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Fundamentalism vs. Progressive Christianity

Kalen Fristad

Newton, Iowa


There are many profound differences between Christian fundamentalism and progressive Christianity. I'm going to compare those two understandings of the faith in their pure forms as I perceive them. I will be writing in general terms in making the comparison, even while I realize that individuals and churches often do not fit neatly into either of the categories, falling instead along a continuum of beliefs between the two.    

Perhaps the most basic difference between fundamentalists and progressives is how they view Scripture. Fundamentalists believe the Bible is divinely inspired, is the Word of God, is infallible in all respects, is to be interpreted literally, and that all parts of it are of equal value and truth. Progressives also generally have a high view of Scripture and believe as well that it is divinely inspired. They, however, recognize that the Bible reflects the human limitations and cultural biases of the writers. Thus, progressives don't believe that the Bible is infallible. Rather than believing that it literally is the Word of God, they contend that it contains the Word of God. Progressives believe that much of the Bible should not be taken literally. Instead, in recognition that the Bible contains different kinds of literature, such as legend, allegory, metaphor, hyperbole, and parable, they look for deeper meanings that a literal interpretation misses. Progressives do not believe that all parts of Scripture are equal. They give the greatest credence to the teachings and example of Christ. 

Fundamentalists tend to have quite a low view of human nature and to emphasize original sin, believing that people are wretched sinners in need of being saved. Progressives, on the other hand, have a higher view of humanity. They focus, not on original sin but upon original blessing (Genesis 1:28, 31; 5:2), and emphasize that which is divine within each of us (Genesis 1:27). They tend to think in terms of being unfinished people on a spiritual journey, as opposed to being wretched sinners. They may be ones to emphasize that, while the Bible speaks in many places about humans being transformed to become more like God (Genesis 3:22a; 2 Corinthians 3:18), there is never a mention of them giving up their humanity. As we grow to become more like God, we do not become less human, but more human.

Because of the fundamentalists' low view of human nature, they emphasize the importance of accepting Jesus as a personal Savior. They believe that Jesus died in the place of sinful humankind and that, by accepting Jesus as our personal Savior, we are redeemed through his shed blood. While progressives may not deny those beliefs altogether, those beliefs often do not represent a central focus for them. Progressives are more likely to emphasize Jesus' teachings and example, rather than his death. They may be ones to point out that the teaching of accepting Jesus as a personal Savior is not even a biblical concept. Instead, Jesus taught us to live and to love as he did, to love God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39), to love one another as he loved us (John 15:12), and to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). Consistent with that view, Christ's early followers were not called Christians, but were called people of the Way (Matthew 22:16: Acts 9:2; 24:14). This name was in recognition that Christ had come to show them the way of life, joy, love, peace, fullness, meaningfulness, etc. Rather than thinking of themselves as being redeemed by the blood of Christ, progressives are more likely to emphasize that they are followers of the Way of Christ. Another way to express this is that they are not so much followers of a religion about Christ as they are adherents to the religion of Christ.

Fundamentalists and progressives differ greatly in their understanding of the nature of God. The predominant perception for fundamentalists is that God is a judge, while progressives emphasize that God is love. That leads them to very different conclusions on many issues, including whether or not everyone will eventually be saved. Fundamentalists emphasize eternal damnation of those who are not converted to Christianity before death (or before the final judgment), believing that many, probably the majority, will spend eternity in hell. [1] They focus on passages of Scripture that teach of people experiencing hell beyond death, such as the parable of the great judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Because of references to "eternal" punishment in that passage and others, they conclude that suffering in hell will continue forever. They, however, don't realize that references in the New Testament to eternal punishment do not mean it will be without end. The Greek word aionios, of which "eternal" is a translation, does not mean "without end," but means "age-lasting" or "indefinite," but of limited duration. If the writers of the New Testament had wanted to communicate that suffering in hell would be without end, they could have used the Greek word aidios (which means perpetual), but they didn't. Instead, they chose the word aionios, and by virtue of its definition we can conclude that suffering in hell may eventually come to an end. So, from the Bible's point of view, there is hope that God will save even those who initially find themselves experiencing hell in the next life. In contrast to the fundamentalists' insistence on eternal damnation of the unsaved, those of progressive faith commonly believe everyone will eventually be saved. They base their beliefs on several passages of Scripture, including: "Therefore, just as one man's (Adam's) trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's (Christ's) act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all" (Romans 5:18), "For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:22), "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him

God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things" (Colossians 1:19-20), and "(God) desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Jesus Christ, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:4-6).

Progressives are bolstered in their beliefs regarding universal salvation by the fact that, for more than 500 years following the time of Christ, Christians commonly believed that God would eventually save everyone. It was widely believed by early Christians that Christ reaches out to people in hell to rescue them, convert them, and enable them to experience heaven. That is because 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6 tells us that Christ did just that. When Christ walked among us, it was scandalous to the religious leaders of the time that he spent most of his time with the outcasts, with sinners, sharing the good news with them. Because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8), progressives (who believe in hell) tend to believe it was not just a one-time event for Christ to proclaim the gospel to people in hell, but that he will continue to do that for as long as people suffer there. After all, it is the people in hell who are most in need of his transforming love and grace.

The theologian Augustine strongly opposed the belief that God will eventually save everyone. His teachings had become dominant in the church by the sixth century, which led to the church taking an official stand against universal salvation in 553 A.D. The teaching of universalism, however, started to make a strong comeback about 300 years ago. That has resulted in many Christians of today who believe in salvation for all. Consistent with this movement, there were some major twentieth century theologians who taught that God would eventually save everyone, including Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Leslie Weatherhead.

Central to progressives' belief in universal salvation is the belief that God is love. They know very well that they wouldn't punish their own children without end, and they just cannot believe that a loving God would do something that they wouldn't even consider doing. So they cheerfully celebrate that God will eventually save everyone and that this will be accomplished without violating anyone's free will, just as those of us who are already Christians were converted without a violation of our free will.

There are various reasons why fundamentalists staunchly believe in everlasting punishment of many people in hell, rather than to embrace the wonderful teaching of universal salvation. One reason is because they have never heard otherwise, not realizing that the belief is supported by the Bible. They also commonly fear that if they teach that everyone will eventually be saved, their loved ones may not take the prospect of hell seriously and thus live in an evil way while they still expect to get into heaven. What if they enter the next life only to learn it doesn't work that way? With that thought in mind, but without regard for whether the teaching of universal salvation might be true, some people, out of genuine concern for the eternal well-being of their loved ones, reject the idea that God will eventually save everyone.

There often exists an unhealthy co-dependent relationship between the church and its members. Unfortunately, that co-dependency gives people a psychological reason to cling to the belief of eternal damnation. The main dynamic of this is the control of others. The church often controls people by setting itself up as the exclusive conduit for salvation. Thus, people are given no choice but to follow the mandates of the church. Threatening people with everlasting punishment in hell is the ultimate means of controlling them. Many people allow themselves to be controlled in exchange for the promise of salvation.

Churches with high levels of co-dependence (fundamentalist churches) can be identified by their insistence that all of their members adhere to certain specific beliefs. Thinking for oneself is strongly discouraged. Hell-fire and brimstone sermons are common. A strong sense of urgency is pressed upon the members to get saved before they die, or before the end comes. They not only teach that the church in general is indispensable for salvation, but often contend that their specific church is the only true way to heaven.

In churches that have a low level of co-dependency (progressive churches), people are not taught a rigid set of beliefs, but are encouraged to think for themselves. Fear is not used against members as a means to control them. God is not portrayed as angry and judgmental, but as loving and forgiving.

Fundamentalists often blur the distinction between pietism and patriotism, while true progressives seek to maintain a clear distinction. That difference comes from a post-Constantine view of the faith versus a pre-Constantine view. Before the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine in the early part of the fourth century, Christianity was not an approved religion in the empire. Virtually all Christians were pacifists. Indeed, they were forbidden to serve in the armed forces of the empire. That is because they were loyal to God instead of the emperor, and, because of their love for God and all people, the rulers knew they could not count on them to support the conquests of the empire or to kill their enemies. They often followed the example of Christ in demonstrating their willingness to die rather than to kill others. Rather than blindly supporting the state, the Christians served as the conscience for the state. After Constantine became the Roman emperor, he made Christianity legal in the empire and promoted it. That led to many of the Christians coming to support the state, even thinking that the empire was the defender of the faith. Before long, in contrast to their previous pacifistic stance, Christians began entering military service. The church has been in bed with the state ever since the time of Constantine and has virtually always supported the state's conquests and wars and its oppression of non-Christians. That was true of many Christians even in Hitler's Germany. That cozy relationship between the church and state has always been to the detriment of the church, and often to the state as well.

Fundamentalists tend to support the cozy relationship between the church and state that has existed since Constantine. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to want to reestablish the Church's position as it was before Constantine. During that time there was a clear distinction between pietism and patriotism, Christians predominantly opposed war, the church's message was not compromised and corrupted by a cozy relationship with the state, and the church spoke freely against unchristian policies of the state, as they courageously served as the Christian conscience for the state.

Fundamentalism is a natural philosophy because it grows out of the insecurity that all people experience. This insecurity leads to the desire to have pat answers and simple solutions, have matters of the faith delineated in black and white, rather than in shades of gray which require complex and deep thought, and to have an authority tell one what to believe rather than to risk thinking for oneself. The risk of thinking for yourself, from a fundamentalist perspective, is that if you get it wrong it could result in spending eternity in hell. Exclusivism, judgmentalism, and closed-mindedness to the beliefs of others are all indications of insecurity. Progressives also must wrestle with insecurity and its influences, but, at their best, they seek to overcome their natural insecurities and to be courageous in following truth wherever it leads them, so that they might be as faithful and true to God as possible.

The four stages of spiritual growth as presented by M. Scott Peck in his book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, help to accentuate some of the differences between fundamentalists and progressives. The lives of people in, what Peck calls, "stage one: chaotic/antisocial" are characterized by an absence of spirituality. They are unprincipled, and their lives are chaotic. In order to overcome the misery and chaos of their lives, some of them convert to stage two. In "stage two: formal/institutional," people depend upon the church to govern (control) their lives, provide structure, dependability and predictability, and thus overcome the chaos in their lives. God is commonly perceived by them to be judgmental. Some people eventually begin to question the validity of the institutional church and certain teachings, such as the idea of God who punishes eternally or who saves only a minority. At this point they have begun their conversion to the spiritual "stage three: skeptic/individual." Those in stage three aren't "religious" in the usual sense, but they are more advanced spiritually than people in stage two. They realize that their church does not have all the answers, and for a time this may worry them. As they seek the truth and the pieces of the larger picture start to come together, they are beginning their conversion to stage four. People in "stage four: mystic/communal" are able to see the interconnectedness between all of life and God. They are ones of progressive faith and are secure enough to be comfortable in a world of paradoxes and mystery, in contrast to those in stage two who are very uncomfortable when things aren't clearly delineated. This is not to say that those in stage four do not belong to a church or an institution (indeed, they may value the fellowship and the encouragement they receive there). It means only that their relationship with their church is not the same as it was before. They no longer rely on it to guide them through all of their problems and to answer all of their questions. They also are more accepting of people with differing views, understanding that the desire and the search for the answers to life are truer tests of character than the possession of the answers.

It is important not to get stuck in a lower spiritual stage. Fundamentalists are stuck in stage two, being terrified (because of their insecurity) by the possibility they might have doubts and questions, which would suggest a lack of faith and commitment on their part. Stage two people not only often fail to grow beyond that stage themselves, but worse, they try to prevent others from moving on to stages three and four as well. They discourage honest questions and doubts, which they misinterpret as indications of backsliding to stage one, rather than realizing those struggles are necessary for spiritual advancement. For them, stage two (fundamentalism) is the model for Christianity and the ultimate standard for the faith. They cannot comprehend how anyone with questions and doubts could be more advanced spiritually than they.

Fundamentalists tend to be enslaved to dogma while progressives seek to be guided by love and to live as free spirits. Galatians 5:1 reads; "For freedom Christ has set us not submit again to the yoke of slavery." Jesus used the analogy of wind to describe his followers, those who are born of the Spirit. He said, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8a). The wind is unpredictable and beyond our control. Jesus goes on to say, "So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8b).

A person staying within the confines of fundamentalism is like a butterfly remaining inside its cocoon. Living in a cocoon does not require much thinking. Life is predictable. The safety and security of a closed world is very appealing to some people. The broader world is beyond their comprehension or appreciation and can be mysterious and frightening to them. They do not realize there are legitimate beliefs beyond their way of thinking. They naively believe that there is nothing of ultimate truth or importance beyond their realm. Sadly, they don't have an appreciation of the fact that there is a whole wonderful world out there that is enjoyed by progressive, liberated butterflies. And the leaders of the fundamentalist churches want their members to stay in their cocoons. They are easier to keep in line. Cocooned parishioners do not ask difficult questions, and they do not venture out on their own. Butterflies, on the other hand, explore freely. Their lives are exciting, fun and rewarding, though uncontrollable and somewhat risky. There is no end to the possibilities in a butterfly's unfettered world for learning and growth.    


1 There may be differing views of hell among these groups (ranging from the traditional concept of hellfire to the idea of a sort of limbo, or even a state of non-existence), but one view they all hold in common is that the punishment is everlasting.

About the Author:

The Rev. Kalen Fristad is the author of Destined for Salvatio n: God's Promise to Save Everyone (available from He is a United Methodist minister, has served churches in Iowa for 27 years and is now the director of Destined for Salvation Ministries. He speaks to churches and other groups across the country, proclaiming God's unconditional love and unlimited salvation. 

2004 American Unitarian Conference