Three Lessons from the Decline of Mainstream Protestantism

I posted Ross Douthat’s essay on the decline of liberal Christianity, and Diana Butler Bass’s response. Over at First Thoughts, Timothy George weighs in with an evangelical pespective on Douthat’s essay.

What are evangelicals to make of these developments?  Here are three lessons.

1. There is an intrinsic connection between spiritual vitality and theological integrity.  The debate over homosexual practices within the mainline denominations is not the root cause but only the presenting issue in the devolution Ross Douthat has described so well.  At the heart of this issue is a broken doctrine of biblical authority, a loss of confidence in the primary documents of the Christian faith…

2. The continuing saga and approaching collapse of mainline denominations should prompt us to pray.  Within each of the mainline denominations, there are many faithful believers who have not “bowed the knee to Baal.”  Often they face harassment, discrimination, and litigation.  Pray that they will remain faithful in the face of such assaults, and pray that they will find communities of love and support in what for many will be an increasingly isolated position.  Some impatient evangelicals on the outside may be tempted to say, “Well, why don’t you just leave?”  But breaking with the church in which one has been nurtured in the faith, often from childhood, can be like abandoning one’s mother.  Like marriage, according to the Book of Common Prayer, such a decision should not be made unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in the fear of God.

3. Evangelicals have no room to boast or gloat over the “sickness unto death” in the mainlines.  The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two largest denominations in North America.  Significantly, both groups have resisted pressures for theological accommodation in recent decades.  But both face stresses and conflicts of their own, including some of the same temptations that beset mainline Protestants a generation ago.   Among progressive Roman Catholics and some evangelicals today the temptation is to imitate the fading ethos of liberal Protestantism, in reaction to “authoritarian” dogma, “conservative” politics, or both.  In both cases, the motive is often apologetic if not evangelistic:  to win over religion’s “cultured despisers” to a kind of vague neo-spirituality.  While the intention may be worthy, the results are likely to be disastrous: a social Gospel that is all social and no Gospel; a church which has nothing to say that secular elites have not already said, and usually said better; a horizontal faith with a penchant for the instantaneous and the disconnected but with no confidence in the overarching storyline of God’s redemptive love from creation to consummation.  The trajectory from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Shelby Spong is a well-worn path.  As Peter Berger once said, “He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.”


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