Monday, June 1, 2015

Who Holds the Future of Christianity?

I came across this article the other day, and I think it forces us to ask an important question. The author is liberal Catholic Damon Linker, and he has a perspective that I find intriguing. His article comes with a question, and though it is an implicit one, he provides his own answer. Does the future of Christianity belong to its liberal or conservative iterations? Linker suggests that it more fully belongs to liberal Christians like him, and he uses as evidence the recent decision of the people of Ireland to vote overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing homosexual “marriage.” The vote has been something of a shock, considering Ireland’s historic ties to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). However, there are growing numbers of liberal Catholics like Linker (and liberal members of other traditions) who are bucking old forms and calling for changes to the doctrines and practices of their religion.

The Embarrassing Demographics

There is some embarrassment owing from this, however. In spite of liberal openness to popular appeals, such as celebration for homosexual relationships (or sinful relationships of whatever stripe), female ordination, and wealth redistribution, liberal churches are dying. A study recently released by the Pew Forum shows that over the past seven years, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian declined sharply. The drop among evangelical Protestants was quite small, and they actually increased in real numbers. Catholics dipped a bit more. But the greatest loss was experienced by mainline Protestant churches. And keep in mind, this was not a study of church attendance, but of self-identification. It says nothing about who goes to what church most often (yet alone whether they have real faith), but about who says they still belong to what church. As you can see in this study from Gallup, Catholics and mainline Protestants are also not keeping up with evangelicals when it comes to getting people through the doors on a regular basis.

When you add ideological spectrums to the mix, the results can become even more confusing. The most liberal churches are generally assumed to be the mainline Protestant ones. After that, Catholics are probably the most liberal. Certainly the hierarchy of the RCC, along with most of the rest of its local leadership, are more conservative. So are many of its lay adherents. But there is undeniably a strain, particularly among the young, who are moving away from its traditional beliefs. This is also true among evangelical Protestants, but in the smallest numbers, which is why they are considered the most conservative. So if we were to draw a line, Mainlines would be on the left, Catholics in the middle, and Evangelicals on the right. Obviously it is oversimplified, but useful enough for our purposes. Make that line a seesaw, and it is like there is no one sitting on the left side. How can this be, when the social goals and the moral teachings of liberal Christians are becoming so dominant in Western culture?

Defining Liberal Christianity

This is the question Linker tries to answer, and he begins by defining what liberal Christianity is. I do not believe it was his intention, but he does so along the way. He tells his readers at one point that

The movement for gay marriage appeals to the ideal of equality — and the ideal of equality originated with Jesus Christ…. This doesn't mean anything as crude as the view that "Christ wants gay marriage." But it does mean… we live in a culture in which reformers who successfully claim the mantle of equality inevitably triumph…. Equality always wins. And when it does, the victory is in a very real sense a triumph for the moral teachings of Jesus Christ, whether or not the reformers view their efforts in religious terms. No institution — not even a church founded in Christ's name— can withstand the subversive power of his message.

The thesis of this comment and the larger context from which it is drawn suggests that the teachings of Jesus Christ can ultimately be reduced to a call for equality. I do not believe for a moment that Linker would call that the only message of Jesus, but he does treat it like the most important one. It is difficult to conclude anything other than that Linker believes Jesus’ purpose in coming was to teach us how to be equal. And Linker is not alone. That push for equality is the most identifiable element of all liberal Christians. It is the thing that joins them together, whether they are Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, or whatever else. Their greatest concern is social justice, the effort to make everyone equal.

Now you may be wondering, “Is Stanley actually about to criticize equality? Has he gone completely out of his mind with legalistic zeal?” No. Well, I don’t think so, but I could be wrong. My issue with liberal Christianity, though, is not that it calls for equality, because that is an unquestionable element of the teachings of Christ and His apostles. Jesus did in fact say “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). And Paul said “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). So I do not have a problem with equality. But I have a problem with the liberal appeal for equality. As I see it, there are at least two issues to confront.


First of all, not only is equality merely one element of Jesus’ ministry, but it is also a secondary one. Recognizing the equality of all people comes from and points us to deeper truths. For one, we ought to love each other. An extension of this is that we ought to seek justice, which I will get into in a bit. But learning to love each other comes from first recognizing the love of God for us. His love is stunning precisely because we do not deserve it (Romans 3:23), but He offers it anyway. That, showing that love, was the primary reason Jesus came to this earth. We are all sinners, rebels against God, who deserve punishment. But rather than leave us to the consequences of our actions, God sent His Son to tell us that we need to repent of our evils (Mark 1:15) and accept His forgiveness; forgiveness that is only available because Jesus bore the penalty for our sins when He died on the cross (John 3:14-18). Jesus’ mission was to call us to and provide us with salvation. Equality comes in because He makes the offer to all, rich or poor, black or white, man or woman, and regardless of whether the sin is lying, homosexuality, theft, murder, or whatever else. We are all human, all in need of grace, and we can all have it through Jesus Christ. And that is the heart of Jesus’ moral teaching on equality. It is not that equality is the highest good we can achieve. In fact, He promises us we cannot achieve it (John 12:8).

So then, liberal Christians give equality an improper primacy of place when they should be busy preaching repentance instead. But as you may have already noted, they distort the meaning of equality. As Jesus spoke of it, equality is a matter of Justice. All the members of humanity are deserving of certain things on the basis of being human. The rich man is not better than the poor one just because of his wealth. The man is not better than the woman just as a result of his physiology. And no one has a right to harm anyone else just because he has the power. But it goes farther than that. Our equality also means we are all in the same boat. We are all deserving of judgment because we all disobey God, follow our own whims, and hurt others in the process. We are all equal in that we cannot claim a special exemption for our own favorite faults while condemning others for theirs. And finally, we cannot escape consequences and demand what belongs to others merely because they have it and we want it in spite of realities that preclude us from it.


Most liberal Christians would be aghast at this. Its implications would be that cohabiting couples and homosexuals would not have a right to the benefits of marriage, that the poor would not have a right to the wealth of the rich, and that women would not have a right to manhood (and vice versa). They could accuse me of standing in the way of equality, regardless of my previous claims. But to do so would miss the point. I am not opposed to equality, properly understood. I am opposed to sameness. I am opposed to sameness because I am a realist who understands that an absolute leveling of conditions is impossible. A same-sex relationship cannot possess the complementarity of the natural conjugal union. By nature, women are capable of some things men are not, and the reverse is also true. And the poor are poor because of an unknowable number of factors and because of their own choices, not just because the rich will not share. I could have been a doctor or a lawyer, but I chose a different path and my earning potential is definitely less as a result. Does that mean Bill Gates needs to cut me a check? No! I mean, sure, if he wants to, that would be great, but he does not owe me what he has earned, and I do not envy him. I have equal dignity to him without having the same amount of money in my bank account. To try to make everybody the same is impossible and unnatural. As a result, it is unjust. Therefore, it is actually an assault against the equality Christ teaches, rather than an outgrowth of it.

With all this in mind, then, we can understand what liberal Christianity is. It is the effort to distort sameness into equality, and then to make equality the prime virtue. And that, at long last, leads us back to the question of the demographic death of liberal Christianity. It is so confusing because the values of liberal Christians coincide with those of secular culture. They both want sameness, and they are both excited to see the advances of social justice causes like marriage “equality,” gender “equality,” and wealth “equality.” So why can’t those churches fill the pews?

Explaining the Demographics

Linker’s suggestion is that liberal churches are the victims of their own success. The more victorious they are in the culture wars, the less need there is for them. As society continues to share the goals of liberal Christian moralism, it no longer needs its institutions. Spirituality can become formless and nameless, indistinct from the culture at large that shares its vision. This would be one possible explanation for the statistics that show a decrease in the membership of liberal churches and an increase in the number of people who say they have no affiliation (or “nones”). People are not leaving liberal churches because they are dissatisfied with them, but because they are so satisfied with them. In a sense, it is like saying liberal Christianity’s job is done, so it can ride off into the sunset.

I would agree with Linker’s evaluation, but not with his conclusion that it is a positive development. For one thing, it is quite bold to say that Western society has been following the lead of liberal Christianity. Generally, those churches are behind the times and catching up to whatever calls for “equality” are being made by secular people. For lack of a better term, I would call Linker’s claim revisionist history. Liberal congregations are not shrinking because the culture is following them and heeding their advice. They are shrinking because they are following the culture and heeding its demands.

Which, I cannot stress enough, is a VERY BAD THING. The followers of Christ are not supposed to be a mirror for the world. We are not supposed to be people that nonbelievers can look at, recognize themselves in, and be coddled into complacency by. Christianity is inherently countercultural. The message of the cross is that we are broken and a heavy price had to be paid to fix us. That message is not a welcome one, because it requires one response: admitting you have done something wrong, committing to Jesus, and turning away from your sins. And who wants to do that? Who wants to admit that they are evil? Who wants to acknowledge that Jesus has the right to convict him of his sins, or that Jesus is the only one who can fix him? And who wants to agree they need fixing? Deep down everyone knows something is wrong, but facing that reality is difficult. Christians have gone through that process, and we are supposed to be a living reminder to everyone else of their need to do the same. That is why Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth” (Mathew 5:13). Salt can be unpleasant to taste, but we need it. And, if used correctly, it adds to flavor. If salt wasn’t salty, it would be worthless. A Christianity that is not distinct from the world, a Christianity that can just disappear into the culture, is not doing anyone any good. It is just a rubber stamp for those who refuse to turn to God as He instructs them to do (John 14:6; Matthew 28:18-20).

Of course, the truth of this does not guarantee the continued growth of so-called conservative Christianity. Quite the opposite may be true, not because we stand in the way of “equality,” but because we teach equality properly understood. Our message, the full message of the Gospel, is never popular. It is too challenging to be popular. It is too good at reminding people of their flaws and their need to have Jesus make them new. Most people do not want to be made new, they want to be able to make themselves. And then to top it off, they want to be happy with the result. Well, God lets them make their choices, but the consequences go according to His perfect standard, and the result will not be a happy one for anyone who denies Jesus Christ.

That is a hard truth. It is an unpopular truth. It is a truth that may lead to a stagnation in the size of the Church. But it is still the truth, and there will always be people to say it. In fact, Christians are consistently encouraged to suffer unpopularity and worse as a sign that we are on the right track (Matthew 5:11, 12; John 15:18-25; Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2, 3; 1 Peter 2:11, 12; 1 Peter 3:13-17). All in all, it means we are following the example of our Lord and Savior, who suffered the world’s hatred for us and allowed Himself to be put to death by the iniquitous so He could rescue those who turn to Him. We look to the cross, not the culture, and that timeless message cannot be conquered by any wind or wave of popular opinion.

The Future of Christianity

Having established all of this, how do we answer our question? Does the future of Christianity belong to the liberals, or to the conservatives? So far as I can foresee, I believe the answer is that it belongs to both. Christianity is not going anywhere. And there will always be liberals who will refuse to confront the world, instead looking to compromise with it. That is nothing new. But their capitulation will inspire boldness in those who refuse to water down the truth, as there have always been. Eventually, yes, one side will be victorious. When Christ returns, He will reward those who continued to challenge the world rather than joining hands with it and celebrating its faults. But until then, I guarantee we will have each other. And it will always be a part of my mission to point out where lukewarm Christians are failing so they might turn back. Then, hopefully, we will return to our proper calling of letting the world know it needs a Savior, not an leveler. 

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