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The Spectrum of Protestantism in 2013 [Part 1]

I actually like labels. So shoot me. I have been rebuked a lot over the past few years when I have asked the Christian leaders I have interacted with, particularly those on the mid-to-left of the theological spectrum, what they consider themselves theologically. But I happen to think that while labels certainly can never fully describe the theological or philosophical position of any one person or movement, they can help give us a general idea of where someone stands and what kind of theology they hold to which can be (and often is) an incredibly helpful thing to know.

I have been trying to nail down the landscape of Protestant Christianity for about a year now. My personal journey following Jesus over the last decade has lead me from street preaching a "turn or burn" message with a fundamentalist church to sleeping in the basement of the founder of the Emergent church movement. From starting a Facebook App called "Anti-Atheist Quotes" (it exists) to doing an open blog dialogue where I agreed with one of the worlds leading Atheist scholars of religion. From loving the work of Marcus Borg (and doubting the reliability of the Bible) to loving and fully resting on the Scriptures through the scholarship of N.T. Wright. I have been as far to the right as I could have been and as far to the left as I could have been. I have settled (for now) somewhere in the middle. Many view my journey as a result of weak faith or being "tossed by every wind of doctrine"- however, I have found my faith growing more robust and closer to Jesus through this whole journey and I don't regret a second of it. All of that is to simply say, I feel like I have seen the city limits of Western Protestant Christianity and have desired for some time to map it out. This spectrum is the first step towards doing that:

With help from a number of friends- some lay Christians and some scholars, pastors, and theologians- I have identified 5 "Robustly Orthodox" categories of Protestant Christianity (meaning they are thoroughly adhere to a historic Christian orthodoxy) and 2 "Conditionally Orthodox" categories of Christian faith (meaning that while many are historically orthodox, many in these categories may fall outside Christian orthodoxy). The Conditionally Orthodox are "Fundamentalism" and "Classic Liberalism" because both, as bookends to the spectrum, contain fringe organizations that embrace clearly unorthodox and unchristian theology and practices- from Westboro Baptist Church and their hate speech and heretical hyper-Calvinism at one end, to Bishop Spong who rejects the core creedal affirmations of orthodoxy such as the resurrection and eternal life. The other 5 categories are Reformed Evangelicals, which is the one of the newest movements in Protestantism which marks the return to a robust reformed theology, Mainstream Evangelicals, who represent the most basic form of Evangelicalism which holds to a generally conservative theology but very passionate about evangelism and personal-conversion. These Evangelicals are often considered seeker sensitive. The next category, which is the one I would place myself in, is Neo-Evangelical. This category is for those who hold to a generally conservative theology that is more broadly Christian than it is "Protestant" per se, and who are more progressive in methodology and practice. The next category is Emergent Liberal which includes the small remnant of what is known as "The Emergent Church" that saw its hay-days in the 90's but has been generally recognized as "dead". However, in recent years, new life has sparked up in the movement and therefore I think it still deserves as spot on the spectrum.

Now what is important about this spectrum is noting where the future growth of the Protestant tradition will come from. I believe that all signs and trends show that the two movements on this spectrum that will ultimately dominate the Protestant stream of Christian faith over the next 40-50 years will be the Reformed Evangelicals and the Neo-Evangelicals, who I believe will ultimately win out over the Reformed movement because of its commitment to orthodoxy and progressive missiology and practice. The movements that will fade the quickest are most definitely the "Mainstream Evangelicals" and the "Emergent Liberals", mostly because they have already reached the peak of their movements and have been on the decline for a number of years. This means death to the megachurch movement, celebrity Christianity, doubt-based, and super informal, non institutionalized Christian faith. And I think that is something to praise God for. These movements had a purpose and a lot of good has come out of them, but now they are largely irrelevant and have detrimental results on the communities who belong to them.

Now one thing that was wrestled with on this spectrum was weather or not to include Westboro Baptist Church with the "Fundamentalist" label. As you can see, I eventually took them off, but they were on my first two drafts of this spectrum and I honestly think they still belong their. My friend Egon Cohen explained why: "Westboro is certainly offensive, by any standard. But their rhetorical content (as opposed to presentation) is unquestionably part of Protestant fundamentalism in America. And I don't think it's intellectually honest to allow American Protestantism in general and fundamentalism in particular to disclaim ownership of folks like Westboro." I agree. One of the big reasons I found myself distancing from both my fundamentalist roots and the neo-Calvinist movement is because I realized that on a theological level I had no disagreements with Westboro Baptist. I believed God hated people objectively. I believed that Christ had died only for a few and had created the rest to be damned without hope. I believed God was pouring out his wrath on our perverted nation in the form of tragedies and natural disasters. One only has to listen to one John MacArthur or Paul Washer preach once to realize that he has virtually the same message of WBC, and not THAT different of a method.

At the end of the creation of this spectrum, after recieving a lot of input from my friends, I did come to one conclusion: creating a spectrum is a really hard thing to do. But that doesn't mean it's not an important thing to do. One friend of mine pointed out in a message exchange we had about this spectrum: "I just read a very progressive/liberal/emergent blog whom was saying how he is tired of lefts and right, and he is in the middle. But he is as emergent/progressive theologically as you can get. So the middle needs definition. That is why a chart ends up helping and I know people resist categories, but the fact is we are in categories by nature. We may be a blend somewhat, but bottom line is I think it is fine to do a spectrum like you are doing." We do need, I think, some clear lines and definition to help us find out where we stand and who is in our category. Not so we can divide- but so we can belong. We all need to belong. If spectrums and labels become an excuse to condemn and divide, then they are being misused. Especially this spectrum. Nearly everyone listed here is a Christian and should be fellowshipped with, dialoged with, worshipped with, and loved as brothers and sisters in Christ. And that's what this spectrum is meant to show. It's meant to be a family portrait or a map of the country we live in. These are "our people" in "our tradition". And the reality is that many of us will move around on this spectrum in our faith journey. And that's healthy! It's labels and charts like these that can hopefully help us find our way as we journey closer towards Christ

But those are just one guys thoughts. What do you think? Really! I want to hear from you. Who should be added or moved on the spectrum? Do you agree with my assessment? This is the beginning of a series of posts on the future of Protestant Christianity and I want to hear from people with different perspectives than my own! So let me know!

I would like to thank a number of people who contributed their thoughts to help me formulate the spectrum used for this post: Steve Knight, Calvin Moore, Egon Cohen, D.K., Blake Fewell, & Phil Zilinski. Your thoughts and ideas helped me see the diversity and difficulty in using labels and placing theologies on a spectrum. You all rock.

Grace & Peace-



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Reader Comments (37)

Unfortunately, this chart isn't quite accurate. Neither Borg nor Spong are "Classical Liberal." Instead, they are Progressive Christians -- the post-modern influenced evolution of 20th Century Liberalism. I'm a Progressive Christian too; i.e., a Progressive United Methodist mainline Protestant Christian. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-roger-wolsey/progressive-christianity_b_892727.html

December 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Wolsey

Brandan, I read your comment on your recent blog. 1) I'm disappointed that you aren't allowing comments to be seen on your blog); 2) I'm disappointed that you are apparently intentionally refusing to honor that there is a reformation movement called progressive Christianity and that it is different than liberal Christianity. Did you read my article?
see also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Christianity

December 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Wolsey


Once again, I obviously do allow comments since you just commented. I have no clue what that means.

And what you are calling Progressive Christianity is not different from classic liberalism. If one denies the creedal essentials of the Christian faith such as the incarnation, miracles, and resurrection, they are NOT progressive and historically, not even Christian. Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Bishop Spong all fall in to those categories. That is also known as classic liberalism. I am sorry if you want to try to consider yourself progressive, but if you align with Spong and Borg, you are not progressive but liberal. I say this with all due respect and care.

December 27, 2012 | Registered CommenterBrandan Robertson

Also, you are noting that my category "Progressive Evangelical" is NOT the same as progressive Christian, right? I think what you're calling progressive, I am calling Emergent on this spectrum. But I still stand firm that Borg, Crossan, and Spong are NOT progressive but clearly, classically, liberal.

December 27, 2012 | Registered CommenterBrandan Robertson

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