The Development and Dangers of Mainline Denominational Pluralism
How did mainline denominational leadership stray from scriptural norms?
It is axiomatic: as the seminaries go, so goes the denomination. Since the late 1800s and early 1900s mainline seminaries were infected by three viruses – higher criticism, Darwinism, and German rationalism. As professors became convinced that Scripture could not be trusted, that Darwinism explained life, and that reason (not revelation) provided the source of truth, ministerial students were sent out into churches with the same infectious diseases which continue to debilitate the whole ecclesiastical body. These seminary graduates could not understand why their congregations were disturbed with this new thinking. Believers in the pews simply trusted what the Bible claimed for itself, and they rejected the substitution of human philosophy. The new pastors patronized them by using biblical terms -- but inwardly they filled these terms with different meanings. They were now enlightened, but simple folk in the pews just couldn’t understand what their pastors had come to learn from prestigious doctors of theology during their seminary experience. Most of these seminary graduates came to their ministerial training with confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture, but they left largely with only an empty shell of what they formerly believed.
Paul speaks directly to those seminary professors who have led astray those who came to them expecting the solid food of biblical theological education and a strengthening of their faith -- but receiving the straw of deceptive philosophy and a destruction of their faith. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principle of this world rather than on Christ.” Colossians 2:8. As teachers who claimed to be followers of Christ but were not, they will face greater condemnation when our Lord returns – not only disbelieving themselves but also influencing others to disbelieve also.
What was it that convinced simple folk in the pews to trust their Bibles?
Essentially it was what Scripture claimed for itself -- for example, the great text as found in II Timothy 3:12-17 -- Paul reminding Timothy: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking , correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” So many additional texts could be cited, but please note the powerful words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 24:35: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” If the biblical text is nothing but myth – a kind of pious fraud (the kind of “enlightened knowledge” taught in many mainline seminaries) – then the Church has been fed a lie throughout the centuries. Simple believers did not accept this, and a courageous minority of seminary professors and pastors did not accept this kind of deceptive teaching either – even in the face of intimidation and ridicule. Eventually, a believing remnant had to form new biblically-based seminaries because they were forced out of the major denominational schools. This was true for every major denomination – with the exception of the Southern Baptist Church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.
Is there a movement within mainline denominations back to biblical standards?
Now there is a backlash within the mainline denominations called the Confessing Church – those who wish to return to the standard of Scripture – thousands of church members, pastors and seminary professors comprise this movement. They will not allow their unfaithful leadership to keep stealing their denomination right out from under them. They will not allow the betrayal of their godly founders – Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, etc. – and most of all, the betrayal of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Thank God, the Confessing Church is gaining momentum, but is it enough to save their denominational bodies from a slow death? Like antibodies, they are fighting serious viral infections which have been around a long time – German rationalism, higher criticism and Darwinism. It is a huge struggle for the heart and soul of their denominations.
It should be no mystery why mainline denominations lost hundreds of thousands of members since the mid-1950’s when their leadership continued to depart from biblical moorings. At the same time, evangelical denominations gained hundreds of thousands of members. “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for the battle?” 1 Corinthians 14:8. Although this passage has to do with speaking intelligible words, it also is illustrative of speaking with a clear, authoritative, biblical message. Paul commissioned Timothy to preach the Word; however, it seems as though some mainline leaders are bent on preaching the world. “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” 2 Timothy 4:2-3.
How badly has mainline leadership slipped since the late 1800s and early 1900’s when the liberal/fundamentalist divide was beginning to be experienced?
Today, because Scripture is no longer viewed as the authority for faith and practice within mainline leadership, there is nothing but confusion: doctrine and morality is “up for grabs.” All this in spite of Peter’s clear statement found in 2 Peter 1:3-4: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Mainline denominations (again with the exception of the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Lutheran Synod) are torn apart with the homosexual question, and most are normalizing homosexuality, homosexual marriage and homosexual leadership in the church – all because they have abandoned biblical authority. This is not to mention their condoning abortion. Herod slaughtered the innocents, and now church leaders who claim to be Christian are doing the same.
It is instructive to note the downward spiral Paul depicts in Romans 1:21ff. “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” What follows this e text is the natural degeneration of those whose thinking becomes futile – sexual impurity of all kinds – including homosexuality – and every kind of wickedness. This is exactly what is being tolerated and condoned by mainline denominational leadership today.
What are examples of defection from the Christian faith which mainline denominations have not only tolerated but have also celebrated in their seminaries and board rooms?
John Shelby Spong, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Newark, New Jersey for 24 years retired in 2000 and has lectured in many prominent theological institutions including Harvard Divinity School. He maintains a website for those who would like to check out his radical views. On that website he outlines his 12 Theses:
This defection from Christianity is really nothing new. As Jude wrote twenty centuries ago: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” Jude 3-4. The “Bishop Spongs” within mainline church leadership are nothing but ravening wolves in sheep’s clothing who delight in tearing the flock of God’s faithful to shreads. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Matthew 7:15-19. They must be recognized and resisted for what they are – false prophets. Sadly, they will face the final judgment of Jesus Christ himself: “Jesus said to his disciples; ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” Luke 17:1-2.
It is most interesting that Bishop Spong is a popular speaker at Unitarian Universalist gatherings. Checking out the Unitarian Universalist webpage, one discovers the majority of its members are either atheists or agnostics – the only authority within the Unitarian Universalist movement being the individual. In other words, each one does what is right in his own eyes – i.e. pure subjectivism. No wonder there is moral confusion. No wonder Unitarian Universalists love the teaching of Bishop Spong: it is their teaching as well. Bishop Spong, however, hides under a Christian cloak as bishop in the Episcopal Church. Unitarian Universalists hide under no such cloak. They have repudiated Christianity long ago. Bishop Spong ought to declare himself a Unitarian Universalist, because his views coincide exactly with theirs. It was altogether fitting that Bishop Spong was declared Humanist of the Year in 1999.
If mainline denominational leadership continues in the direction it is heading, the denominations they lead will end up the same as the Unitarian Universalist Association. Once the standard of Scripture is jettisoned, morality becomes nothing but a quagmire of individual passions. There remains no standard either for teaching or practice.
Another poster boy masquerading as Christian with mainline leadership is Bishop Joseph Sprague of the Evangelical United Methodist Church, for many years Bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference of the EUM. As is the case of Bishop Spong in the Episcopal Church, Sprague is highly acclaimed within his denomination – although some have attempted to censure him for his non-Christian statements – but to no avail. As we will see later, mainline denominational leadership prides itself on being inclusive, pluralistic and tolerant – a most dangerous and destructive policy. The following quotes are taken from his June 25, 2002 speech at the Lliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. “The myth of the virgin birth was not intended as historical fact but was employed by Matthew and Luke in different ways to appoint poetically the truth about Jesus as experienced in the emerging church.” “To treat this myth as a historic fact is to do an injustice to its intended purpose and to run the risk of idolatry itself…. Thus if the virgin birth did not occur in a historical sense, if Jesus was born to human parents as I affirm he was, and if Jesus did not possess trans-human, supernatural powers (as I do not believe he did) what sense can we make of the miraculous stories about him in the gospel accounts?” “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but I cannot believe that his resurrection involved the resuscitation of his physical body.” “…”I am certain that the miracle of the resurrection, preeminently that of Jesus is not tied to bodily resuscitation. The linking of resurrection with bodily resuscitation is to make a literal religious proposition of a metaphorical symbolic expression of truth itself. This is the kind of idolatry from which I dissent.””…I must dissent from Christocentric exclusives which hold that Jesus is the only way to God’s gift of salvation. Such an arrogant claim stands over and against the inclusive Jesus of the synoptics and limits God in ways that humans cannot and must not.” “Obviously, such an understanding of atonement leaves no room for me to affirm the substitutionary atonement theory that portrays Jesus blood on the cross as satisfying an angry diety through one majestic sacrificial human death….” “The concept of blood sacrifice is superstition at best and an idolatrous allegiance to a non-Jesus methodology of God-human relationship at worst.”
Just as in the case of Bishop Spong, the devil himself could not have stated it better in order to try to obliterate Christianity. With all of his philosophical jargon, Bishop Sprague completely eviscerates the Gospel of Christ. Jesus is not God, and therefore He cannot save the believer who trusts that Jesus took his place on the Cross for his sin. In other words, the Gospel is totally denied: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,…”1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
The list could sadly go on of mainline church leaders who have left the standard of biblical faith, but the Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale is worth mentioning -- the new president of Episcopal Divinity School. Rev. Ragsdale is not only homosexual but also blatantly pro-abortion – calling it a “blessing.” Regarding the core of the Gospel, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, she is quoted as stating: “The suffering and death of Jesus, according to the theory of the Atonement, pays for our sins and buys our salvation. It’s an interesting theory, but not one that I find compelling.” (The information is taken from an article entitled, “The ‘Blessing’ of Abortion,” by Marvin Olasky, World Magazine, May 9, 2009.)
The Holy Spirit of God foresaw this kind of wholesale departure from the faith: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” 1 Timothy 4:1. Yet, the Church has had to contend with apostasy throughout history: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other that the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” Galatians 1:8. “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing.” 1 Timothy 6:3-4a.
What are the dangers of mainline pluralism?
Tolerance, pluralism, acceptance – fine-sounding words. Mainline leadership prides itself on being inclusive – having a “big tent” mentality. If we have been given the charge to preach the world, then these words would be very politically correct; however, we have been given the charge to preach the Word which is not politically correct at all.
Jesus was not tolerant at all of pharisaical hypocrisy. He called the pharisees whitewashed sepulchers and vipers. He said: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” Matthew 12:30. That doesn’t sound much like inclusiveness. Jesus was not tolerant at all when he taught: “Whoever believes in him (Jesus) is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” John 3:18. Condemnation is not a tolerant, inclusive word. As has been shown, the “big tent” of mainline denominationalism includes those who do not believe the Gospel. Indeed, their “Bishop Spongs” have only scorn for those who do! They charge those who believe the Gospel as believing in myths. It is rather they who have swallowed philosophical make-believe.
The Confessing Church movement is fighting valiantly to try to save their denominations from mortal spiritual sickness, but as long as top denominational leadership tolerates blatant unbelief and subsequent immoral conduct, the body is eventually doomed. To carry the medical metaphor a bit further, it is instructive to note Paul’s word to Timothy: “Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth.” 2 Timothy 2:16-18a. This is definitely not tolerant, pluralistic, inclusive talk! There is only one medical treatment for gangrene – removal! If it is tolerated, it will destroy the body!
Either unbelief must be removed from the denominational body, or the believing remnant within the body must remove itself. This is what ten percent of Episcopalians have recently decided to do – forming a new body founded on biblical belief. Our prayers need to be made to our heavenly Father for believers who remain within mainline denominations. May they have the wisdom and courage to do what must be done. If the body cannot be saved due to unwillingness to excise unbelieving gangrene, then may God give them the courage to remove themselves from a sick and dying body. This is what separatists have had to do throughout the history of the Church.
The Confessing Church, however, is taking the puritan position. This believing remnant is attempting to purify mainline denominations from within. May God grant them courage and persistence in this endeavor. The big question, however, is this: has the serious viral infection of unbelief so sickened the body from the head down that the diagnosis is terminal? How can crass unbelief and immorality be tolerated without causing eventual death?
What is the future for those who deliberately reject the Gospel?
Although the “Bishop Spongs and Spragues” within mainline denominations scoff at scriptural authority, they would do well to heed its warnings. It is not God’s desire that any should perish but that all should come to repentance, 2 Peter 3:9. Neither do I have any desire to see unbelievers suffer the judgment of God – even though they are duly warned: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Sprit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:26-31.