The title of this post comes from a book written by Bishop John Shelby Spong, the Episcopalian Bishop of Newark.1 Bishop Spong has long been known for his liberal theological leanings, and has made it his mission to be a voice of progressive change in the church.
Liberal Christianity’s Irony
Progressive Christianity has questioned many, if not all, of the historical and traditional beliefs of the Church such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. According to Bishop Spong, we should view these foundational beliefs as legends or myth (in the sense of folklore) at best. Christianity, if it has hopes of continuing, must jettison the traditional views and instead move forward with a more modern and scientific mindset.
This assumes, of course, that science and faith are at odds. They aren’t, and so neither precludes the other. But that’s a different post.
Spong’s mission, at least in the Episcopal church at large and in other mainline denominations, has been successful—at least with regards to seeing change. It has not been so successful in bringing more vitality and vibrancy to the faith. In fact, trends in these more theologically liberal denominations seem to demonstrate the opposite—the mainline church is dying.
In his recent article, Can Liberal Christianity be Saved, Ross Douthat picks up on the irony between Spong’s words and their fruit. I recommend reading the article, but I’m giving away the ending anyways:
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.
Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
While on a purely logical and statistical basis we must remember that correlation does not equal causation, there does seem to be a story behind the statistics begging to get out. Paul himself wrote,
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17). It seems that many within these theologically progressive denominations find these words to be true, and so they are leaving in record numbers. Why follow a religion devoted to a book whose very point and story-line you reject? To give the same example from a different sphere of life: it’s as if someone argues vociferously that he really is part of the republican party while refusing to vote for anything that deviated from the democratic talking points.
Of course, we would also be mistaken if we offered these statistics as proof of the validity of historic Christianity. That would be begging the question. But, if historic Christianity is true (as I hold that it is), these trends make sense. But here’s the good news for these denominations and the answer to Douthat’s titular question: these denominations can absolutely be saved.
Death and Salvation
The same way that theologically conservative denominations can be saved. Or Democrats. Or Republicans. Or pastors. Or businessmen. Repent of our sins and believe the gospel. The good news for these progressive denominations is that the Bible presents death as the prerequisite to salvation (Mark 8:34-35, Ephesians 2:1-5), and these main-line denominations do appear to be headed towards death.
And so, it seems that just as Bishop Spong was half-successful in his mission, he was also half-correct in his mission. Christianity, or rather what is soon to be claimed under the banner of Christ, must die—to sin and to self. What Christianity proper cannot do, valid contextual adaptation notwithstanding, is change. Christianity has, after all, the faith
once for all entrusted to God’s holy people (Jude 3).
- See also another book written by Bishop Spong, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born. Of course, by linking to these books, I am not giving endorsement to their contents. ↩