It has often been said of the more liberal Christian denominations that in their attempt to become trendy and relevant – at the expense of biblical truth – they have ceased being mainline denominations and have in fact become sidelined. They have so compromised truth and the Gospel that they are no longer making any impact at all, and are slowly declining.
This has been true for some time now in places such as the US. The major Protestant mainline denominations have been deteriorating big time, with declining memberships and decreasing impact. Ironically, as they seek to become more and more relevant, they in fact become more and more irrelevant.
A recent article in First Things has highlighted this fact. Joseph Bottum had a piece entitled “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline”. In it he documents the decline of liberal Protestant churches. Of course he is not the first to do this. Many in the past have noted the growth of conservative churches and the decline of liberal churches.
Way back in 1972 Dean Kelley wrote a book called Why Conservative Churches are Growing. In 1996 Thomas Reeves wrote The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity. And in 2006 Dave Shiflett penned Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity.
Bottum says the decline in the mainline church took off in the 60s and things began to get pretty bad in the 70s. Of course this does not mean there are no more liberal churches around:
“In truth, there are still plenty of Methodists around. Baptists and Presbyterians, too—Lutherans, Episcopalians, and all the rest; millions of believing Christians who remain serious and devout. For that matter, you can still find, soldiering on, some of the institutions they established in their Mainline glory days: the National Council of Churches, for instance, in its God Box up on New York City’s Riverside Drive, with the cornerstone laid, in a grand ceremony, by President Eisenhower in 1958. But those institutions are corpses, even if they don’t quite realize that they’re dead. The great confluence of Protestantism has dwindled to a trickle over the past thirty years, and the Great Church of America has come to an end.”
“And that leaves us in an odd situation, unlike any before. The death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other period in American history. Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: The Mainline has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.”
Albert Mohler recently wrote an article commenting on the Bottum piece. Says Mohler: “The collapse of the Protestant mainline has been swift, steady, and self-inflicted. These denominations embraced theological liberalism and adopted accommodationism as a cultural posture. Bottum estimates that less than 8 percent of Americans are now members of ‘the central churches of the Protestant Mainline’.”
Mohler concludes, “The primary injury caused by mainline Protestant decline is not social but spiritual. These denominations once fuelled the great missionary movement that carried the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Now, liberal Protestantism sees conversionist missions as an embarrassment. Committed to a radical doctrinal relativism, these denominations have served as poster children for virtually every theological fad and liberal proposal imaginable. Now, many of these denominations are involved in court fights to keep churches from leaving. The stream has indeed run dry. The ‘Death of Protestant America’ Joseph Bottum describes must serve as a warning to Evangelicals. There can be no doubt where theological revisionism and accommodationism will lead. Why, then, would some argue that Evangelicalism should follow essentially the same path? Can they not see that the liberal Protestant river has run dry?”
Let me provide one illustration of all this. Bottum mentioned the National Council of Churches. The NCC is indeed a perfect example of liberal churchianity that has more or less lost the plot. Consider just one very recent example. Within minutes of Barack Hussein Obama being declared the new US President-elect, the NCC sent out a letter congratulating him and promising to work with him.
The letter closed with this remark: “In doing so [working with Obama], we are guided by several basic principles: That those living in poverty are deeply loved of God; that all God’s people are entitled to equal opportunities for justice, shelter, education, and health care; And that war, even when it is necessary to defend ourselves or the weak or the oppressed, is never the will of God.”
It is a curious – and typical – mash of theological and political liberalism, offering little more than sentimental platitudes and contradictory advice. And it is of course relatively free of any biblical instruction.
It is nice, for example, to learn that God loves the poor. But what about the non-poor? Does God love them as well? We have here the typical Christian left’s position, known as “the preferential option for the poor,” a concept much loved in liberation theology circles. The idea is that God seems to love more, or more greatly prefer, the poor to all others.
While God of course is greatly concerned about the poor, the truth is, he is greatly concerned about everyone. Indeed, Scripture commands us not to show a preferential option for the poor, at least when it comes to issues of law and justice: “’Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:13).
And the principles about justice read pretty much like the Democratic platform. If fleshed out a bit, they would translate into various socialistic policies, with concerns about health care presumably meaning a mandatory national health care scheme, and so on. Of course the NCC has been pushing a leftist political line for decades, so they will be most pleased with an Obama Presidency.
The NCC principle about war is another interesting one. Sure, it’s a good principle of leftist politics, but not much of a biblical one. Is the NCC really suggesting that when Yahweh commanded Israel to go to war on numerous occasions that he was wrong? Was God really acting out of the will of God?
It is nice to see the NCC speak about “even when it is necessary to defend ourselves or the weak or the oppressed”. So maybe there are times when war may be necessary. Indeed, given that the NCC letter had just spoken about justice one sentence earlier, one would have thought that there is no better definition of justice – even biblical justice – than to defend “the weak or the oppressed”. Surely the inhabitants of Auschwitz would qualify here?
And I can think of no greater candidate of the “weak and the oppressed” than the unborn. Yet Obama is the most ruthless pro-abortion President-elect that America has ever had. Will the NCC be writing to Obama, urging him to drop his pro-abortion policies? I won’t hold my breath.
Bottum and Mohler are right to suggest that the well has run dry with the theological liberals. And as Mohler remarks, it is hoped that evangelical Christianity will not go down the same path. We must certainly all pray that it doesn’t.