The recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church has prompted a broader discussion of the fate of liberal Christianity. No surprise—the Episcopal Church has been one of the most aggressively liberal influences in American Christianity in the past few years, pushing hard against the traditions of the broader Anglican Communion. In The New York Times, Ross Douthat goes so far as to ask, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" But that question necessarily prompts two others: What is Liberal Christianity, and Should it be saved?
Liberal Christianity is dying on the vine. Mainline denominations are taking big hits across the board. According to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, among Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, more adults are leaving the church than entering it. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans are retaining less than half of their children. And in these denominations, no one is sitting in the pews! Gallup reported in 2005 that weekly and near-weekly church attendees made up less than 45% of self-identifying Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, with Episcopalians at a dismal 32%. And the numbers aren't getting any better.
But what, exactly, is liberal Christianity? Over the past several decades, liberalism has primarily defined itself by what it is not. Its message is "We're not like those stodgy old traditionalists—we're hip and accepting" (as long as they're not asked to accept unchanging morality or the truth of Scripture). Liberal Christianity rejects the core tenets of Christianity, including the belief that Jesus is God, that all of mankind is guilty of sin and condemned to hell, that God sacrificed His Son to bear the punishment for our sins, that Scripture is the absolute, unchanging, perfect Word of God, and that the only path to salvation is through believing in Christ's sacrifice and accepting His gift of eternal life by grace through faith.
In place of these tenets, liberal Christianity embraces a series of denials: Christ is not divine, mankind is not inherently sinful, the Scriptures are not authoritative and unchanging, heaven and hell are not literal, morality and theology are not absolute, and social mores do not flow from Scripture, but are an ever-changing product of our evolutionary enlightenment.
All of these beliefs allow liberal Christians to be more "comfortable" in the culture around them. The common message of the liberal Christian is that "God is love" and we need to speak to the rest of culture in the language of loving acceptance. "Love" here is code for the conviction that there is no absolute moral standard which humankind has violated. Hence, to believe in justice, morality, sin, punishment or an unchanging God is to be "judgmental" and "unloving."
If this is the heart of liberal Christianity, is it worth saving? Douthat argued in his article that conservatives "should not be smug" about the failures of liberalism, but rather value the work liberal Christianity has done to advance the social duties of the Church. While liberal Christianity might have gotten the Church talking more about social justice, it provided all the wrong answers. Liberal Christianity looks primarily to the government to shoulder our social responsibilities. But the social duties of Christians are clearly spelled out in Scripture, and they are directed to individual Christians and to the church. Christians—individually and collectively—are primarily responsible for this work, not the civil government.
It is not the message of "acceptance" but the truth of historic, traditional Christianity that has transformed society over the centuries. The spread of the biblical Gospel message throughout generations has changed the world. Christianity has grown and spread because Christians have taken seriously Christ's great commission to go into all the world and make disciples. Animated by love for their neighbor (dictated by Scripture) and concern for their eternal future (heaven or hell), believers in historic Christianity have sought to spread the truth of the Gospel throughout the world. Concern for their fellow man and the belief that ministering to the poor and needy is the same as ministering to the Lord Jesus Christ himself (Matt. 25:40) has been the impetus to build hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, pregnancy care centers, water purification plants and the like around the world.
Liberal Christianity undermines the Truth that has motivated so much good work. Liberal Christians reject the core tenets of historic Christianity. They have embraced the contemporary fancies of an ever-changing culture. They have nothing to live for, nothing to die for, and nothing to work for. For them, church is just another social club, devoid of power because it is not animated by transcendent truth and accountability for living in conformity with that truth. They have no authority for faith or action. They embrace a counterfeit Christianity, a pale image of the real thing, a hollow shell, a thin gruel that offers little sustenance for its followers or the culture at large.
It is no wonder that the ranks of liberal Christian churches are shrinking. Liberal Christianity is passing with a whimper, not a bang. Increasingly, its adherents have concluded it is not worth saving.