074 The Empty Church Explained: Destructive Liberalism Self-Destructing

the EMPTY CHURCH explained:


For two centuries various forms of liberalism have pervasively (and, some think, perversely) shaped the world. Rooted in the French Revolution’s ideology (liberty, equality, fraternity), leaching out from political theory and action into contiguous cultural realms, liberalism’s currents have sculpted modernity. Though constantly critiqued, the damning evidence demonstrating liberalism’s flaws has slowly accumulated. It rather confirms Carl Jung’s observation that societies can resist germ-rooted epidemics which threaten physical health, but they have no defenses with which to withstand “diseases of the mind.”

For Christians, this message emerges clearly in the pages of The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity (New York: The Free Press, c. 1996), by Thomas C. Reeves. A professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, as well as Senior Fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Reeves is also an actively involved Episcopalian layman who is distressed at the plight of his own church. He’s further concerned, as a historian, because, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, in Democracy in America, “There is hardly any human action, however particular it may be, that does not originate in some very general idea men have conceived of the Deity, of his relation to mankind, of the nature of their own souls, and of their duties to their fellow creatures. Nor can anything prevent these ideas from being the common spring from which all the rest emanates” (quoted on p. x). The condition of the churches, underlying the nation’s spiritual superstructure.

Thus Reeves worries not only about the mainline churches, whose atrophy he documents. He’s concerned for generations to come. In distressing ways, the mainline churches–the American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians (USA), the United Church of Christ., and the United Methodists, the “seven sisters” of American Protestantism–appear hopelessly lost. For one thing, they’ve dramatically lost members–Methodists alone have watched 1,000 members a week depart for 30 years. While common folks vacate the pews, denominational elites persistently pursue policies which drive them away! For example, the United Methodist Board for Church and Society spent (in 199S) $2.5 million to subsidize a staff of 40 folks in Washington, D.C., who, “‘Like fossils trapped in amber” boldly champion “yesterdays’ causes by calling for an unlimited welfare state, praising Fidel Castro’s Cuba, urging global U.S. military withdrawal, bemoaning the revival of free market economics, and affirming, of all things, the sexual revolution”‘ (pp. 14-15).

As in so many other areas, the transformation of the mainline churches appeared in the 196O’s. Before that decade, old-line “liberal” churches continued to function nicely and retain their members’ loyalties. Between 1965 and 1975, however, a precipitous decline occurred. The “hippies” and anti-war protesters in the streets had their counterparts (or compatriots) in seminary halls and denominational headquarters. The struggle for civil rights in the broader culture also elicited a strong commitment to racial justice in mainline churches. As the Martin Luther King Jr. approach to racial justice waned, however, more militant spokesmen made their case. “Black Power” militants like James Foreman issued manifestos and demanded “reparations” from mainline churches. Mainliners, while rarely granting the funds demanded, philosophically acquiesced to the accusations! A World Council of Churches conference, “chaired by the Democratic Senator George McGovern, urged church support for ‘guerrilla fighters’ and ‘resistance movements, including revolutions, which are aimed at the elimination of political or economic tyranny that makes racism possible”‘ (p. 139). McGovern soon ran for President, and while losing the election permanently transformed the very nature of the Democratic Party. His supporters, when they turned to the churches, did much the same, re-molding them into social reform pressure-groups, intent on imposing their ideals wherever opportunities allowed.

Walking through doors opened by racial minorities’ civil rights’ claims, women also demanded clergy positions historically reserved for men. For three decades, Liberal churches sought to avoid any stigma of “sexism” or “fundamentalism” and thus carried the torch for women’s ordination. By 1980, radical feminists pushed for “unisex” language and successfully engineered “inclusive language” translations of Scripture, hymns and liturgy. Soon God was addressed as “Mother,” and many activists objected to Jesus being called the “Son of God.” In time, , “In 1984, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City displayed a four-foot bronze statue of the Crucifixion featuring a Christa, not the Christus, complete with undraped breasts and rounded hips” (p. 148).

Gays and lesbians also joined the chorus, demanding entry into ministerial positions. With Unitarians and Quakers setting the pitch, denominations such as the United Church of Christ now openly endorse homosexual activity and “marriage,” equating it with heterosexual unions. Traditional Christian standards have been subverted, and at Harvard University’s Divinity School, one student reports that “pluralism” reigns to the extent that Christianity is widely regarded as the worst of world religions. “The new slur, like being ‘homophobic,’ is being ‘Christocentric”‘ (p- 17). In the midst of such activity, what the denominational elites (trained in leftist-dominated seminaries such as Harvard) ignore is the abiding common sense of common people. Whereas the elites champion “moral relativism,” Gallup polls regularly reveal that ordinary Americans have held to some constants during the past 50 years. They think religion is important and believe it should rightly influence public affairs. An “English sociologist, David Martin, has cited the International Values Survey to conclude that ‘we are mostly agreed about good and bad.’ He observed, ‘People are, it seems, adamantly opposed to lying, stealing, cheating, coveting, killing, and dishonoring their parents”‘ (p. 59). While mainline seminary professors and denominational boards propound sexual permissiveness, one national study shows that “91 percent of the American People think extramarital affairs are bad and that. the overwhelming percentage of married people remain faithful)” (p. 60).

More importantly, mainline churches, have ceased proclaiming any supernaturally revealed, eternally certain “truth.” Here they’ve simply joined the general drift of the regnant academic culture. The author of Psychology as Religion, Paul C., Vitz, a New York University psychologist, highlights the problem in these words: “Deconstructionists have powerfully argued that no written text has any fixed meaning, that all interpretation lies in the beholder; and thus we see individual moral relativism being advocated at the highest intellectual levels. Values clarification for the kids; deconstruction for graduate students. Meanwhile, feminists, gay and lesbian advocates, and other minority groups are arguing that all truth (especially morality) is ideological” (quoted on p. 5).

When you have nothing to say, why say it? When you have no “truth” beyond your personal opinion, why would anyone care to listen? “Weigh the benefits,” Reeves says: “Sunday with the family at the beach or in church listening to a sermon in AIDS; working for overtime wages or enduring pious generalities about ‘dialoging,’ ‘inclusiveness,’ and ‘sharing and caring’; studying for exams or hearing that the consolations and promises of the Bible are not ‘really’ or ‘literally’ true; entering a race to raise funds for disadvantaged children or sitting through pleas for federal health insurance; shopping at the mall or hearing about the wickedness of antiabortion demonstrators; reading the newspaper or being harangued about racism and sexism” (p. 172).

Obviously, most reasonable folks opt for better things and drop out of church! Standing firm, however, “Fundamentalist” and “Evangelical” and “Conservative” churches have not only survived but prospered. Conservative Roman Catholic orders and parishes, Southern Baptists, and Pentecostals have steadily grown. Admittedly, they lack the avant garde sophistication of their liberal rivals. They’re outside the “mainline” but clearly attuned to the spiritual hungers of the “silent majority.” Decades ago, Dean Kelley showed, in Why Conservative Churches are Growing, why the frequently maligned “fundamentalists” and “holy rollers” and “Bible-thumpers” have succeeded while old-line churches have failed. They have clear convictions, demand discipline in members, and confidently proclaim the inspired Word of God, not their own muted suggestions.

If there is any hope for the mainline churches–and Reeves sincerely hopes there is, for that’s one reason he’s written this book!–they must go to conservative Christian academies! No new doctrines are needed–liberals are simply wrong when they contend folks crave creative, innovative approaches and revolutionary rhetoric. Studies show that the folks attending conservative churches are in fact as well-educated and thoughtful as those still sitting in mainline sanctuaries., and they rejoice in the “old-time religion” with its “old-fashioned” doctrines. In fact, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds provide guidance for Christians, at all times and in all places. They simply need to be restored in their pristine purity. “The first and most critical step in halting the slide of the mainline churches is the restoration of their commitment to orthodox theology. Everything else depends upon that” (p. 175). Miraculous events–especially Jesus’ Incarnation, Transfiguration, and Resurrection–must be elevated to necessary items of faith.

To do so means these churches must establish new seminaries to train clergy–and devout Episcopalians have lately done precisely that. They must reject the devastating hermeneutics of Bultmann et al., which has shredded faith in the divinely-inspired Scriptures Liberal seminaries, at ease in their well-endowed, plushly furnished facilities, fixated “race, class, and gender,” locked up behind bars of higher criticism, will probably never change. They’ll just wither away like the eight-track tapes so popular in the ’60’s into predictable irrelevance.

Faithful priests and laymen, however, if they live out the Gospel, will renew the churches! Beyond renewed theological orthodoxy, churches must inculcate and demonstrate personal holiness! Such Christians, “these odd and disturbing people–will make every effort, for example, not to worship anything (including self) other than God, live for wealth or power, engage in illegal conduct, violate marriage vows, sanction abortion as a means of contraception, place their careers ahead of their spouses and children, exploit the poor (for money or for votes) condone violence and pornography, discriminate against anyone, cause needless suffering to any living creature, succumb to despair, or take great pride in their spiritual and charitable achievements” (pp. 181-182). Quite an assignment! Especially to “liberal” Christians who have grown accustomed to defining themselves in terms of political positions and politically correct pronouncements.

Such “odd and disturbing people” will also more effectively reach their own young people. “The failure of churches to reach out effectively to young people has had profound social ramifications, contributing to the apathy, demoralization, and violence of modern youth culture. The moral relativity taught in many liberal churches has also been destructive.” A Brown University scholar, concerned with the plight of modern youths, says the real problem is “‘the culture’s failure to provide children with what they need for their spiritual growth”‘ (p. 193). Were mainline churches to restore moral absolutes to their teaching and practices, young people might well find something worth heeding.

For all his longings, however, one senses in Reeve’s book a dark despair, an admission that liberal churches have in fact crossed a critical threshold and begun a slide which cannot be reversed. The great value of this book, therefore, is for those “evangelical” churches who may imagine certain “liberal” views and practices will enable them to better reach a secular world. Reeves’ simple word is: it’s been tried; it’s failed; don’t dare try it!

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Reeves’ historical documentation amply confirms the prophetic words of J. Gresham Machen 75 years ago, when he wrote Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, c. 1923). A renowned Princeton professor, a Greek scholar so able that his introductory text-book is still used in many colleges, Machen left (or was forced out) of Princeton Theological Seminary as liberals claimed control of that historically Reformed institution. With a handful of compatriots, he founded Westminister Theological Seminary, and is yet revered in conservative Calvinist circles. In Christianity and Liberalism Machen basically argues that you cannot conjoin those two words. If you’re a Christian, you’ll not be a Liberal; if you’re a Liberal, you’ll find it impossible to be truly Christian. With care, Machen defines his terms, and he insists that the “liberalism” he opposes is that purely naturalistic worldview which excludes miracles and denies traditional, distinctive Christian doctrines.

Generally speaking, theological Liberals care little for doctrine, except insofar as it provides targets to attack, and historic Christian beliefs in the Incarnation and Resurrection are generally assailed. From the movement’s acclaimed progenitor, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Liberals have inherited the insistence that personal experience and opinion is the ultimate authority in everyone’s religious life. Believe what appeals to you! After all, life, not doctrine, truly matters. To Liberals, who Jesus was hardly matters! What he taught may be instructive; what his followers thought may give us consolation. But Christolology matters little. On the contrary, Machen declares: “Let us not deceive ourselves. A Jewish teacher of the first century can never satisfy the longing of our souls. Clothe Him with all the art of modern research, throw upon Him the warm, deceptive-calcium-light of modern sentimentality; and despite it all common sense will come to its rights again, and for our brief hour of self-deception–as though we had been with Jesus–will wreak upon us the revenge of hopeless disillusionment.” (p. 41).

To Machen it really does matter Who God Is! Liberals benevolently assert the “universal fatherhood of God,” substituting their own Enlightenment-rooted, deistic humanitarianism for the primary truth of the New Testament. But the NT insists that God is, above all else, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who are rightly related to Christ thus know God as His Father. The God of Abraham and Moses, the great Law Giver, is also deleted from the Liberal text. Joining the ancient Macron (beloved by Liberals such as Harnack), modern Liberals have no patience with a God who is anything other than sentimental Love. Marcion’s approach to Scripture is adopted by Liberals as well. “Christianity,” Machen insists, “is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men” (p. 79). Though Machen is often labeled a “Fundamentalist,” he actually takes a “plenary” view of inspiration, insisting the Bible is without error in providing an “infallible rule of faith and practice” (p. 74).

Above all, Scripture reveals to us Christ. The great divide between Liberalism and Christianity centers on the nature of Jesus Christ. In Machen’s judgment, the NT unequivocally declares that Jesus was the God-man, fully God and fully man, miraculously entering our world to transform all who believe in Him. Liberals genuinely admire Jesus–along with Socrates, Confucius, and Martin Luther King Jr.–but they reject his deity. Since he was only a man, it follows, the many miracles attributed to him must be denied, for whoever claimed to see a good man like our kindly local pastor working miracles!

With Jesus reduced to a mere man, “salvation” becomes a process of man’s self-realization and perfection. To orthodox Christians, salvation comes solely from God, by grace, to us. To Liberals, “salvation” means attaining psychological wholeness and emotional health. Thus the Cross, in its “narrow,” “exclusive” message of atonement through the suffering Son of God, offends the true Liberal. As an example of a good man suffering for his friends, even dying to demonstrate Love, the Cross has powerful appeal. But to be “saved by the blood of the Lamb” makes no sense, for there is no Just Judge to be satisfied.

Consequently, Machen holds, theological Liberalism’s endeavor “to deny the necessity of atonement is to deny the existence of a real moral order. And it is strange how those who venture upon such denial can regarded themselves as disciples of Jesus; for one thing is clear in the record of Jesus’ life it is that Jesus recognized the justice, as distinguished from the love, of God” (p. 131). Paradoxically, while rejecting the message of salvation by Grace in an effort to escape a Righteous Judge and His Law, Liberals easily constructed their own form of legalism, typically espoused as the “Social Gospel” with its commitment to social reforms and political programs. Personal morality (especially sexual standards) and family ties (especially lifelong marital fidelity) were perhaps irrelevant, but working for the poor and oppressed, advocating the redistribution of wealth in a socialistic utopia, siding with various revolutionary movements around the world, quickly became the rigorous litmus test of Liberalism.

After assessing the prospects for the churches, Machen declares that Liberals who have infiltrated orthodox Christian communions should, if they have any integrity, depart and establish their own religious communities. Similarly, conservative Christians within denominations which have become basically Liberal should withdraw and form authentic communities of faith.

To read Reeves and Machen in the 1990’s proves instructive! Machen’s critics often scoffed at his dire warnings in the 1920’s, but much of what he said would transpire certainly did, as Reeves documents. To rightly respond to Liberalism, both men (though widely separated in many ways) concur: only a thoroughly traditional, orthodox, morally-rigorous Church will endure and help men and women find God.