Thursday, October 19, 2006

Bishop Spong at Millsaps

There is a lot of advertising for and not a little local angst over the appearance of quirky and controversial retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong's visit to Millsaps tomorrow night. Spong is the liberals' answer to hellfire and brimstone! He is also something of a cartoon.

At any rate, his basic message is that "Christianity must change or die" - by which he means, our only hope for the future is to embrace his kind of liberalism. Now this is not a new or original message (it's been hanging around since Schleiermacher), but the suggestion itself is now quite empirically laughable, especially since we have witnessed in our lifetime the total collapse and implosion of theological liberalism. The churches that were once full and adopted theological liberalism are now empty and dead- surviving on endowments and preaching to no one.

And just about everyone recognizes this. Charlotte Allen (Catholicism editor for Beliefnet), wrote in the Los Angeles Times this summer:

"When a church doesn't take itself seriously, neither do its members. It is hard to believe that as recently as 1960, members of mainline churches (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and the like) accounted for 40% of all American Protestants. Today, it's more like 12% (17 million out of 135 million). Some of the precipitous decline is due to lower birthrates among the generally blue-state mainliners, but it also is clear that millions of mainline adherents (and especially their children) have simply walked out of the pews never to return. According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, in 1965, there were 3.4 million Episcopalians; now, there are 2.3 million. The number of Presbyterians fell from 4.3 million in 1965 to 2.5 million today. Compare that with 16 million members reported by the Southern Baptists.

"When your religion says "whatever" on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it's a short step to deciding that one of the things you don't want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

"It doesn't help matters that the mainline churches were pioneers in ordaining women to the clergy, to the point that 25% of all Episcopal priests these days are female, as are 29% of all Presbyterian [PCUSA] pastors, according to the two churches. A causal connection between a critical mass of female clergy and a mass exodus from the churches, especially among men, would be difficult to establish, but is it entirely a coincidence? Sociologist Rodney Stark ("The Rise of Christianity") and historian Philip Jenkins ("The Next Christendom") contend that the more demands, ethical and doctrinal, that a faith places upon its adherents, the deeper the adherents' commitment to that faith. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which preach biblical morality, have no trouble saying that Jesus is Lord, and they generally eschew women's ordination. The churches are growing robustly, both in the United States and around the world.

"Despite the fact that median Sunday attendance at Episcopal churches is 80 worshipers, the Episcopal Church, as a whole, is financially equipped to carry on for some time, thanks to its inventory of vintage real estate and huge endowments left over from the days (no more!) when it was the Republican Party at prayer. Furthermore, it has offset some of its demographic losses by attracting disaffected liberal Catholics and gays and lesbians.

". . . As for the rest of the Episcopalians, the phrase "deck chairs on the Titanic" comes to mind.

"So this is the liberal Christianity that was supposed to be the Christianity of the future: disarray, schism, rapidly falling numbers of adherents, a collapse of Christology and national meetings that rival those of the Modern Language Assn. for their potential for cheap laughs. And they keep telling the Catholic Church that it had better get with the liberal program (ordain women, bless gay unions and so forth) or die. Sure."

Allen is right. Liberalism has long said: "The Gospel no longer reaches our sophisticated culture, so we need to change the message in order to preserve Christianity." Not suprisingly, Liberalism is now quite dead, while the Church and the Gospel are alive and well and growing.

Meanwhile, many evangelicals have decided that we need to change our methods, but not the message, in order to reach our culture (and yet they have failed to recognize how their new methods have changed the message). Consequently, wherever the message has been compromised, death is setting in.

That's why we at First Presbyterian Church and in the PCA and in the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals are concerned to say that Christ has promised to build his church. He has given us the message (the Gospel; the old, old story) and the method (the church and the means of grace) and he bids us to be faithful - that's all. Ride on, King Jesus!


Ken Pierce said...


The sad thing about old Jack is that he grew up in evangelical Southern Presbyterianism.

Dim gold, indeed!


barlow said...

Spong has one of the finest minds..... of the 19th century.