Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, asked on Sunday “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” In it he looks at the Episcopal Church as they adapted the changes that John Shelby Spong, the Bishop of Newark, advocated in the 90s.
As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.
Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.
He notes further…
The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
HIs criticism of “successful Christian bodies” isn’t without merit. There is definitely a theological shallowness present among evangelicals, and I’ve written extensively about the prosperity gospel (which is not the gospel) and the likes of Joel Osteen, but I wouldn’t apply that label carte blanche. There is fidelity to the Gospel and Christian orthodoxy, and groups like The Gospel Coalition work to help bring depth, not just breadth to local churches.
Douthat points out that the key difference between liberal Christianity today and Christianity that promoted social reform and did much good in our nation is, frankly, heresy. He writes:
As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.
There is nothing wrong with advocating social reform. Christians were among the first abolitionists, they were present during the civil rights movement. Before FDR it was Christians who provided most of the social welfare in our nation. None of this I would point out is the Gospel, but it is a byproduct of the Gospel and the Great Commandment. As I love God with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength. As I recognize His love for those around me, and I obey His command to love my neighbor as myself why would I not want to minister to physical needs? That is a valid criticism of conservative Christianity. Jesus often met physical needs before addressing spiritual concerns. We should extend mercy to a world that desperately needs Jesus.
But if you deny the world needs Jesus and our faith that dictates such mercy then you’re dead according to The New York Times.
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