Albert Mohler: Vanishing Christianity — A Lesson from the Presbyterians

Albert Mohler

Albert Mohler

AlbertMohler.com

“Liberal Protestantism, in its determined policy of accommodation with the secular world, has succeeded in making itself dispensable.” That was the judgment of Thomas C. Reeves in The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Protestantism, published in 1996. Fast-forward another fourteen years and it becomes increasingly clear that liberal Protestantism continues its suicide — with even greater theological accommodations to the secular worldview.

The latest evidence for this pattern is found in a report just released by The Presbyterian Panel, a research group that serves the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA]. The panel’s report is presented as a “Religious and Demographic Profile of Presbyterians, 2008.” The report contains relatively few surprises, but it is filled with data about the beliefs of Presbyterian laypersons and clergy.

A majority of church members, pastors, elders, and specialized clergy describe themselves as moderate, liberal, or very liberal in theological outlook. Less than half of church members (44%) and elders (48%) report a conversion experience. Interestingly, ministers were not asked that question.

In general terms, elders were slightly more conservative in belief than other church members. Female pastors were significantly more likely (51%) than male pastors (23%) to identify themselves as liberal or very liberal. Among other ministers (identified as “specialized clergy”), 62% of females identified themselves as liberal or very liberal, compared to 45% of males.

Majorities of all groups indicated agreement with the statement, “There is life beyond death.” But the most significant theological question concerned the exclusivity of the Gospel and the necessity of belief in Jesus Christ for salvation. On that question there was great division, with over a third (36%) of PCUSA church members indicating that they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

Among ministers, the division is even more apparent, with 45% of pastors disagreeing with that statement and fully 60% of specialized clergy disagreeing. Roughly 20% of both pastors and specialized clergy reported themselves “neutral or unsure” about the question.

Only 43% of church members disagreed or strongly disagreed with the claim that “all the world’s religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.”

This is a church that has lost its confidence in the Gospel in terms of the clear biblical claim that salvation comes only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This latest report confirms the continued abandonment of the Gospel in an increasingly secularized denomination.

Liberal Protestantism — institutionalized in the old Protestant “mainline” denominations — has been following a path of theological accommodation for a century now, and there appears to be little hope for a major theological correction. Renewal groups have been working within these churches for decades, attempting to call the denominations back to biblical Christianity. To date, they have won only isolated battles in most of these churches.

As Reeves explains:

“And so the mainline churches wane — disheartened, aging, increasingly irrelevant, all too often satisfied to serve as a sort of sanctimonious echo of National Public Radio or the left wing of the Democratic Party. For a variety of reasons, many liberal Protestants, especially church leaders, have endorsed a view of reality and a way of life that have helped produce a society that is breaking up. And they have become part of the problem.”

But this report points to the most devastating reality among these churches — the loss of faith and doctrinal conviction among church members. Theological compromise appeared first among the pastors, theologians, church executives, and seminary professors. Denominational bureaucracies again and again prove themselves resistant to correction. For years, the hope had been that laypersons — the church members themselves — would force a correction and lead a return to evangelical conviction.

This report indicates just how distant that hope now appears, largely because the church members themselves have adopted liberal beliefs.

Back in 1994, a team of sociologists considered this phenomenon, looking particularly at the Baby Boomers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens published their findings in Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Protestant Baby Boomers. They identified the phenomenon of “lay liberalism” in the PCUSA and throughout liberal Protestantism.

As they explained, “This perspective is ‘liberal’ because its defining feature is a rejection of the orthodox teaching that Christianity is the only true religion. Lay liberals have a high regard for Jesus, but they do not affirm that He is God’s only son and that salvation is available only through Him.”

The title of their report points to the quandary of liberal Protestantism. As the boundaries between liberal Protestantism and the secular culture vanish, there is little reason for anyone to join one of these churches.

That report explained that “lay liberals who are active Presbyterians do not differ sharply in their religious views from the people who are not involved in a church but describe themselves as religious. There is, in short, no clear-cut ‘faith boundary’ separating active Presbyterians from those who no longer go to church.” Th researchers also repeated their point that the defining mark of “lay liberalism” is “the rejection of the claim that Christianity, or any other faith, is the only true religion.”

This abandonment of biblical Christianity is a tragedy of the first order. Churches and denominations birthed in biblical orthodoxy have been ransacked and secularized. The crisis has migrated from the pulpits to the pews, and recovery is only a dim and distant hope.

Evangelicals should consider this tragedy with humility and theological perception. If similar trends are allowed to gain traction among evangelical churches and denominations, the same fate awaits. The larger issue here is not the continued vitality of any denomination as an end in itself, but the integrity of our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Make no mistake — in the end, vanishing theological boundaries will amount to vanishing Christianity. This report makes that point with devastating clarity.

Comments

  1. Michael Bauman :

    “Vanishing theological boundaries will amount to vanishing Christianity”

    Failure on the part of we Orthodox to heed these words will leave us in the same boat.

    One Lord, Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man
    One Church, one faith.

    The holding of the Holy Mysteries as a unique trust found no where else.

    There are beliefs and thoughts as well as actions that should not be honored becasue they lead to damnation, i.e. a persistent rejection of the love of God, worshiping the created thing more than the create thing. Our own mind most of all.

    We have to hold to these truths in love otherwise we will shut the doors to people rather than opening them and be twice damned ourselves.

    That is my great disquite, we dither and moan and proclaim past glories and present dilemas while thousands around us are falling into the pit. I see no urgency for our mission. We don’t equip lay people to carryout the mission locally because we seem to lack the capacity for spiritual formation.

    Have we no shame? But perhaps I am just showing my impatience? How can any man proclaim there is only one way to salvation. That is discrimination! Not to be tolerated! If you dialog on an equal footing with those caught in the web of heresy, blasphemey and demonic deceit, reason will allow them to see!

  2. I agree. Orthodoxy must be painted in bold contrasts precisely because Orthodox Christianity IS a bold contrast to everything else.

  3. Michael Bauman :

    Christianity is radical. Most folks have difficulty handling and living in the radical manner to which we are called. Love one’s neighbor? Forgive one’s enemies? There is only one way to salvation, Jesus Christ? Only one Church? I’m supposed to fast? I must not associate myself with those who deny the faith? I have to be under authority and be obedient to that authority? God became man and remained fully God without confusion? He was raised from the dead? He gives us His Body and His Blood?

    NO, my mind reels at such claims. I must move a little further from the heat of the fire, it burns.

  4. cynthia curran :

    I’m not mentioning about theological differences between Protestants and Orthodox. The average guy in the pews among the mainline Protestants is more conservative than most pastors of manline churches. Also, there are a lot of liberals among Roman Catholics and Orthodox on the social issues. The church fathers condemmed homosexulity and abortion but you hear of Roman Catholics and Orthodox only wanting to deal with the fathers talking about the duty of the rich to the poor. Not that I’m not saying that’s mot important but that s bascially the social gospel approach of liberal protestants. Also, as the author mention evangelicals have their own movement known as the emergating church which is a modern verison of liberal mainstream protestantism and led by guys like Mclaren.

  5. When you do not have a resilient Tradition, when you are able to reshape the faith as it suits you, when you make yourself the touchstone for what is and is not true, there is nothing that can stop popular culture from swamping and sinking your group. This is the Achilles’ heal of Protestantism and it is inescapable. Calvin or Wesley or Luther or Spurgeon are each brilliant in their own way, yet by dismissing what came before them (Wesley perhaps the least), they established a self-referential starting point. (Secularism, ironically, took that starting point and merely jettisoned it’s object – the Scriptures. In that sense, modern secularism is just faithless protestantism.) This leaves protestants with no firm authority, with no bulwark against “every wind and wave,” leaving them to follow what the most eloquent speaker of the moment says, or what “the smartest people” at the moment “think.” In short, without a Tradition that extends beyond “my fingerprints,” there is simply no way to transcend the corrosive effects of popular culture – which is why many simply avoid it.
    This does not mean that the challenge of modern culture will be easy for Orthodox faithful to deal with. To make the content of that Tradition present in our lives will require a demanding sacramental asceticism if we are to be even remotely effective as witnesses to the eschatological kingdom.

    • Cynthia, I agree with your last statement. Such living requires, IMO, bishops who are doing it: teaching it by modeling it. We need bishops who are willing to speak the truth in love to those that embrace heretical teachings–especially those within the Church.

      I pray God to raise up such men. Lord come quickly or we perish.

  6. A Presbyterian church near me has just lost its Reverend who got a job in a Christian University.

    The church itself is conservative and missional and does a good job at caring for and reaching out to the youth (especially since it is near a non-Christian University) and getting people involved in church life and study.

    That being said, the process for selecting a new Reverend (at least the public facing process) has been eye opening. First a moderator was selected. Then a survey was done to find out people’s needs. Then the moderator gave a sermon on servant leadership that could have come from a Dale Carnegie seminar. Then the survey results were gathered and strengths and weaknesses were determined and a plan based on that was made, with focus on staying true to scripture. I’m not sure what the next steps are (since I haven’t gotten that information yet), but there will be a vote of elders and appoint of new elders some time in the future.

    The whole process makes sense from a business point of view…too much sense from my perspective. It sounds like something a group of devoted smart people would come up with. Given the break from apostolic tradition I don’t know what else they could do. But it does seem to place the emphasis in the wrong place. Look at the resume of St Paul. It includes being repeatedly thrown in jail, starting riots, persecuting Christians, confronting authorities within the church, among other things. Would such a person be selected under this process? Of course not. Only a fool would hire him. Yet this is how our God works. Sometimes “Credo quia absurdum” makes a whole lot of sense. Apostolic tradition provides room for that absurdity.

    • Scott Pennington :

      There is a Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and a Presbyterian Church (PCA). The PCA is generally more conservative than the PCUSA group from whom they separated.

  7. Michael Bauman :

    We’ve seen the dynamic of a ‘conservative’ group separating from a liberal group in just about every Christian Tradition. What makes us think, the Orthdox Church is immune? We are not immune in the US nor has the Church ever been immune. It could be argued that the Chalcedon/non-Chalcedon was just such a split; the Old believer schism in Russian, the Patriarchal/ROCOR split even, certainly the New Calendar/Old Calendar. As long as we think in denominational terms, ethnic or otherwise AND our bishops stay isolated.

    That is why I regretfully believe that there will be such a split in the U.S. between those who hold to a more conservative praxis and those who want to loosen the rules.

    Of course, all of these splits are ultimately man-centered rather than Christ centered. The defenders of the incarnational approach in the 3rd and 4th centuries did not split the Church until a council had ruled and expressed the mind of the Church.

    Without local, national and international synods (which, IMO none of the bishops really want because it would require them to be accountable to each other), we are left with a maddening assortment of pastoral even liturgical variances within what is supposedly one Church.

    I keep asking myself if we are functionally any different that the Protestants?

  8. WRT, Chalcedon/non-Chalcedon – it was more a misunderstanding over wording more than anything else. The proper wording has been worked out now (http://www.orthodoxunity.org/) and it’s only the disorganization of the Oriental church that has prevented full inter-communion from being finalized. I do not have enough experience to comment on the other schisms, but there seems to be similar reconciliations happening, especially in regard to Patriarchal/ROCOR. From my understanding, in all the schisms you’ve mentioned, both sides believe that they are more faithful to Holy Tradition. In most Protestant schisms, its clear that one side is trying to accommodate to the world while the other is not.

    But to answer your question, what will stop the Orthodox from going the way of the Protestants? The monks. More than once, Orthodoxy *did* become too worldly, but the monks kept pulling it back to Holy Tradition.

    Protestant denominations have no monastic orders, so when they go wrong, they can’t recover. The trend is very clear. Calvin and Luther were much more Catholic than modern Calvinists and Lutherans. First the sacraments were cheapened. Then the deuterocanonicals were dropped. Then liturgy was made more worldly (if it exists at all). Then sacraments were cheapened again. Then it didn’t matter what denomination you belonged to because all denominations taught the same thing (even if their statements of faiths contradicted each other). Then long held doctrines were dropped. Then those doctrines were declared immoral (e.g. ban on gay clergy). And so on.

    While the RCC does have monastic orders and it has fallen into error, it has not fallen anywhere near the above, and it does seem that the RCC (at least under Benedict) is starting to recover. I am certain that the monastics have a hand in this renewal, somehow, and hope that eventually the RCC returns to the fullness of the faith.

    • Anil, I don’t buy for a minute that the Chalcedonian schism was just a matter of wording. I’ve read some of the documents from the reunion conferences and a number of Coptic web sites. The monophsytism is strong and proud. Just as we are proud of our Orthodoxy. Sorry.

      If it were just a matter of wording don’t you think that those who actually thought and spoke in the langauges in question could have worked it out much better than we in our modern presentistic arrogance can?

      Schism comes when love is lax, when we lose the understanding that Christ’s deep mystery is so much more than we can put into words. Councils and the cannons and the specified doctrines are a clear indication that we have lost a part of the mystery of God with us. We have to codify and separate rather than love.

      Some of these discernments and articulations are absolutely necessary, but that does not mean we should glory in them. We should only do them when absolutely necessary, like war. Once a war is declared there is no peace short of surrender.

      Chalcedon is the standard:

      Wherefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same consisting of a reasonable soul and a body, of one substance with the Father as touching the Godhead, the same of one substance with us as touching the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin; begotten of the Father before the ages as touching the Godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, as touching the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, with out confusion, without change, without division, without separtion; the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature being preserved, and concurring into one Person and one subsistence, not as if Christ were parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as the Prophets from the beginning spoke concerning him, and our Lord Jesus Christ instructed us, and the Creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.

      • Michael, whatever the past differences (if they existed) the modern Coptics and Orientals refused to be called monosophites and wording that is acceptable to the Orthodox and Orientals and Coptics can live with has been found. Read up yourself to see if you believe the formulation is faithful to Orthodoxy.

        From my understanding, the Coptics and Orientals fell in love with St. Cyril of Alexandria’s formulation of the Trinity. They thought this was the one true way to express it, and the rest of the church got entrenched in another formulation. Both sides seemed “zealous for the truth” as they saw it.

        I 100% agree that “Schism comes when love is lax”. But one must also look at the council with love. Realize that that was a very dangerous time. Arianism appeared to almost win out. Heretics were rampant. When you’re desperately fighting for your life, “friendly fire” is inevitable. IMO, it’s more excusable than the current mess in North American where we don’t have schism, but we don’t have unity either and there is no immediate external threat threating us.

        What is inexcusable on both sides was that even after the heretic threat eased off, both sides refused to talk until now and kept petty anathemas relating to foods that may be eaten during a fast. Thankfully, that seems to be all but repented of on both sides.

        • Scott Pennington :

          Anil,

          The Oriental Orthodox continue to refuse to accept the Council of Chalcedon. Either Chalcedon was or was not an Ecumenical Council. Even if at some point they accepted that, they remain resolutely Monothelites and would not accept the Sixth Ecumenical Council because it anathematized “saints” that they hold dear. Any rumors of imminent reunion are not accurate.

        • The heretic threat is resurgent and prevalent. Dualism of all types, modalism, and various combination heresys abound. In fact, I would wager that you will not find very many traditions in which heresy is not preached.

          While it may be politcally correct not to call monophysites, monophysites when the official representatives refuse, as Scott points out to accept any Council after the 3rd and do so in a forceful manner, it is pretty hard not to believe they are monophysite. The general attitude of the Oriental representatives in the position papers I’ve read was one of non-compromise. If any changes had to be made, it was Chalcedon and its adherents who needed to change.

          What that means in practical terms is that we are not in communion but that we have cordial relations. We are not likely to be in communion.

          No questions that Chalcedon was and is a clear dividing line that many people struggle with even today, Orthodox included. That being said, I don’t think it behooves us to repudiated it because it is not comfortable–just the opposite in fact.

          While it is tempting to rationalize out of existence doctrinal differences. Giving into such temptations does no one any good.

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