At Christianity Today we often speak of the summer months as the “church report season,” as many denominations hold their annual meeting or conference during this time of the year. The two words most often used to describe mainline Protestantism in North America are “crisis” and “decline,” both of which seem justified in light of recent trends.
The recent article by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” offers an insightful analysis of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) whose House of Bishops last week approved an official liturgy to bless same-sex unions. This is the same communion which counts among its great champions of the past the likes of Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley, and William Wilberforce, and of which George Washington was a member. Meanwhile, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) very narrowly turned back a proposal to redefine marriage. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (TEC) has already adopted what is euphemistically called a “more inclusive” policy in sexual ethics. This has resulted in denominational fracturing and the emergence of several distinct Lutheran renewal groups. Similar struggles have long been present in the United Methodist Church. But this church body which holds one significant advantage over other mainline denominations: the UMC General Conference allows voting members from outside North America. Largely with the support of African delegates, the UMC defeated the latest effort to “reform” (i.e. abandon) its historic commitment to biblical standards. There are flashes of light amidst the shadows.
What are evangelicals to make of these developments? Here are three lessons.
1. There is an intrinsic connection between spiritual vitality and theological integrity. The debate over homosexual practices within the mainline denominations is not the root cause but only the presenting issue in the devolution Ross Douthat has described so well. At the heart of this issue is a broken doctrine of biblical authority, a loss of confidence in the primary documents of the Christian faith. The patina of pietism, and the lushness of a well-rehearsed liturgy, are no substitute for what the Thirty-nine Articles calls “the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures.” Apart from such commitment, it will not be long before other cardinal tenets of the Christian faith become negotiable, including the Trinity, the full deity and true humanity of Jesus Christ, and redemption wrought through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Two of Chuck Colson’s most important books were titled, The Body, a study of ecclesiology, and The Faith, a call for renewed orthodoxy. The church and the Bible are coinherent realities in the economy of grace. One will not long survive intact without the other.
2. The continuing saga and approaching collapse of mainline denominations should prompt us to pray. Within each of the mainline denominations, there are many faithful believers who have not “bowed the knee to Baal.” Often they face harassment, discrimination, and litigation. Pray that they will remain faithful in the face of such assaults, and pray that they will find communities of love and support in what for many will be an increasingly isolated position. Some impatient evangelicals on the outside may be tempted to say, “Well, why don’t you just leave?” But breaking with the church in which one has been nurtured in the faith, often from childhood, can be like abandoning one’s mother. Like marriage, according to the Book of Common Prayer, such a decision should not be made unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in the fear of God.
The words of the apostle Paul are surely pertinent here: “Let everyone be persuaded in his own conscience.” But while we pray for those who remain as faithful witnesses swimming against the tide, we should also lift to the Lord in our prayers those who have responded to the Spirit’s leading to establish new communities of faith and ecclesial alignments. There is no place for self-righteousness on either side of this divide. However much ecumenical advance we have made, Protestants of all kinds remain divided from the Roman Catholic Church, the most glaring evidence for which is the lack of a common table to share the Sacrament of Unity. Going back even further, Catholics of the West have been separated from Orthodox believers in the East since the Great Schism of 1054. In the meantime, let us renew our commitment to the quest for Christian unity, even as we find ways to celebrate what Tom Oden called twenty-five years ago, “The New Ecumenism.” In all of this we seek to bear witness to God’s love and grace in this fragile world.
3. Evangelicals have no room to boast or gloat over the “sickness unto death” in the mainlines. The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two largest denominations in North America. Significantly, both groups have resisted pressures for theological accommodation in recent decades. But both face stresses and conflicts of their own, including some of the same temptations that beset mainline Protestants a generation ago. Among progressive Roman Catholics and some evangelicals today the temptation is to imitate the fading ethos of liberal Protestantism, in reaction to “authoritarian” dogma, “conservative” politics, or both. In both cases, the motive is often apologetic if not evangelistic: to win over religion’s “cultured despisers” to a kind of vague neo-spirituality. While the intention may be worthy, the results are likely to be disastrous: a social Gospel that is all social and no Gospel; a church which has nothing to say that secular elites have not already said, and usually said better; a horizontal faith with a penchant for the instantaneous and the disconnected but with no confidence in the overarching storyline of God’s redemptive love from creation to consummation. The trajectory from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Shelby Spong is a well-worn path. As Peter Berger once said, “He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.”
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.