A century ago the Protestant churches in North America were divided between those who sought to defend the confessional integrity of their churches and those who believed that some form of compromise with the modern worldview was inevitable and desirable. The latter became known as liberal Protestants, and they would earn notoriety for denying cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, and his resurrection from the dead. Typically they lauded the morality of the Gospels while denying anything that might conflict with a scientific approach to the world.
Yet liberalism in religion covers more than just the denial of the miraculous. A liberal Christian may be willing to affirm that Jesus literally walked on the water (Matt. 14:22–33) or rose from the dead, yet he still retains the right as an individual to accept only that which supports his own experience of faith. J. Gresham Machen, who was forced to combat liberalism within his own Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and 1930s, well understood the nature of this individualism and its impact on the larger Christian community. While liberals in his denomination claimed to accept the authority of Christ, it was a Christ remade in the image of the cultural prejudices of the day. According to Machen, “The real authority, for liberalism, can only be ‘the Christian consciousness’ or ‘Christian experience’ . . . truth can only be that which ‘helps’ the individual man.”
Of course, experience varies from one individual to the next, which is the principal difficulty with this approach. There can be no common faith professed by a community of Christians, each of whom retains for himself or herself the sovereign right to decide what he or she can manage to affirm within the larger deposit of the faith. From this comes the caricature of the eccentric and barely-believing cleric who crosses his fingers behind his back while reciting the Nicene Creed, confessing a shell of the faith while effectively denying its substance.
Is there a connection between this religious liberalism and political liberalism? There is indeed, and we see it already in the writings of the seventeenth-century English political philosopher John Locke. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke famously asserts that political authority is rooted in a social contract among individuals, who establish a civil magistrate to protect their life, liberty and property. If this civil magistrate fails to live up to the terms of this contract, the people may take up arms against him in what Locke euphemistically calls an “appeal to heaven.”
Locke did not limit this social contract to the state but applied it to the institutional church as well. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke puts forth his own definition of the Church: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially those in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke's definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the Church as the covenant community of those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, who is its savior and head.
Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the body of Christ which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the Gospel to the world and especially to those who are in Christ.
Tellingly, the voluntaristic ecclesiology of liberalism is by no means limited to liberal Protestant denominations here in North America. Even evangelical churches claiming faithfulness to the Bible implicitly communicate to their members that their own expressed needs are sovereign and strive to meet them above all else. Drawing on a consumer model, such congregations will hold multiple and different styles of worship services each Sunday to appeal to the varying liturgical tastes of adherents. If this entails toning down confessional distinctives and mounting concert-style litur-tainment, so be it.
It is common these days to hear people claim to be spiritual but not religious. Mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge, and successful churches try their best to appeal to this ego. On the other hand, religion implies a certain binding (Latin: religare) of the person to a particular path of obedience not set by the person herself. Just as the state is called by God to an irrevocable task of doing public justice, so also is the institutional church called by God to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness, administer the sacraments and to ensure that its members are living up to their calling before the face of God, who has redeemed them in Jesus Christ.
David T. Koyzis is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. A slightly different version of this was published in Christian Courier.
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