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Theological Liberalism In Free Fall

Category Articles
Date August 24, 2006

The “Los Angeles Times” (July 10) ran an article on the erosion of membership in theologically liberal Protestant denominations in America. The article revealed this startling statistic: In 1960, the mainline Protestant denominations had 40% of American Protestants as members. Today, they have 12%. LA Times article

The Episcopal Church USA is hanging on because of the existence of large but shrinking endowments: dead men’s chests. The Presbyterian Church USA has no comparable level of endowments. Headquarters has had to cut its budget once again , the third cut in four years. The author has identified the problem: a lack of commitment by the laity to a church whose leaders are not committed to traditional theology.

Liberal church historian Winthrop Hudson saw what was coming as far back as 1953 in his book, “The Great Tradition of the American Churches.” Theological liberalism sought an accommodation with liberal humanism and its doctrine of the family of man. He wrote: “The church could and should be a center of fellowship which would give visible expression to the fundamental unity of mankind. The problem was to get the people into the church so that the oneness of humanity , the brotherhood of man – might be made evident to the community at large. Discipline, of course, could be relaxed. An indiscriminate welcome into the fellowship of the church could be extended to all members of the community. The errant and the wayward need not be excluded from the fold.” That meant a relaxation of Church discipline. “But the relaxation of discipline in itself would scarcely draw people into the church’s fellowship” (p. 214).

I wrote the following in my 1996 book, “Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church.” People will not commit themselves strongly to a voluntary organization whose creed and goals cannot easily be readily distinguished from other institutions. The more that the humanists inside the Church re-position the Church to reflect respectable humanist opinion outside the Church, the more that outsiders see no compelling reason to join the Church, and the more that its youth see no compelling reason to return after college or marriage. The Church, structurally, as designed by God to be on the offensive: a light to the world. When it loses this light because it is no brighter than the world, it no longer has a unique service proposition to offer. Attrition then takes over. Salt without savor is fit only for grinding underfoot.Crossed Fingers

Ever since 1965, we have seen the ecclesiastical results of theological liberalism: the membership erosion of the mainline Protestant denominations. Secular liberals no longer pay much attention to the mainline Protestant denominations. Secular liberals regard the only meaningful sacrament as voting. Because the mainliners have lost members, they have lost political influence. Secular liberals therefore have steadily lost interest in any “dialog” with Protestant mainliners because (1) there is nothing to dialog about; (2) the mainliners can no longer deliver the votes.

From about 1875/76 – the overnight spread of biblical higher criticism – until the late twentieth century, the Protestant battle was over theological liberalism vs. orthodoxy. That battle has just about ended.

The liberals always needed money and legitimacy supplied by orthodox members of their denominations. Theological liberalism was never self-funded. The supreme example of this was the departure of the liberals from Concordia Seminary of St. Louis in 1974. They set up Seminex: Seminary in Exile. Seminex shut its doors in 1987.

The leadership of the Southern Baptist movement has steadily been removing liberals from the movement’s seminaries ever since the liberal walkout from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1990. That event was the culmination of the single most important re-capture by theological conservatives in the twentieth century. Judge Paul Pressler and Dr. Paige Patterson began planning that reversal around 1977. It was a fait accompli by 1990, right on schedule.

The worldwide growth of Protestant Christianity is now quite rapid, as reported in “The Next Christendom” (2000) by Philip Jenkins. Theological liberals are not part of this development. Basically, it’s all over but the shouting. Theological liberalism has not quite reached room temperature, but it is comatose.

It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch of guys/gals/undecideds.

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