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The Fall Into Liberal Protestantism

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
December 1, 2006

Raymond J. KeatingWhat is liberal Protestantism?

In response to this question, perhaps some think of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's remark regarding hard-core pornography - "I know it when I see it." We seem to know liberal Protestantism when we see or hear it, but an exact definition can be elusive or slightly off the mark.

I wrote a newspaper column recently about a parish that is leaving the Episcopal Church USA due to that denomination's long drift away from traditional Christian beliefs and morals. Two e-mail I received protesting my point can be instructive.

One e-mailer proclaimed: "History and society progress, and the 'moral relativism and social activism' you decry is society's progress and evolution towards greater understanding of the lives we lead now ... In the past, Jesus welcomed those considered to be outcasts and sinners into his embrace. In the present, we are learning that homosexuality is another facet of the beautiful jewel of God's sexuality."

The second came from an Episcopal priest. He wrote in part that the "overwhelming majority" of congregations in that particular part of the country "are adhering to the doctrine, discipline and theological teachings of the Church as understood by our bishops." Hmm, "as understood by our bishops"? What exactly would those "doctrine, discipline and theological teachings" be? He went on to declare: "We believe that the ordination of women, the consecration of an openly-gay bishop and the election of a female presiding bishop to speak volumes about the unconditional love and inclusivity of God -- the God who lived, died and rose from the grave for all people ('nations')."

These e-mail serve as clear examples of liberal Protestantism. But how do we get from such statements to a definition? Well, a conference held at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Abington, Pennsylvania, on November 18 offered an answer.

The gathering was hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Confessing Fellowship, and featured two speakers - Dr. Robert Benne, the director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College in Virginia, and the Rev. Mark Chavez, director of Word Alone and the Lutheran Coalition for Reform (CORE).

Prior to the speakers, however, there was a brief worship service in Holy Trinity's nave, which is quite striking in its simplicity. Worshipers sang a beautiful hymn - written by Kile Smith and Michael Tavella, the pastor at Holy Trinity - titled "The Word of God." Two stanzas were particularly fitting for the topic at hand:

The Word of God on sacred page
The Lord breathed out for us to hear
The teaching true that makes us sage
Rejects the lies that would mislead
But, most of all, we learn there-in
Christ's saving pow'r, release from sin
Christ's saving pow'r, release from sin
The Word of God on sacred page

The Word of God spreads far and near
Through apostolic ministry
To friend and neighbor who will hear
Glad tidings that set captives free
The Church receives the Spirit's pow'r
To render service in this hour
To render service in this hour
The Word of God spreads far and near

Liberal Protestants would seem to prefer that these two aspects of Christianity just go away. They are uncomfortable with the notion that the Lord "breathed out" the Word of God on "sacred page." After all, that implies a timelessness and permanency. As for "sin," and therefore the need for "Christ's saving pow'r," that can appear darn judgmental and narrow-minded. Christ's instruction to "go, and from now on sin no more" (John 8:11) is ignored.

They are equally discomforted by the mission of spreading the Word of God "far and near," as that would imply that Christianity is somehow true while the beliefs others might hold are not. That's rather non-inclusive. After all, the liberal Protestant might say, don't we all worship the same God, and aren't there many paths to God?

As we shall see, it turns out liberal Protestants are far less interested in truth and unity when it comes to theology and salvation, but far more impassioned about other endeavors.

Dr. Benne spoke on "The Drift of the ELCA into Liberal Protestantism," followed by Rev. Chavez, who gave a rundown on efforts to avoid this drift within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States.

Benne not only is the author of several excellent books, but ranks as an engaging and insightful speaker. He confessed to being a "recovering liberal Protestant," noting that he had been caught up in the liberal movement of the early 1960s and the idea that the church's role was to overcome society's ills, such as racism and poverty. However, as matters turned more bizarre, turbulent and radical, Benne told of his own reconsideration, not only on economic, political and cultural issues, but also in terms of theology. Benne said he came to realize that the church's calling was to proclaim the Gospel, not to be the means of cultural transformation.

So there was his break with liberal Protestantism. How so?

Fortunately, Benne proceeded to systematically lay out a clear definition of liberal Protestantism, and he used a helpful diagram of concentric circles.

At the core is the "Christ Event," as Benne put it. These are the fundamentals - the classical faith that cannot change and should be shared by Christians. It should serve as the focal point where Christians gather.

Stepping out to the next ring are social ethics, which can change or be debated. For example, Benne noted that Martin Luther was against capitalism and democracy, while the superiority of such systems is widely acknowledged today.

And then the final step out to the farthest ring is to public policies, where there can be and is much disagreement among Christians.

Benne points out that liberal Protestants are far more dogmatic on social ethics and public policy, than they are about the core of the faith. It is the social ethics and public policies that they find interesting, while being "squishy" on the Christian core. Of course, he is quite right.

He went on to highlight that the big concerns in liberal Protestantism lie in the areas of racism, sexism, diversity, and imperialism (i.e., the U.S. as the big bad empire in the world). So-called "social sins" replaced personal ethics.

But Benne astutely pointed out that this focus becomes divisive. As the church moves away from the core, it does not create unity, but instead creates further conflict among Christians.

Benne summed up that liberal Protestantism is guided by feelings and social ethics into the "social gospel." But a Christian should understand that "there is no social gospel, only the Gospel."

So, where's the ELCA in light of this definition of liberal Protestantism? According to Benne, Christian doctrine is negotiable, but lefty positions on matters such as race, sex (no more masculine pronouns or images, please), abortion, diversity, and U.S. foreign policy cannot be challenged.

So, can the ELCA's slide into liberal Protestantism be stopped or even reversed?

There always is hope if one trusts in the Holy Spirit. Chavez called for a three-pronged strategy. First, quite simply, is prayer. He spoke of the need to pray for the church leadership, for each other, and for reformers who find themselves in difficult circumstances.

Second, Chavez urged traditionalists to network. He noted that far too many are "isolated in the ELCA." That goes for many in other denominations facing similar troubles as well. He added that small groups that are organized often have a big impact.

And finally, he urged people to participate in the ELCA decision-making process. He noted that many orthodox pastors and parishes prefer to ignore national church problems, and therefore do not get involved in the process. This phenomenon persists in a variety of churches. But such isolationism will only ensure the slide into liberal Protestantism continues and even accelerates.

Some take solace in the notion that while the church leadership might have succumbed to liberal Protestantism, those in the pews are traditional Christians. If that is the case now, for how long will it persist? Benne was correct to point out that the elite level eventually will affect the grassroots level.

In the ELCA, at least, all is not lost. Rev. Chavez noted crucial steps that are being taken to pull together all confessional, biblical Lutherans, to challenge the ELCA leadership when necessary, to prepare both pastoral and lay leaders for the future, and to "demand and expect" orthodoxy.

Christians can disagree on a wide range of issues that lie in the rings of social ethics and public policy. The church's responsibility is to stay focused on the Christian core, and only stray into those outer rings when there is a clear biblically-rooted, moral imperative. Shifting the church's focus away from the core and to a divisive agenda of social and political activism is a hallmark of liberal Protestantism, and a gross abdication of responsibility regarding the true mission of the church.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report."

This column is from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report," which also includes "Christians, the Middle East and Israel," "Hell and Charles Williams," and takes on the movies "Happy Feet," "Casino Royale," and "The Nativity Story," as well as the television show "Bones." To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Posted: 05-Dec-06

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