By Spencer D Gear
(image courtesy Eerdmans)
In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called “modernism” or “liberalism.” Both names are unsatisfactory; the latter, in particular, is question-begging. The movement designated as “liberalism” is regarded as “liberal” only by its friends; to its opponents it seems to involve a narrow ignoring of many relevant facts. And indeed the movement is so various in its manifestations that one may almost despair of finding any common name which will apply to all its forms. But manifold as are the forms in which the movement appears, the root of the movement is one; the many varieties of modern liberal religion are rooted in naturalism–that is, in the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity. The word “naturalism” is here used in a sense somewhat different from its philosophical meaning. In this non-philosophical sense it describes with fair accuracy the real root of what is called, by what may turn out to be a degradation of an originally noble word, “liberal” religion (Machen 1923:4-5).
If it was bad then, imagine what it is like in the early 21st century?
What are the differences in belief between orthodox Christianity and liberal Christianity? How do we define ‘orthodox Christianity’ and ‘liberal Christianity’?
The orthodox, evangelical Christianity with which I am associated can be defined according to the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals:
- We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
- We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
- We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
- We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
- We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
- We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The liberal Christianity to which I refer can be defined according to ‘This we believe’ of the Progressive Christian Network (PCN) in Britain. The development of this credo was explained:
Gradually the focus of discussion changed. The statements in the Nicene Creed do not make any reference to the implications for us as followers of Jesus, they are historic statements to meet the particular need of the time when they are created … but for all of us, it was the commitment to follow Jesus which was paramount. It was agreed that we all regarded ourselves as “followers of Jesus whose life expressed something utterly profound and took to the limit the idea that power is not all important, that expressed the values of love, peace and justice.” We are all “committed to the way of Jesus which we find worthwhile and which takes us nearer to the underlying sacredness …. To God” and therein is mystery.
This is a developing, possible statement of faith or credo of progressive, liberal Christian faith by the Progressive Christian Network (Britain). It states:
We are committed to:
- being Jesus’ followers
- imitating / living Jesus’ values
- valuing Jesus’ example
- sharing Jesus’ way to deity
- trusting life’s ultimate goodness, sacredness and purpose.
The National Council of Churches (USA) has a liberal Christian statement of faith that lacks the essential theological specifics, just like the PCN’s credo. The NCC’s statement of faith it:
The National Council of Churches is a community of Christian communions, which, in response to the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures, confess Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, as Savior and Lord.
These communions covenant with one another to manifest ever more fully the unity of the Church.
Relying upon the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the communions come together as the Council in common mission, serving in all creation to the glory of God.
Both of these affirmations of theological liberalism don’t want to get into the specifics of the nature of God, human beings, sin, salvation, and Jesus Christ. Nebulous is the way to go!
Enter John Shelby Spong
(photo courtesy Wikipedia)
One of the most damning pieces of evidence against John Shelby Spong’s theologically liberal views are what happened when he was bishop of the Episcopalian Church, Newark, NJ. It is reported in ‘Newark’s Disastrous Decline Under Spong: Post-Mortem of a Bishop’s Tenure’. Here it was reported:
Prior to Spong’s arrival as bishop coadjutor in 1977, the Diocese of Newark, like the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A (ECUSA), was facing a slow but steady decline from its peak membership in the 1960s. After Spong became the bishop in 1979, the rate of decline began to pick up.
Between 1978 and 1999, the number of baptized persons in the diocese fell from 64,323 to 36,340, a loss of 27,983 members in 21 years. That’s a disastrous 43.5% decline. The Episcopal Church, by contrast, saw a decline in the number of baptized persons from 3,057,162 in 1978 to 2,339,133 in 1997, a loss of 718, 499, or a substantial 23.4%, according to the 1998 Church Annual.
The Diocese of Newark under Spong, thus, has declined at a rate 20.1 percentage points higher than the rate for the entire Episcopal Church. This rate of decline is 86% faster than the Episcopal Church, whose losses are considerable in and of themselves.
As any statistician would note, the losses in the Diocese of Newark represent a highly statistically significant variation from the trends within the Episcopal Church. No systematic effort has been made to get at the exact causes that made losses in the diocese so much greater.
Ominously for the future, church members in the diocese are also getting older and there are fewer children in Sunday School. In 1976 there Were 10,186 children pupils in Sunday School. In 1999 there were only 4,833, a loss of 5,353. That’s 52.6% decline.
By 1997 the diocese had closed at least 18 parishes or missions which had existed when Spong became bishop. All of these parishes or missions were in urban areas. The details of the closing of these churches was reported by the author in an article in United Voice in 1997 titled “The Diocese of Newark’s Graveyard of Urban Ministry.”
The rate of decline under Spong – already fairly torrid – sharply accelerated after 1995. During the 1980s and early 1990s, there was often a loss of 1,000 members a year. From 1995 to 1998, there was a stunning drop from 44, 246 to 36,597 in only three years, a drop of 7,649 — or more than 2,500 a year.
The rate of membership decline under Spong is disastrous by any reasonable measure. Such a pace of decline cannot continue if the diocese is to survive and if the Episcopal church is to retain more than a marginal presence in northern New Jersey.
What’s the truth about the death of theism? Wherever theological liberalism has taken hold, church numbers have declined. Frank Pastore put it this way: ‘We’ve all witnessed the plummeting attendance of liberal mainline denominations for decades’ (‘The National Council of Churches should have died’).
An example would be the USA Episcopal Church. This recent article, ‘Episcopal Church Task Force Releases Report on Restructuring Plans’ (July 17, 2013).
“Entrenched bureaucracies and dozens of committees or commissions have accumulated over time. This has occurred even as the Episcopal Church has dropped from a high of 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.9 million members today,” said Walton. “The large amount of money that sustained these structures in the past is long gone, and the church looks very different than it did a generation ago.”
What’s the evidence for Church growth & decline?
(image courtesy ChristArt)
Go to Christian forums on the Internet and you can find those who are promoting theological liberalism and want to put down anything that seems to be of a conservative Christian persuasion. Here are samples:
In my research on church growth or decline, I found these helpful statistics on church growth and decline:
- Statistics of the Assemblies of God (USA and worldwide) show a growth. Worldwide this denomination grew by approx. 1 million adherents.
- The Church of England: Hot and bothered,The rise of evangelicalism is shaking up the established church
- This report summary was, ‘Southern Baptist Churches Growing in Numbers, Declining in Membership (USA)‘
- Plague on both their houses: The real story of growth and decline in liberal and conservative churches
- Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?
- A response to, ‘Can liberal Christianity be saved?’
- Is Liberal Christianity Worth Saving?
As these links indicate statistically and generally, conservative, evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics around the world are growing in numbers while liberal Christian denominations are diminishing in size. The statistics are in and they are not applauding theological liberalism. Conservative, orthodox Christianity is on the upswing (generally) while liberalism is on the decline.
Frank Pastore’s assessment of the theologically liberal National Council of Churches (USA) was:
So much for the ‘church’ part of the National Council. These liberal groups really are putting their money where their mouth(piece) is, right onto the lips of the NCC.
The next time you hear or read the words “National Council of Churches”, remember they don’t represent the people in the pews, they represent the liberal foundations and organizations that are keeping them on life support.
The market had shouted. The NCC should have died.
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 March 2017.