future. His own life was turned upside down, and his teaching was now doing the same to others (Acts 17:6). He was a traditionalist, but his views were also incredibly progressive.

Looking at ourselves

Today, in Britain and in most of the western world, Christianity has a reputation for being traditionalist and reactionary. That’s doubly true of evangelical Christianity, which would be fine, if we also had a reputation for being progressive and visionary. But we don’t. And whilst Christianity is not always judged fairly, on this point the secular world has got us just right.

Think of all the political campaigns that Christians have tended to support. Almost all of them are calling for the government not to do something. We’ve said ‘no’ to liberalising Sunday trading, ‘no’ to gay marriage, and ‘no’ to limitations on free speech. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to say ‘no’ to those things, but I am asking why Christians aren’t also known for saying ‘yes’ to visionary initiatives. We talk about traditional values and Britain’s Christian heritage but we rarely talk about the future. We defend the status quo but we don’t define what should be ahead. We warn of what society might become but we don’t show what it ought to be. We try to pull back those we believe are going the wrong way but we don’t lead others forward.

It’s not a problem restricted to politics, because we see it in our churches, too. We think of ourselves as reformed, but not as reformers. We value our best traditions, but only because we’re convinced the past was better than the future will ever be. Even evangelical organisations are not immune, often spending more time looking through the rear view mirror than through the windscreen. They may continue what earlier generations began, but find it hard to do something new. They might point back to better days, but struggle to share a vision of what could lie ahead.

All this has an impact on our mission. In many traditional churches, few people are being converted. Even where churches are growing, much of that growth often comes through people returning to Christianity – backsliders being restored, or non-Christians with a church background being converted. Thank God for that! But shouldn’t we also be reaching the pagans, the atheists, and the irreligious? They often see us as irrelevant and out-of-touch, and often they’re right.

Looking for a brighter future

It shouldn’t be like this. It doesn’t have to be like this.

But don’t think that the answer to traditionalism is to jettison tradition and embrace whatever the future holds. That’s what the progressive, liberal ‘Christians’ did in the 20th century, and quickly became even less relevant than traditionalist evangelicals. If we’re to be truly biblical, we need to be both traditionalist and progressive.

It’s not biblical to fear the future whilst living in the past, as traditionalists do. But nor is it biblical to disdain the past whilst rushing headlong into the future, as progressives do. The lesson I’ve learned from Christian history is that it’s biblical to learn from the past whilst seeking to shape the future. That’s what I pray for myself, and for the Church.