July 9, 2006

The Meltdown of Liberal Christianity

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:41 pm

An editorial in the L.A. Times by Charlotte Allen, an editor for Beliefnet.com, titled “Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins”, attempts to trash my denomination (among others) and my faith.

Allen’s opinion piece is full of so many rhetorical excesses, logical fallacies and flights of fancy, I’m not sure where to begin. But I will start here:

It doesn’t help matters that the mainline churches were pioneers in ordaining women to the clergy, to the point that 25% of all Episcopal priests these days are female, as are 29% of all Presbyterian pastors, according to the two churches. A causal connection between a critical mass of female clergy and a mass exodus from the churches, especially among men, would be difficult to establish, but is it entirely a coincidence? Sociologist Rodney Stark (“The Rise of Christianity”) and historian Philip Jenkins (“The Next Christendom”) contend that the more demands, ethical and doctrinal, that a faith places upon its adherents, the deeper the adherents’ commitment to that faith. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which preach biblical morality, have no trouble saying that Jesus is Lord, and they generally eschew women’s ordination. The churches are growing robustly, both in the United States and around the world.

Correlation does not imply causation. Allen makes a specious connection here between the growth of female clergy and the decline in mainline church membership. This is a rhetorical smearing based on a none-too-subtle question: is it a coincidence? Asking the question presupposes the answer, all in the absence, as she must admit, of any evidence.

What’s interesting is that Allen ties this in with the observation that strict churches result in more committed adherents. Allen is implying that strict churches are growing churches, when the research only says that strict churches’ members are more committed. Whether a church is strict has nothing to do with whether it’s liberal or conservative. I believe that liberal mainline churches demand much more of their members than conservative mega-churches do. The vast majority of mainline church members are straight, but their churches are increasingly demanding them to be tolerant and accepting towards gays. This is change, and change is hard! The conservative megas make no such demands of their members. Mega-churches draw members with comfortable seating, lattes, the gospel of prosperity, and a worldview that validates their members’ deepest prejudices as biblically ordained. Liberal churches are making their members uncomfortable, forcing us to reconsider our unexamined assumptions such as whether God has a gender, the nature of sexual orientation, and the morality of our comfortable suburban affluence. Many liberal Protestant churches, growing or not, have devoutly committed members, because they have been confronted with a God who demands they move away from an easy judgmentalism to a very disomforting love of “the other.”

Allen calls the ECUSA a “Church of What’s Happening Now” concerned with whatever feels good. I really doubt any of the liberal members of the Episcopal Church are feeling very good right now. Meanwhile, many conservative churches engaged in an orgy of patriotic songs and flag-waving last Sunday that must have felt very good, while having nothing to do with worshiping our Lord.

But the worst part of this piece is the statement that mainline churches no longer believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, fully human but also fully divine, our Lord and Savior. Allen says that “the Episcopalians at Columbus overwhelmingly refused even to consider a resolution affirming that Jesus Christ is Lord”, something that I am not familiar with and can’t comment upon. She also says that Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori “invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ’s divinity, to address her priests” as Bishop of Nevada. From these two assertions, Allen infers that not only the ECUSA, but all of mainline protestantism, has abandoned “a bedrock Christian theological statement.”

What in the world is she talking about?

Tolerating diverse opinions such as Spong’s is not the same as agreeing with them. Unlike Roman Catholics or the Southern Baptist Convention, Episcopalians have a tradition of allowing diversity of belief, while uniting around a common religious practice, a compromise that served them well through England’s religious conflicts.

Spong aside, let me be clear: mainline Protestantism continues to confess the Triune God. My denomination, the ELCA, stands firm in the Lutheran tradition of a faith based in God’s saving grace through the death and resurrection of God’s only son, Jesus Christ. Allen’s assertion is libelous.

Given her rhetorical excesses and logical fallacies, I was left wondering why Allen would go so far out of her way to slam us liberal Christians. It would seem her conclusion provides the answer:

And they [liberal Christians] keep telling the Catholic Church that it had better get with the liberal program — ordain women, bless gay unions and so forth — or die. Sure.

It seems her objections ultimately come down to the ordination of gay and women clergy, the search for inclusive language and the tolerance of dissenting theologies. Upon these objections, she condemns the entire mainline. But her battle isn’t with liberal mainline Protestantism at all, but with progressive elements in the Roman Catholic church.

If Allen wants to pick a fight with fellow Catholics, she can go right ahead — just leave us Protestants out of it.

6 Comments

  1. Clearly, Allen has a chip on her shoulder. The entire article reads like a spiteful rant and doesn’t even pretend to offer thoughtful, reflective, or prayerful thoughts about the church’s witness. Her arguments (or specious assertions in many cases) seem rooted in the conviction that “what’s good enough for grandma is good enough for me”, as if the fullness of God’s nature and will has already been entirely revealed and comprehended by previous generations; there is nothing new to be revealed or known. And it isn’t at all clear to me that we can measure the success or faithfulness of the church’s mission and witness through its popularity as measured by counting noses in the pews or coins in the coffers.

    As the church, we need to take seriously the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in every generation. We may stumble as we try to follow the Spirit’s lead, we may not always rightly understand, and we may not always be happy with where God leads us. But it would be arrogance for us to insist we know all we need to know, we’re exactly where God wants us to be, and we dare not proceed any further.

    We may not always agree among ourselves, as the whole Body of Christ, but I do believe the Holy Spirit is at work among us when we wrestle with God, with one another, and with our own consciences. But in our disagreements, surely we are still constrained by our common identity in Christ to speak truthfully, and not bear false witness through hyperbole, innuendo, or calculated distortions. Surely, loving one another as Christ loved us suggests we listen sincerely to the witness of every member of the Body in our individual and communal experiences of the living God among us, and together try to discern His revelation to, and will for, us in this and every generation.

    We do not need to fear change or talk of change. God loves us.

    Comment by Johann — July 10, 2006 @ 9:57 am

  2. Johann –

    Very well said — I couldn’t agree more.

    Comment by Bob — July 10, 2006 @ 4:53 pm

  3. In addition to the well-stated comments by both of you above, I would also add that her whole hypothesis that conservative theology equals church growth, while liberal theology equals church decline, is false. As an example, all one needs to do is look at the second- and third-largest Lutheran church bodies in the United States — the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Synod. Both churches espouse a very conservative Christian theology, and yet both have also continued to decline since 1960 as well. In fact, if I remember correctly, their decline has been faster than the ELCA, which is one of the churches that the author cites as an example of liberal theology resulting in church decline.

    But, I agree completely with what your comments are above, and appreciated reading your take on this article. I’m glad to see that you are posting again on a regular basis — I enjoy reading your thoughts.

    Comment by Andrew — July 12, 2006 @ 8:15 am

  4. http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary

    Main Entry: 2editorial
    Function: noun
    : a newspaper or magazine article that gives the opinions of the editors or publishers; also : an expression of opinion that resembles such an article

    Comment by Jacke — July 12, 2006 @ 10:11 am

  5. I’m not sure what the definition of the word editorial has to do with anything. Yes, this is all Ms. Allen’s opinion. But not all opinions are created equal. Some opinions are based on reason and fact, increasing their general value. This one seems to be a bit short on both reason and fact, which tends to diminish its value in my mind.

    Comment by Jarred — July 12, 2006 @ 11:49 am

  6. Ms. Allen’s statement that pentecostal churches “generally
    eschew women’s ordination” is just plain wrong. Women pastors
    have always been prominant in pentecostal churches. The
    Foursquare Church and the Pillar of Fire are just two examples of
    pentecostal churches founded by women.

    Comment by Bruce — July 24, 2006 @ 2:09 pm

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