‘Right Actions Are More Important Than Right Beliefs’ — Progressive Christianity Contradicts Itself Again

By Tom Gilson Published on March 22, 2023

The difference between evangelicals and progressive Christians, says one progressive, is “a greater focus on right action than right belief. … it’s more important than getting all our beliefs right.” 

Full disclosure: I’ve had hard conversations with Randal Rauser, who said that, and it’s been specifically over his actions. Now I want to zero in specifically on that one statement, because it makes so amazingly little sense. He says actions matter more than beliefs. He believes he’s right. And he believes it matters.

Somehow he missed a serious disconnect there.

Action vs. Beliefs?

He tells a story in that podcast from the 1994 Rwanda genocide. A Seventh-Day Adventist pastor, member of the murderous Hutu tribe, led a congregation that included many from the targeted Tutsi tribe. Some of them were hiding in the church, pleading with him for help, and instead he sent the militias to kill them. He contrasted that pastor with the Muslim man Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese officer there with the United Nations, who risked his life repeatedly to save close to a hundred Tutsis.

Rauser then asks,

On the one hand you’ve got a person who believed rightly, you could say (setting aside the Seventh Day Adventist nuances right?), but someone who’s a Christian pastor. And yet they lived in such a way that was fundamentally incompatible with the gospel. And then you have somebody who lived in a way that seemed to be much more consistent with the gospel, but for a Christian had the wrong beliefs.

And my question is, Which one would you choose to be on Judgment Day? I mean, standing before the throne of God? And I suspect that many progressives, when they would answer that question, they would say they would rather be Mbaye Diagne, because they think it’s more important to have right action than right belief.

Doug Groothuis, sitting opposite him by video, answered by saying it’s a both-and, not an either-or, and that we’re saved by God’s grace alone. He’s right. I want to expand on that here, though.

Evangelicals Stuck in Their Own Heads?

Rauser comes close to saying the difference between evangelicals and progressives is that progressives care about caring rightly, whereas evangelicals only care about thinking rightly. Honestly, it almost sounds like he’s agreeing with secularists who say evangelicals are out-and-out bad.

Whether he believes that himself, I don’t know. He’s a very careful speaker. He doesn’t say he doesn’t believe it, either, not here at least. Had he said it, he’d have been speaking for a lot of progressives, who have an “overwhelmingly negative” view of evangelicals, and who put great effort into recruiting evangelicals to their side.

As a moral appeal it almost sounds attractive. “The world is full of hurting people, and you can stay locked yourself up in your little bubble ‘thinking right things’ like all those other evangelicals, or you can go out and actually help someone like we do!” It’s just wrong, that’s all. Manipulative, too.

Who Does More Good?

It’s factually wrong, to start with. It would take a book, maybe dozens of them,  to tell the stories (I suggest you start here). Some of those stories come from right across the parking lot:The Stream’s parent organization, Life Outreach International, is a mission of global mercy as well as a ministry of message.

I know very well how imperfect our record is. If you’ve got a story of some evangelical leader hurting you, I’ve probably got one to match, including my kids’ youth pastor now serving time in federal prison. Or that pastor in Rwanda, for that matter.

I’ve got a whole lot more stories of evangelical believers showing self-sacrificial love, though. The good ones are more in line with evangelical reality, but the bad ones make the news.

And I think one reason progressives might come off looking better in some people’s eyes is because more of them will “affirm” and “support” homosexuality, transgenderism, socialism, open borders, and so on. We’ll say it’s wrong. Why? Because it is, and because right decisions are better for human flourishing. And because affirming wrong decisions may seem caring, but in the long run the truth does far more good.

Progressives do good things, too, though, and I have no need for any tit-for-tat over who does what to whom, or who does it better. I wouldn’t care to see anyone win that kind of game except Jesus Christ. If anyone does good in His name, let it be for His glory alone.

You Can’t Do Right Without Thinking Right

But did you notice the words right, wrong, and truth suddenly showing up there? Is that just be being an evangelical, stuck on doctrine, when I should be caring about people instead?

Some progressives might think so. A lot of them really do think it’s right to affirm homosexuality, and wrong to stand against it. But … oops … are they allowed to think, to believe, and to use words like right and wrong?

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Of course they are. It’s unavoidable. You can’t decide do what’s best without having some opinion on what’s best. Do they believe their way is really about giving care and love? Then they must also believe they have the right opinion on what counts as care and love.

Moral Doctrines

Today’s world is rife with moral opinions, beliefs on what’s loving and caring and good: To accept homosexuality is loving. To deny children’s “gender-affirming” surgery is “close to sinful.” “Dead-naming” is rude, and misgendering is wrong enough to get a person fired. Cultural appropriation is racism.

I called them moral opinions, but in reality they’re moral doctrines. They’ve so saturated our collective mindset so thoroughly, it’s wrong to question them in most places. That makes them orthodoxy, just as much as any scriptural or religious orthodoxy.

They also happen to line up with progressive Christian morality. So it’s not true that progressives prefer right action to right beliefs. They have their orthodoxy, too. The difference is that they lift up contemporary moral doctrine over historic, classical, Christian moral doctrine.

It’s more than moral doctrine, though. It’s packaged together with how they understand God, creation, right and wrong, God’s revelation, and what it means to be human. It’s religious doctrine, and they focus on it just as much as evangelicals focus on ours.

What About People Acting Against Their Beliefs?

In the final analysis, everyone acts according to what they believe — not what they say they believe, but what they actually believe. Rauser said that Rwandan pastor “believed rightly.” Nonsense! Obviously he believed it was far, far better to kill the innocent oppressed than to help them. That’s not “believing rightly.”

Maybe he also said he believed in God, Christ, and salvation. Maybe in a way he did. Then his beliefs were inconsistent, some of them right, some of them deadly wrong. That’s not because he was evangelical (if he even was). It’s because he was human.

Whether they own up to it or not, they’re speaking dogma — religious dogma.

All of us have our inconsistencies. “I believe, right here and now, that jelly doughnut would be good to eat.  I know by tomorrow I’ll be telling myself it was a bad idea, but right now that’s nothing in my mind compared to how yummy I know it would be.”

So I eat it. That’s not me acting against my beliefs, it’s me acting according to the belief that’s ringing loudest in my ear. Confused or consistent, either way, people act according to what they believe. This is normal. It’s just being human.

The Dogma That Pretends Not To Be

Bottom line: If you want to do go good in the world, you’d better be thinking rightly about what counts as good. A lot of well-intentioned harm gets done by people skipping that step. A

Still, this actions-over-beliefs business is one way progressives try to win people over — including evangelicals. “God is love, remember? We care about people. Doctrine is so much less important.” Don’t let the manipulative rhetoric fool you. When they say they don’t care about beliefs, they’re speaking beliefs they care about. It’s self-contradictory and confused, but that’s their problem to sort out. Whether they whether they own up to it or not, they’re speaking dogma — religious dogma.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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