Mixing Up Our Labels

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I was reading an article yesterday from the Washington Post website called “Liberal Churches Are Dying. But Conservative Churches Are Thriving” Hat tip to my friend Warren Lathem of Venezuela Now for sharing the article, it was much needed food for thought and hope for those of us looking for revival in the US. As I read the article, I knew there were things there that were nudging thoughts to write about, but I left it alone so I could complete other work. Today, as I was pondering what to call this article, it finally struck me what the core of the trouble was in my mind yesterday. I understand where Professor Haskell is coming from, but I think we’ve made a mistake in our nation in labeling these two opposing phenomenons in the church. I don’t think what we are looking at is liberal versus conservative theology. I think what we are witnessing is the revelation by God of the divide between the Gospel by which we have been saved and apostasy and heresy claiming the name of Christ in vain.

Professor Haskell offers a weak defense of liberal churches toward the end of the article, allowing that it may not be the beliefs but the conviction of the beliefs that is the culprit in decline. And judging from the momentary success of the Joel Osteens, Rick Bells and other “mainline” preachers, to some degree strength of conviction will persuade folks to follow you and bring their friends. But, that kind of success only lasts so long, and isn’t really an indication of our success as disciples of Christ working for the kingdom of God. I would posit instead, that if we claim to be Christians, the Bible actually tells us why the “liberal” churches are failing and the “conservative” churches are growing. The article itself contains the statistics that point to the Scripture that tells us what is at the core of this crisis of decline. From the article:

For example, we found 93 percent of clergy members and 83 percent of worshipers from growing churches agreed with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb.” This compared with 67 percent of worshipers and 56 percent of clergy members from declining churches.

Let us reason together on this for a moment, as God once said to His people. Let us reason from Scripture, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, who back in the very beginning of the church faced this very same question (apparently there really is nothing new under the sun). Paul’s response to the people of his day rejecting the notion of a physical resurrection was:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

~ 1 Corinthians 15:12-17

Hmm. So, Paul seems to be saying very clearly to the Corinthian church, where what is termed the Corinthian Heresy was being shared in the church, that in order to be a Christ follower and saved by Christ, it is essential to proclaim the whole Gospel, including the physical resurrection of the body. Otherwise, we call God a liar, and remove the hope we have in this life and the next that comes from Jesus being the promised Christ of God. I’m thinking if the preachers in the pulpits don’t believe a piece of doctrine that Scripture tells us is this critical to the core of being a Christian, that might have something to do with their churches not being blessed by God with growth.

Also from the article’s statistics:

Furthermore, all growing church clergy members and 90 percent of their worshipers agreed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers,” compared with 80 percent of worshipers and a mere 44 percent of clergy members from declining churches.

I can see, off the top of my head, two very distinct issues with this lack of faith on the part of “liberal” clergy members. First, Christ Himself, the incarnation of the God we are called to follow, addressed the idea of God answering prayers with miracles. Aside from all the admonitions in the Epistles to pray, in Matthew (among other places), Christ said:

“Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

So, if we refuse to believe that God answers prayers with miracles, we will not have miracles. James reiterates the notion we cannot receive without faith in James 1:6.

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.

So, not having faith in God answering prayers leads to us not praying, which Christ actually demonstrated and commanded as part of following the commandments of God. Not having faith in praying also leads to us not having our prayers answered, because we don’t believe in the miracles of God, which then leads to us being tossed by every passing wind, which Paul also refers to in Ephesians, where He tells us the remedy is to grow up into the head of Christ. And he explains that remedy right after he talks about the prayers he has made for the people.

The second problem with the lack of faith in God’s miracles in response to prayer comes also from Christ where He states:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  ~ John 15:5-6

If we can do nothing without God, if as Christians we must abide in Christ and He in us, to bear fruit, then should it really surprise anyone that a church who’s clergy does not believe in the power of praying to God finds itself with little fruit? Or that eventually that branch will be thrown away to wither? Christ Himself proclaimed for us that without Him, whose activity in our life is sustained through humble prayer and reading of the Word according to His teaching throughout Scripture,  we can do NOTHING.

My last thought on Scripture comes not so much as a response to any one thing in the article, but a message of patience to all the clergy and congregants who find themselves frustrated with this continuing turn in the modern mainline churches. As I was thinking about this this morning, another passage came to mind. It is from the trial of Peter and the Apostles. The Sanhedrin desired their death because they would not shut up about Christ and the things He had done. The words of Gamaliel came to me this morning:

36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail;

~ Acts 5:36-38

While this comes as part of an admonition to men who had ultimately set themselves against God, and Peter and the Apostles proved to be working at God’s direction over time, this little snippet is important for us to remember. A comfort for we who the author calls “conservative” to keep us from losing heart and being enticed by the argument for “intellectual respectability” that has enamored those the author calls “liberal.” And a warning to those currently trapped in the “liberal theology” mindset. Clearly, based on the rejection of Christ’s saving work and His teaching, which is essential to actually being a Christian, as well as the required assumption that the churches they are leading are being powered by themselves or Satan (there is no other source of power if God does not do miracles in response to prayer), these “liberal” clergy are embarked on an undertaking that is of man. As such, it will fail.

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My last thought on this is an answer to the question posed by Professor Haskell:

What explains the growth gap between liberal and conservative congregations?

He goes on to posit several theories on this. I propose just one. The churches aren’t “conservative” and “liberal.” They are Christian and some mix of man-made thoughts that has risen up and tries to call itself Christian. They are God honoring and therefore God blessed, or culture honoring and therefore fruitless and withering. I think I’m on pretty solid ground with that explanation. After all, God told us it would work that way more than 2,000 years ago.

Be blessed and be a blessing.

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